Tenor happily awaits boos after 'Madame Butterfly'

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Tenor Noah Stewart plans to sing like an angel at the Detroit Opera House, but he's prepared to be booed.

It's not that Detroit opera-goers have anything against Stewart personally — in fact, this is his fifth appearance with Michigan Opera Theatre . But he's portraying a character audiences love to hate.

Lt. Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly" is traditionally pelted with boos during the curtain call, and it's easy to understand why. He's a louse, a jerk, a cad.

While in Japan, the American navy lieutenant cavalierly marries a sensitive geisha named Cio-Cio San (aka Butterfly). He sets sail, marries an American girl, and returns to Japan in a few years with his new wife, only to discover Butterfly has a child by him. When the heartbroken Butterfly learns of his marriage, she kills herself.

Ouch. You could say that Pinkerton needs some major damage control.

"When I first sang this role, a colleague said, 'When you come up for your bow, they're going to boo you, but it doesn't mean you didn't sing well,' " Stewart says after a rehearsal at the Detroit Opera House. Looking relaxed in dark jeans and a white polo shirt, Stewart sums up his character.

"Pinkerton isn't fair to her, and he's not honest. I guess I would boo him, too," the 35-year-old singer says, laughing.

Still, the Harlem-born Stewart is willing to cut his character some slack.

"Look, he's young, and who among us hasn't made mistakes in relationships when we're young? We've all done things without thinking of the consequences of our actions."

More important, Stewart says Pinkerton realizes he made a mistake and is stung by remorse in the last act. "He's more of an adult by the third act, and realizes he was living frivolously."

Stewart knows the catcalls are in jest, and he rolls with it. "My philosophy is, if you can't have fun doing something, it's not worth doing."

However, when he's in Britain he's universally cheered. His 2012 crossover CD, "Noah," reached the top of the U.K. Classical Album Chart. They adore him across the pond in recitals and in operas, but Stewart is puzzled as to why he's such a Brit hit.

"I have no idea," he says. "Maybe it's because they just appreciate classical music more. I get invited to appear on radio and TV, and people recognize me at airports and train stations."

Stewart is among only a handful of black male singers in the operatic world, a situation he believes can be remedied.

"If society saw more of itself on the operatic stage, then more of them would come," he says. "That is the answer to box office. It's very easy to fix. I mean, God continues to make strong black male athletes and politicians and scientists, but he left out opera singers?

"Often, men of color aren't cast because the people making those decisions are stuck in their old ways."

But he's quick to praise MOT Artistic Director David DiChiera, known for casting minorities since the company launched in 1971.

"When he first heard me in San Francisco, he said, 'I want you to sing in Detroit because I believe in you.' He told me I had some things to work out, but he said he heard the potential in my voice.

"We live in a very fast society where we love to pick the winning horse, but it takes a special breed of person who says, 'You know, I'm going to pick that thin horse that's hobbling, because I know that if I give him the right diet, he'll win the race.' "

Since then, Stewart has proved himself a thoroughbred — even though the crowds here will be backing a horse named Butterfly.

George Bulanda is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

Madame Butterfly

Saturday-Nov. 23.

Noah Stewart sings Saturday and Nov. 19 and 22 opposite soprano Inna Los. He alternates with Adam Luther, who sings Nov. 21 and 23.

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit.

Tickets $25-$128