London: Noah Stewart, who worked as a receptionist in a concert call few years back, has become the first black musician to top the British classical music charts, with his debut album “Noah”. Born to a single mother in Harlem, New York, Stewart already has a stint at the Royal Opera House in his belt and a UK tour to follow.
“I can’t really believe it,” a leading daily has quoted him as saying.
“It was only three years ago that I remember hearing talk like ‘did you hear about Noah? Is he still singing?’ People gave up on me entirely. So it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here with all this going on.”
Raised, along with his sister, by his mother, Patricia, Stewart was always aware about the fact that he could sing. As his mother worked untiringly to put food on the table and support him, he won his first competition at the age of 12, and enrolled in LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in New York. His love of opera started when he began watching a recording every day before classes of Verdi’s Requiem. Inspired by the black soprano Leontyne Price, he realised how far he might go. Nicknamed ‘opera boy’ by his friends, he bagged a scholarship for the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. He had learned and been exposed to a number of musical inspirations and expressions, he described life at the New York establishment as “like putting on a straightjacket”. As straight as his career path had risen, he started going backwards rapidly.
“When I got there I was ahead of the curve,” he said.
“I already knew Italian, I knew how to sight read. I had all these musical experiences and these guys were much more reined in. It was a real shock.”
Feeling alienated, his singing suffered and he confessed that he failed to live up to the expected standards. Bruised and excessively self-critical, he thought he just couldn’t continue. He took a break for a year, but soon realised that without the anchor that had been with him since he was little, he was lost.
“I just sank,” he said.
“Mom was really disappointed. It kind of broke her heart. In a weird way I felt like I wouldn’t sing again.”
Seeking a way back, he started doing odd jobs, including as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall.
“There was a bit of me that thought just by answering the phone someone would hear that Juilliard-trained voice and I’d get a break,” he said.
It didn’t come, thus he signed up with the smaller opera companies in New York, the “odd balls” as he tagged them, and “found my voice again”.
From there he won a place on the esteemed Adler Program at San Francisco Opera, and in his last year got the opportunity he had been waiting for. With 15 minutes’ notice he went on to sing Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth. It was a key success and Stewart’s career has been ascending ever since. The three years he spent in the wilderness, he insisted, “taught me to find out what I really want and taught me to trust myself. I have that now.”
“The three years of everyone saying no to me forced me to figure it out,” he added.