Spotlight on Baritone Sidney Outlaw

Leveling the Playing Field: An Interview with Baritone Sidney Outlaw

It was a lot to handle. The summer heat. The coronavirus pandemic. The police brutality. The killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people. Baritone Sidney Outlaw says he even told his management he wanted to be a recluse for a while, lying low so he could study in peace.

But then he remembered something the singer Nina Simone said: It is an artist’s duty to reflect the times.

“These aren’t normal times. These are awakening times,” the Billy Budd star and Queens College professor recently told San Francisco Opera.

Still, it was tempting to retreat into the umpteenth episode of Madame Secretary or a third bingeing of the sitcom Schitt’s Creek. But Outlaw, 38, has funneled his time into different pursuits instead. Just a day earlier, he hung portraits of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison on his bedroom wall. They are a testament to his voracious reading, as he pours his time into researching Black stories and Black operas.

Those are the stories he hopes to bring into his work, both on stage and in the classroom, where he trains opera’s next generation. He may not have as big a platform as the Obama family does, he says, but he still has his digital classroom — and that’s where he sees the possibility for change.

“If you don’t like me because of my skin or because of my sexuality, that’s something I can’t control,” Outlaw said. “My lane of advocacy is to ensure my students are more than prepared for what is going to be laid out in front of them as young artists and professionals.”

“So that if that [discrimination] happens to them, they can leave that audition or whatever and say, ‘Hey, that was some fabulous singing. If they have a problem with me because of my sexuality or because of the color of my skin, that’s their problem.’”

Outlaw, who trained with mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne and collaborated with veteran artists like pianist Warren Jones, sat down with San Francisco Opera last week to discuss his own experiences in opera — and share some favorite pop culture moments too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you get your first music education? And what was it about those first exposures to classical music and specifically to opera that made it stick?

SIDNEY OUTLAW: Well, picture it. Brevard, North Carolina, 1996. I sound like [The Golden Girls star] Sophia Petrillo. I grew up in a very musical family. On my mom’s side of the family, it’s a musical dynasty. That’s not me being arrogant or anything. We are who we are. And that goes back well into maybe the beginning of the 20th century with my grandmother, Momma Ada.

In addition, I lived in the neighborhood called Goose Hollow, which is the same neighborhood that the Brevard Music Center is housed in. So I grew up hearing classical music, and I never even had to pay for it. All I had to do is walk out onto the back porch and you could hear Angela Brown, back in the ‘90s, sing Aida at the music center.

Then I went to the University of North Carolina (UNC) Greensboro to study with Levone Tobin-Scott. And that was the first time I had someone outside of my family who was Black, who would mentor me musically. Mrs. Scott is like my Yoda.

I had wonderful teachers growing up, but life changed when I had a Black educator. My whole view on music and my career and the possibility of doing this and having this as a career changed because I would see Mrs. Scott do it. I would see how she would carry herself. I would see the confidence. A lot of that rubbed off on me.

That’s kind of where I stand. I’ve never said it out loud. I’m very interested in advocacy for students on the collegiate level, to make sure that they have the resources they need, to make sure they can put those tools in their tool box and build a foundation that is going to pipeline them to Merola [Opera Program] or Wolf Trap or Glimmerglass. Because a lot of times, Black students don’t even make it past the pre-screening.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Is that because people see the color of their skin and whether consciously or not write them off?

OUTLAW: I don’t know. Maybe. There is a difference between hearing a polished singer who comes in and sings a Mozart aria and someone else comes in and maybe they’re still learning. Their languages aren’t as good or maybe they need more voice in their upper register.

And so subconsciously they’re counted out. “Well, they’ve got more work to do. Let’s put them to the side and let’s pick this other person.” But that person went to Juilliard pre-college. So they’re light-years ahead of someone who maybe just had their first voice lesson as a freshman in a program that doesn’t have the resources to have a collaborative arts program or coaches or those types of things.

Sometimes the chorus teacher is the voice teacher, you know? Because maybe that’s the only voice class they have, choir. And so the playing field isn’t level a lot of the times.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: There’s a video of you and your family on South Carolina’s Post and Courier. And there’s one thing your father said that stuck with me. He said there was a time where you, Sidney, felt like “because of the color of your skin, that some things weren’t going in the opera world like they were supposed to.”

And then your father says maybe you’re there to kick the door down for someone behind you. What instances was he referring to?

OUTLAW: There are a number of instances where I felt that the color of my skin held me back. And one of them happened in grad school where I was made the janitor in an opera. It was a new opera they were doing. And I was made the janitor because frankly this is what Black people supposedly did in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s.

Well, I was offended not because I was made the janitor. But I grew up in a family of super-educated people, and I thought, “New York City in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s? Are you kidding me? Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, all these people in New York City were thriving during that time. There was so much more to us than being a janitor.”

I was more upset that this person did not know Black culture and Black history in New York, let alone Black history throughout America during the height of Jim Crow. I think I was more offended by that.

And then when I tried to report it, I was told not to make a big fuss over it, because I would be blacklisted. So maybe that’s what he was talking about.

I’m very interested in seeing the direction opera will take now as they rebuild this industry, after it falling apart because of COVID. I’m very interested in working with different opera companies.

It will be interesting to see how we rebuild and restructure in a way that I hope creates a playing field that is level for singers and that offers up opportunities for people to be on the stage that shows representation from the community. The Black community has a lot of dollars too to bring to the table. [Outlaw laughs.] We do!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Some of the experiences you describe might make people walk out the door and leave the industry forever.

OUTLAW: And a lot of people have. Some of the best singers in the opera industry, you will never hear.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: I guess the question is then, why opera? Why didn’t you just say, “See ya, I can do something more lucrative. I can have an easier path?”

OUTLAW: It’s a gift. It’s a gift from God. It’s my passion. What’s the book? Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that book Letters to a Young Poet. I sound like [Sister Act actress] Whoopi Goldberg, because she is how I got my hands on the book.

I was watching Sister Act II, and so Sister Mary Clarence comes out of her building, and Rita Louise Watson, played by Lauryn Hill, is walking down the street. She says, “I’ve got this book here I want you to read.” Because remember, Rita Louise Watson, her momma didn’t want her to be in the choir.

So Mary Clarence says a long time ago she got this book by Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet. And in it, a man says, “I want to be a poet. Teach me how to be a poet. Teach me how to be like you.” And he says, “You don’t need me to teach you to be a poet. If you wake up in the morning and you can think of nothing else but writing, you’re supposed to be a poet.”

And Sister Mary Clarence says, “I’m going to tell you the same thing, Rita. If you wake up in the morning and you can’t think of nothing else but singing, you’re supposed to be a singer, girl.”

Yes, I did just quote Sister Act II! You weren’t expecting that! But you called me. So here we are. [Outlaw claps his hands in laughter.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How on earth do you know this by heart?

OUTLAW: It was 1993. I was 13. And I thought, “Yeah. If you can’t think of nothing else but singing, Sidney, you’re supposed to be a singer.”

That’s why I didn’t leave. Because I woke up in the morning and I couldn’t think of nothing else but doing that. I couldn’t. When I wake up in the morning now, the first thing I do is clear my throat just in case I’ve got to go sing.

And I went around my elbow to get to my ass to tell you that, but I was going to get that Sister Act quote in there!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: All the pop-culture references, bring them on. You said you’ve read 18 books so far this year. It’s the summer. What are your top five picks for folks to be reading?

OUTLAW: I’ve got my list right here. Especially because of the time right now, a lot of people ask me about Black history. How did we get here? How did we get to this point to where we’re still talking about this? How did this happen? Why are we this way?

I tell people to read about Black reconstruction in the South during the time after the Civil War, 1865 to 1877, and then 1877 to roughly 1898 to 1900, which is the rise of Jim Crow laws and those types of things.

So I tell people to read Stony the Road by Henry Louis Gates. I tell people to read Black Reconstruction by W. E. B. Du Bois. Another book that I love, love, love is Tears We Cannot Stop by Michael Eric Dyson. What’s another that I read? The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin.

Oh! The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, that’s something I’ve been reading. My Bondage, My Freedom by Frederic Douglass, because you get an actual account. So many people say, ‘Oh no, it couldn’t have been like that.’ You read Frederick Douglass’s words, and it’s from someone who experienced it.

I give those book titles because they reflect the times, and a lot of people have been asking me what types of books to read. I also have read fiction like [Toni Morrison’s] Song of Solomon, Tar Baby and Beloved. That informs my singing.

I read Hamlet, the play Hamlet. That type of stuff helps with my singing. It helps with my creativity, to think how I would sing a line. No matter what language I’m in, how would I say those words with the description and poise and elegance that Toni Morrison would use?

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: This is a 180-degree turn, but has there ever been a moment where you felt like you had arrived as an artist?

OUTLAW: It’s interesting. That feeling is every time I sing, actually. If I have a performance, in that moment I say, “These folks have invited me here based on work that I’ve done in other places. Something about what I’ve done as an artist has moved them to the point of hiring me.”

But my ego has kicked in a few times, and I had that moment where I was like, “Yeah!” It’s pure ego. I’m okay with that. You can’t be an opera singer and not have a little bit of an ego. Even [opera icon] Leontyne Price toasted to her voice because she sang so beautifully. And she did.

But the biggest moment that I had where my ego was just like “yes” was when the curtain opened and I had the first line in the opera for Billy Budd at San Francisco Opera.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Really?

OUTLAW: [Tenor] Bill Burden did the prelude, and then everything opens. The scrim came up. And the boat moved forward. And I sang the first line. And it was in my fach.

I would say that I felt empowered. I felt like a Metahuman from the TV show The Flash. You know? Metahumans? I felt like a Metahuman. I did. I felt like Voltron. Like everyone who has ever backed me up and had my back was right there in that moment.

To learn more about Sidney Outlaw, please visit his website or follow him on Instagram.

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