When tenor Noah Stewart was growing up in Harlem, N.Y., his friends called him "opera boy." They were onto something.
Earlier this year, he became the first black singer to hit No. 1 on the classical music charts in the U.K.
But Stewart's musical tastes aren't confined to Puccini, Bizet and Strauss, and his new, self-titled album gives him a chance to put his mark on everything from American spirituals to Top 40 hits.
Stewart says he doesn't mind being called an opera singer, but that he would rather just be called a singer.
"One of my colleagues said, 'No, you're not even a tenor, you're just a man with a high voice,'" he says.
When he told his mother he wanted to be an opera singer, she told him that opera was for older people. He quickly set her straight. At the time, Stewart thought pop and Broadway music were much safer than opera, and he didn't see many people of color in opera, so he wanted to make a contribution.
Stewart's new album is semi-autobiographical, each song marks a different chapter in his life. The track "Without a Song" is particularly important to him right now.
"I think that people are important in the world and we all have a connection to each other; I wanted to relay that because there was a time in my life where people kind of counted me out," he says. "I would hear things like, 'Is Noah still singing? Is that guy still around?' And I'm so thankful that I stayed in it, because I knew that I had something to say and I knew that I had a song as well."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When tenor Noah Stewart was growing up in Harlem, his friends called him Opera Boy, and they were onto something. Today, Noah Stewart makes a living doing this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POURQUOI ME REVEILLER")
NOAH STEWART: (Singing in foreign language)
MARTIN: That's Noah Stewart singing Massenet's "Pourquoi Me Reveiller" from the opera "Werther." But the singer's musical tastes aren't confined to Puccini, Bizet and Strauss, and his new self-titled album gives him a chance to put his mark on everything, from American spirituals to top 40 hits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")
MARTIN: And Noah Stewart joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us, Noah.
STEWART: Rachel, thank you so much for having me on. It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: Do you like being described as an opera singer or would you rather just be called a vocalist?
STEWART: I don't mind being called an opera singer. But I think I would rather be called a singer. One of my colleagues said, no, you're not even a tenor - you're just a man with a high voice.
STEWART: But whatever is fine. I love singing opera; it's one of my passions in life. I love all different forms of music and I grew up in a very different, diverse background in terms of musical styles, and I love it all.
MARTIN: What was the soundtrack to your childhood? Did your mom play a lot of music?
STEWART: She did. And I remember every Saturday, we would have, you know, the radio on and Marvin Gaye, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald. More soulful singers, I would say, were kind of echoing through the house as we cleaned every Saturday morning.
MARTIN: What was her response when you came home presumably one day and said, I want to throw my hat into this very difficult world and try to make it as a professional singer?
STEWART: I remember just telling her just kind of flat out, Mom, would you think about me being an opera singer? And I remember her saying, what?
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA MUSIC)
MARTIN: I mean it is interesting. Here you are this young kid from Harlem who is spending his afternoons in the library listening, and somehow emotionally connecting with Placido Domingo?
STEWART: Yes, absolutely. I love the older singers like Benjamino Gigli and Martinelli. When I heard Gigli, he had the masculine quality of the voice, the strength. But he also had a softer approach as well. And just the variation of which is that he displayed was so remarkable to me that I'd never heard anything like it before and I wanted to be an opera singer.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA MUSIC)
MARTIN: You mentioned an awareness at an early age that there weren't a lot of people of color in opera.
MARTIN: And we should note your album made headlines in the U.K. because you became the first black singer to hit the number one spot on the classical music chart. What was that like for you?
STEWART: I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that all the other a black classical artists that we've had - Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Jean Price, Martina Arroyo - I mean, so many of them that they would have not have had the number one. It's very, very humbling. And I'm so happy that I've stayed in it as long as I have because it has not been easy- but that's - I think that's everything in life.
But then for every audition that I did not get, I never thought I didn't get it because of the color of my skin. I always thought - because I would simply could do better the next time.
MARTIN: How do you pick the songs that go on this album?
STEWART: Oh, it was such a hard choice. But it was very important for me to choose songs that were - that reflected on me as a person and my growing up as a kid in New York City, and also in Harlem, and my progression from a youngster in choir to a young man in operatic career. And so, I wanted to include songs for everyone to really appreciate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, SHENANDOAH")
MARTIN: You talk about this album as autobiography to some degree, that each song or at least a sampling of the songs mark different chapters of your life. Is there a song that exemplifies where you are now?
STEWART: "Amazing Grace" was one of the songs I first heard as a child growing up. And I definitely wanted to include it on the album. My other favorite song is "Without a Song." I think that people are important in the world and we all have a connection to each other. I wanted to relay that because there was a time in my life where people kind of counted me out.
I would hear things like is Noah still singing. Is that guy still around? And I'm so thankful that I stayed in it because I knew that I had something to say and I knew that I had a song, as well.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT A SONG)
MARTIN: Noah Stewart joined me from the BBC Studios in London. His self-titled debut album "Noah" is out to July 3rd.
Noah Stewart, thanks so much for talking with us. It was a pleasure.
STEWART: Thank you for having me on, and have a great day.
MARTIN: You can hear more from Noah Stewart at nprmusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.