Q & A: Countertenor John Holiday on Bernstein, Breakthroughs, & A Blessed Career

In 2017, countertenor John Holiday took home the distinguished Marian Anderson Vocal Award, which not only recognizes him as an artist with a bright future lying ahead but also allows him to share that zeal in a spirited recital on Thursday, February 15 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Operawire had the chance to speak with John Holiday to discuss his recital, his upcoming tour with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the road he’s traveled to arrive at some of the foremost stages and opera houses in the world, and all the love and passion that develops an artist.

OW: Tell us about the experience of preparing this recital at the Kennedy Center? 

JH: Usually I was pretty nervous before a show but you caught me coming back from the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian So I’m feeling really inspired. Having gone through the museum and being in a place where there are so many remains and artifacts from my ancestors’ ancestors, who I’ll never know, It really inspires me and will propel me forward for Thursday. So I’m feeling inspired, and excited, and still nervous, but I know that I stand on their shoulders, so I think I’m going to be okay.

What I hope they’ll take from it is they’ll see and hear how much I love to do this and how much I appreciate their support and encouragement throughout the years. Mostly I really want them to feel the love. I love people so much; I’m a people person, always have been, and I really want them to see, hear, and feel my heart. In terms of the music, they’ll be hearing Handel, then I’ll sing a set that will include Poulenc, Hahn, Bonds, and a spiritual that’s arranged by Holt Johnson. Then I’ll do a set of music by Theodore Morrison.

What I’m doing different, and I don’t think it’s been done before, is I’m doing a jazz section at the recital so I’m going to take a little pause, and really maybe like a three to five minute pause between the classical set, then come back on to do the jazz set which include lots of something that I’m not going to say until people get to the recital; because I also sing jazz and I think it’s really important to have my classical audience hear my jazz and have my jazz audience hear my classical. I think that’s really important as someone who’s an advocate of new works and someone who tries to bridge the gap between audiences.

OW: How do you feel about making your debut with the LA Philharmonic?

JH: Oh my goodness. You know, I have to say, when I got that contract I think I went around the house screaming for days. I am thrilled about it, let me tell you, it’s something that I’m so, so excited about and mostly, one of the reasons I’m excited about it, is because I haven’t been to Los Angeles since about 2014 when I made my debut with Los Angeles Opera singing The Sorceress in “Dido and Aeneas.

What happened when I came to LA was I found out that Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world. I’m excited to go back for that, but I’m also excited to work with Maestro Dudamel and the fantastic musicians and artists at the LA Philharmonic. I think it’s gonna be an extraordinary moment making music with them and I’m really looking forward to it.”

OW: What’s it like to work with conductor Gustavo Dudamel? Does his vision change how you interpret Bernstein’s psalms?

JH: Well, I haven’t worked with him yet, this will be my first time, which is why I’m really excited. I’ve heard wonderful things about him from colleagues and friends of mine who have worked with him and I’m really looking forward to his insight and his knowledge, and input on Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” and so whatever he has to offer I will do my best to incorporate that into my singing, as I do with every conductor. Every conductor has their own style and their own approach to music and so our job as artists is to try to incorporate that maestro’s approach into our singing.

OW: This year has seen a lot of tribute to Leonard Bernstein. Is there any role he’s played in your own career as an artist?

JH: In my life, it has been because of the music he has made that I’ve made one of the most significant debuts of my life. My Carnegie Hall debut in… 2013? I think it was 2013, when Hurricane Sandy hit in and I remember only because my whole family literally came from Houston to New York, as did my sponsor, his wife, and friends, and my cousins, and they all got stuck in New York City. And it’s because of his music that I’ve been able to make these debuts. The symphony in Atlanta, Carnegie Hall, with Phoenix Symphony, and now with the LA Philharmonic on tour; and I’m making debuts at significant houses because of it, so while I haven’t sang a lot of his music, this particular piece is significant to me because of the opportunities it has given me and I’m so thankful.

OW: What are your thoughts on Bernstein’s insistence on using a countertenor or boy soprano for the Chichester Psalms? Is there anything that would be lost by using a traditional soprano instead?

JH: A good question, I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. I don’t know, I mean there’s clearly a reason he asked for it to be sung by a countertenor or boy soprano and I think maybe there’s particularly something that goes with the innocence of the youthful sound. Not sure of the boy soprano but I don’t know if it’d be any different if a soprano sang it or not, I’m not one of those people who would say “I don’t think a soprano should sing it.” If someone wanted a soprano to sing it then I guess it’s for a soprano. And I say that not because I’m interested in having it sung by a countertenor or boy soprano, but I’m also a big Christian and I believe that whatever God has for you, he has for you. So if someone wants a soprano to do it then it’s her time to sing it.

OW: Having sung in choirs from such an early age, will your experience with choral music lend new meaning to the performances in your tour?

JH: It’s interesting because, as you said, I come into this profession having been in a world-renowned boy choir, the Fort Bend Boy Choir of Texas, and it was in that choir that I first got my opportunities to sing as a soloist and I really had my first opportunities to see the world. So I love choral singing and I have such a respect for singers because I know the energy, dedication, hard work, and sacrifice it takes to be in the chorus so definitely my experience as a boy choir member will be something I bring to the performance; so yes, as a long answer to your question.

OW: Being a rare breed of singer, how do you feel about the roles available to a countertenor?

JH: I think, in retrospect, there’s a lot of roles that are written for us. I think there are some opera companies who are deciding to put those operas on. So it’s not there’s not a lot, but they’re not being done as often as they should be. I do think we have opera companies who are trying their best to incorporate early music into every season, which is what I think should be done at every opera company. An early music piece should be done, or a piece that has been written by a modern composer for a countertenor, so that we have our youth, who are starting to come to the opera, and they can be exposed to all of the voice types. I also think there be more written for altos, I really do. Because each voice type is viable, and like I said, it’s not that there aren’t any roles, but there sometimes opera companies that aren’t doing them, and that’s okay. Because there are also opera companies who are doing them every year. I feel very honored to be one of the countertenors who gets to do these roles and goal over the world to make beautiful art.

OW: Are there any other repertoires you’d like to explore?

JH: I love jazz, like I said. I have something that I think is very important, and I think in a way I’m starting to push the envelope in a way by including the jazz portion in the recital but it’s so important to me, it’s a part of my life. I grew up particularly hearing gospel music, so gospel is a big part of my life too, and so I hope one day I hope I get to record a classical album and a jazz album; half and half, that’s my goal. I think that’d be fun to do. Jazz music is such a beautiful expression of the soul and the spirit, as is gospel music, so who knows? I want to be able to do it all. Growing up, hearing all the different kinds of music and enjoying them, playing the piano, the organ in church, it made me a versatile musician, because my grandmother made it so. She made that a possibility for me, so I hope that in some way I’m able to incorporate that into my professional career.

OW: As far as career plans go, what does the future look like for John Holiday?

JH: There’s a lot of things that are coming up this year, for this season, that are firsts for me. In fact, I was talking to my manager, maybe around August or September, and I said “Oh my God, this is the season” of debut roles and house debuts. I’ve been lucky to get these kinds of roles this year. After I finish here, and after the “Chichester Psalms” with the LA Philharmonic, I will be singing the role of the refugee in Jonathan Dove’s “Flight” at the Des Moines Metro Opera which has been for a very, very long time- I’d say at least since 2010- a bucket list item for me to sing. After that, there’s things coming up for me that are major, major debuts, so I can’t say anything about them for now, you know how that goes. I’ll be lucky, and blessed, to make it to some of the beautiful opera houses and companies of the world and I feel tremendously blessed and honored, and humbled, and all those things, to be able to make it to these stages. And something I’m trying to while I’m having my career is to give back to the next generation of future artists as a teacher. I’m a professor of voice at the conservatory of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. So as long as I can do that and still maintain my career I will do it. It’s something that brings me so much joy, seeing the light turn on in someone’s eyes when they understand a musical or vocal concept that they had not understood before. You caught me on the day where I’m actually going to teach at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. I get to share with them some of the things I know in the hopes that I can inspire some artists to do what I’m doing. I’m lucky that I’ve had a life where I’ve been so privileged to have such great mentors, so what I hope I’m able to do, in my life, in some small way, or some large way, is to give back what people gave to me when they poured into my spirit, artistry, and talent. Hopefully, I can do that very same thing for somebody else.

OW: Being an educator, is there any message or advice you’d like to give to aspiring young artists?

JH: I would say to them the same thing my very first teacher told me: Be themselves. Do not strive to be like anyone else. Be yourself, be the artist that you are, show up, be prepared, always try your best, always be a good colleague. Because no matter how talented you are, if you’re not a great colleague, no one will want to work with you. Be a good colleague and a good human being. I always say “get about the business of striving to be the best you that you can be.” Don’t try to be any other person; don’t try to be Renee Fleming, don’t try to be David Daniels, don’t try to be Lawrence Brownlee, don’t try to be John Holiday, just be the best you that you can be. That, I think, is the thing that makes a person stick at being who they are, unflinchingly, without compromise. Keep on working hard.

As my aunt would say: “Try your best and let God do the rest.” And my big momma- my grandmother – she’d say: “Nothing beats a failure but a try.” So as long as you try, you are not failing. Along the way, you’re going to get some “No,” but you will get the right “Yes” and that “Yes” will be the one that changes your life. So I hope that is the opportunity that will go to some of these artists today.

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About the Author

Logan Martell
Logan Martell is a senior at Fordham University pursuing a degree in Medieval Studies. His passion for storytelling has led to opportunities studying under Broadway luminaries as he strives to take his work to ever-higher levels.

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