Dallas — American countertenor John Holiday has established himself an authority in classical voice over the past few years. As a winner of the Marian Anderson Vocal Award in 2017, he sits among the ranks of Lawrence Brownlee, Denyce Graves, and Eric Owens. His unique and intimately personal approach toward artistry sees the organic weaving together of jazz, gospel, and classical influences, which he will display in a recital at the Nasher Sculpture Center on March 10. Sculpting Sounds, a collaboration between the Nasher and The Dallas Opera, will bring together the performing and visual arts, with Holiday as a special guest artist, along with pianists Kevin J. Miller and Neeky Bey. After the performance there will be a gallery tour.
TheaterJones caught up with Holiday ahead of his performance to chat about his approach toward the artform, race in the industry, and the importance of personal authenticity.
In an interview with The New Yorker last year, you said that the way you approach singing is you look for “the soul of the music” in just about everything that you do. Can you elaborate on what you mean by the “soul of the music” and how you go about that process?
What I meant by that was that I look for the golden nugget—the piece of hope—that exists in all music. I look for the thread of connectedness—the thing that will connect every person in the audience. In each song, I’m trying to find that thread. Oftentimes, it’s a very apparent thread, or sometimes it’s some kind of musical phrase that keeps repeating itself. I believe that there is soul and beauty in each piece of music, and I feel very lucky that I get to bring it to life.
Where do you think that comes from? In this industry, as classical musicians, a lot of what we encounter is a sort of rigid approach toward the understanding of music. So, I’m curious as to where your more fluid approach comes from.
I think that comes from my upbringing in the church, specifically being in church choirs under the direction of my grandmother. In church music, that thread happens to be the Lord Jesus Christ. One of my greatest joys was trying to find a song for what we call the “Invitation to Discipleship” that would match what the pastor just preached about. In particular, especially during this time that we are living in, it’s very clear to me that we should be trying to lead with love and with light. So, a lot of the music that I find in this recital reminds me of love and happiness.
So, do you think your most powerful influences come from the church?
Oh, my—without question.
What is the purpose, in your opinion, of having that approach?
The purpose is that it’s authentically me. I’m a huge proponent of standing on a stage and being who you are, 100 percent, without apology, standing in your truth. There’s only one of me in all of time, and I have to get about the business of being the best John Holiday that I can be. It’s my ambition to always show every single facet of me. I’m a multifaceted person and musician, and what it does is it gives people permission to do the same thing. If I couldn’t do this my way, there’s no way I could do this because it would be somebody else.
In your training as a countertenor, have you found there to be any aspects of your fach that make it easier for this melding together of genres—jazz, gospel, classical—or transitioning between them?
I don’t know that it has helped or hindered. In my mind, I just get up and sing. I try to do what is natural for me. I’ve never thought about that question before. I don’t think about the challenges or the ease that present themselves with this fach. I just get up there and do the best that I can. I really endeavor to just give the best of my heart, my spirit, and my voice.
You’ve always lived in the upper registers of your voice, right?
Oh, yes. That’s always where my voice has been. Always.
So it wasn’t really a distinct decision to be a countertenor as it is for many others?
No. I remember the conversation with my teacher. I’ve always sung high, and it’s something that has always been rather easy for me. There are times when it’s challenging, especially when I’m learning a role.
You’re obviously doing very well. Congratulations on all your success and your tour, but I’m wondering how do you maintain balance—mentally, spiritually, emotionally? How do you maintain this even keeled approach toward an industry that, frankly, can be pretty volatile and unforgiving?
I try my best to surround myself with people who are like-minded. Not yes men, but people who have similar desires for their own work. I have my people who hold me up, who supervise my falls, and I do the same thing for them. It’s also important to take moments for yourself—self-care. I listen to my body compass; I follow my feel good.
I’m seeing a lot of arts organizations here in DFW lately really taking purposeful steps to pull in artists from out of town, like yourself, who are brown and black. What is your insight into what it’s like being a person of color and a classical musician in the industry today?
I say “why not?” I’m so happy to see other people of color in the room, because often times, especially with Baroque music, I’m the only one in the room. We are an extraordinary group of people. I am unapologetically a believer in Black excellence. I think the stage should reflect what the world looks like, do it’s important to get us out on the stage. I love the progress being made.
What can we expect on the menu for your recital at the Nasher?
You will see a beautiful French set, a German set, and I am doing a set by H. Leslie Adams, who is a phenomenal African-American composer. Then, I’m going to go into a jazz set. We’re going to have a good time, and I’m really looking forward to it.