Question: What's the connection between a local high school student joking around in the back of a bus fourteen years ago and Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Street Scene?
Answer: Jermaine Smith. The internationally known singer's journey to opera-land began on a bus ride to St. Louis's Roosevelt High School in 1992.
"Nobody in my family sang," Smith begins. "I sang once in middle school and people laughed, so I decided not to do that again. I became a drummer for the jazz ensemble. We were coming home from a concert and I started singing a made-up song.
"I want some pizza-uh-uh-uh, with mozzarella-uh-uh-uh," Smith demonstrates, complete with adolescent proto-vibrato.
His high school teacher, Dello Thedford, rushed to the back of the bus and demanded to know who was singing. When Smith 'fessed up, Thedford challenged him: "You should be an opera singer."
"My friends and I just laughed a black opera singer? we'd never heard of that!"
But Thedford wasn't kidding. He researched OTSL's Artists-in-Training program and got Smith to agree to audition in exchange for a good grade. To his great surprise, Smith was accepted into the program. He was treated to half-hour weekly lessons, two weeklong master classes with well-known visiting professionals and numerous extracurricular concerts, field trips and Opera Theatre performances. The year ended with a public recital and a competition for scholarships judged by nationally recognized artists.
"I had planned to go to college in Rolla and study to be an engineer, but then I won a scholarship through AIT and had to go to a school with a reputable voice program, so I switched to UMSL," Smith recounts. There he met voice teacher Mark Madsen, who encouraged him to take his training seriously and to enter local competitions. After winning a few, Smith auditioned for the season at OTSL and was cast.
"It was funny, there we were introducing ourselves, and people were like, 'My name is Jennie Smith and I'm a voice major at such-and-such conservatory.' And I was like, 'Hi, I'm Jermaine Smith and I'm a sophomore computer-science and math major.' I was only nineteen!"
Smith sang in seven consecutive OSTL seasons. In 1996 he joined a European tour of Porgy and Bess. "I sang in Paris for a month, and I used the money I saved to put a down-payment on a house for my mom," he says. Touring through Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Austria and Japan, Smith played a variety of characters, eventually landing the role of Sportin' Life. In 1999 Smith starred in Joshua's Boots, a children's opera written specifically for him (co-commissioned by OTSL and Lyric Opera of Kansas City), and last fall he debuted at the Washington Opera, reprising his role as Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess.
When Smith was asked to play Henry Davis in Kurt Weill's Street Scene, he listened to a recording and was initially skeptical: "They were making fun of foreigners, and everyone had an accent except the lead characters." But after hearing director Jim Robinson and music director Steven Lord talk about their approach, Smith changed his mind. "They're coming from a place of total respect," Smith explains, "and I can see now how Street Scene shows that every culture has the same problems, and that it's more a perspective of class than of race."
While he's inured to the travel that's a part of life as an opera singer, Smith retains strong ties to St. Louis. He and his wife Danetta ("my truest fan") live with their two sons (ages three and five) in Berkeley. Smith teaches voice at UMSL. And in partnership with OSTL and the St. Louis Public Schools, he has started a program aimed at assisting city children who audition for Artist-in-Training but aren't accepted. "Many of those kids don't have access to voice lessons or training in how to audition, so I help them with that," he explains.
Does he see Broadway in his future? "My friends tell me to come to New York," Smith admits. "I don't know where I'll go next I just love to perform."