Gay singer makes his debut with SF Opera
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Marking his debut with the San Francisco Opera during its summer season has been Reginald "Reggie" Smith Jr. The gay black baritone Houston resident has been performing as Count Monterone in the celebrated company's production of "Rigoletto."
His character in the Italian opera puts a curse on the title character and a duke with mixed results. Reviewing the production in the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Steven Winn described Smith as "firm-voiced."
In the second act "they are leading me off to the dungeon. It doesn't end well for me," joked Smith, 28, who met with the Bay Area Reporter at a Castro coffeehouse to talk about life as a globetrotting opera singer.
For the last two years he has traveled the world singing with different opera companies and symphonies. During the 2016-2017 season, Smith made his company debuts with Opera Memphis, Dallas Opera, and Opera Carolina. He also traveled to Russia last spring and performed in three different cities, including Moscow.
"It was an interesting culture that in some ways reminded me of growing up in the South," said Smith, who saw his first opera at the age of 16. "Atlanta is still the belt buckle of the Bible Belt."
Born and raised in Atlanta, Smith is the youngest of five siblings. He graduated from the University of Kentucky, where he earned degrees in vocal performance and choral music education (K-12), and in 2013 was accepted into the Houston Grand Opera Studio. He spent two years in the program, which serves as a paid internship for young artists.
"They help guide your career," he explained. "You also perform on stage with mainstream artists. These are the top performers in the world. You go from singing with them on YouTube to singing with them on stage."
He went on to be a grand finals winner of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a prestigious competition for up-and-coming talent.
"You get immediate exposure, for sure, with companies, agents, managers. People like to hear who the new singers are," said Smith, who has since been recognized on the street by strangers who saw him compete. "It is like someone put a gigantic magnifying glass over you."
The exposure from performing with the Bay Area company helps to draw interest from other opera houses around the world, noted Smith, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. He has already booked several roles with opera companies for the 2017-2018 season and will be making his debut in October with Opera Hong Kong playing the role of Amonasro in "Aida."
"It is important to make these big opera house debuts. It can lead to other major opera house debuts," Smith said.
His sexual orientation has never been an issue, said Smith, pointing out that the operatic art form has long attracted gay men to it, as both performers and audience members.
"Do you think something this fabulous would have flourished without the gays?" asked Smith, saying of his current role, "You get to put on knee-length leather boots, a cape and a fierce hat and you get paid to do it!
"The nature of our business is so open, welcoming, and accepting. I found a home in opera," he added. "If you can sing and act, we don't care who you are doing your business with."
Opera also attracts many black male performers, he added. But it is a challenge to be cast in a leading role as a black man, acknowledged Smith, saying he can count "on one hand" the prominent black male opera singers of today. In 2015 the Associated Press reported that Opera Philadelphia had made history for being the first to cast two African-Americans, Eric Owens and Morris Robinson, in the lead roles of Verdi's "Don Carlo."
"What's cool about this event is that we do spend an awful lot of time being the only black person in a room, in a company, in a town sometimes," Owens told the news service.
Smith called the men "trailblazers" for opening doors for younger black male singers like himself.
"I find it interesting, and always have, that being gay is no big deal. Hell, in some places it might help you," he said. "And being black is no big deal, until it comes to certain roles or doing certain things."
Smith pointed out to the B.A.R. that the script for "Rigoletto" doesn't specify his part is that of a "while Italian man."
"It doesn't matter what your skin tone is. We are telling stories of people," said Smith.
He lamented the fact that, despite their talents, black male opera singers who do break through are often not well known. He pointed to Robert McFerrin Sr., who is less well known than his son, Bobby McFerrin, and isn't found on music-listening services.
"He was the first African-American male to sing at New York City's Metropolitan Opera. He had a huge career; he sang Rigoletto. It is outrageously good," said Smith, who tracked down a recording of the performance on eBay. "But the only way to hear it is on LP and you need a record player to hear it. You can't hear it on Spotify. You can't listen to it on CD or re-watch it on YouTube."
His weight has also been an issue at times, with some casting directors preferring someone skinnier for certain roles. It also is reflected in the adoration of "barihunks," with websites fawning over muscled opera singers, the majority being white men. (A search of the barihunks blog found it had twice mentioned Smith but had not used his photo.)
"Yes, I deal with it a lot as a big person," said Smith, who complimented those opera companies that eschew such casting decisions. "They understand what moves people is not how you look but how you perform on stage. People appreciate good singing."
Despite the challenges, Smith hopes he can breakthrough with his career.
"You be the best you can be and strive to be the best person in the room. I try to let everything else play out and don't get caught up in people not hiring me because I am gay or black," he said. "You learn to just do your thing."
When not on the road performing, Smith lives in Houston with his cat Leo and his partner of two years, Gregory McDaniel, 30, a musician, choral teacher, and conductor. Smith also enjoys teaching young singers and can see someday working as a music professor.
"I like to say when I feel my voice, my brain, and my body telling myself it is time to go back to the classroom I will work with high school kids teaching them jazz, opera, R&B, and great classical music," said Smith. "As much as I wanted to do that, it is not how life worked out."
To learn more about Smith, visit his personal website at www.reginaldsmithjr.com.
Tickets to the final performance Saturday, July 1, of SF Opera's production of "Rigoletto" can be purchased online at https://sfopera.com/.