Noah Stewart (pictured) grew up in Harlem dreaming of the day he would take center stage at Carnegie Hall in his hometown of New York and The Royal Opera House in London.
And while most of his musically-inclined childhood friends emulated Beyonce and D’Angelo, Stewart looked up to the legendary Black-American soprano Leontyne Price.
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If you have not heard of her, you are not alone. Blacks are not a mainstay in the classical music world. But that fact never deterred Stewart from pursuing his dream of being a world-famous opera singer. While studying at LaGuardia High School, the Harlemite honed his opera skills and worked side gigs singing backup to Mariah Carey and Hootie and the Blowfish. Though those fancy job assignments did not earn the respect of his peers because his penchant for opera made him something of anomaly.
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“My friends at LaGuardia made fun of me,” says Stewart. “They used to call me ‘opera boy,’ because I was obsessed with opera. Everyone around me wanted to become a pop singer.”
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With the help of a mentor, Stewart attended The Julliard School in New York after graduating from LaGuardia. While there, he busted tables, worked retail and served as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall. Somehow, he thought working at that famed musical powerhouse would position him to be “discovered.”
Noah Stewart Talks About Being A Black Opera Singer Below
It didn’t quite work out that way.
“That was the lowest point for me, because it felt like I was so close to music, but so far away,” he says. “I was learning a Russian piece and I was humming the melody, and my supervisor said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Stewart? What is that noise? Were you just humming?’ I said yeah, and she said, ‘You can’t do that here. It’s very distracting. We can hear you all the way downstairs.’ And I just remember feeling like, ‘Wow. You can’t hum at the biggest musical institution in the world.’ ”
And yes, he did make it back to Carnegie Hall, in 2009, to perform Mozart’s “Requiem” with conductor John Rutter.
Stewart, whose album includes operatic versions of “Nights in White Satin” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in addition to more traditional operatic pieces, believes his UK success is at least partly due to his being “a nontraditional opera singer people can relate to,” and hopes that this leads to success in his home country as well.
He’s currently appearing as Radames in “Aida” at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY, through Aug. 25.
“I wanted to do an album that was not traditional opera, because I didn’t want to shut people out,” he says. “Many people who’ve come to see me say, ‘I’ve never been to an opera before, but I love it.’ I want to make opera a people’s art again.”
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