Michel Bell: he just keeps rollin' along

So unusual are black opera-singers that Michel Bell has the field almost to himself. Janie Lawrence interviewed the singer as he prepared for his role as Joe in the musical 'Show Boat'

Janie Lawrence
Sunday 03 May 1998 23:02

Michel Bell, a giant-shouldered bear of a man, gives the impression of occupying every particle of his dressing-room. Yet even such physical presence is eclipsed the moment he opens his mouth. Mr Bell has one of the most sonorous speaking voices I've ever encountered - sexy in an Old Spice voice-over way, and mesmerisingly resonant even when, in the language of the newly arrived Yank, he refers to "Licester" Square.

London is about to discover that his singing voice isn't too bad, either. Mick, one of the original members of the American cast of this Tony-award- winning production of Show Boat, is in preparation for his role as Joe. In the poky dressing-room every available surface creaks under the paraphernalia of vocal emollients. There's fennel tea, something else unpronounceably Chinese, and an industrial-size consignment of mineral water. Five years of singing a show-stopper like "Ol' Man River" night after night has inevitably taken its toll. "It's very demanding, and you have to make sure you're there for every performance," he says, knocking back hefty gulps of the fennel.

Like his celebrated predecessor Paul Robeson, he's elected to sing it in the key of B flat, which entails a top note of F sharp and a bottom of low F - a two-octave range. "Out of all these years there have only been six times when I think I've done it really well. All the others have been compromises," he volunteers. Quite whether anyone in the audience will detect the compromise is debatable. According to American critics, Bell has "overwhelmed audiences" in this classic Kern and Hammerstein show. Despite misgivings to the contrary, he has also never once tired of singing the song: "mainly because of the philosophical view, and the vastness of the melody".

Remarkably, Bell began life barely able to hear. He was born in Fresno, California, with no hearing in his right ear and only marginally more in his left. "My mother thought I was stubborn and I was ignoring her. I was reading lips, but I just thought everyone did." His deafness was finally detected and treated when he was eight, and he woke up after the operation able to hear birds for the first time. Some residual hearing deficit still remains, however. "Hear that sandpaper sound?" he asks, rustling his fingers next to my ear. "I still can't hear that in my right ear."

When Mick was in his teens it was Dimitri Kostiw, a dedicated music teacher, who began to encourage and foster his talent. "I was obsessed with being the best I could," he recalls. To that end, every day commenced with voice lessons at 7am. Ultimately compelled to choose between his twin obsessions of football and music, he handed the ball back to his coach. "He looked at me and said, 'So OK, Bell, it's going to be singing then.' I thought, in music at least I could be a number of things. Whereas in football it's either coach or play."

By this time he had secured himself a part-time job as the bass soloist in a Catholic Church - to the chagrin of his staunchly Episcopalian parents, at least initially. "They were worried that I might convert to being a Catholic. Then I said, 'Mum, they're going to pay me $40 a month, and she said, 'Oh, that's wonderful, son.'"

He now believes it was not until his teens that it dawned on him that his colour was a potential problem. "Someone has to teach you to be colour conscious. There were railroad tracks, and the whites lived on one side, the blacks and other ethnic groups on the other. Upon crossing those tracks going to the church, you did feel that edge. The air was a bit unfriendly. You'd say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' and they would just look at you with this look of 'how dare you' and keep walking. So you quickly learnt to keep your mouth shut."

It's a story he recounts without an iota of resentment. So much so, that in some respects it's hard to gauge how deep his true feelings run. While Mick is perfectly prepared to discuss racial issues, he would, I suspect, be reluctant to introduce the theme himself. Yet the truth is that there are few black male opera singers. Ask any regular member of the ENO's audience. "It didn't occur to me to make the choice of whether to go into opera or not 'cause there were fewer blacks. What came was the realisation of 'how do you overcome it'. It became clear that I needed to be extremely confident within myself. Not to allow insecurity to set in."

Inspired by stumbling across a copy of Verdi's Otello with John Vicars in the school library, he was fascinated. Then he discovered the baritone, Leonard Warren, and knew he was hooked.

"I thought, 'Gee this is wonderful - I'd love to do this.' But by that stage I was singing in a high-school pop group with some friends, and I didn't want them to know that I was listening to opera."

One day at church a member of the congregation turned round to him and remarked, "Hey, little Bell boy, you sound just like Paul Robeson." It was the first time Mick had ever heard of the singer. "I learned what he contributed not only to African American society, but to the world."

After winning a vocal scholarship he studied opera at college for three years and promptly left to join the pop group Fifth Dimension (of "Up Up and Away" and "The Age of Aquarius" fame). He spent several years with them, touring and recording two albums. "I went in that direction because of the economics. There was more money in pop than in opera."

A lounge act from the school of "Hey, ladies and gentlemen, this is one of my all-time favourites" followed, before he worked his way back to opera. It was during this time, at an audition where she was his pianist, that he met his wife Catherine Matejka, currently the musical consultant on Show Boat. "It was like an orchestra - it was wonderful. Immediately after singing, I went over and shook her hand and said, 'Where have you been?' There were tears in my ears from the sound she had created."

For two years they apparently "argued like crazy about music. Until the day we embraced each other under the piano." The irony, of course, is that had their marriage taken place during the period covered by Show Boat, the couple would have fallen foul of the miscegenation laws that the musical highlights. Even today their liaison hasn't met with universal approval. "Whatever the derogatory comments are, it's not worth bringing up. You run into it anywhere in the world, and it's just a shame people have such narrow points of view. But I can't allow that to be in my life."

In the same way, he categorically refuses to allow himself to be irritated when it is transparently obvious that a policy of colourblind casting is not being pursued. "I was angry in my twenties," he shrugs. "If I auditioned and didn't get the job I wouldn't entertain the idea it was because I'm black. Many times it might have been because 1 wasn't black enough, and they wanted someone with a darker skin tone." After some genealogical investigation he has discovered that his own great-great-grandfather was John Bell, the son of a slave-owner. "There's lots of us mutts lying around in the States," he grins.

With such a seminal musical opening during the centenary month of Robeson's birth, you would hope and imagine that the contemporary climate would be substantially more liberal. In reality, he believes, little of note has altered. "It hasn't gone in the direction it could have gone in. There are black singers in this cast singing chorus who could do solos. Opera has tended to embrace the black female singer, but the powers that be need to lift that little ban they seem to have on black male singers. I guess it's hard for them to persuade the public."

Does he expect this to shift? "I hope it does," he replies cautiously. "But it may not be in my lifetime."

'Show Boat' is at the Prince Edward Theatre, London (box office, 0171- 447 5400).

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