Before he became a singer both of the classical and crossover variety, Harlem-born tenor Noah Stewart considered a career in engineering.
But luckily for him, he stuck to his guns. After attending the the Fiorello LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and receiving a Bachelor's degree from Juilliard, he entered the San Francisco Opera's Merola training program, and began working his way up through the ranks of American opera houses. His debut album, "Noah," topped the UK classical charts earlier this year and is slated for a U.S. release on Tuesday.
Stewart is a singer who is constantly preparing, and his analytical warm-ups start the night before a show day. But for all of the goings-on in his gray matter, he also believes in a calm state of mind. When he sings Radames in Verdi's Aida at Glimmerglass (opening July 7), he’ll be focusing on the daredevil high notes and fiery duets. But not far off in his mind are magazines, texting and summer blockbusters.
Read on for what keeps Noah sailing through to curtain calls in the latest installment of our Warm Up series.
Usually when people prepare, they begin the day of. I begin the day before. I start with a visualization and not doing a lot of activity. It’s like an athlete. I study the night before. My mom always said, ‘If you study hard the night before, in the morning you’ll be surprised at how much you remember.’
I imagine each scenario happening. So if anything happens in the show—something falls, I forget my lines—I’m prepared because I’ve already envisioned the show happening at least six or seven times in my mind. I have six or seven visions of how the aria will go, how the ensembles will go, how long I’ll hold a high note, just so I’m prepared for anything.
Prepare for the Worst?
I think it’s a tenor thing. Tenors are always worried that our voices aren’t going to work. It’s also me. I think it’s also opera singers. It’s the nature of the beast. There are some people who are totally comfortable. But I’m very analytical: I almost became an engineer before singing, so I’m always conducting experiments.
I’ll go to movies the night before I have a show, something where I can calm down. I just saw Prometheus last week. I’m not really a movie snob. I’ll go see anything. Going to the movies for me is like going to opera. Sometimes I’m in a small city like Cooperstown, and it’s important for me to go to the movies to be around people. I’m a New Yorker, I’m used to being surrounded by people. So really it’s the experience of going to movies, getting my popcorn... It’s exciting for me, it’s an experience. Even if the movie’s bad, I never regret going to the movies because it gets me out of my head.
Key Up and Wind Down
The day of the show I usually wake up early-ish and I’ll go to the gym or go for a run. I do that because usually if I’m not going to sleep the night before because I’m anxious, working out tires me out a little bit so I’m forced to take a nap. If I sleep in, I’m wired for the whole day, walking around and pacing. The gym is the best way for me to focus. I have my pop music, but I also have my classical music. It helps me memorize.
What Radames Ate
For every role, I tailor my diet and my workout routine around that. When I sang my first Romeo, I was probably my thinnest. Even though Romeo is a long role, he’s a much younger character than Radames. For that time period, I was very lean, like a runner. Radames is a much more challenging role, so I add more carbs. I eat more to make sure I’m healthy and have the stamina to get me through the end of the night. And physically speaking, he’s rolling around, lifting things, lifting women... I need my Wheaties! I’m very careful with that because I used to be heavy in college, and then I lost about 70 pounds. I cook for myself every meal.
Testing the Waters
When I wake up, I’m always testing my voice to see what kind of condition it’s in. Before the gym, I’ll do some humming and say, 'Okay, what have you got for me today, boys? Do I need to steam? Do I need to avoid the gym and stay home?' I’ll do that throughout the day. It’s not very long, it’s just testing to see that everything is there.
Most black men can’t shave every day because our hair is curly. It’s always so tricky because of production week: They have to take photos; you have to be cleanly shaved for the makeup to be applied. So I’ll always shave the day of the show.
Because there’s always a reception, I’m usually running around to find something like cufflinks. My last performance at Covent Garden I was running around finding cufflinks. It’s always those little odds and ends for the reception and meeting the donors and the fans.
I don’t like to get to the theater very early. If there’s a costume or makeup call, absolutely. But the temptation to over-sing is very prominent when you hear other singers, especially sopranos and tenors, preening next door to you. I’ve learned not to do that and trust that it will be there.
Light Reading and Texting
I’m not a very fussy person backstage. I’ll have tons of water. And I just go in my zone. I’ll have magazines there, I’ll have Men’s Health; I’ll have GQ. With all of my crossover work, I’m interested in trends and what people are wearing. I don’t talk, but I do usually call my mom to let her know I’m about to go on if she’s not there at the theater. Sometimes I will admit that I text my friends in the house to ask ‘How does it sound?’ Oftentimes we have no idea onstage. So I like to check in. I know some people say it’s torturous, but I just need to do it for my own sake to know if I need to take my foot off the gas or I need to give more from an acting front or refocus the voice. It’s almost like having a coach between rounds in boxing... And I’ll always get a text from my manager, one is in London and another is in New York. It’s always nice to know that someone is thinking about you.
Eye on the Prize
I remember as a kid, intermissions at the Met seemed endless. Now, I sneeze and I have to go back onstage. I’ll eat, take pictures, Tweet or do Facebook. I’ll look at an upcoming crucial part of the opera. Because I don’t believe in going back, in terms of harping if I cracked a high C or fell, I always believe in going forward. I take it one act at a time. I don’t like to look at the whole thing because it’s too much and I’ll get overwhelmed. It’s like reading a book. You always find more clues, and it keeps me in the moment.