Jubilant Sykes has sung classical and spiritual music at the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, London's Barbican Centre and the Hollywood Bowl.
But Hartford Stage is a decidedly different venue for a veteran of the world's concert stages.
This time he'll be in character, playing lyric tenor Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African American classical vocalist, in the premiere of Daniel Beaty's "Breath & Imagination," which begins preview performances Thursday at Hartford Stage. The show opens Jan. 16 and plays through Feb. 9.
"Breath & Imagination," a co-production with Pittsburgh's City Theatre, is a play with music — spirituals, classical pieces and original songs by Beaty — which chronicles Hayes' life, career and his relationship with his mother, Angel Mo', played by Kecia Lewis-Evans (Broadway's "Leap of Faith," "Chicago" and "Once on This Island"). Tom Frey ("2 Pianos/4 Hands") is cast as The Accompanist/Officer/Pa/Preacher/Mr. Calhoun/Miss Robinson/ Frenchman/King George V.
The Hartford gig is not Sykes' first acting job. He made his theatrical debut in 2001 in "Bloomer Girl," City Center's Encores! production of the work by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. He experienced character acting when he performed the role of the Celebrant in the Grammy Award-nominated 2009 recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."
After performing "Mass" at the Hollywood Bowl, he received a letter from Oscar-winner Helen Hunt who said he created a riveting character and should think about acting as well as singing.
"I was always interested in exploring acting," says Sykes, during a break in rehearsals in downtown Hartford. "From my earliest days as a singer, I always had a lot of actor friends and there was a part of me that wanted to do that, too. But I was a shy kid so I hid behind music and then the music took off and the singing is what happened for me. I just didn't have the time to pursue it. Life went by."
Since the early '90s he has performed in concert and recorded albums starting with "Jubilant Sykes" on Sony Classical in 1998, followed by "Wait for Me," which was a combination of classical, spiritual and pop songs, "Jubilation" with American classical guitarist Christopher Parkering, "Jubilant" with jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, "Mass," and "Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals" with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Sykes, who lives in Los Angeles, says when he was contacted about the Hartford Stage role, he brushed it off. "There's nothing worse than a baritone trying to be a tenor," he laughs. But once he read the script and learned the show was more about the acting and "discovering the essence of who this man was," he eagerly accepted.
"I related to [Roland Hayes] as a man," he says. "I understood his desire — not just to sing, but to be an artist. I just got it."
Finding His Voice
Sykes grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., in a home that often had music playing. His father, who performed trumpet when he was younger, loved Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and jazz. Jubilant Sykes loved Motown music. But there was no classical or spiritual music playing on the phonograph or the radio, though Sykes was familiar with spiritual music at his Baptist church. "But I couldn't relate to it because they were all just ripping and screaming the music — which I thought was great — but I was into the Jackson 5 sound."
"To me singing was singing. It was Michael Jackson. It was just fun."
When he was in middle school, a teacher, Linda Anderson, heard something special in Sykes' boy-soprano voice and steered him to vocal training,.
His attitude toward music took another turn when he heard a recording of opera soprano Leontyne Price when he was about 13 "and I couldn't get my head around it. I thought, 'What is she singing?' It was such an enormous sound and I thought, 'How does a human do that? What is it?' And I wanted to sing those songs, too."
Sykes went to California State University, Fullerton, where he saw his first opera, "Rigoletto' "but I thought it was boring with everyone singing just loudly."
While other students were focused on a specific career trajectory, Sykes says he had no vision for himself, "something that is only starting to change now," he says.
In college, he also started appreciating spiritual music in a new way after he heard Price singing a cappella "Were You There?" "I knew I could own that music, and that culturally, emotionally, it was mine. I didn't have to be taught that."
But he also understood that teachers would sometimes tell students not to sing spiritials as part of their repertoire "because otherwise you would get pegged as 'the guy who sings spirituals' or 'a Christian singer' and would be stuck doing just that. But for me, singing [that material] was an extension of who I was." In 1996 he was named Vocalist of the Year by Sacred Music USA.
Sykes says "Breath & Imagination" is bringing all of his worlds together: classical, spiritual and acting in a story about a man that he connects with emotionally.
"I'm a lot like Hayes was as a kid: insecure, kind of gangly, who only knows that he wants to create something that comes from deep inside him, not to just be famous. In that, I got him."
The son of former slaves and tenant farmers, Hayes was born in 1877 and grew up on a plantation in Curryville, Ga. He began singing spirituals in church before turning to the classical music world after hearing phonograph recordings of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. His career on the classical stage performing before kings and queens and venues such as Carnegie Hall, began in the 1920s and continued for about two decades. From the 1940s until he retired in 1973, he sang sparingly. He died in 1977 at the age of 89 in Boston.
Playwright Beaty first learned of Hayes when he was an undergrad student studying music and English at Yale in the mid-'90s.
"My particular love in music has always been the spiritual," says Beaty. "I went to the School of Music Library to look through every CD that had spirituals. And then I heard the beauty of Roland Hayes' voice and was shocked that I had never heard of him. It was very perplexing to me.
"He came before Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson who took their place in the cultural discourse in a very public way. Hayes placed his politics aside for his art. He was a musician first and upheld the role of the spirituial in the classical form along with the beauty of the African-American voice."
When actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004, they brought along Beaty as their guest. At the gala reception Beaty met the Virginia Williams, the mother of mayor Anthony Allen Williams of Washington D.C. "For some reason I said I wanted to do a play based on then life of Roland Hayes and she said, 'I'm his niece." (She studied opera and once sanve for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.)
They exchanged information and those materials about her uncle's life helped spur the project on for Beaty. But his research was mostly limited to newspaper clippings and a biography written by "a man who was friendly with Hayes in his later years, who wrote the book as if he was Roland Hayes."
Beaty describes his play with music as "an imagined biography" and "inspired" by the life of Hayes. "This is a true play and not a re-statement of history but offers a perspective of the man and how he became 'the first.'"
Beaty says at the core of his vision of Hayes was the singer's "courage to believe in himself, as well as the support of those he loved who also believed in him and had made the seemingly impossible possible."
That's when Beaty decided to make the other pivotal character in the work his mother, Fanny Hayes, a former slave. "There's a magnitude of distance that was traveled in those two lives."
Beaty who is a singer and has performed many of his own works himself — as well as the role of Hayes in its workshops and readings — decided not to take on the leading role for the Hartford production, which is being staged by the theater's artistic director, Darko Tresnjak.
"I wanted to make sure this play had the best opportunity to clarify itself and allow myself to step outside the work and really just be a playwright." Beaty first emerged as a playwright and performer in the off-Broadway, Obie award-winning solo show in which he performed, "Emergency." Beaty's six-actor "Resurrection" received its world premiere at Hartford Stage when he was an Aetna Voices playwright-in-residence. He later revised the script as "Through the Night" in which he performed all the characters.
Beaty says he wanted Sykes in the role because he reflects what others wrote about Hayes' temperament: "a kind, gentle soul with a generous spirit who was a consummate artist with a uniquely beautiful voice. That how I would describe Jubilant."
BREATH & IMAGINATION begins previews Thursday, Jan. 10 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. Press night is Wednesday Jan. 16. The show continues through Feb. 9. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. There are also matinees on select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 to $93.50. Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.
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