Interview: Noah Stewart – 'No matter your sex, religion or creed, everyone's entitled to feel'
Harlem-born tenor talks about his role in Scottish Opera's Carmen and shares a cheeseburger recipe
Noah Stewart is one of America's leading tenors. Raised along with his sister by his single mother in Harlem, he got a scholarship to Juilliard but struggled for some years before getting a break with San Francisco Opera. Since then, he's sung on opera stages all over the world. His 2012 debut crossover album Noah entered the UK album charts at 14, and he's the first black musician to top the UK classical charts.
This autumn, Stewart is appearing as Don Jose in Scottish Opera's production of Bizet's Carmen. As the production gets ready to open at Glasgow's Theatre Royal, we put some questions to him.
Carmen is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. What's the reason for its enduring appeal?
The appeal of the opera is because of two elements, the first being the story of a love triangle – better yet, rectangle, featuring a gypsy, a soldier, a child hood friend and a bullfighter. The second being the melodies that Bizet composed. Carmen contains fantastic music that leaves you humming out of the theatre.
You've played Don José before, at the Royal Albert Hall in 2013. What's it like to revisit the role in a different production? How useful is it to have already played him?
To date, Don José is my most performed role and I never get bored playing him. My interpretation has changed throughout the years, as my experience as a person has changed. No matter how many times I perform a role, I always approach it like it is my first time. This version of Carmen is my first time performing French dialogue. The result is a more raw, earthy and real experience. It should be a very exciting show!
You've mentioned you found it difficult to establish yourself as a black tenor, when most successful black male opera singers tend to be basses or baritones, which usually aren't the lead. Do you think America is becoming more willing to accept black performers in leading roles across the arts?
I think that it's always more difficult for a non-traditional person entering a position usually occupied by a traditional one, no matter the discipline or career choice. Change is hard for people, even today. I entered the world of opera and classical music because I didn't see or hear a voice like mine on TV screens, movie theatres or stages. I wanted to bring a fresh voice and modern experience to opera, while continuing to keep and honour old school values and technique.
Which opera roles would you most love to do, and why?
I love the roles which are complex and multi-dimensional, which I can draw personal experience from. Within the repertoire, there can be many characters, but the ones that I am personally drawn to would be the Romantic heroes or the Italian and French repertory, where the guy gets the girl. She usually dies shortly after we kiss. What can I say? It's opera! Wink.
You've had major chart success with your crossover album, but unlike many singers who've had crossover success, you're a respected opera performer. Are you ever tempted to give up the discipline of opera?
I have always wanted to be a leading international operatic tenor. I never in a million years expected to record a crossover record that would score success. Growing up in New York City, I was exposed to many different genres of music which included musical theatre, jazz, classical and folk songs. It gave me a wide repertory and appreciation of music and culture. That's the beauty of music: no matter your sex, religion, creed or economic status, everyone is entitled to feel and be transported.
Obligatory Scottish-centric question: while in Scotland, what are you most looking forward to doing?
Seeing the castles, whisky tasting and meeting locals with fun stories. Maybe not in that order.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be? And do you think he'd take it?
Enjoy the process and have patience. Would I take that advice when I was young? Of course not. No one is born wise.
When you went on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs, you named as your book The Joy of Cooking. What's your favourite meal?
Ha! Love that programme! My favourite meal currently is a stir-fry with chicken, veggies and brown rice. My guilty pleasure would be a beef burger with blue cheese (melted) with bacon on a toasted buttered brioche roll. If I wasn't a tenor, I'd be a chef, hands down!
Scottish Opera's Carmen is touring Scotland from Wed 7 Oct–Sat 14 Nov.