Sunday, January 28, 2001

Belgians tout this tenor

Singer hopes fame he achieved abroad carries over to his own country

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Funny how these things work: John Wesley Wright is big news in Belgium.

        A story in Dag Allemaal, Belgium's equivalent of People magazine. Guest spot on TV's Laatse Show, their Tonight Show. Reporters following him on tour. A personal invitation from Belgium's King Albert and Queen Paola to sing at the palace.

        Over there, he's the John Wesley Wright.

        Over here, he's John Who?

[photo] | ZOOM |
        Here's who: A 34-year-old tenor, artist-in-residence at the University of Dayton, vocal coach with 25 students, a sometimes opera singer, sometimes church singer, sometimes soloist with orchestras.

        But not right now. Right now, he's jet-lagged, recovering from a virus and freshly back from a 50-day, 20-city tour of Belgium and Holland with piano duo Steven and Stijin Kolacny and the 60-voice Scala Children's Choir.

        The jet lag and virus are easing, the voice is resting and his powerful big fried chicken craving has been appeased — “I sprinted to Popeye's the minute I got off the plane in Atlanta. You just can't get it in Belgium.”

        What he could get in Belgium was “a trip on the star cloud. I'm still coming down.

        “Even the king and queen. They gave me a suite at the palace to rest in before the Christmas Eve concert. Naturally I had to take a hot bath because, I mean, how many people can say they had a soak in the royal tub?”

        Not many. But that was last month. This month, he's back to his students, living four days a week in Dayton with a friend and three in Mount Orab with his longtime partner, all the while wondering how to jump start his U.S. career.

Ready for more

        “I would like some people here to notice me. You know, have them hear me. There have been some things. I had the lead in St. Matthew's Passion with the Dayton Philharmonic — the only local soloist — and I did Lucia with the Dayton Opera — but I'm ready for more.

        “I used to think my long term goal was supposed to be opera, and I do love it, but what I really love is singing with an orchestra. There are plenty of peel-the-paint-off-the-walls opera singers out there. I like winning hearts from the stage, and you can't do that screaming at people with some elaborate costume between you and your audience.

        “With an orchestra, you get to mix things up — classical, ballads, gospel, even jazz, and I love that approach. What recognition I've had so far has always had to do with the diversity of my style.

        “Like in Belgium, when I coached the kids on gospel music for our CD.”

        Uh, what CD?

        That's how the tour came about: Several months ago he did a concert in Belgium. His accompanist got sick and the Kolacnys were recruited. Instant harmony.

        They asked him back to record with the Children's Choir, then tour with them.

8,000 CDs sold


        The CD came out in late November. It sold 8,000 by Christmas and that's a heck of a lot in Belgium. It's not available in this country, but Mr. Wright is pushing the record company to get it over here for next Christmas.

        Not that he'll be here. “I'll be touring over there. It's so incredible, I stay with the Kolacnys. The father's a doctor, the mother's a pharmacist, one sister's a pharmacist. Stijin lives there, so does Steven and his wife and new baby. This is all under one room — the doctor's office, the pharmacy, that big loving family and the most incredible housekeeper. She even ironed my underwear.

        “And cook? No wonder they call Belgium Europe's kitchen.”

        Gained weight, "eh?

        “Let's not talk about it.”

        Fine, let's try 10 fill-in-the-blanks.

        The hardest part of coming home . . .

        Facing normalcy. Like, the fact that I'm back to teaching and the normal routine here. You can make it playful and fun, but it's not like being treated like a star.

        The best part of coming home . . .

        Easy, just knowing you're at home, language wise, knowing where things are, being able to call your friends.

        One thing I need to do better . . .

        Languages. French, Flemish and German. Flitting back and forth to Europe, I have to rely on their command of English, rather than my understanding of the language. I don't like that. Oh, I need to work on punctuality, too.

        Europeans have it all over us in terms of . . .

        In having, how do I say this, a global awareness, a cultural awareness of life outside Europe. You mention, say, Memphis, and half the people in the room will know about the blues.

        Ten years from now . . .

        I'll be 44. But I'll also have more power to make a difference. Does that sound like a cliche? I'll be the same, but better settled. And better paid.

        One piece of music I never want to hear again . . .

        I could say it, but it would be slamming someone. Let's just say a terrible off-Broadway play. Beyond that, I can't think of anything I don't want to hear, unless it's done badly.

        If I weren't doing this, I'd be . . .

        Definitely in the arts. In drama maybe, or teaching drama. Or dancing. I was a ballet dancer for four years, so I guess that's my second choice.

        One lesson I learned on tour . . .

        These questions are making my head hurt. I learned so much, but mostly, that it's OK to just stand there and be me. That I could actually move people, no matter what language I spoke.

        What I wish you had asked but didn't . . .

        You were supposed to ask about my favorite sport — tennis — and who I idolize — Venus and Serena Williams. I want to take them out to lunch. Other than that, I can't think of anything. That's why my head hurts.

        John Wesley Wright's next public performance is 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at St. John's Unitarian Church.


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