Dear Joshua, How is life as a Tenor? Are there any secrets in getting to work with leading opera companies and performing in the country’s most esteemed halls?
Life as a tenor is good! It’s certainly a lot of hard work, but I love what I do!
I don’t think there is any “secret” to getting work with great companies, but it’s certainly just as much who you know as what you know. Networking is one of the most essential skills in the musician’s toolkit. Go the extra mile to make that introduction at any event you are at. If a friend invites you backstage after their performance, see if you can get an introduction to the conductor, director, assistant to the conductor, literally anyone.
I try to make myself as memorable to everyone I meet as humanly possible. Not in an intrusive or annoying way, but by being friendly, not necessarily “talking shop”, but just talking.
You’d be surprised to hear how refreshing it is to talk to someone about literally anything other than the performance you just had.
Who are some of the leading figures who have inspired you to dedicate your life to classical music?
The term leading figures is subjective, but to me there are really only two people whom I consider major figures in my life that lead to my dedication towards this career.
The first would be my high school choir teacher Mr. Mark Myers from my time at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, IL. He is the first person who saw my true musical potential, and went to great lengths to introduce me to practically every type of vocal music in existence. Musical theatre, Madrigal, Show Choir, Gospel, Pop, World Music (South Africa, Ghana, India, Venezuela, to name a few places), and of course, Classical Music. He introduced me to my first voice teacher, Dr. Jennifer Fitch, and when I was 17 he brought me and a large group of other choir kids on a trip to Sydney, Australia to sing, exchange with high school choirs, and see my first ever professional opera. Verdi’s La Traviata on a magnificent stage, floating in the Sydney Harbor. It was that night that I made the conscious decision to pursue classical music professionally.
The second person who was a catalyst for my classical career was Kent Tritle, whom I had the pleasure of studying with during my time at The Juilliard School. He taught an absolutely wonderful Oratorio class at the school, and opened my eyes to the world of Oratorio (which I have since fallen deeply in love with). It was Kent who pushed me to apply for the Oratorio Society of New York Solo Competition, which I won in 2017, which subsequently became the entryway to my debut performance at Carnegie Hall. Thanks to Kent, I have now performed as a soloist on the main stage of Carnegie Hall 4 times, and I am only 25! He believes in me, he pushes me to keep trying new things, and to grow my craft in everything I do, and without him I wouldn’t be the musician I am today.
What type of obstacles have you faced and what solutions have worked for you?
The biggest obstacle I face at this time in my life is my age. I am still considered a young singer because I am only 25 years old, and just a few years out of school. I think a lot of people believe that age and experience are always directly related, but I don’t think this is the case.
Of course I still have so very much to learn, and a singer in their 40s has had far more life experience and performance opportunities than I have, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know anything! I started singing in young artist programs at the age of 20 (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), and have gained a lot of experience in these 5 years of professional performing.
In my mind, the solution for this is simply to keep working. Don’t let the talk put you off your dedication to your craft. There are going to be lots of people who discount you because you don’t have the years of experience that many of your colleagues have, but that doesn’t make you any less valuable than anybody else. Show them through your actions that you deserve to be where you are every step of the way.
Keep auditioning, keep performing, and above all, don’t let any of the success get to your head!
Do you have a list of your favorite cities and venues where you love performing? Right now I would have to say my three favorite cities to perform in are Saint Louis, Missouri; Austin, Texas; and Matsumoto, Japan. Three wonderful cities with some incredible food, and I love me some good food! One of my favorite venues is where the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis performs, the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in Webster Groves, MO. It’s a lovely 950 seat theatre with a 3-quarter thrust stage, which means the stage goes into the audience and has them seated around three sides of the stage. It makes the space incredibly intimate, with no seat feeling too far away from us as performers, and allows for every small gesture, and emotion, to be easily conveyed to everyone in the theatre. Tell us something about your current projects? Feel free to share as many details as you like. I am currently getting ready to perform in Washington National Opera’s: American Opera Initiative 20, in which the company brings together 3 composers and 3 librettists to work on 3 brand new 20 minute operas to be premiered with the company. I am working on an incredible piece called Night Trip by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton. It’s an incredible short story about two African-American veterans from WWII at the onset of Jim Crow-era America traveling by night with their niece to visit family, and having to hope that the gas station they stop in is one that accepts the color of their skin. The AOI20 shows are an hour long at 7:00pm and 9:00pm January 10th in the Terrace Theatre at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I am also preparing to perform in the DC Premier of Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thomposon’s incredibly moving opera Blue. The story is about an African-American police officer who loses his son to police brutality. The show runs throughout March 2020 at the Kennedy Center. Is there a routine you follow before a big night: a premiere or a new production? Shot of whiskey usually! Are there any erroneous theories about today’s classical music scene that you’d like to debunk? I can think of two! 1- Classical music is not a dying art form! I have seen people of all types come together to enjoy a concert or an opera and theatres filled night after night. Opera might be an incredibly old art form, but it continues to tell stories that have withstood the test of time, and the incredible new directors that are making themselves known to the world are finding more and more intriguing, compelling ways to tell these stories. With companies like Washington National Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (full disclosure: I am an alumnus of both of these companies young artist programs.), making a dedication to performing some to all of their operas in an English translation, opera has NEVER been more accessible to the masses than today. 2- You don’t need to wear your best clothes to enjoy classical music! So often when I invite friends and family to a performance, the first question I get is, “What am I supposed to wear?”, or “Is this fancy enough for the opera?”. Unless explicitly stated, most American opera houses follow the same rules as most American restaurants: No shirt, no shoes, no service. Your first opera can be a daunting experience, especially if it is in a language you are unfamiliar with, so why add clothes that you might not enjoy wearing to the evening? Put on your favorite jeans, a comfy t-shirt, your favorite hoodie, and enjoy the evening! The notion that you must wear your best to every show is from an older time, and not everyone needs to adhere to it anymore. Of course if dressing up for a night at the opera is something you love, and want to do, do it! That’s what makes opera for everyone, at every comfort level. Who are your favorite contemporary composers, singers, instrumentalists? My favorite contemporary composer right now is Nick Benavides. I got the chance to sing in his AOI20 opera Pepito with Washington National Opera during the 2018-2019 season and absolutely fell in love with his writing style.
When you are in a new city, what do you do outside of your professional engagements to get a glimpse of life there? Any exciting discoveries of places you’ve come across recently? Re: What are your favorite cities, I love finding the best foods in any city I visit. You can tell a lot about a city from the favorite foods of the local population. I always reach out to friends from any city I am visiting, and if I don’t know anybody I will try to go online and search local hotspots for delish eats. I find the best thing to do is find a buddy from whichever production you are working on and make lists of places you want to visit to explore together. You’ll find all sorts of things that you may never have even considered alone! I was working with the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival in Matsumoto, Japan, this past August, and my partner suggested we try a small Jazz cafe in town that ended up being my favorite hideaway during my time, and I never would have known it existed if not for her love of Jazz and general wanderlust. I’m also a big nerd who loves to play board games and tabletop RPG’s (think Dungeons & Dragons) so I will also spend some time looking for local board game cafes. Places to get a cup of coffee or a beer and spend a few hours just playing games with friends. What has been your main theme during 2019? How do you see that changing or upgraded in 2020? My main theme for 2019 has been “Stressed and Blessed”, which might sound somewhat pessimistic at first glance but I promise to explain. Devoting your life to a career in the arts is difficult. It is absolutely a ton of hard work, long nights, failed auditions, missed holidays, etc., but it is also the most rewarding thing I have ever done. There is joy, triumph, success that I could never attain doing anything else. I fully recognize that I am blessed to have had the performances and incredible colleagues that I have had, but there has been a lot of stress that was integral to those successes. Hopefully my 2020 will be about celebrating my success, while simultaneously shedding light upon my mental health and the stresses of this career. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I “wasn’t allowed to complain” because I was performing at Carnegie Hall, or making my principal debut with Washington National Opera, I could have paid off my student loans by now. You are allowed to be tired, and stressed, and feel the entire spectrum of emotions, even when you are successful. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Your feelings are always valid. We have two new ongoing campaigns and it would be awesome if you gave us your take on both or either one of them. #BeatTheBlues features works and confessions of artists and non-artists about experiences and ways to beat the blues and rise from the depth of darkness.
Being a traveling performer is both the most social, and the loneliest job I have ever had. You get to a new show, spend 2 months having to open up emotionally to your scene partners, to love them, hate them, kill them, on stage, and just as you feel you have made incredible growth with them, the show closes and you move on to the next one. It can be really difficult, and depressing, to have to ride this emotional rollercoaster over and over again for your entire life. It’s certainly something I deal with constantly, but it’s not the end of the world. I #BeatTheBlues by having a tight circle of people with whom I share my life in a myriad of ways. I have two friends that have been with me for years, who I always talk to when I’m on the road. Not about anything in particular, but just to have a constant in my travels. I may not see most of the people I’m working with for many years, but at least I will have had someone that I can always talk to there with me in some respects. I ground myself with activities that I can do in any city, like finding a delicious Ramen spot (my favorite food!), or a board game cafe. It reminds me that while I may be in a city for the very first time, it isn’t entirely foreign to me. I am incredibly lucky to have a wonderful partner who is also a singer. While I know this doesn’t work for everyone, it has been so very helpful to be able to share my life with someone who already understands this job and how difficult it is, a person I can commiserate with about a tough day, or share stories about the show, city, anything really. Beat the blues by finding constants in your life that can anchor you during those long gigs. It has helped me more times than I can count. #WhatMatters A paragraph about what matters to you the most at this point in time and how do your work and life reflect that. Right now what matters most to me is representation in my art form. There are so many singers of color in America, yet we still somehow come up short when we cast shows. I am tired of companies programming Porgy & Bess just to pat themselves on the back for putting on an “all black” production. Yes the show is good, and important, but it’s beginning to feel like the obligatory “diversity hire” more often than not. Companies shouldn’t be applauding themselves for having the first Black person to play a role in a production that has been performed by their company for literally a hundred years. If you want to put a non-black person in a production of Aida, don’t have them darken their skin, in any way. Just because you put a deep tan on before you walk on stage doesn’t mean we don’t know it’s you, we are already suspending disbelief by going to the opera, we can all just pretend if that’s what works. I have made a point over the last year or so to keep my hair grown out in some way or another. I think it is important to represent people with natural long curly hair like mine on the stage, because we don’t see it enough. There is an entire generation of biracial kids just like me in the world who don’t know that they can become opera singers simply because they have never seen themselves reflected on the opera stage, and I think that is ludicrous. I work with some of them most talented, inspiring, gifted, hilarious, kind, and loving people of color it has ever been my pleasure to know. We are out here, give us some spotlight, and watch your audience grow and change like never before.