Baritone Justin Austin answers our questions on his transition from boy soprano to baritone, having opera singer parents, and what’s so special about ‘song.’ Hear Justin sing some of those special songs with NYFOS in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem on December 12.
You began your singing career as a successful boy soprano soloist. Can you share with us what your transition to a baritone was like?
My transition from soprano to baritone was actually some of the best times of my life. As a boy soprano, the moment when your voice drops is somewhat devastating. I’ll never forget my voice dropping in the middle of a performance I had. I was premiering a new opera about the historic American businessman Alonzo Herndon by composer Sharon Willis. I played the character of young Alonzo in the first half, then older Alonzo’s son Norris Herndon in the second half. Towards the end of the opera, there is a beautiful duet between older Alonzo and Norris. To my surprise (and everyone else in the house) I started the duet a soprano and ended it a tenor. What to do after my voice dropped started to weigh on my 11 year old heart. I enjoyed being a singer more than anything on the planet and it was seemingly snatched right from underneath me. THEN the world renowned Boys Choir of Harlem came to town on their U.S tour and that was the moment that changed everything for me. Watching these young men deliver a program of Schubert and Mozart then move to the soulful sounds of Fats Waller made my thirst for a musical future great. By the end of their show, after a stunning solo by now tenor (then 14 year old soprano) Antoine Dolberry, I knew what I wanted to be next for me. The Boys Choir of Harlem was so many things for me, but to answer your question, it was the perfect transitional tool for a boy soprano who finds his voice somehow leaving while the passion for the art form keeps growing. I moved down to tenor for about a year, then transitioned to baritone by the time I began my studies at the Laguardia Arts High School in NYC.
Did you find ways to continue to work as a professional musician during those intermediate years before an adult operatic career became viable or was that primarily a time to focus on study and training?
The intermediate years before my adult career consisted of extensive training as well as professional opportunities. Most of the professional opportunities were in the pop world singing backup for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Lauryn Hill, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Sean Mendez.
You grew up with opera singer parents; did you always know that you would follow in their footsteps? How did seeing their lives help prepare you for your career?
In a lot of ways having opera singers as parents was such a gift. It exposed me not to just the art form at a young age, but the lifestyle as well. It was the greatest gift I could have ever received other than the gift of song itself. So many things about the lifestyle that frustrate a lot of my colleagues actually give me great joy because it makes me feel at home. Even today, the best sleep I get is on an airplane. As far as knowing I would follow in my parent’s footsteps, it honestly took a very long time for me to know with confidence that I was even able to follow in their giant footsteps. The first time I felt that I might be up for the task was about a year ago. I honestly have always wanted to continue their legacy, but I, of all people, knew how challenging the road ahead of me would be. I saw the difficulties of being a singer played out in front of me like a current Netflix series; The endless training, seemingly wasteful financial investments, loneliness, disappointing family members, having an irrational relationship with normal aspects of life like rejection, etc. But the one challenge that was hard for me to swallow was the fact that other people’s opinion of my opinion would determine almost everything I wanted to do. How can I feel confident that I can do something when it doesn’t even feel like my decision to make? Then about a year ago I realized the joy in not having control over everything. I started to think of the process itself as a collaboration. The “product” that I’m “selling” isn’t mine to own. It’s produced by a collection of people working together for the purpose of sharing. How beautiful is that?! It was that thought that “sealed the deal” for me.
Other than your parents, do you have any particular artists that you view as role models? In what ways do they inspire you?
Other than my parents, I have many artists that I consider my role models. There are some that I’ve never met like Bryn Terfel, Lawrence Brownlee, and Gerald Finley, that are, in my opinion, the epitome of artistry and professionalism. I’ve also been honored and privileged to have some historic singers mentor me including my incredible voice teacher Catherine Malfitano as well as George Shirley, Thomas Hampson, Stephanie Blythe, and my personal operatic hero Kenneth Overton. These extraordinary individuals are, without a doubt, why I grew into an artist that believes in themself and what they have to say.
You are involved with a number of charitable organizations; what causes are especially dear to you? How do you use your talents to further these goals?
I am so happy to be involved in a number of charitable organizations. I am a firm believer in helping each other as humans. I think that everyone has something to share that could help someone else. I made it a point to use my talents for charitable causes early in my career to show my colleagues and peers that you don’t have to be rich and famous to give back. The causes that are closest to my heart are ones that provide living essentials to certain people in need; water wells in Kenya, food pantries in New York/New Jersey, and funding for children’s hospitals and church organizations around the USA. I spent time as a teenager living in a homeless shelter with my mother and it gave me a new perspective on life. With the help of the church and music, we were able to rise from that situation and grow. Giving back to these specific organizations is a way of showing gratitude, but also to perpetuate the sort of help I needed once upon a time.
You have a close relationship with the versatile composer and pianist Damien Sneed. What draws you to his music?
I indeed have a great relationship with composer, conductor, and pianist Damien Sneed. I think his music and artistry in general resonates with me because we have similar beliefs and experiences. Both of our families have strong roots in Augusta, Georgia. He spent time working with the Boys Choir of Harlem. He studied at the Manhattan School fo Music and is now a professor there. He even has done major concerts with my mother, Alteouise Devaughn. Damien and I met in 2013 on tour with Wynton Marsalis. After spending every day with him for 3 months, we became good friends. We made our Carnegie Hall debut together in 2015 in Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian Mass (which will be in the Lincoln Center White Light Festival November 21, 22, and 23, 2019 featuring myself as one of the soloist and Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra conducted by Damien Sneed) So it was very appropriate for us to collaborate on my Carnegie Hall solo recital debut in 2017 where we premiered his piece “I Dream A World.” His music is rich with history yet full of hope for the future. After that magical night at Weill Recital Hall, there will always be a space reserved in my heart for Damien Sneed.
Are there any other composers you’d particularly like to work with?
I absolutely adore new opera and the difficult but rewarding creative process involved in building a show that obviously has no tradition yet. There are a number of composers I love working with and I hope I continue to meet more that are just as excited about creating as I am. Fortunately, so early in my career I have already managed to premiere operas by composers Sharon Willis, Odaline de la Martinez, Jack Perla, and Ricky Ian Gordon with another Ricky Gordon opera coming to NYC in the spring. I am currently working on a relatively new opera premiered in 2007 entitled Glory Denied by composer Tom Cipullo. I am extremely excited to work with Mr. Cipullo who will be joining the production next month. New music has really found a place in my life and my heart. There really is something about having almost full creative liberty that I really love. Lots of my colleagues are overwhelmed with the responsibility of invention when it comes to new music but for me, it’s not just extremely rewarding, it’s fun.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
The last music I listened to before answering these questions was the oratorio The Ordering of Moses by Nathaniel Dett. What a piece!
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?
What is special about song to me? Wow! So many things, but there is one thing that I appreciate about song that I can never seem to articulate, but I will try. I feel that song is extremely special. As a singer you have to constantly be mindful of not just what you are giving, but how it’s being received. After all, communication is key. That being said, I think song is more raw and honest communication vs something like opera. Opera is honest, in my opinion, however I feel it needs to be a different kind of honesty that is considerate of all of the many people in attendance that the performer may or may not even be able to see. Singing or not, when you address a big group of people, there is a way you communicate where something as simple as being heard and understood has to be a primary concern. When a part of your brain is constantly trying to remember certain presentational techniques, it really can distract from the communication. Song on the other hand, for me, is more direct. It’s like a conversation with a best friend. You’re not thinking about being heard or understood. You know each other well, so you feel comfortable talking any way you want and go into every little detail without even thinking about it. You’re finally able to focus just on the content and connecting that other person to it.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
As impossible as this question may seem, I actually do have a favorite song. I don’t think there is a song that I would consider to be the “best song” but my favorite song is “Vallée d’Obermann” by Franz Liszt. I actually wrote about how that came to be my favorite song on NYFOS’s “Song of the Day” blog last October. Check it out! 🙂