Q & A: John Holiday on Auditioning for ‘The Voice’ & Working with John Legend

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Tyler Golden)

In October, countertenor John Holiday surprised the opera world in a big way. The Texas native  who has performed with such companies as the Glimmerglass Festival, Los Angeles Opera, Dutch National Opera, Cincinnati Opera (and will make his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2021), performed in the blind auditions for hit TV show “The Voice.”

Performing “Misty” by Ella Fitzgerald, Holiday, who won the Marian Anderson Vocal Award in 2017, captured the attention of Kelly Clarkson, John Legend, and Gwen Stefani. All three coaches were surprised by the performance and all of them fought for a chance to have Holiday on their teams. The countertenor eventually went on to choose Legend and has since captured the hearts of American audiences and garnered the admiration of all four coaches. From his battle to his knockout round, Holiday has showcased his vocal virtuosity time and again and even made his dream come true when he performed “All by Myself” by Celine Dion.

OperaWire recently had the opportunity to speak with Holiday about “The Voice,” John Legend and performing pop music.

OperaWire: What inspired you to audition for “The Voice?”

John Holiday: I had been thinking about doing the show for a long time and I had my own little reasons why I had not been able to do it and then I just thought I was going to take the time off because I was preparing my Metropolitan Opera debut for “Julius Cesar” in the fall and then I said why not go ahead and try it. And then, in addition to that, everything I was doing got canceled. It was cancelation after cancelation and I thought it was the perfect time to try something new.

So I decided to try ahead and go for it. And I am so happy that I tried out for it. Opera singers have this natural bend to say “I’m a real opera singer” when someone says you should try out for “The Voice.”  I have always been a different type of person and there has to be some type of validity to it and a lot of people know about these shows. A lot fewer people know about opera so why not try it. Why not lean into it and I decided to do it? Now it has opened so many wonderful doors that I did not know were available to me. So I am just really excited and really thankful to have the opportunity to be on this incredible platform called “The Voice” with the incomparable John Legend.

OW: What kind of impact has your success on “The Voice” had on your community within the opera world?

JH: I am grateful for the kindness of my colleagues. They have been amazing and warm and gracious and loving and encouraging. Every single colleague has written me a wonderful note of encouragement and that has been exciting to see that they are sharing the videos. I have been really amazed by their support. One of my colleagues told me that “We are going to support you because we are so excited for you but this is also what you do for other people.” And I love that all that joy and support that I have given to others is coming back to me. It has been one of the most amazing things to witness. I am overjoyed.

OW: What did you feel when the coaches turned around for you?

JH: When the coaches turned around for me, it was one of those moments that you are disconnected from everything. At first, I did not notice because my endeavor was to sing as best as I could and connect with the virtual audience that I could see and connect with the heart and spirit of the coaches in front of me. So when they turned, I did not know it immediately but I had my eye open and I saw John turn and I thought “It’s actually happening.”

Then Kelly turned and then Gwen and then at the very end they all turned and I got to see Blake. The first moment is, “They were real people” and then it’s these incredible coaches who have songs that are iconic and memorable. Then to have them turn for me was just this beautiful moment of joy and surprise. I keep telling people that when they turned, it looked like they had little halos on them I was like “They are my angels.” I was so thankful and it was a moment for me that there was an affirmation that they were saying that my artistry mattered and that they love what I do. It meant the world to me. You should never lose that gratitude and I am so grateful because I respect them from an artist to another artist.

OW: You are on Team John Legend. What have you learned from him and what is it like to work with him?

JH: John writes music that is out of this world and beautiful. I have learned so much about musical style. You think that you understand the style of some genres of music and then you are able to grow no matter what you know. So he has helped me hone in on certain musical styles. That has been so much help to me and I have loved every moment of that. He has helped me find my uniqueness and my special parts of my voice.

He wants me to be more unique and different. That is also what I tell my students. So it is beautiful to have those characteristics and have them reaffirmed. That is something we should be working towards. He has been really great at that. There was a part in the battles that I had chosen to sing something way down and he was like don’t do that. What we want to hear is you go up because most of us can’t do that. He said to lean more into that.

So he is trying to make me lean into the aspects of my voice that do make me unique. I have been learning a lot of style things and listening to him on how to make it more stylistically appropriate. He has been really helpful, and he is such a wonderful person. He has such a beautiful spirit and I am happy that I am on his team.

OW: Tell me about your approach to pop music and what is the difference between singing pop and opera?

JH: I think there are certain life experiences that have helped me in every genre. My life has made all these genres something special and possible for me to do. I will say that having a solid technical foundation in opera and that kind of genre has made it possible for me to know what is healthy and good singing. Good singing is good singing and healthy singing is healthy singing. Opera has made it possible for me to navigate certain aspects.

I will say that there is a difference in how I am singing. The difference is the style that John Legend has helped me with. And there are things like microphones that we never use when were singing opera. So one of the things that John talked to me about was my mic work. You have to be on that mic and I really thought I knew how to use a mic. So even finding the balance and making it become an extension of you was something new.

I don’t feel there is a huge difference in the technical aspects of singing. I feel like good and healthy singing is good no matter what genre you sing. But there is a difference in the style and I love it all. It is exciting to showcase that. Of course, I have not sung opera on the show. Depending on what happens maybe I will.

OW: You have received comments by the coaches like Gwen Stefani saying “I have no words for you. I don’t understand how you are real?” What does it mean for you to get these compliments from these artists?

JH: It makes me feel humbled and proud of all the work that I have done and that I have worked hard for. I have never stopped anyone from letting me be my most authentic and unique self. It makes me grateful for the opportunity to share the gift that God has given me. I really feel that all of us artists have a gift and it is our responsibility to share it. I feel like at the moment if I can help someone to forget all the woes in the world for five or 10 minutes then I have done my job as an artist and sharing myself with them. It makes me feel loved and seen. God has orchestrated this for me and I am so proud to be a vessel in the moment of bringing joy and hope to people because we all need it right now.


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