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True Believer

Bass Soloman Howard’s success is built on a foundation of faith that has seen him through some unusual challenges.
By Louise T. Guinther | Photographs by Dario Acosta 

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Photographed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta
“THERE WERE STUMBLING BLOCKS, BUT THE ABILITY TO STAY FOCUSED CAME FROM WHAT I BELIEVE.”
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© Dario Acosta
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© Dario Acosta

SOLOMAN HOWARD'S trajectory from inner-city D.C. to the great opera houses of the world may seem a long shot, but no one who knew him way back when would be surprised to hear that singing is the center of his life. “My mom, from when I was three, would stand me on the offering table at my grandfather’s church,” he says, “and I would sing.” Howard’s mother, stepfather and biological father were all pastors; that early foundation in faith gave him an inner strength that stood him in good stead later on, when the family struggled with poverty and homelessness.

“We would stay with families from churches, sometimes in motels, eating from the Salvation Army food truck,” he says. “I’ve slept in a car, walked the street all night. Learning to adapt and make the best out of it actually helps me now. I have the perfect history for a career where I’m constantly on the go.” Howard projects such an upbeat persona that it’s hard to imagine him growing up in hardship and uncertainty. “There were stumbling blocks,” he says, “but the ability to stay focused came from what I believe. I was always thinking there was something better for me ahead, and I had a bigger purpose, and I hoped that one day I could share my story and encourage someone else.”

ANOTHER SUSTAINING force was music. In his early teens, Howard joined Children of the Gospel Choir. “I saw that other inner-city kids were struggling as well, but when we came together, it was almost as if we left that behind.” During high school, Howard played football as well, but he landed a singing scholarship at Morgan State University. “The choir traveled the world, singing with major orchestras,” he says. “By the time I finished undergrad, I was on my second passport.”

Howard was the first person in his family to go to college, and he faced some skepticism. “Some family members thought I was wasting my time, and some thought that through education I would feel like I was better than them. Then there were the few that were like, ‘Keep going. Do something different.’” Another future hung in the balance: “I was twenty-one when I had my daughter. She’s fourteen now. She plays the tuba. I knew I had to do what I can to give the best possible chance, for the both of us, not just to survive but to do better for ourselves.” 

After graduation, Howard applied to Washington National Opera’s Domingo–Cafritz Young Artist Program, but the only slot for a bass was filled. He reluctantly auditioned for the WNO chorus. “After I did my first aria,” he recalls, “Scott Guzielek, director of artistic planning, said, ‘Holy—! Where have you been?!’ I gave him my background, and he said he wanted me to sing for the director of artistic operations, Christina Scheppelmann. I didn’t hear anything for a while, and I ended up getting a chorus contract, and I was like, ‘Man, I really don’t want to do chorus.’ But before I decided, I got a call that Christina wanted to hear me. I went down to sing for her, and by the time I got back to my driveway, I had a call saying Plácido wanted to hear me!” A place was created for Howard, who made his debut with WNO as the High Priest of Baal in Nabucco. Howard has since bowed at LA Opera, Glimmerglass and the Met, but he cherishes the Washington connection. “I was born in that city, and my career was birthed in the same city, so it’s very special for me.”

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Howard as Martin Luther King, Jr., to Tom Fox’s LBJ in Appomattox at Washington National Opera
Scott Suchman for WNO
 

Howard is also an Afro-Cuban Latin percussionist, playing with the Baltimore-based Soulful Symphony whenever his schedule permits, and he’s a natural athlete. In addition to football and boxing, he practices martial arts, rides horses (“My father’s side of the family were cowboys”) and dreams of playing polo. “You feel totally free when you’re out there,” he says. “You don’t think, ‘This animal belongs to me.’ It’s a partnership.”Another special experience was playing his childhood idol Muhammad Ali in the company’s world premiere of Approaching Ali in 2013. “It’s crazy to me that I got to meet Muhammed Ali through opera. There was a line I sang that he always said—‘I don’t have to be what you want me to be.’ So when people are doubting—‘Opera? Black people don’t sing that’—I’m like, ‘This is what I’m meant to do.’”

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Soloman Howard, at home on the range in Santa Fe
© Dario Acosta
 

Keeping in shape is not extracurricular. “I know where every muscle is in my body,” he says. “The demands placed on singers—in the Ali opera, I’m throwing jabs and combinations while I’m singing. Once, when I was getting frustrated in my voice lessons, Morris Robinson, who’s like a big brother to me, said, ‘If it was the weight room, and you couldn’t bench-press 325, how would you go about getting there?’ I would work my way up to it, gradually, keep practicing. It’s the same thing.”

One product of his faith-based upbringing stands out in our interview: gratitude is a constant theme. “I just feel like no one owes me anything,” he says. “For things to happen the way they’re happening, I just count it as a blessing.” spacer 



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