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Singing the doors down

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Eric Greene grew up in a Baltimore neighborhood that was so rough it was the subject of an HBO mini-series. Noah Stewart grew up in Harlem.

They weren’t exposed to opera music as youths, yet there they were, onstage performing as Schaunard and Rodolfo in “La Bohème.” Greene and Stewart are main characters in Puccini’s tale of love, lust and jealousy, which plays at the Belk Theater through Jan. 30.

The Opera Carolina production boasts a diverse cast, including two black men as principal characters. Greene, a baritone, sings Schaunard. Stewart, a tenor, sings Rodolfo. It is a role that has been played by Luciano Pavarotti.

Pavarotti.

“There’s not a lot of African Americans on a professional level,” Greene said. “For Noah to be singing Rodolfo is pretty good.”

That’s an understatement, considering that both men were raised in the inner city. Being an opera singer wasn’t on their “when I grow up” list.

Now Greene and Stewart are giving other young black boys a reason to expand their lists, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s still rare to have one black main character in an opera, let alone two, unless the show is “Porgy and Bess.”
“We’re still trying to kick open the doors,” said Stewart.

Judging from the standing ovation and applause they received opening night, they don’t have to kick. They need only sing.

“Bohème” is a hugely popular opera set in Paris. It became the basis for the hit Broadway musical “Rent.”

La Bohème focuses on the romance between Rodolfo and Mimi, who fall in love at first sight. Rodolfo, along with his three roommates, is a starving artist. His roommate Marcello loves the outrageously flirtatious Mussetta. Greene’s character, Schaunard, is the breadwinner.

This is the first time Stewart and Greene have sung their respective roles. Preparing to sing a new role is often challenging for the two men because they have no vocal references to help them prepare for a part. Black men have a different timbre and sound to their voices, said Greene. For example, Pavarotti’s voice was completely different than Stewart’s, so listening to Pavarotti sing Rodolfo would not help Stewart prepare for the part.

Greene and Stewart are used to finding their own way. Both used music to keep them out of trouble.

Greene grew up listening to and singing gospel music, but attending the Baltimore School of the Arts exposed to him other genres. (Yes, actress Jada Pinkett-Smith was there, but rapper Tupac Shakur wasn’t.) Greene was raised in a drug-infested section of West Baltimore that was the subject of the HBO mini-series “The Corner.”

“Music really saved my life. If I had not had the experience at Baltimore School of the Arts, I would be on the corner,” he said. “The corner was the only thing I knew. Music opened up a whole other world for me.”

In school, Greene fell in love with classical music, some of which reminded him of gospel hymns. His first exposure to opera was watching a clip of Leontyne Price perform “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca” Then he saw baritone Gordon Hawkins perform live at a concert recital in Baltimore.

Greene saw people who looked and sounded like him singing in a way he’d never heard before. He liked the sounds that these singers made, and opera combined classical music with acting.

“It was lights, camera, action,” Greene said. “I was another person on stage.”

His newfound passion led him to Julliard, where he eventually met a younger Stewart.

Love of singing didn’t come easily to Stewart. He was a bookworm and could have attended an engineering high school. He began singing classical music in junior high to keep busy after school while his mother worked.

Still, Stewart felt out of place at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. (“Fame” is loosely based on that New York school.) Stewart said all of the other students really loved to sing, but he simply liked it.

Then he began studying Italian, which exposed him to opera. Like Greene, Stewart liked combining singing with acting. He always wanted to be an actor, he said.

LaGuardia was adjacent to the Lincoln Center, so Stewart attended opera performances often. He became hooked.

“Of course it seemed odd,” he said. “People screaming and making these sounds. After a while it was an experience.”

Now, one show at a time, in city-after-city, Greene and Stewart are giving another generation of black boys a new experience. They are making strange sounds, wearing funny costumes and singing down doors. They are becoming the role models they once sought.

Meet the Artist: Eric Greene and Noah Stewart at Johnson C. Smith University at Jane M. Smith Memorial Church. 3 p.m.



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July 29, 2014
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