Soloman Howard is one of America's busiest singers, so busy he was at home in Northern Virginia for about four weeks this past year. Washington National Opera discovered the young bass five years ago when he auditioned for WNO's chorus, and since then he's become a D.C. favorite, garnering raves in many productions as a member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
This week, as a proud YAP graduate, he'll sing in the world premiere of the newly revised Philip Glass-Christopher Hampton opera, Appomattox, playing the roles of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. Mr. Howard feels ready for this challenge, and when we spoke during his second week of rehearsals he was thrilled to be working with Mr. Glass, a rare privilege since living opera composers are scarce.
I've had the pleasure of covering Washington National Opera during Mr. Howard's tenure and he has impressed me with his rich obsidian timbre and stage gravitas. I've heard him sing Sarastro in The Magic Flute, Alcade in The Force of Destiny (a performance dubbed "fantastic" by the Washington Post's Anne Midgette), the lion in The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, and Il Commendatore in Don Giovanni.
Mr. Howard received praise for his Met Opera debut in Aida last November, a performance the New York Times called "ideally stentorian and steady." He's also sung principal roles at The Glimmerglass Festival including Banquo in Macbeth and he played Dr. Grenvil in La Traviata at Los Angeles Opera. More debuts are scheduled, and in my opinion he's the rising basso to watch.
Soloman Howard as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Appomattox
Below is an edited version of our recent phone chat.
You grew up in an inner-city neighborhood in D.C. not far from the Kennedy Center. And you've spoken of enduring hardships such as periods of being homeless. How did your youth prepare you for the rigors of an opera career?
Well, I've been able to play different characters and different situations. When I go into any given production, I have to immediately connect and be able to accept [my colleagues] as my family for the moment. Also, I'm able to pick up and go, so to speak, as my family had to do growing up. Because now in my career I'm all over the place, and I'm comfortable being able to go somewhere and make it my home temporarily until I go to the next city, the next country -- whatever it is. And there's a lot of that right now. Not to say I'd wish [my background] on anyone else, but it had an odd way of preparing me.
You graduated from Baltimore's Morgan State University in 2008 and Manhattan School of Music in 2010. Did you find vocal mentors at these schools?
At Morgan State, Betty Ridgeway was my voice teacher, and she became what I refer to as 'my vocal mom.' She was very encouraging because there were many times when I doubted myself. I didn't think singing was for me, and the program was predominantly built around the chorus [the Morgan State University Choir], and the techniques I learned for solo singing I had to put aside sometimes so I could blend in. But my teacher kept motivating me and telling me I was heading in the right direction, and she's the reason I have pursued a career in classical singing, specifically opera. Then when I got to Manhattan School of Music I studied with Mark Oswald, and he immediately saw my potential. Before I left Morgan I was struggling to create a real sound above middle C because sometimes I was the section leader [in the choir] and tasked with the responsibility for singing all the low stuff. But once I got to Manhattan School of Music I was able to to shape my upper register.
Do you have a current teacher?
I now study with Peter Volpe. I met him when we were doing The Force of Destiny here at Washington National Opera. I didn't hesitate to ask him for coaching, and then I felt I could really connect. He understood my struggles, being a bass himself, and I felt that was the best of situations for me.
After grad school you auditioned for the chorus at Washington National Opera and you so impressed the artistic staff, including then-general director Placido Domingo, the company made a place for you in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program even though it was already filled. What did this mean to you as a native Washingtonian?
It's something that pulls at my heart in a positive way, for my career to be birthed in the same place where I was born. Ironically, they're not far from each other. Washington National Opera is near the river in Foggy Bottom, and I was born at Columbia Hospital for Women, close to Foggy Bottom. For everything to happen within a mile radius means a lot to me.
You've had exceptional exposure, such as singing Joe in Show Boat while you were still in the young artists program. How has Francesca Zambello, WNO's current artistic director, nurtured your career?
By believing in me and just giving me the opportunities. And she's someone who's not afraid to say, 'No, I don't like it,' or 'Try something else and figure it out.' That's something I needed because [the] instability in my personal life growing up created insecurities. And having a mentor who won't settle for [my] playing it safe has been instrumental in helping me develop as an artist. She's taught me to come to rehearsals with ideas, and come to rehearsals more than prepared. She's also said, 'This is what you're going to do next season, so get it ready and let me hear it.' Having to meet those deadlines is part of how I now approach my career.
Let's talk about the newly revised Philip Glass-Christopher Hampton opera, Appomattox, opening in the Kennedy Center Opera House on November 14. You have two key roles, Frederick Douglass and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. How does one go about playing such iconic figures in American history?
Well, I've had to do a little more digging to find information about Frederick Douglass -- I mean, there aren't any video clips of him...Learning his cadence and learning his demeanor have been hard to figure out, so some of it has come from the guidance of the stage director [Tazewell Thompson] and also from things I've read. Now for Rev. Martin Luther King, I grew up in church; I'm the son of preachers on both sides of the family. So I understand what it's like to be a minister and how they deliver their message and also the energy that the congregation brings -- I've experienced it. And we do have video clips of Martin Luther King, Jr., so his character is a little easier to get access to. But my goal is to portray the two of them as honestly as I can.
In this opera, Douglass interacts with Lincoln and King interacts with Lyndon Johnson?
Yes, they each interact with the president of the time about important social issues, not just human rights but specifically rights for people of color; people of my descent.
Though the Glass opera is set both in the Civil War era and the time of the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, are there any similarities to what's happening in America today?
There are many similarities. Martin Luther King mentioned in one of his speeches that one hundred years ago Lincoln spoke about the right to vote. In 1965, they were still talking about the same thing, and almost nothing has changed. In Alabama today, they are taking away half the DMVs in the state so people can't get the new IDs they need to vote, which makes voting more of a struggle. We're facing the same issues one hundred fifty years later.
You and other members of the cast have been visiting 12 neighborhood churches in D.C. to perform excerpts from Appomattox and talk about the work with the congregation, right?
Yes, we're reaching out to communities who may not be aware of this opera. And I believe this is a very important subject to explore in opera because we're touching on subjects that are relevant to our nation...I grew up here and there are many people in local churches who don't know that Washington National Opera exists, or that there are black opera singers. And of course there were so many black singers before me, such as Paul Robeson and William Warfield and my mentor, Morris Robinson. These are the artists who've opened doors for me.
Did you receive feedback from the church members in your first visit to the Alfred Street Baptist Church on October 18th?
Alfred Street Baptist is actually my home church. When I heard that we'd be visiting churches, I had no idea I'd be starting there. I hadn't been able to be at church since Easter Sunday when I played percussion, and our [WNO presentation] was during morning service. But the pastor, Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, and the church members know me, and I had a chance to speak with a few people afterward. Some were wondering how they could get tickets, and some told me they'd lived through the Civil Rights era and felt gratitude to Martin Luther King.
Does singing in a Philip Glass opera have special challenges?
Yes, the accompaniment is a little different from the tonality we're used to hearing. A lot of the accompaniment in Philip Glass is remembering intervals -- or knowing intervals from what you just heard. So it's different, but it's something I was prepared for from doing a lot of contemporary music in the American Opera Initiative at WNO. And it helps to have Philip Glass around to shape the music to [our voices]. This is week two of rehearsal and it's going great. The music is still changing because it's new, so the piece is still evolving.
You're 34 and at the start of your career. Basses typically come into their own around age 40 and sing longer than artists in other vocal categories. What are your dream roles?
Well, one of them, for which I've been singing the main aria for years now, is Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, and I'll have the opportunity to do that next January at the Opera National of Bordeaux. I'd also love to sing Mephistopheles. There are a lot of roles I'm looking forward to.
Tell me about your Met debut? When was it and how did you feel about it?
We started rehearsals last October and November  and then we opened and we played from the fall through the spring. I was the King in Aida, and it was a great experience. At the first rehearsal I walked into a room of great singers I've looked up to and an amazing conductor, Marco Armiliato, who had the music in the palm of his hand. I often tell people I couldn't have had a better introduction to the Met -- from the stage door and the security guards and all the way through.
You'll be making your role debut as Fafner in Francesca Zambello's American Ring Cycle in The Rheingold and Siegfried this season. What's the best part of singing Wagner?
This will be my first time; I have no prior experience. But my voice is going in that direction. I've been fortunate to have the support of the Wagner Society in Washington, D.C., which has given me grants to study Wagner's music. And I've also worked with [the great Wagnerian mezzo] Dolora Zajick and conductor John Edward Niles who've guided me, and of course Francesca Zambello. This is something I hope to be really proud of.
Do you have family members in town who are now witnessing your success?
My mom lives in Virginia and she's seen me on stage. She also tunes in whenever I'm on the radio and she cries -- I think I should invest in Kleenex. My father's side of the family is in town, too, and everyone has seen at least two shows.
What do you do to relax when you're not working?
I spend a lot of time in the gym working out, and as I said I'm a percussionist, so jazz -- Afro-Cuban-Latin jazz -- really grounds me and brings me back to a calm, soothing place. Also I play football, so sometimes I get on the field with my brother.
Can you imagine a day when color-blind casting is available for most roles?
I want to say yes, and I hope more companies are close to achieving that, by casting according to the ability of the singer. As Francesca Zambello says, the stage should reflect the country, and we have people in America from all over the world. And we'll also have a more diverse audience if people can see themselves on stage.
You may contact Soloman Howard on Twitter @HowSoMusic.
Washington National Opera's world premiere of the newly revised Appomattox will run at the Kennedy Center Opera House from November 14-22. Composed by Philip Glass with a libretto by Christopher Hampton, the opera will be conducted by Dante Santiago Anzolini and has been staged by Tazewell Thompson. For information and tickets, visit www.kennedy-center.org.