Talking with singers: John HolidayInterview
American countertenor John Holiday sings Handel as comfortably as he does jazz and spirituals, even accompanying himself at the piano. Joining the ranks of Denyce Graves, Eric Owens, and Lawrence Brownlee, Holiday is the 2017 Winner of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award; in conjuction with the award, he will make his Kennedy Center recital debut on February 15.
It was a treat to talk with Holiday about the great care he takes with his craft, the importance of a support system, and music as his “sanctuary”.
Why do you sing professionally?
What an interesting question…one which I’ve never been asked before.
Perhaps, you also mean why do I love to sing? So, I’ll try my best to answer both questions. Ever since I was a child, I can remember that singing, and all music brought me such joy. I would be mesmerized by watching my grandmother, Sandra Mathis-Franklin (who was the minister of music and pianist at Calvary Way Missionary Baptist Church), and Sister Margaret Lewis singing solos in our church’s choir. Those spirit-filled moments were the moments when, as Bill T. Jones would say, “God entered the room,” and I wanted to, one day, be able to do just that. It was and has always been the medium through which I feel the most connected to people, their humanity, our similarities and the God (or whatever you choose to call that amazing thing that is greater than oneself) within each of us.
As a child who, at a young age, was taunted for singing high and being different, early on, I found out that music was my safety. Still today, it is my sanctuary. Whenever I’m happy, sad, confused or anxious, I sit down at the piano and start to play the songs which are nearest and dearest to my roots - old gospel songs that I grew up with, like “I don’t feel no ways tired.”
In a world that can be so crazy and wrought with war and destruction, I have chosen to use my voice to be constructive rather than destructive and my endeavor is to always us my voice to create more beauty in the world, which is so desperately craving for each one of us to do the same thing. I grew up in a family where there were so many talented and smart people, and I was encouraged by everyone to hone in and cultivate my talent. I’ve been lucky and blessed to have educators and mentors, who have believed in me since the very beginning, and I am here today because of them.
There is no joy or love like that of the visceral reaction of rapturous joy and love you receive from an audience. Nothing. Like. It. And when that happens, it feels like a big blanket of love is wrapped around you.
Ultimately, each of these spirit-filled moments of singing is what I believe to be my calling in this life, and I couldn’t be more thankful because music feels like home. Because of the combination of the aforementioned things, I have been lucky and blessed to make this my career. While it is work, I am fortunate enough to never feel that I’m getting up to go to my place of employment. I always feel that I get the opportunity to continue exploring and discovering all that music has to offer.
After all of this, simply put, I just LOVE music and I LOVE to sing!
What do you know now about the singing career, that you wish you knew 10 years ago?
One’s health is paramount, and that is something that I believe I understood 10 years ago, but I understood it only on the surface. Now, more than ever, I am cognizant of my health and the health of others around me. There is so much that goes into this career.
Another thing is being a good actor. I can remember dragging myself out of my third floor dorm room, in Mary Hay Hall (sidenote: Above my room, there was a plaque that read “Future Leaders of Tomorrow”), and being late to those required acting classes for music majors. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re reading, take advantage of those classes. You’ll be thankful you did.
I have also learned, over the last ten years, the importance of building a great team of people around me: management, publicity, friends and colleagues. What I know for sure is that it’s important for us to surround ourselves with like-minded people who can challenge us and push us to be better. One thing that isn’t talked about a lot is sacrifice. As an artist, to get where you want to be, often times you have to sacrifice some things. I’ve missed birthday parties, graduations, Christmases, and other family function because of my career, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. What that does is that it teaches you to cherish each moment with the ones whom you hold dear.
Because I have had phenomenal teachers and coaches, I have to say that most of the things that I know now were drilled into me as a pupil of Barbara Hill-Moore (Southern Methodist University), Karen Lykes (University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music), and Marlena Malas (The Juilliard School). The difference is that I now get to put those wonderful pearls of wisdom to good use in my every day life.
How do you see the role of the countertenor in contemporary opera? How do today’s composers utilize the countertenor sound?
I see the role of the countertenor voice, in contemporary opera, the same way that I see others. There are so many possibilities and colors within the countertenor Fach, and I believe that composers are beginning to understand that. For so long, I don’t think that had been the case, but it certainly is now. Whenever I meet a budding composer or work with a composer, I always ask them to write for the countertenor voice, and they have almost all said that they have. That’s the great thing. As with most other voices, they use the countertenor voice to convey the gamut of the entire human expression.
How do you stay sane and healthy while traveling for work?
I hydrate like a crazy person. I usually drink about 10 bottles of water a day and little bit more before a performance day. Each night, after a rehearsal or performance, I drink a ginger tea (sidebar: Prince of Peace Ginger Crystals will bless your entire life) with honey and lime juice, which I think helps the cords.
When I travel on an airplane, I always fly with a humidiflyer, and that keeps my voice healthy while in the air. In addition, I’m super-conscious about the health of people around me, and you will not find me a place that would require me to yell over a crowd to be heard.
What’s sanity? Sanity, schmanity! Seriously, I stay sane by flying my airplane simulator - X Plane - and flying online with pilots on a software called Pilotedge. It’s amazing. It keeps me focused and it’s calming.
Other than that, I watch a lot of movies and reality TV. My family helps to keep me sane, too. Gotta love my crew!
If you could sing a role outside of your voice type, which one would it be?!
If I could sing ANY other voice type, I think I’d be a spinto soprano. I’ve always wished that I could sing the role of Aida! Or Leonora in La forza del destino. I’m a huge Leontyne Price fan.