'I sang for Katharine Hepburn'
Carpenter’s assistant. Receptionist. And now opera star. Noah Stewart talks to The Lady about beating the odds and singing his way to the top…
By his own admission, Noah Stewart is a rather unlikely opera star. This ebullient chap has just topped the British classical music charts, but is still amazed at his success. ‘I didn’t even know what opera was,’ he grins.
Growing up in Harlem, New York, with his mother and sister, money was tight, and his motivation for joining the school choir was not entirely musical. ‘I remember going to the choir room and seeing pictures of Venezuela, Miami and other fascinating places that the choir took trips to every year. I thought it would be a great way to see the world.’
To his surprise, he found he was a natural. ‘I just took to it so easily. I remember the first time singing in front of my peers – I was so scared.’ He had gone from being a typical basketball-playing, high-school student to a ‘guy singing with a weird voice. But little by little it grew, and people began to tell me I had a gift.’
More so than travel, his talent and the music scene in New York brought him opportunities he never imagined. ‘I sang for Katharine Hepburn at the Waldorf Astoria. And I got to see Pavarotti live, which is rare for someone of my generation,’ says the 33-year-old. But it was a visit to the Met that really sealed the opera deal.
‘I was captivated by the experience of it all: the grandness and the energy of the opera. I initially thought the singers must have microphones, which, of course, they didn’t. Everything came into focus, and opera was all I wanted to do.’
Noah’s talent took him to Julliard, New York’s answer to RADA. Unfortunately, the experience was not as thrilling as he had anticipated. ‘It was intense but not a nurturing environment. We were all pitted against one another.’
Out of his elite class of seven, only two (Noah included) managed to complete the course. And yet he found the dogmatic approaching to performing (‘If you didn’t follow a set path, they said you wouldn’t be successful, and I just didn’t buy that’) drained him of his enthusiasm, and after graduating he decided to take a break. ‘I took a year off, which swiftly became three.’
From a carpenter’s assistant to a receptionist, he had a range of jobs, until a moment reignited his passion for musical performance. ‘I was working as a host and would often sing Happy Birthday to the guests,’ he says. ‘One day, I decided to sing an aria from Carmen, and people started crying. One of my colleagues said, “Noah, that was so beautiful. It’s such a shame you can’t sing that part because you’re black.”’
A look of discomfort flashes across his handsome face as he remembers. ‘There were so many things I felt in that moment: shock, anger, distress – but mostly driven. I was burning inside and determined to get back into it.’
Within two years he had his big break – stepping in to play a leading role in the San Francisco Opera’s production of Macbeth. ‘The tenor got sick, so I went on. It happened so quickly, within 15 minutes, so I didn’t have time to overthink it. But I knew I had what it took. It had been a long time coming,’ he smiles.
From then on, his career has gone from strength to strength. On top of recording a bestselling album, he has spent the past few years gracing performance halls on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Royal Opera House in London. In a strange way, Noah feels there is a nice sense of symmetry to the way his career has panned out.
‘When I was working as a receptionist in those disillusioned years, I used to put calls through to London,’ he says. ‘Now I’m here, strolling from my flat to the Opera House. I couldn’t be more grateful.’
Despite his former colleague’s protestation, the fact that he is black has not held him back. ‘It’s true there haven’t been as many opportunities in classical music for people of colour,’ he considers, ‘but things are changing. I think Obama has a lot to do with it. Seeing a person of colour in such a position of power… well, it helps it to become a default. I’d like to think I’m also contributing to that.
With such unprecedented success, where does he go from here? ‘I’d like to do what Pavarotti did,’ he says (pronouncing the name with a perfect Italian inflection), ‘and bridge the gap between popular and classical music.’ Having once been unsure of opera himself, he is now eager to spread its appeal. ‘We need to dispel the mystery of opera. You shouldn’t feel you have to read a tutorial before going to see one – you certainly wouldn’t do that before going to a rock concert. The most important thing is that you feel something,’ Noah enthuses.
‘Music is the number one universal language, after all. As a performer it’s wonderful to feel the responses.’ From a musically sceptical teen to opera legend in the making, it is clear he has only just begun. ‘The odds of having an operatic career are similar to those of being an astronaut. I feel incredibly honoured and blessed.’
Noah Stewart’s debut album, Noah, is out now on Decca Records.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"BE careful with your mouth make-up. By careless work you may obliterate well-cut lines, and you will always achieve a badly groomed look if your lipstick is smudged and badly applied."The Lady, Make-Up for Mouths, 8th January, 1942