Opera - Opera singer Noah Stewart gives 'em hell as Faust

Barrier breaking artist breathes fire into Gounod's classic

Legendary opera diva Leontyne Price once had some choice words of advice for a young Noah Stewart. When he was in high school in New York, Stewart waited in line at Tower Records to get his album signed by his idol. Price had broken down barriers by leaving a small town in Mississippi to become one of the first African-American leading ladies at the Metropolitan Opera and a worldwide classical music star in the 1960s. When it was his turn to speak with her, Stewart asked nervously if she had any advice for an aspiring young singer from Harlem who wanted a career in classical music like hers. She told him to go to Juilliard because it would be the best school for him. She shared a few thoughts about his audition repertoire. Lastly, she sent him off with the parting words: "Give 'em hell."

It's fair to say that Stewart, now 35, has been following her advice to the letter. A month after he met Price he auditioned and was accepted with a full scholarship to Juilliard. And since attending, he's been giving 'em hell on a regular basis, earning rave reviews for his performances in operatic roles on stages throughout the world, even breaking down some barriers of his own: In 2012, he became the first person of color to have a No. 1 solo album on the classical charts in the United Kingdom.

"It was as if she knew what my destiny might be," says Stewart, who is in Atlanta this month to play the lead role in the Atlanta Opera's production of Gounod's Faust. He says that Price's advice about staying true to himself has always remained with him. "I knew early on it would be challenging being a person of color in a European art form. It takes people a while to adjust, but I never paid it any mind."

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Stewart says that one of the biggest challenges he faced on his path was a simple lack of role models in terms of vocal identification. Stewart first developed an interest in singing in his middle school chorus. "I remember scouring the library as a youngster and finding great tenors, but my sound was so unique and distinctive," he says. "Everyone's voice is its own blueprint; it took a while to really embrace my own sound. It's not typical. But it's a blessing now because I'm me. I'm never compared to anyone else."

Stewart will have the opportunity to give 'em hell in Atlanta in more ways than one. Faust tells the famous story of an aging man of science who sells his soul to the devil for another chance at youth and love. "He has human qualities that everyone can relate to," Stewart says. "He's never felt what love is, to be young. He's sacrificed his life for his career. Faust is a character who is hungry for hope."

Stewart says that he especially loves roles like Faust because they provide him with the chance to act as well as sing, and its universal appeal also has the potential to introduce new audiences to the art form. "I can really sink my teeth into the story," he says. "Those are the characters I can flesh out and lose myself in ... It's my mission to demystify this idea of the elitism of opera. Because it's not elitist. Faust is a guy who is old, who feels like he sacrificed his life for his career. We know so many people who do that, who would jump at a shot to be young again. It's not hard to identify ... You really get the full spectrum in opera. You have voice, you have orchestra, you have the unbelievable sets, then you have the ballet coming in. You get dance, art, music. It's life in high-definition."

Faust. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 770-916-2800. www.atlantaopera.org.

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