This March in New York City, 34-year-old Bernard Holcomb was rehearsing for the title opera role of Rossini’s Otello at night. He was serving food at Harlem’s Blujeen by day.
Most audiences only see the glamour of show business, but Holcomb’s story shows us the hustle and grind to make it to that stage. How exactly does a modern opera singer make it work in 2017?
Ladders talked to Holcomb after his six-show run as an Otello descending nightly into madness in a Bushwick loft to find out.
“There are no black male opera singers”
Growing up in a musical family in Detroit, Holcomb first realized that opera could be a career through his uncle: “he came out to the family that he wanted to be an opera singer, and everyone laughed at him because they said, ‘You’re black, you’re a black man. There are no black male opera singers. And he said, ‘forget it, I’m gonna do it.'”
Being dragged by his mother to his uncle’s shows, Holcomb thought opera was “very weird-sounding” at first, but it exposed him to the possibility that opera wasn’t just a white, expensive, mostly European art.
By high school, Holcomb’s voice was opening doors. Winning a full scholarship to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy and earning a 6-person slot at the Lyric Opera of Chicago set the course to where he is now: a professional opera singer who gets to perform in top opera houses.
But that doesn’t mean that one success automatically precludes another. To make his dream “really happen,” Holcomb knew that he had to make the leap to New York City.
Financially supporting your creative ambitions
Like many people who move to New York City, living in a city of more than 8 million people means opportunity, but also struggle.
“I do have to have side hustles,” Holcomb said. “I’d prefer not to, but…what I had to realize is that not everyone’s trajectory or story or future is the same. Some people just go and they start singing at international top opera houses or they get on Broadway right away, and they get paid well and they can support themselves. That’s not in my story. I developed a career in the restaurant industry like a lot of us do. I started as a server. I was fortunate to have a friend who was a manager at a restaurant in Harlem, and he hired me to do my first server job… After about a year, they promoted me to assistant manager. Recently, I had to step down from that role and go back to being a server because I was getting so much artistic work, which is great.”
For Holcomb, having a creative life means “not living above my means. It means having roommates, it means living in the Bronx. I would rather be in Manhattan…or even Harlem, but Harlem is very expensive now. I do have my own bedroom and I make it work, I make it as beautiful as I can on my budget, but I sacrifice, I sacrifice for my dream. It’s a beautiful sacrifice and it’s one I’m willing to make because I get to live a creative life.”
Many people who dream of stardom often quit due to these very unglamorous realities, but Holcomb persists. “It is possible. A lot of people think it’s not possible, I can’t live in these conditions, but I choose to make it work.”
On choosing a challenge
“In a way, opera chose me. Opportunity after opportunity present itself,” Holcomb said. “I can sing John Legend, I can sing gospel like the back of my hand, but opera was something that was foreign to me and not always accessible, and I see that as a challenge and I love it.”
Opera is often seen as inaccessible, not only because it’s two hours of singing in Italian, but also because tickets to see it are prohibitively expensive. Tickets to a 2017 Metropolitan Opera performance cost more than $300. Tickets for Brooklyn’s LoftOpera, where Holcomb performed, cost $30.
That’s vital for opera’s future, Holcomb believes: “If opera is going to survive, we need to have new diverse creative ways to make it accessible to people. That’s why I love LoftOpera so much.”
On being told no
Being a black man who is an opera tenor has both helped and hindered Holcomb’s career, he says. Ira and George Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opera has launched many a black opera singer’s career due to the Gershwin estate’s directive for Porgy and Bess parts to only be played by black performers.
Through his Porgy and Bess performances, Holcomb has gotten to travel the world. “I’ve gone to Europe to Russia to Poland, Greece, Italy, everywhere. It’s taken me everywhere.”
“On the flip side of the coin, there have been times I haven’t gotten a role because casting wanted someone who was more European-looking, or maybe someone who wasn’t a person of color, and that hurts,” Holcomb said about how his race can hurt casting opportunities. Those rejections are usually “more coded,” unless Holcomb knows someone on the inside who can illuminate the reasons.
When that rejection happens, Holcomb advises opera singers of color “to not allow it to deter them from what they really want to do. There is a place for them.” Rejections happen to everyone. “Even people who are not people of color, even white people have a hard time with these creative, artistic careers, because there are lots of no’s.”
For opera singers of color to succeed, Holcomb says they need to “really be excellent, and find their own path, and be on fire, and don’t take no for an answer…[Y]ou may not want to keep knocking on that door with that person, but there are many doors and many people and eventually you’ll find a door that will open for you and a person who will say yes.”