Noah Stewart: 'No one gave me the opportunity... I had to work for it'

The American tenor tells Jessica Duchen about his journey from Harlem to grand opera

The American tenor Noah Stewart's first solo album has whooshed to No 1 in the classical charts, making Stewart the first black artist ever to top that category. Meanwhile he has been attracting attention in opera. He made his Covent Garden debut recently in Judith Weir's Miss Fortune; he sang Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly at Opera North; and he is currently in Detroit, tackling The Pearl Fishers by Bizet. Later this month he starts his first UK tour.

Stewart's journey may have landed him a five-CD recording contract – "a dream come true," he says – but he's had more than his fair share of tough times.

He grew up in Harlem, the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier in a supermarket. He owes everything to her devotion, he says; she made sure he went to a good school and put his education first.

His first passion was jazz, not least thanks to his mother's New Orleans background. Then, attending an arts school, he spotted a laserdisc of the Verdi Requiem with a picture of the great mezzo-soprano Leontyne Price on the cover. "She was the only person of colour in the image and I was immediately drawn to it." The performance proved a giant shockwave: "It was the first time I heard a person of colour sing with an operatic technique in a different language. The combination of the voice and the orchestra drew me in immediately."

Role models were few. "I didn't see images of any coloured men singing opera. I knew about Paul Robeson, Bobby McFerrin, Marian Anderson and Jessye Norman, but the only tenor I could see was George Shirley, who retired from the stage when I was in middle school. I heard an interview with Leontyne Price, recorded in the 1970s, in which she said 'I wish there were more black men in opera – I wish they would choose the operatic path.' That only inspired me more to stick to it even when times were bad and people wouldn't give me a chance."

He won a scholarship to the Juilliard, New York's most famous music college, but when he wanted to go to the summer school at the Aspen music festival, his mother couldn't afford the fees. She wrote to the comedian Bill Cosby, who was appearing at a nearby club, and took the letter round to the doorman herself. Cosby sent a cheque. That summer in Aspen proved a seminal experience for Stewart.

Breaking into the profession later, though, proved so tough that his confidence plummeted. While his former classmates were "ushered into theatres and young artists programmes", he received rejection after rejection.

Finally, after studying with a new vocal coach, he was accepted for the young artists' programme at San Francisco Opera. There his big break arrived in classic style: he was understudying Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth and had to stand in for the scheduled tenor at the last moment. "After that people started talking. I was singing for artist managers and so on, and they said, 'Noah, where have you been?'" His answer: "Carnegie Hall!"

His confidence came back. "I knew I had a lot to learn – but I knew that I could do it, because I did it for myself. No one gave me the opportunity; they needed me and I was able to capitalise on that, but I was able to do it because I worked for it."

Noah Stewart's debut album is out now on Decca. His UK tour begins on 17 May at The Sage, Gateshead

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