Operagasm Retro Feature: Life In the Key of Opera
by Nathan De’Shon Myers
This is a generation enamored with visual aesthetics. Image is everything and many times how one looks, directly correlates to how far one goes in their career. If this is true for the corporate world, it is exponentially so for the performing arts industries. Interestingly enough, the operatic community was, in times past, somewhat insulated from such controls because it was one of the few places where ability and talent reigned supreme over outward appearances. If you could sing the music beautifully, no one really worried so much about what you looked like. In fact, until about 15 years ago, when asked about opera singers, many people could conjure only images of overweight tenors and fat ladies in horns. However, since the Internet was made public in the early 1990s, opera has continued to become more about visual appeal rather than vocal ability. This phenomenon has allowed many artists to emerge from obscurity to international fame while simultaneously causing others to be completely ignored or refused opportunities. In the interest of Black History Month, I have decided to turn my focus slightly towards the experience of black opera singers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take this moment to first say that I am extremely proud to be an American of African decent and I am humbled by the tremendous legacy left by those amazing trailblazers on whose shoulders I currently stand. It is from their triumphs that I am able to have the opportunities that I have today.
Although there are many black singers with remarkable voices, it is in most cases an exception rather than the rule to see them on the stages of the major opera houses of the world. Why? One can never be completely certain because ours is a subjective business. However, there are many experiences that would suggest a systematic hesitation towards to the idea of embracing true multiculturalism in the world’s “highest” art form. In a world so driven by looks, what happens when the “world” you want to succeed in tries to convince you that your look just doesn’t fit? This is, in many cases the reality of being a black opera singer… so much talent but nowhere to use it. In the business of opera, there has undoubtedly been what many call a double standard when it comes to black singers. The expectations to not only be AS good but several times better than others just to get an opportunity. Many of us are even encouraged to pursue other genres of music. I can personally testify to having been told to consider musical theater or cabaret style singing instead of opera. The suggestion was disguised with an air of “helpfulness”. It sounded something like… “I think you are really good on stage and you have such great stage presence. You move so well. Have you ever considered musical theater?”
Can you imagine my frustration after hearing something like that? Well, if you have ever been marginalized, I am sure that you can relate to the deep feelings of anger and resentment that I felt towards such comments. Words like those come from attitudes that are, at their core, completely discriminatory.
However, I do believe every singer has a responsibility to uphold when aspiring to be a professional classical artist. It is important to take matters into your own hands as it relates to starting, building and maintaining an operatic career. There will be discrimination all around you as you make your way but that discrimination should only serve as fuel for your success. The idea of having someone tell you that you can’t achieve something should make you that much more determined to go for it.
The biggest obstacle that one has to overcome is the occupational hazard of self-doubt. The seeds of such are planted in many ways by many different sources. A singer is judged so often in so many different settings: master classes, lessons, auditions, juries and that’s just conservatory. It is of the uttermost importance that you uproot thoughts of self-doubt and throw them far away. I know it may sound cliché, but you really should never underestimate the power of positive thinking. Your thoughts are the forerunners of your experience. I am convinced that when you get your thoughts in order and focus on being proactive, you will have less time to focus on how much others are trying to hold you back.
ALWAYS SEEK OUT OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOURSELF. The most important thing for building a career as an artist is to find ways of presenting that art to the public. In doing so, you will, without question, improve your presentation. While performing you will have a chance to work out those little bugs in the system as it were. Whether it is giving recitals at local churches or landing a solo contract with a regional opera house, performing is essential to getting better at being a performer. But you can’t simply stand by and wait for things to be given to you. That’s not how it works. You must get out and search for the opportunities and when you can’t find one… CREATE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITY.
This business can be quite challenging for everyone. From the singers auditioning at NOLA Studios to the ones already on the roster at the MET. No one gets a free ride.
But in the words of the great Leontyne Price, “Achievement has NO color.”
I truly believe that it is possible to overcome prejudices with creativity and perseverance. An operatic career as a black singer can sometimes seem oxymoronic, but it DOES exist and I have no doubt that if one is committed to excellence in EVERY WAY, there is a place for you. Even if you have to create a spot on your own… GO FOR IT!
Rising American baritone, Nathan De’Shon Myers is fast establishing himself as an artist with international appeal. The coming 2009-10 season marks Mr. Myers’ third season as soloist with the distinguished Deutsche Oper Berlin. Highlights include his reprisal of roles such as Ping in Turandot, Silvano in Ballo in Maschera and Schaunard in La Boheme as well as a house debut in the role of Dandini in La Cenerentola and his role debut of Lescaut in Manon Lescaut under the baton of the company’s new General Music Director, Maestro Donald Runnicles.
Mr. Myers is a “feisty stage presence and a bright, well-focused baritone” remarks The Dallas Morning News of his portrayal of Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale. He has not only caught the attention of many with his vocal prowess, but is also a consummate actor who commands the stage. The Chautauquan Daily heralds, “Nathan Myers, in the role of Valentin, was clearly a favorite. His voice possesses strength, beauty and clarity. Myers’ acting was electrifying.”
Upon completion of his first year with the theater as a Young Artist, Myers made such a positive impression that he was re-engaged for the 2008/2009 Season as a Fest-Ensemble Member. He has collaborated with such noted artists as Neil Schicoff, Johan Botha, Elisabeth Futral and Maestro Marco Armiliato. Prior to moving to Europe, he debuted in Il Barbiere di Siviglia along side Viveca Genaux and Richard Croft with The Dallas Opera Young Artist Program. He was also a featured soloist with the Minnesota Orchestra in a performance of a collection of spirituals commissioned by the Albany Symphony specifically for his voice and orchestra, David Alan Miller, conductor.
Mr. Myers operatic role portrayals include the title role in Don Giovanni, Valentin (Faust), Schaunard/Marcello (La Boheme), Papageno (Die Zauberflöte), Dandini (La Cenerentola), Dancairo (Carmen), Gregorio (Romeo & Juliet) Figaro (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), and Pooh Bah (The Mikado). Additional career highlights include, performing the role of The Subway Opera Singer in the movie EVERYDAY PEOPLE and on the soundtrack of KINGDOM COME starring Whoopi Goldberg.
For more information on Nathan, please visit www.thenathanmyers.com