Three Mo' Tenors
This article is from 2006.
Rewiting the opera rulebook? Introducing kids from the Bronx to the unsubtle joys of Puccini? Andrew Borthwick reckons Three Mo’ Tenors are up for the job.
What’s in a name? For Marion J Caffey, frankly everything. Talking over the phone via Washington, the director of the acclaimed US concert performance Three Mo’ Tenors, explains that finding the right name was crucial to his project.
‘I wanted to say something other than three black tenors or three African-American tenors,’ he says. ‘Of course I’m playing off the name of the original show but the name had to signify something jazzy and unique about this show. And the contraction of more to mo’ was perfect for saying, “We’re going to be more than what you expect.”’
Inspired by a concert in which the original Three Tenors - Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti - performed Broadway numbers in their own distinct style, Caffey was struck by the vocalists’ lack of versatility, ‘I have the utmost respect for those gentleman, but no matter what material they sang, naturally they sounded like opera singers.’
Personally aware of classically trained, African-American tenors that could switch from style to style with authenticity, it occurred to the former singer that there might be life in a concert that would showcase their versatility. A versatility, which Caffey believes is born out of a lack of opportunities for African-American tenors in America’s operas.
‘The only people that I’ve discovered this versatility in are African-American tenors. Classically trained white tenors have no reason to learn to sing other styles because they can get work in the opera. But black tenors are not often used in operas. So they have to sing in other styles simply to make a living.’
And at a packed Manhattan show, prior to their Edinburgh Festival debut, the group do more than just that, retaining the integrity of each style whilst injecting the proceedings with showmanship and humour. In a captivating performance the group covers four hundred years of music as they move between opera, Broadway, soul, jazz, blues, pop and gospel.
Whilst some may question the credentials of a show that leaps from Massenet to Cab Calloway to Usher, meeting the band the next morning it becomes apparent that the musical numbers within are as much to do with the politics of American opera, as it is with crowd pleasing.
‘As classically trained African-American operatic singers, there isn’t really a plethora of work out there for us,’ says Duane A Moody one of the cast members from the two groups used (the groups rotate nightly in order to preserve the performers vocal chords). ‘So the basis of Marion’s idea was also to showcase our abilities and actually generate work for us.’
Gracious, humorous and with obvious camaraderie, the trio of Moody, James Berger and Victor Robertson may have different routes into opera - Moody began singing in church, Berger in the home, Robertson, ‘burnt out’ on his tennis training was singing with a rock band when a vocal coach offered him an operatic scholarship - but all three are classically trained. They are also exceptionally aware of the realities they face as non-white opera singers.
‘I think it’s a problem that you have Othello being played by a Caucasian in black face when you have African-American tenors who can perform the role, with just as much vigour as anyone else,’ says Moody. ‘I mean, Othello is a black man.’
Of course, the argument goes that opera companies respond to numbers: If casting white performers works, financers will be loath to upset the apple cart. The majority of audiences, after all, are white. Black people just aren’t interested in opera.
It’s a myth the group are keen to dispel. Berger tells of a show in the Bronx for 11-14 year old black students. ‘We came on stage and they were screaming like we were Usher. And I know we inspired those kids because we still get emails from them telling us so. I’ve said it before but there’s no Venus and Serena of opera. There’s no Tiger Woods of opera. If we could represent that it’d be major because then you’d have people coming to opera saying, “He looks just like me. Maybe I can do that too.”’
Robertson agrees and believes that experimentation is the key to drawing in new audiences, young or old. ‘It doesn’t matter what medium it is. People just want something that’s real and takes skill.’
And yet the group admit they’ve endured snobbery from certain sections of the opera establishment for the inclusion of non-operatic material in their set. But opera is dying. It has to reach a new audience in order to survive. Its image, rightly or wrongly, is stuffiness and elitism and yet here is a group who are reaching lower and middle class audiences and children. They may come to hear Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles or Alicia Keyes but they’re leaving hearing Puccini and Verdi. And they’ve had a damn good time, while doing it.
St George’s West, 226 2428, 4-27 Aug (not 8), 7pm, £12.50-14 (£6.50-13).