Talking 'Tosca' and Voting Rights with Soloman Howard

Talking 'Tosca' and Voting Rights with Opera Star Soloman Howard

Soloman Howard was always meant for the stage. You might even say he was destined for it. His mother sang. His father sang. His aunts and uncles performed in gospel groups. Even his godfather made singing his life’s work: He served as minister of music at a church in the Washington D.C. area, where Howard grew up.

Soloman Howard

It was little wonder, then, that by age three, Howard was already performing for an audience. His mother would prop him up on the offering table near the pulpit of his grandfather’s church, where the tiny boy soprano would recite scripture and warble a tune, sometimes doing both at the same time.

Early on, Howard realized the power his voice held. All it took was a rendition of the song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” or “You Are So Beautiful” to render his grandmother teary-eyed. But then, at age 11, disaster struck. Howard remembers he was singing with his father when his voice unexpectedly cracked.

Suddenly, his voice plunged from the twinkling heights of a boy soprano to the deep rumble of a bass. There seemed to be no in-between. Kids on the playground would joke that he sounded drunk. And then there were the parents. Howard had to learn to be careful calling girls in his class, in case their fathers picked up the phone.

“It’d be like, ‘Who’s this man calling my daughter?’’ Howard laughs as he recalls how he had to try to convince them he was a school-age kid, just like their daughters. “It’s like, ‘Yeah right.’ They would hang up on me.”

It was shocking, traumatic even, to realize that he was now a bass, with a voice so deep as to reach notes that were practically subterranean. But it was a voice burnished with resounding, velvety notes that could make listeners snap to attention. It was the kind of voice that could launch a career. And it would ultimately take him to the Metropolitan Opera and beyond, singing roles in iconic operas like Aida, Don Carlo, Don Giovanni, and Simon Boccanegra.

“Eventually, I came to love my voice and appreciate my voice,” Howard explained in a recent interview, as he attended a costume fitting for his upcoming role in Tosca, the opening opera for San Francisco Opera’s 99th Season. Howard is set to play Cesare Angelotti, a dissident politician on the run from the police.

But even with an instantly recognizable voice, a career in classical music wasn’t a given. Howard credits the mentorship of great musicians with bringing him where he is today.

“It wasn't until undergrad that I decided, ‘Alright, you know what? I think I want to be an opera singer,’” Howard says. The choir at Morgan State University put Howard on the same stages as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and singer Bobby McFerrin, whom he cites as inspirations.

“It was after working with Wynton Marsalis and Bobby McFerrin, doing concerts with them, that I saw two African American men that were equally as gifted in jazz and classical music,” Howard explains.

He says he considers them “surrogate fathers” in the performing arts industry. “Working with them was always amazing. You’re always left feeling as if you were capable achieving greatness yourself.”

Howard likes to joke that his destiny is coded into his name: He is a “solo man,” forging his own path. He is an opera singer, yes, but also an Afro-Cuban percussionist, a football player, and an activist particularly outspoken about voting rights. He even received an award from the Anti-Defamation League for his work.

Now, as he prepares to take the stage once more in Tosca, Howard shares those different facets of his life, from his romance with co-star Ailyn Pérez to how he feels about the state of voting rights today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember your first experience specifically seeing an opera?

HOWARD: Absolutely. So the first opera I saw was in 2008, my first year at Manhattan School of Music, and it was the opera Salome at the Metropolitan Opera. A big-brother mentor figure of mine, Morris Robinson—who is a bass as well—was singing in the production, and he gave me a ticket to go and see it. That was my first opera.

He told me back then, “I give you about four years. And if you’re serious, if you work hard, and if you study and practice, you'll be on the stage.” And in the spring of 2012, I made my opera debut back at the Kennedy Center. I was a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, and I made my operatic debut—four years later—in the opera Nabucco.

I remember everything. I remember every performance, every production. I cherish them all. They all mean something special.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You could do so much with your voice. You’ve been singing different genres all your life. And you're a percussionist and a football player. Why opera, of all the industries to get into?

HOWARD: It's just a passion. I've asked myself that, and every time I ask, I’m reminded that this art form that encompasses every aspect of the performing arts: the visual, dance, wardrobe, style. I love style. I love fashion. Obviously the musical aspect of it too, from instrumental music to vocal music.

Every time I would question myself—or when I did say, “Am I sure that this is meant for me?”—there would be a moment. Some great singer would say, “You're on your way.” Just words of affirmation or reassurance. And then also meeting my lovely girlfriend through this art form. It has given me so much. I could never turn my back on it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you meet Ailyn Pérez [his girlfriend and co-star in Tosca]?

HOWARD: We were in a production together in Santa Fe in 2016. It was Romeo and Juliet. I saw her. I was like, “Oh, wow.” The way that she handled herself with the other artists, the way that she—it’s a little embarrassing to her because I'm standing in front of her right now. [Howard laughs.] We're in between costume fittings and a meet-and-greet later on today.

But just how graceful she was, how compassionate she was and still is, the knowledge that she has, and then the musical ability. All of that went into what I thought was a great human being, very beautiful on the inside and then beautiful on the outside.

So that was 2016. I did not pursue her, because we were in other situations at the time, so we respectfully kept our distance. But then when the opportunity presented itself, we made contact with one another. And it's history. Every family member or friend that meets her, it’s like: This is the one.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You both are opera singers obviously, and that puts you on the road so much, with the exception of the last year and the shutdown. How often do you guys get to be on the road together in productions like Tosca, for example?

HOWARD: This is our first.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Since Santa Fe?

HOWARD: Since Santa Fe, when we weren’t together. This is our first production together since we've been dating. So yeah, we're very excited.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you guys discuss the characters before arriving?

HOWARD: Oh yeah, we do that. She tends to go off into who her characters are, why they are who they are, if I ask her or not. So it was a pleasure to be able to sit and have that conversation with her.

I've done this opera before. This is a role debut for her. So just the excitement to be able to support her and to be able to be here every day throughout the process means that much more to the both of us.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I want to ask you about your history with this role, Angelotti. He opens the opera. He’s the first to lose his life in this whole thing. And he's the person who perhaps represents most the political stakes of the opera, as a political exile. What does he represent to you?

HOWARD: For me, it ties into a lot of what I still see, what my people here in this country have gone through, and what some of the friends and family members have sacrificed their lives for: for human rights, for rights for African Americans, for the LGBTQ community.

What do I do to become Angelotti? I look at what I've gone through. I look at the experiences of a family member of mine who has been, in a way, not exiled or excommunicated but cut off, say, from the church because of sexual identity.

All of those things play a part. If I haven't been exiled because of political beliefs, then what can I draw on that is similar to what the character has gone through? That's usually how I am able to get into a character: by not being afraid to actually go out and touch those sensitive subjects—to conquer them, if I can.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You mentioned past experiences that you're drawing from—from when you were growing up—that you brought into this role. What are some of those experiences?

HOWARD: I’ve had family members who experienced police brutality. There are so many different things that also tie into my work with voting rights. The act of not just someone’s rights being taken away from them—or people trying to interfere with your rights—but of actually trying to deny them the basic identity of being human. So those are some of the things that I saw coming up and experienced, things that I use to add to my character.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talk about your activism with regards to voting rights. I understand that that was tied to your work in the premiere of the second edition of Appomattox.

[Appomattox is a Philip Glass opera that was rewritten in the wake of changes to voting rights in the United States, changes that advocates say amount to voter suppression, especially in Black communities. Soloman Howard played both Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass in the 2015 version of the opera.]

What happened during that opera that inspired you to speak out? It was not long after the Supreme Court ruling striking down provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

HOWARD: Yeah. So to me, to see that things were changing—that there was a fight to take those rights away again—it was a slap in the face.

To me, it was like saying that Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, all the leaders in civil rights that worked and lost their lives before us, basically it was all in vain. It was like saying we don't care that they died. We don't care how you feel. To us, you’re still not human. You still don't deserve this right. We still don't consider you a part of this culture or a part of this society. Or you’re not really American.

I don't believe that. My ancestors helped build this country. So to say that we can do all the work and get nothing out of it? It's laughable to me, and it's flat-out disrespectful. So it's my duty as an African American—and being in the position that I'm in—to make sure that we can all be active in our fate and the country's fate politically. Some people feel like it doesn't matter. But I think the more that we are out, the more visible we are, the more it will matter.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I imagine that speaking out comes with risks in the entertainment industry. At very least, you often hear the argument that, “Oh, you're an entertainer. I don't come to you for politics. Your job is just to sing.”

HOWARD: We had a president, Ronald Reagan, who was an actor, a Hollywood actor. We just had Donald Trump who was a reality TV star, a millionaire, billionaire. They weren't politicians. We've had former athletes that have gone on to become mayors of their towns. They didn't have a traditional trajectory or path as a politician. So that means nothing. Because I express myself through art, I have no voice?

There are so many facets to artists. We're multifaceted. I have so many different backgrounds, but to say, because I am an opera singer and entertainer, that I should stay in my place or stay in my lane? No. We won't be silenced.

Like I said, we've had presidents in the past that weren't politicians starting out. They've become president of the United States of America. So you can miss me with that nonsense that an artist has no voice. If anything, I have one of the louder voices so that everyone can really hear me.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Have you remained active in your activism in this issue over all this time?

HOWARD: Well, yes. I absolutely remain active. It has been something that has not gone anywhere, as far as me not giving up on having these conversations with others.

My daughter voted for the first time in the last election, because of her age. But she did not wait. And I was very proud of her. She voted a lot sooner than some of my family members or even friends. I’m very proud of her for saying, “This is my opinion. This is who I think should be leading this country. Let me put my hand in it.”

To learn more about bass Soloman Howard, please visit his website or follow him on social media. And see him on stage this season in Tosca, opening August 21, 2021.

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