With his remarkable voice and commanding stage presence, the internationally acclaimed tenor Noah Stewart has dazzled audiences around the world. But as he prepares to take on the demanding title role in Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” Stewart says there’s no place he’d rather be than right here in Music City.
“Nashville is so warm and welcoming,” says Stewart, who made his Nashville Opera debut in 2014 with “La Bohème” and returned in 2017 to perform in “Carmen.” “There’s such a wonderful energy – I feel very comfortable and at home here. And that’s important when taking on a role like this. ‘Hoffmann’ is huge – the character almost never leaves the stage. The role actually has come to me three times before, but I’ve always turned it down – I just wasn’t ready. But when [Nashville Opera’s] John Hoomes approached me, the timing felt right. Having his trust, and the support of this amazing company, I feel relaxed and ready to jump in.”
Featuring memorable arias and a highly imaginative storyline, “Tales of Hoffmann” has been called a “fantastical thrill-ride.” Loosely based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (whose “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” would inspire Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet), the piece follows a poet’s desperate quest for the perfect woman.
“‘Hoffmann’ is really unlike any other opera,” Stewart says. “It’s like having three operas in one, as he tells the story of his three great loves. It’s something of a grown-up fairy tale, full of emotion, so fun and tragic. But despite some of the crazy, fantastical elements, it’s really just about love. And that’s something we can all relate to – we’ve all been there.
“In terms of the music itself, it’s absolutely fantastic. This is some of the most beautiful music ever written for tenor. And the orchestra writing is sensational. I’m so thrilled to be working with [Conductor] William Boggs and the Nashville Opera Orchestra.”
Stewart says he is especially looking forward to performing Act III’s famous Septet – not only because of its beauty, but because of its personal significance.
“I was maybe 18 or 19 years old, performing in a vocal competition at Palm Beach Opera,” he recalls. “I had never really sung in French before, and I was so nervous. But the great Anton Guadagno was incredibly encouraging. He saw something in me – something more than I did. I know he will be watching over me as I debut the role of Hoffman, and that’s very special to me.”
Of course, Stewart’s career has been marked by many special moments. His unlikely road to stardom started out Harlem, where his single mother taught him that he was “never allowed to be bored.” He performed his first opera at the age of 15, and would go on to earn a full scholarship to The Juilliard School.
Despite some disappointments and false starts, he was later accepted into the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Program, where he was invited to become an Adler Fellow. Stewart joined the Metropolitan Opera roster in 2008, and made his critically-acclaimed debut at The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in 2012 – the same year his debut album for DECCA swept the United Kingdom, topping the classical charts for seven weeks. He continues to add new roles each year, with recent engagements including major opera companies and concert halls around the world.
“Looking back, I feel very fortunate,” he says. “I didn’t see a lot of black male opera singers as I was growing up. There just weren’t many people that looked like me. But thankfully, I had a lot of encouragement from teachers who believed in me. They were able to guide me, but still let me be myself. So I feel like it’s my responsibility – and my privilege – to do the same for others. I’m happy to have been able to help blaze that trail.
“This is such a wonderful time for opera,” he adds. “There’s so much exciting work happening. I feel like audiences are more open than ever before, which is great. As artists we revel in that –these are our stories. But I still love the classics, the old warhorses. And I feel a real responsibility to preserve those traditions, as well. We have to uphold the art, or it will be lost.”
Tickets to ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ are available now at TPAC.org
Amy Stumpfl has been covering Nashville’s arts scene since 2004 – first with The City Paper, and then for The Tennessean. A proud member of the American Theatre Critics Association, she was selected to participate as a Fellow in the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute (2005) and the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (2008).