With just a glance, even without a note of music being heard, one knows instantly why tenor Michael Austin is known in opera houses of the world for his portrayal of the title role in Giuseppe Verdi's Otello—he looks exactly like the Shakespearean character listeners visualize. While Austin, of course, is in Knoxville for what will be his debut with Knoxville Opera, this will mark his 47th production singing Otello in a worldwide 25-plus-year career including 55 different roles so far.
As many young American singers have done, Austin received his big professional start in Europe—in his case, the Staatstheater Stuttgart—with a debut as Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana. Oddly, though, one of Austin's earliest opportunities came with Knoxville Opera's own maestro, Brian Salesky.
"In 1983, I was a grad student at Juilliard, and I heard about a touring production of Carmen that they were casting at New York City Opera, where Brian was working," Austin says. "I went over there and auditioned, and Brian chose me for the small role of Remendado. We toured for three or four months, performances every night. For a young singer, just to have work, I was very happy for the opportunity."
Austin was a bit more careful about jumping into the big dramatic roles—like Otello—thanks to some good advice early in his training from Juilliard mentors like Laszlo Halasz, the first director of New York City Opera.
"Halasz was maybe 80 years old at the time; he had given the first African-American singers the opportunity to perform at New York City Opera in 1946—Todd Duncan and Camilla Williams," Austin says. "He told me, ‘I see a real talent in you. I see Wagner parts, I see the Otellos, but take it easy. When you go to Europe, they are going to want to put you into those roles right away because they are looking for that kind of dramatic voice. But learn to say no.'"
"I put them off for 10 years or more and slowly started building into it," he says. "If I had started singing this big dramatic stuff at age 25 or 26, I wouldn't be sitting here today."
Although male voices generally soften and lower with age, Austin's voice still falls into that marvelous category that some call "spinto," a tenor capable of both a lyrical upper range and a warm, dramatic baritone-like lower reach.
"When I started college, there was the question, was I a tenor or was I a baritone?" he says. "Thank goodness I had a wonderful voice teacher who said that in time, nature would tell me whether I was a tenor or a baritone. Placido Domingo, who I covered Otello for in Stuttgart, said the same thing had happened to him. He gave me some good advice about doing the role as one gets older—that for a full dramatic voice, as you get older, the voice gets shorter, and you'll need to move through passages faster rather than letting them be longer and slower."
Austin's extensive work in Europe has allowed him to bypass a lot of the casting issues that have faced African-American singers in the U.S. The role of Otello, Shakespeare's Moor, has certainly been at the forefront of controversies.
"One of the arguments was that directors claimed they had to be true to the art," Austin says. "Well, if that's the case, if you cannot hire a Pinkerton [from Madama Butterfly] as an African-American, then why would you cast a Caucasian and paint him dark to play Otello? ... No one ever had an answer for that. But things have changed. Twenty-five years ago, there weren't many opportunities. I was one of the few who was able to do some work, but it wasn't as often as it is now. I credit that to change in America, a change of attitude."
Austin still thinks Europe is a good bet for any young American opera singer looking for an opportunity. "These have been tough economic time in the States. I understand as many as 20 opera companies have folded. However, every city in Germany has an opera house. Just out of necessity, there are lots of opportunities for a lot of good singers.
"If a young singer can get to Europe for two or three years, get a contract—and they pay quite well—you do a certain number of performances and you get a chance to season the roles.… And that's how careers are built. Having the opportunity to be appreciated, to earn a living, and love what you are doing, that's what a career is all about."