By Catherine Womack (M.M. ’08) | Photos by Kim Leeson. Originally appeared in our 2019 MPrint issue. Read more here.
Practice, practice, practice. You’ve likely heard that that’s how you get to Carnegie Hall. But what if you want to get to the Metropolitan Opera? What if your big dream is to sing on the country’s most prestigious stage?
Practice, of course, is still key. There’s no getting around putting in those long, hard hours of work refining technique and diction in lessons and in the practice room. But, says countertenor John Holiday (B.M. ’07), getting to the Met stage requires something else as well: a village of support.
“There is nothing greater than having somebody believe in you,” Holiday explains. “I’m an example of what is possible when a village lifts up a villager and helps him see beyond what he even believed was possible for himself.”
For Holiday – and for four other Meadows graduates who made it to that most prestigious opera house stage – that supportive village included SMU faculty members and fellow students, transformative teachers and friends who helped each singer find and refine his voice so he could realize his greatest potential.
Holiday gets a little emotional when he talks about the mentors who helped him become the professional singer and educator he is today.
He says it all started with his grandmother, Sandra Mathis Franklin, whom he calls by her nickname, Big Mama. When he was a boy growing up in Rosenberg, Texas, just outside of Houston in the 1980s and ’90s, Holiday idolized Big Mama. She played the piano, sang beautifully in church, and worked for years as a high school English literature teacher. “Literally everything she did in her life, I wanted to do. I wanted to mirror that,” he says.
Holiday says it was his grandmother who first inspired him to envision a life for himself as a musician and educator (in addition to his performing career, Holiday is currently an assistant professor of music at Lawrence University in Wisconsin). Big Mama showed him by example that if you work hard, if you have determination, perseverance and drive, anything is possible.
“If I thought I could fly, she probably would’ve found a way for me to fly. She’s been that supportive in every facet of my life, not just the music,” he says.
Holiday started singing and performing in church and in various choirs at a young age. When he was 12, he had a transformative encounter with one of opera’s biggest stars. As a member of a local boys’ choir, he was selected as the boy soloist in a Houston Symphony performance of Hector Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, an African American like Holiday, was singing the role of Marguerite.
“It was fun for me, being a soloist with her,” he says. “But it was more than that. She left an indelible mark on my heart and my spirit when I saw her. She showed me that someone who looked like me could do this. I had never thought of it, even though I was in the boys’ choir. I didn’t know any African American opera singers or classical singers, and then I saw her face and “she opened her mouth and everything that came out of it was gold.”
“She left an indelible mark on my heart and my spirit when I saw her. She showed me that someone who looked like me could do this.”
He had a similar experience, he says, when he auditioned at SMU at the suggestion of his high school choir teacher, Mrs. Scarborough, another member of that supportive village that helped him along his journey. It was at the audition that he first met Meadows Professor of Voice Barbara Hill Moore, whom he affectionately calls “Prof.” Holiday was waiting outside the choral hall when he first saw Hill Moore “dressed up in all her glory.”
“I went to Meadows for Barbara Hill Moore,” he says. “There was some-thing about the fact that Prof was an African American woman at a predominantly white institution. Seeing a face that looked like mine was a wonderful thing for me because it meant that she understood me, she understood my background and where I was coming from.”
Holiday, 34, describes Moore’s teaching style as demanding and tough as well as empathetic and nurturing. It was in her studio that he first discovered he was a countertenor, and she helped him develop and exercise that highest range of his voice.
Like so many singers, Holiday was first invited to the Met to cover a role (Nireno in Giulio Cesare n Egitto), something he is doing again during the 2019-20 season in Orfeo ed Euridice. In the not-so-distant future, he’ll make his debut in a lead role at the Met. “More is to come, I just can’t say yet what it is,” he says.
Even covering a role at the Met feels special. “It’s the pinnacle. It’s the house to which one strives to be invited. Anyone who sings on that stage is proud to be a part of the fabric of the building, to be a part of the giants who have come before us. It is so important for me to be on their roster,” he says.
In the future, when he does make that much-anticipated lead role debut at the Met, Holiday says he hopes Big Mama, Mrs. Scarborough and his beloved Prof will all be there to cheer him on. He chokes up again when he talks about how Barbara Hill Moore has traveled to see him sing big roles in the past.
“She means so much to me,” he says with tears in his eyes. “SMU has been, and will always be, at the forefront of my mind as one of the preeminent places where I discovered who I was. It’s where I discovered that my art, my artistry, my being and my singing meant something.”
When Juan José de Léon (M.M. ’10) made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2013, the role was small, but the moment still felt big.
The 35-year-old tenor possesses a beautiful tone in the upper range and can easily hit a high C, the money note for tenors. When the Met invited him to audition, they told him they were looking for a good-looking young tenor who could nail all the high notes. “I thought, okay, I guess I’m being treated a little bit like a commodity right now, but I’m okay with it because it’s the Met,” he says.
He won that audition, and was invited to sing a bit part in the American premiere of composer Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. In the audience during one of those performances was Meadows Professor of Voice Virginia Dupuy, with whom de Léon studied as a graduate student.
“I have a picture of her there at that Met performance,” he says. “She came along with two of her former students who happened to also be in New York, so it was cool to have an SMU contingent there. We develop these attachments to our teachers because they become like parents for us in a lot of ways. I owe a lot of my success to Virginia.”
Like Holiday, de Léon grew up in South Texas, far away from the glitz of the Met. He was raised by a single mother in Corpus Christi who taught him that he was the only person in control of his dreams and his destiny. “My mom taught me very early on that I could never let anybody dictate to me what I could do, couldn’t do, or who I could be,” he says.
In Corpus Christi, de Léon started singing with the help of his public school music teachers, one of whom encouraged him to audition for music school when he was a senior. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of North Texas, he went to study at Meadows with Dupuy.
“Virginia was a task master in some ways,” he says. “But in a lot of ways she was also very nurturing and caring. She taught me to never lose sight of the person that I am, that singing is more than just techniques and mechanics. It’s also about what you put into it, about the soul.”
Jay Hunter Morris (M.M. ’90) and current Meadows Professor and Chair of Voice Clifton Forbis (M.M. ’90) were classmates at Meadows in the late 1980s. Both tenors came from small towns – Morris is from Paris, Texas, and Forbis grew up outside of Kansas City in the northwest corner of Missouri – and both went to SMU to study with Thomas Hayward, a charismatic lyric tenor who sang at the Met in the 1940s and taught at SMU from 1954 until 1994.
“We’re two guys that are both country boys,” Morris says of himself and Forbis. “Clif may be even more country-fried than I am. That both of us managed to go and sing Wagner at the Met, that’s crazy!”
When Morris landed on the Met stage in 2011, it was an unexpected big break. After another tenor fell ill, he was suddenly promoted from cover to star, singing one of opera’s most demanding parts: the title role in Wagner’s Siegfried.
“That dropped quite elegantly into my lap at the last minute,” he says. “Singing Siegfried on the Met stage was for me, and probably would be for any tenor, the pinnacle, the greatest thing I could’ve hoped for. When it happened, I was 45, and I was ready. I was a grownup. I had my wits about me.
I wasn’t in a fog. I knew what was required of me and I also, luckily, had the self-confidence to feel like I had a chance of pulling it off.”
Forbis was in his 40s when he sang Wagner at the Met as well. Both tenors have big voices that took some time to develop.
The two have remained friends over the years, and, Morris says, they still talk with each other about technique and how to continue to improve as singers.
“Clif and I talk about how you’ve got to put on your big boy pants to sing this big boy stuff, these roles where you’re singing for four, five, even six hours over a big orchestra. You kind of have to be a grownup to sing those roles. You have to have had the experience, have been through a lot, and, most importantly, have the composure to face those big moments.”
Morris and Forbis are happy lifelong learners, still thinking constantly about the lessons they learned from Thomas Hayward (they call him Tommy) so long ago.
“A lot of it was finding Tommy,” Forbis says. “It was finding someone who knows how their voice works so they can tell you what to do to make yours work.”
In the 1980s, when Forbis and Morris were studying at Meadows with Hayward, they loved it when one of their teacher’s former students, Donnie Ray Albert (M.M. ’75), would come back to SMU for a visit. Both tenors have distinct memories of listening to Albert’s booming baritone.
“He was a generation before us,” Forbis explains.
“He would come back to have a lesson with Tommy, and we would stand outside of Tommy’s door and listen to Donnie Ray. We were amazed. What’s it like to be able to make that sound?”
Even when he’s not singing, Donnie Ray Albert’s voice is big, booming and lyrical. (Having a conversation with him feels a bit like talking to James Earl Jones.) His career has taken him around the world: He’s sung Wagner in Tokyo, Verdi in Denmark, Gershwin on Broadway, and, for the Met, the role of Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata.
Albert, still an active performer and currently a senior lecturer in voice at the University of Texas’ Butler School of Music, grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He says it was fate that led him to music, a journey that started when his grandfather announced one day that Albert would begin taking piano lessons at the church where he sang in the choir.
Like Holiday, de Léon, Morris and Forbis, Albert gives credit to a special village of inspiring teachers for helping him develop his voice and learn his craft. There was a high school music teacher, Mrs. Turner, who pulled him aside on his way to football practice and talked him into joining the choir. There was the college professor, Dr. Victor Klimash, who, while Albert was an undergrad at Louisiana State University, convinced him to switch his major from pre-med technology to music. And, of course, there was Tommy Hayward, who told him, “It’s all about working, son, you just have to work.
Before they landed on the Met stage, all five of these men put in countless hours of practice, and found support from family members and teachers along the way. At pivotal moments in each of their lives, Meadows teachers and classmates lifted them up.
And what is it about this Meadows village that inspires such excellence?
“SMU has a great history of vocal teachers,” Forbis says. “It’s a voice faculty that is knowledgeable – Barbara Hill Moore, Virginia Dupuy, Dale Dietert, Camille King, and then of course Tommy – so many people who have sustained a high level of excellence. It’s also a unique small-school program in that we have a fabulous orchestra conducted by Paul Phillips that always is top-notch in our operas. We have Hank Hammett directing the operas. We have an administration that supports the music school. And we have the benefit of our young artist attachment to The Dallas Opera, which gives the kids outside performance opportunities. I think it’s just a great recipe for success.”