I was browsing through my twitter feed the other day when I suddenly spotted a retweet from the Royal Opera House (Yes, I follow them as I love opera and all things classical, I’m out of the closet!). The retweet was from an up and coming black tenor announcing that his debut album, Noah, had reached number one on the classical charts. The Royal Opera House, where he has just finished his debut performance in Judith Weir’s Misfortune, promptly tweeted their congratulations, which is how I got to hear about it!
It was very exciting! I had seen him on Gabby Logan’s Channel 5, morning show and enjoyed his interview with Gabby, covering his childhood in Harlem New York and his love of music. He was charming, well-spoken, intelligent and erudite. He also performed an impromptu song, an excerpt from the album and was excellent, just like any other tenor.
So I kept asking myself, why did it make the headlines that a black singer topped the classical charts?
I’m not the only one to ask this question. Many of the commentators on the Telegraph’s online piece on Noah, seemed to imply the same thing. My son, when I shared a tweet from Radio 4 from their interview with him, where he said he had been told he couldn’t sing opera because he was black, was baffled as to why anyone would say that.
I tried to explain it by asserting that people generally stuck to stereotypes they are familiar with, and since there were generally hardly any black people in opera, I thought the advisers were probably only trying to be helpful, telling him to stick to a genre he was ‘more likely’ to be successful in.
Not terribly satisfied with my analysis, I asked myself another question, why aren’t there more black people in Opera, it can’t be all discrimination. Afterall, Noah got there in the end and has managed Carnegie Hall, the Royal Opera House and a number one debut album by the age of 33. No mean feat for anyone.
My experience of mainstream middle class, white activities in Britain is that black people don’t venture into that arena too often, and if they do, as soon as there is the slightest hint of criticism or resistance, we retreat, wondering if we really have the right to be there in the first place.
My own ‘mixed heritage’ background frequently causes me to deny parts of myself that are ‘too white’ for black company. So it is only now in my forties, that I feel confident enough to indulge my passion for classical music. I was once in a gospel choir, where we sang Handel’s Messiah for Christmas. When I shared the story about the King standing up in awe of the Halleluyah Chorus, creating the tradition of standing when it’s played, a story that I thought was common knowledge, I did get a few funny looks.
My parents exposed me to an eclectic array of music when I was growing up in the sixties and as a result, there is only a very small part of any genre of music that I don’t enjoy. Now that there is a Black man in opera, no doubt I’ll make more of an effort to go and see one! (I’ve always wanted to see Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.)
I would suggest that it’s okay to be who you are, do what you do and be the best you can be at it and nothing or no one can stop you. That’s probably why Noah made the headlines, the fact that he overcame many obstacles, some of it has to be said, his own biased expectations, to achieve his dream.
‘What a world it would be if we could all wake up and see all of ourselves reflected in the world – not merely in a territorial sense, but with a kind of non-exclusive entitlement that grants not so much possession as investment. A peculiarly anachronistic notion of investment, I suppose, at once both ancient and futuristic; an investment that envisions each of us in each other.’
This of course is an ideal, but I think it’s one that we would all do well to aspire to.