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The large tenor
The familiar Trini adage “When yuh big yuh large” might well have been coined with Ronald Samm in mind. Long before he won international acclaim as a heavyweight opera and classical singer, the first black man to sing the title role of Otello in Verdi’s opera, Samm was a member of the popular local band Three Tons of Fun.
A measure of just how big Samm has become since his Three Tons of Fun days, was his duet at last month’s Royal Opera House gala at Covent Garden, London, with a Russian soprano. Getting a foot, or rather your vocal chords into the UK’s premier opera house is an achievement in itself; to be featured in a gala performance of two is recognition of the highest order.
Samm may have come a long way since his CIC days of “beating desk for hours after class” with his classmates Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts (who we now know as founding members of famed Rapso group 3canal). But even after more than 25 years of life in London, he remains quintessentially Trini. There’s not a hint of pretentiousness or even the preciousness we’ve come to associate with celebrity artistes; no fake BBC accent, no airs (but plenty arias)—just a normal guy, who is obviously comfortable enough in his own skin (and superb lyrical tenor voice) to have carried off the coup of becoming the first black singer to deliver the role of Otello in Europe.
While he cites his performance of Otello in the 2009 Birmingham Opera Company’s production, along with his more recent role of Siegmund in Wagner’s magnum opus Die Walküre at Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional di Sao Carlo, as the highlights of his career to date, back in 2005 opera critics were already hailing him as the coming man: “The performance of the evening was Ronald Samm’s of Otello’s death scene. The heroic body of the voice and the authoritative presence proclaim a real Otello in the making.” Even more impressive was another critic’s comparison of Samm with two black stage legends: “Maybe he will become the first opera singer to follow in the steps of such great stage Otellos as Ira Aldridge and Paul Robeson.”
It’s a long way from St James, Trinidad to Covent Garden and the opera houses of Europe. Samm’s journey got a kickstart during his St Mary’s College days.
The school choir was his introduction to music and he sang in Handel’s Messiah at age 13. Besides the obligatory desk beating with Messrs Manwarren and Roberts, he recalls spending Saturdays in the school’s music room—“Which gave me a love for music and stamina.” What many non-musicians and armchair/shower singers don’t realise is that performing is intensely physically (as well as emotionally) demanding, so talent without stamina remains in the shower.
Besides becoming a regular Music Festival prizewinner, Samm spent three years after school with 3 Tons of Fun, opening for Sound Revolution playing calypso, soca and covers with bandmates Nigel Wong and Nicolas Boiselle. At 19, he took the fateful step of informing his school principal parents that, rather than studying Mechanical Engineering at UWI, he wanted to study music. His mother (who he subsequently discovered was an accomplished soprano who’d performed at the Princes Building for visiting diplomats) initially opposed the decision –but it’s hard to quarrel with a ton of fun.
And anyway, Samm had already been spotted by Noelle Barker and Ian Kennedy of London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. With the help of established opera star Anne Fridal (“an incredible facilitator, with ears like a bat”) he produced a tape to send to Guildhall. Although he auditioned for both Juilliard and the New York School for the Arts, in 1987, after working for three years at Republic Bank to earn money to pay his fees, Samm elected to begin studies at Guildhall in voice and piano. He spent his first four years in London “in a cocoon of Trinidadianness”, lodging with Geraldine Connor, daughter of Edric and Pearl Connor, who besides their own prolific careers acted as hosts/surrogate family/agents, for several generations of Trini artistes making their way in the UK and Europe.
As an undergraduate, Samm flexed his chords as Dixon, in the Sir Peter Hall production of Born Again at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Completing his studies at Guildhall he won a postgrad scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), Manchester to study with accomplished voice trainer Nicholas Powell.
His 3 Tons of Fun experience (dancing, singing, improvising, stamina) helped him secure roles in London’s West End (equivalent to New York’s Broadway). As a postgrad at RNCM, a master class with opera doyen Jonathan Miller led to him being chosen by Miller to perform Don Jose and Otello in the BBC2 TV series Opera Works.
Since this auspicious beginning Samm has continued with the kind of giant steps we’d expect from a man of his stature. In addition to his bulging portfolio of opera roles (including Canio (I Pagliacci) Bardolph (Falstaff) for English Touring Opera and Spoletta (Tosca), Laca (Jenufa), all for English Touring Opera; the Dancing Master in Birmingham Opera Company’s production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos Siegmund (Die Walküre) in Lisbon; Florestan (Fidelio) for the Festival Burgarena in Austria; Sportin’ Life/Porgy and Bess for Opera de Lyon and in concert for the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome and at the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari, Sardinia) his oratorio repertoire includes Handel’s Messiah; Bach’s Magnificat and St John Passion; Mendelssohn’s Elijah; Beethoven’s Mass in C; Mozart Requiem; Verdi Requiem, and Stainer’s Crucifixion.
His considerable achievements are matched only by his good-humoured modesty. If you saw him sipping a rum and coconut water in the midst of a town lime, you might not look twice. But if you asked him to sing…
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