“I live for variety,” said Holiday, 36. “I have to show myself, to be completely me. Some people are not multifaceted, and that’s okay, but when a person can do something and chooses not to, I always find it interesting. I want to see a person standing in the truth and fullness of who they are. I’m a Black gay man who loves God, who loves himself, who loves people, and who loves all kinds of music. So, it’s important for me to show my aptitude. I also have joy in what I do.”
Bullied yet empowered
Raised by a strong, supportive mother and grandmother, Holiday says he recalls singing at a very young age. In particular, he remembers standing atop tables to perform when he was 2 years old.
“My grandmother was the music minister and pianist at my church,” he said. “And when she told me what to do I did it with aplomb without attitude or talk back. But I was lucky because I actually really loved music. My mother and grandmother told me I started singing before I spoke, so I’ve been singing for a long time. I’ve always had a love of music. And I wouldn’t say I chose classical music. I’d say classical music chose me.”
Holiday received his Bachelor of Music in vocal performance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati – College Conservatory of Music, and the Artist Diploma in opera studies from The Julliard School in New York City. He is an associate professor of music at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin.
He says in college he enjoyed discovering the various facets of a countertenor, defined as a male soprano or alto, but knew in high school he was different from his peers. Even so, he felt empowered by his uniqueness.
“Anything that is unique and different always stands out,” he said. “When I was young, I was a chubby nerd who could sing really high and play an instrument. I was definitely made fun of and bullied but I never let the people who were making fun of me get in the way of pursuing my dream. I might not have known how to fight but I never stopped singing.”
Heralded by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the finest countertenors of his generation” and the New York Times as “an exceptional vocalist with a strong voice, even in its highest range,” Holiday has been the subject of profiles in The New Yorker, CNN’s Great Big Story, the Los Angeles Times, and more.
He was inspired by legendary opera singer Denyce Graves, among the many Black forebearers who fueled his craft and the importance of representation.
“Sometimes you cannot be what you cannot see,” he said. “We’ve all had to see someone in order to envision ourselves, which is why, as crazy as my schedule is, I am hell bent on being an educator and a singer. I want my students to see an African American man, an associate professor of music with tenure, who is singing at the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Dallas Opera, and the Barbican (in London, England). I want them to see that it is possible.”
Holiday admits possessing an inherent effortlessness within his countertenor abilities but says he is not immune to difficulty.
“It’s a part of me so it just flows,” he said. “Every new piece of repertoire – every pop song, art song, aria – presents different challenges because of the differences in composers. Right now, I’m trying to put the recital I’m doing in Dayton back into my body and my memory. I’m hopeful the audience will connect to me through the music and the words I’m singing.”
Reflections of ‘The Voice’
In 2020, Holiday appeared on Season 19 of “The Voice,” NBC’s reality TV competition. Coached by John Legend and finishing in fifth place, he remains humbled by the experience.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “On the show, I learned I truly can do anything. It was great to be around people, such as Kelly Clarkson, whose music I grew up listening to when I was a teenager. I’m still in touch with John as well. He’s very kind. The relationship we established on the show was not fake. It’s very real. There is a mutual respect of artistry. It’s beautiful to have someone like that in your corner because he legitimately cares.”
In pursuit to evolve
Looking ahead to future projects, Holiday is excited to appear this fall in the Metropolitan Opera’s world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts’ “The Hours,” adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel and the Academy Award-winning 2002 film version starring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. He’s confident the production will be among many that will help him evolve.
“I still feel like I’m discovering I have a gift because I think that as we grow, as with anything else, we are evolving,” he said. “So, as we evolve, hopefully our gift evolves. I think my gift truly is connecting with people through love. And I believe God put me on Earth to be an instrument of music, love, hope and praise, so I feel really blessed to be able to do that and nothing has gotten in the way of showing that love.”
HOW TO GO
What: John Holiday: Dayton Opera Star Recital
Where: Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton
When: Sunday, April 3 at 3 p.m.
Tickets: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonperformingarts.org