Sunday, February 2, 2003

Three Mo' Tenors couldn't be mo' successful

In 21/2 years, their 'experiment' in touring together has hit a lot of high notes

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Rodrick Dixon (top), Thomas Young and Victor Trent Cook
(Associated Press photo)
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Tenor Rodrick Dixon thought it was "an interesting idea" when Broadway director Marion J. Caffey approached him with the idea of Three Mo' Tenors.

"You get that much firepower in the same room with our background and history, and a lot can happen. So it remained to see whether the public would be interested ... and apparently the public has been interested," says Dixon by phone from Philadelphia, where Three Mo' Tenors performed last week.

Three Mo' Tenors - opera singers Victor Trent Cook, Thomas Young and Dixon, will make their Cincinnati Pops debut today in Music Hall. The concert is sold out.

They've been a runaway phenomenon since their wildly successful show on PBS' Great Performances in 2001 (now on CD and DVD). They've been touring for 2 1/2 years.

It began when Caffey was inspired by the original Three Tenors (Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti) as he watched their concert televised live from Dodger Stadium in 1994. Struck by the absence of African-American tenors on the opera and classical concert stage, he knew there were great tenors that the public had never heard.

When Caffey called, "I was on Broadway doing Ragtime, and prior to that I was at the Young Artist program at Lyric Opera of Chicago," says Dixon, whose voice has been described as "polished steel under tension" by the Chicago Tribune.

[photo] The original Three Tenors: Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti
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Together, the three already have racked up 60 years of experience singing opera, Broadway, oratorio and recitals, and have appeared on television specials, movies, sitcoms and commercials.

Cook, Dixon's friend since age 12 in New York, was nominated for a 1995 Tony Award for Smokey Joe's Caf, and came with extensive Broadway credits. Young, a lyric tenor, had appeared in the major concert halls and opera houses of 20 countries, under such luminous conductors as Sir Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Sir Roger Norrington. Several composers have written opera roles just for him: Tan Dun (Marco Polo), Anthony Davis (Amistad, Under the Double Moon, The Life and Times of Malcolm X), and John Adams (The Death of Klinghoffer).

Heady stuff. But historically, it's been tough for black tenors to get work on American opera stages - largely because a tenor, as the romantic lead, would be cast opposite a white soprano.

Dixon doesn't buy the commonly held opinion that it takes years for qualified African-American musicians to come up through schools. They're here now, he says.

"Look at golf and tennis. That didn't happen in 25 years; it happened literally overnight," he says. "You put someone on the cover of a magazine, and they produce and they leave the field behind them - guess what? Golf is making more money than ever before, and there are more diverse golfers than there ever were before. ... When was the last time you saw an African-American tenor on a magazine cover in the United States?"

Their concert success, he says, shows the music industry that African-American talent can be commercially successful.

New York roots

Dixon grew up in Queens, N.Y. "I come from a long line of tenors in my family," he says. His father, a Baptist minister, would program five different genres of music during Sunday services: chant, spirituals, anthems, oratorio and gospel. At home he listened to everything from J.S. Bach to the Rev. C.L. Franklin.

"To go back and forth was normal for me," he says. As a boy, he and Cook sang in the Brooklyn Boys Chorus, where they had their first television experience in a Bach TV special, and they were classmates at New York's High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. Dixon, who won many scholarships and awards, earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the Mannes College of Music and also studied in Italy and Fontainebleau, France.

Their concert program spans 400 years of music in seven genres and one hour and 45 minutes.

"I don't think anyone has ever done it this way before. The whole notion that a tenor could actually sing standard operatic repertoire, and then, in the same concert sing Motown, is completely ludicrous and crazy."

Where it began

What started as an experiment - they put on their first "workshop" for presenters and agents in 1998 - has turned into a fulltime career. Their very first professional gig was the PBS-TV special.

"The schedule's so busy now - we've got another television special to shoot - everybody is asking us to do a Christmas special - and another two CDs released this year, plus we have a lot of work in Europe," says Dixon, who is learning the role of the Duke in Verdi's Rigoletto in his spare time. "I don't know when I'm going to sit down for two months for an opera performance."

The message that he hopes to project is that every genre of music is great - if it's done well.

"We're not opera singers, saying, `Ha ha look, I'm now singing music that has no value,' " he says. "If you're going to sing jazz, don't fake sing it. That person who loves jazz pays $55 to hear jazz. It's just like the nine high Cs in La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment ), they both deserve to be respected."


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