John Holiday : At Home at The Met and on Your Screen

This article is part of the July 2022 issue of Classical Singer magazine. Click HERE to read all of the articles from this issue or visit the Classical Singer Library.

Countertenor John Holiday shares advice from John Legend, what to do with the overflow from prioritizing self-care, and the precious gift of singing and the need to “give it away” in this interview on his success in opera and pop.

 

Rapidly rising star countertenor John Holiday has been hailed as “one of the finest countertenors of his generation” (Los Angeles Times) and described as “timeless” (Washington Post). Holiday’s career benchmarks and achievements include a headshot on the Wall of Fame at the Metropolitan Opera, a Marian Anderson Vocal Award, and a triumph on The Voice.

For classical singers and their teachers, the story of John Holiday’s assent reads as a wish list come true in terms of competitions, YAPs, and management helping to map out important debuts, recordings, and engagements in the US and abroad. One such engagement includes returning to the Met in the world premiere production of The Hours opposite Renée Fleming, Kelli O’Hara, and Joyce DiDonato.

For those applying for academic voice teaching jobs, Holiday’s story reads as a similar list—including a tenured, associate professorship at the Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin; a full studio of adoring pupils; and no shortage of high-profile content necessary for the requirements of tenure and promotion. 

And for those aspirants in the pop world, singing their faces off in hopes of turning around those star-filled chairs on The Voice—you guessed it—John Holiday provided inspiration by dazzling and charming the ears of John Legend, Gwen Stefani, and Kelly Clarkson in 2020. 

Early this spring, I had the pleasure of interviewing and reconnecting with John many years after we first met as countertenors and students at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. When John entered my Zoom room, I found him in his room at the Empire Hotel, across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House, where he made his anticipated and belated company debut in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice. Holiday had been scheduled to make his Metropolitan Opera debut in Giulio Cesare in the company’s ultimately cancelled 2020–2021 season. Yet, in a pivot of operatic proportions, Holiday’s artistry transferred seamlessly and successfully from a Lincoln Center stage to a Hollywood sound stage. 

John Holiday provided a deep glimpse into his decision-making process—a practice, really—and how it relates to what’s presently in front of him and how his immediate decisions may affect him years down the road. I asked about this in relation to the industry-wide halt brought on by the pandemic and his star turn on The Voice

Holiday offers, “I don’t want to say it worked well for me, but what happened during the pandemic is that it kind of forced me to be still. I have to say that this is probably, now in my life, the busiest I’ve been. Even pre-pandemic, I thought I was busy, but I’m busier now. But one thing that the pandemic gave, it just kind of forced me to be still. And I had never been at home that long, like for months and months and months. I was enjoying my home. I was enjoying being just in my space, being able to have a drink every day, enjoying eating. That was a thing that was a challenge, though: at first it was like, what do you cook every day?” 

He laughs and continues, “And just miraculously, I get an email from American Idol. I get an email from America’s Got Talent. I get emails from The Voice.” Holiday shares about the advice he sought from a family member, “My cousin—who’s now departed this place—was really one of my biggest confidants because he was one of the only other people in my family who could kind of understand the journey that I was on. He used to be the executive vice-president of Major League Baseball. His name is Jimmie Lee Solomon, and he was my protector and my lawyer and everything. And so we would talk about a lot of things, because he really understood. He was like, you should do the one that is about singing. You should do the one that really is going to make you feel like you can soar and you can be who you are. 

“My best friend [and I], we have been practicing regret minimization. In essence, if you’re 80 years old down the line, would you, at that age, regret having not taken an opportunity that you’ve been given at the present? And if the answer is, ‘Yes, I would regret it,’ then you take the opportunity. No matter what it is, you say, ‘Okay, yes, I’ll do it, because I don’t know what it’s going to yield or I don’t know what it’s going to feel like—but, yeah, I would regret having not done that.’

“One of the major reasons why I decided to do The Voice too is that I really felt it was a place that I could soar and learn a lot about myself. And I would get to work with people that I really like in the industry. I really adore Kelly Clarkson and I love John Legend. I mean, I’ve loved John Legend since forever—first falling in love with his music, and then just his demeanor and his talent and how smart he is. He’s just incredibly intelligent—and he’s not hard to look at either. He’s actually a dear friend too now. And so I did that show.” 

Holiday highlights his process: “One of my goals was always to be the best at what I do. You know, what is that? I don’t know—what’s the measurable for being the best? That’s what my best friend would say, because I have my smart goals, the specific measurable—the attainable. And he’s like, ‘Well, what’s the measurable for that?’ And my response: ‘I want to be the number one countertenor in the world.’ And he would ask, ‘Well, what’s the measurable for that?’ ‘Well, I don’t know.’

“I said, instead of being the number one countertenor in the world, what I want to do is be in everyone’s homes. And that was before I even thought about doing The Voice or anything. I literally have it written down in my journal and I have the date. And it was just miraculous that the show came up, and I thought, well here’s a way to get in everybody’s homes. And so it was really a coming to fruition of something that I had journaled about and written about and dreamed about—maybe there is not being the number one countertenor in the world, but maybe there is the idea of being able to share with the world who I truly am, and my love of people, and my love of music, and my love of life, and being in their homes. And then I did that on The Voice. And then, of course, just recently being on Kelly Clarkson’s show. 

“God has a way, a really weird way, of showing up in your life. Sometimes when you expect it and sometimes when you don’t expect it. What I was taught from a really early age at church and from my grandmother was to always have a heart of expectancy. And I think I’ve really done that. I’ve really lived into that.”

John Holiday’s respect and affection for John Legend is palpable, and he was eager to share what he’s learned from the superstar coach of The Voice. “He would always say, ‘I cannot teach you anything musically or vocally—vocally, you are a beast. I cannot do what you do.’ One of the things that he would talk to me about in the show is like, ‘Don’t be so perfect. You don’t have to be perfect. We want to hear these things that some people would say are inaccurate [because these] are things that will come across as being more vulnerable.’ I always thought I was vulnerable, but being vulnerable in pop is a little bit different than in classical.

“When you talk about vulnerability, for me it’s a conscious decision to be present with each other, but to also be present with the center. Maya Angelou says being present with the center, but also being connected to all—all that is around you, all that is above you, beneath you, through you, within you—and bringing that into the music. 

“And I really thought I had really done it, and I’m pretty sure I do. I do that in all of my singing—but in the classical, there are certain things, of course, like word painting or different sighs, or maybe a straight tone here. Or sometimes as some people don’t agree with it, maybe a manipulation of vibrato somewhere or something. And that’s kind of what I would do in my pop. I thought I was doing it, but I did more.

“And then sometimes letting the tears come, because contrary to what we can do in opera, in pop—because you’ve got that mic right in front of you—everything is going to be heard. You’re going to be able to sing. Letting the emotions come to the fore—just enough, not to distract you, but just enough to just say, ‘Here’s my heart’ and more of it. Just cracking your heart just right open and just letting it bloom.

“And that to me is what being vulnerable is—calling upon all of my ancestors, calling upon every experience that I’ve had, calling upon the moments where I have felt the most loved, calling on moments when I have felt the most hated or the most set aside—the most othered, because I’ve certainly had that in my life—to use that for my music and to use it to let others know I see you. I hear you. I get you. And guess what? I love you. I don’t have to know you 100% to say that I love you. I love you because—and I tell my students this—my students probably think I’m the weirdest person at first, because this is the very first thing I tell every single student when they come into the Holiday studio—I love you already because you were born.

“You don’t have to do anything to gain my love and you don’t have to do anything to gain me being proud. I’m already proud of you. Now let’s work, because everything else is just going be building on top of that. And you’re not doing it for me. You’re doing it for yourself. And you’re doing it for your ancestors, and you’re doing it for your family—and for you, hopefully. Being vulnerable means all those things to me. It means being unafraid and unashamed of being 100 or 200 percent who I am meant to be in the world. I think that God made me to be an instrument of praise and of joy and of love and of peace.” 

I told John that his guidance to his students to do the work for themselves reminded me of the air safety instruction to “please place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others,” and he quickly followed up with the concept of the overflow: “Water your own plant first—water your own pot. Then, you know, overflow. That’s something I’ve been talking a lot about lately. I was talking to Will Liverman, because Will Liverman and I are very close too. I said, “Man, you know, we are so blessed to be in the positions that we are in. At some point, what do we start to do with the overflow?

“We would have conversations every day about overflow. Will is also very spiritually grounded, as I am, and we would always talk about that—not in a pretentious or egoistical way, but [asking] what do we do as human beings and as artists with the overflow? We’re so blessed. You water your own pot and—because if you keep on watering, you definitely have overflow—it overflows, it spills over. Then you take it and you water your spouse or your partner. And then that overflow—if you’re really lucky, you will have it—that gets overflowed onto your pet or your children, your family.

“And it’s so important—you have to be okay first. And I know there are a lot of people who will not agree with me on that, and that’s absolutely okay. But I definitely believe that one has to take care of themself first. I come first and then everybody else comes after that.” 

On taking self care, practicing, and preparation, Holiday shares, “I usually do a very good job of really taking care of my voice because it is not just my voice I’m taking care of, it’s my whole body. I try my best to stay out of talking at restaurants; I just can’t be around a lot of noise, because I feel like the first inclination for any person to do when they’re in a restaurant where there’s yacking all over the place is trying to talk over everyone. When I am with friends, if we do go somewhere where it’s going be loud, I usually ask for the waiter or waitress to put us somewhere not so near to anybody that’s very loud. I try to drink lots of water. I take vitamins every day, and I mean every day—I don’t miss it. Sleep is the most important thing. I work out every day. I have a little pedometer, my little Fitbit, and I work to get in my 10,000 steps every day. I try my best. 

“And then with preparation for music, it’s really important to sit down. I’m lucky that I play the piano.” We discuss for a bit the financial benefits of being a singer with keyboard skills, and how we try to impress the importance of this upon our students. Holiday continues, “I kind of can get ornery with them a little bit about it, but I’m like, yes, it doesn’t feel like you need to play the piano, but I’m telling you that you will be grateful for it in your life. If you just trust me and you learn to play the piano—even if it’s just chords, something. Play [and not pay] someone somebody to teach you [the notes], you know? All you have to pay somebody to do is to be a répétiteur so that you can just go through the music, or to coach you if you want to be coached.  

“I’m lucky that I play piano, so I play through the entire score or whatever I have. Right now, I’m learning Stabat Mater. And I’ve come up with a new word recently: it’s like, oh, this is yummy. The music is yummy—it fits, it works. I had to raise it—it’s too low for me. But I love this music. And so just sitting down with it, translating it, is so important. I am guilty at times—sometimes I’ll learn a piece first, depending on time, and then I’ll translate.” 

Holiday laughs and describes his common practice of getting out the Nico Castel books and writing the translation into the score—and the benefits of his ever-deepening understanding of language, especially Italian and German, as a result of spending so much time in a particular language or type of repertoire, like Baroque opera, and its repeated text. He adds, “And then I realize too, in the process of learning something, to give myself a little bit of grace. I don’t have to learn the whole opera in one sitting. I can learn the first 30 pages or the first 50 pages or the first 100 pages. And like, okay, now that I know that, let me go back and try to get the first set of pages by memory. Or let me move on to the next hundred pages, or the next. And instead of doing it in large chunks, I usually do it in 30-page increments. And I will paperclip them off because I know myself and I know that I’ll try to just do it all.

“I try to practice every day—and when I say practice, I don’t mean like four or five hours of practice, but at least two hours, maybe two and a half. For me, as a countertenor, I really think it’s just the practice of every day getting up and singing as high as you can, as healthfully as you can—your range, whatever it is for you, and stretch yourself. I love Maya Angelou, so you’ll hear me say a lot of Maya Angelou quotes. She always used to say, just stretch yourself. Just reach out and stretch. Stretch yourself. And when you know how to do what’s right, even in terms of your voice, in terms of everyday living, do what’s right. 

“I’ve really learned that for my instrument, it’s like practice—be careful, don’t overdo it. And just being really careful, but not careful to the point where I want to create a vision in my head that this thing is precious. It is precious, but it’s meant to be given away. It’s a precious instrument. God made it to be precious, but he also made it to be given away. And I know that, and I know it instinctively. It’s just there. I just know it. So I give it away.”

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen, Beetlejuice, Hamilton, Caroline, Or Change & more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct professor of voice at Pace University, and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers, and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com @peter.thoresen (Insta) @DrPetesTweets (Twitter)