Growing up in Southeast DC, Soloman Howard had a godfather who saw to it that the young singer’s obvious basso gift did not languish for lack of training and opportunity.
“My godfather, Thomas Dixon Tyler, was the minister of music at Metropolitan Baptist Church for 30-something years. ‘You are going to school,’ he said because he knew I don’t come from a collegiate family. I am the first college graduate on both sides of my family,” Howard told DC Metro Theater Arts.
“He talked with Nathan Carter at Morgan State University and got me into the school,” Howard said of Dixon Tyler, a classically trained composer and conductor, currently the minister of music at Shiloh Baptist Church on 9th and P streets where he presides over the city’s beloved annual holiday performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Howard, who is 6’4 and a regular at the gym, said he wanted to play football for Morgan, but once Carter, the school’s famed choir director who died in 2004, reminded the aspiring athlete that his free tuition was predicated on singing, not running the ball, Howard settled into learning his craft as a musician. Howard graduated from Morgan and went on to study solo performance at the Manhattan School of Music, before coming home to DC in 2011, the recipient of a spot in the Washington National Opera’s (WNO) Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
Since completing his time as a WNO young artist in 2014, Howard has enjoyed international acclaim for performances that range from the King of Egypt in Verdi’s Aida to Fafner the Giant in Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, to boxer Muhammad Ali by contemporary American composer D.J. Sparr’s Approaching Ali. Houses other than the Kennedy Center where Howard has sung Stateside include the Met, San Francisco, and Santa Fe. Abroad, a rapidly growing list of international venues where Howard has sung includes Madrid’s Teatro Real and L’Opéra national de Bordeaux in France.
This weekend, Howard will combine his athletic prowess with his lyric bass voice, when he reprises the role of the regal, but rambunctious Lion in WNO’s production of The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. Howard originated the role for the company in 2013.
The family-oriented opera, directed by WNO’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, features music by Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori, with a libretto by the late J.D. McClatchy. Based on Jeanette Winterson’s children’s book of the same name, the show recounts the Nativity story from the donkey’s point of view.
Howard said he is glad WNO has asked him to reprise the role, despite potential concerns that his current level of fame and top-dollar draw might put him out of a family audience’s reach: “It’s not charity, it’s giving back. And the music is just so beautiful. I will continue to do it as long as my body says it’s okay to jump around and be a lion.”
The reprisal also offers the DC native an opportunity to showcase what he’s learned since he debuted the kingly cat. “I am growing as an artist, thanks to my sensitivity to what’s going on around me, to social events and pop culture and political events, and to life events and changes, like traveling around the world. What I brought before is not what I am going to bring this time. I want to come back home and give that much more of myself to this character,” Howard said.
The hometown singer hopes the work will become a permanent opus of the holiday opera repertoire, alongside Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, given this show’s timeless message about finding something to believe in that carries one into the future.
“Everyone is here for a purpose, and it’s about doing what you have to do to fulfill that,” he said. “Growing up in a religious family, we were taught to look for what gifts we’d been given. I believe this is my gift and my purpose.”
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.