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Make them hear you

[Publicity photo]
Three Mo’ Tenors (Thomas Young, left, Victor Trent Cook, center, and Rodrick Dixon) will bring their harmonies and choreography to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Friday.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

Audience acclaim gives Three Mo' Tenors an edge in a genre long closed to African-Americans.

Three Mo' Tenors sing everything from La Donna e Mobile to America the Beautiful, Were You There? to Let the Good Times Roll, Donizetti to Ellington to Sondheim.

"It's a tough concert in the sense you have to be technically sound," says Rodrick Dixon, one of the tenors. "We're covering seven musical genres, 400 years of music, in two hours."

Dixon and his mates -- Thomas Young and Victor Trent Cook -- must be doing something right. With a bestselling RCA Victor album and a PBS special to their credit, they are on a tour that brings them to Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center on Friday.

Like the original Three Tenors -- Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras -- Three Mo' Tenors score high on the entertainment front, with lots of jovial stage shtick during their televised concert taped last summer at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom.

A highlight of the show was an infectious medley of Love Train, Oh Girl, Betcha' by Golly Wow and Midnight Train to Georgia, as the tenors made like the O'Jays, with cool choreography and lush harmonies.

But the threesome also has a serious point to make. Each has the eclectic resume that accomplished, classically trained black singers tend to have because they don't enjoy the luxury of confining themselves to the opera house, where colorblind casting is still not common.

As Marion J. Caffey, conceiver and director of the group, put it in a program note: "There is and has been a screaming silence, heralding the quiet absence of African-American tenors on the operatic and classical stage in the 20th century."

It's a point Dixon brings home in his rendition of Make Them Hear You from Ragtime, in which he appeared on Broadway.

"Of course, it does represent to a certain degree the message of African-American tenors," he says, speaking from a tour stop in Chicago. "But the way I sing the piece it covers a broad range of thoughts and ideas of what humanity should be all about. Go out and tell the story, let it echo far and wide, make them hear you.

"We leave it up to you to decide what it is you get out of the arc of the concert, from opera all the way to gospel."

Dixon, 35, didn't always want to be a singer. Growing up in New York just 15 minutes from Shea Stadium, he was a Mets fan and dreamed of playing baseball. But the singing opportunities kept coming, including scholarships to the Mannes College of Music, where he studied opera and earned a master's degree.

In school, his operatic role models included the likes of Pavarotti, Jussi Bjoerling and Carlo Bergonzi. He also gained inspiration from the career of Roland Hayes, who was born to ex-slaves in Georgia in 1887 and became the first African-American to sing with a symphony orchestra, though opera was closed to him.

Among contemporary black opera singers, Dixon most admires his fellow tenor Young, who has had stage roles written for him by John Adams, Anthony Davis and Tan Dun. In the concert, he does the obligatory Nessun Dorma, and his witty scat style in that anthem of psychoanalysis, Twisted, is a marvel.

"Having the opportunity to work with him is a privilege and an honor," Dixon says. "I don't know of a tenor in the world who can sing high E flats in the scat parts and then turn around and sing Nessun Dorma. From a technical standpoint, it's unprecedented."

For Dixon, the arrangement of America the Beautiful for all three tenors is the most challenging on the program.

"Having Victor, who's a countertenor, sing above me, we're constantly working on matching vocal tone, color and stylistic ideas about consonants and vowels within the framework of the genre," he says.

"We have a motto: It's better to express than to impress. If you express what's going on, you really lock into the dramatic moment. That's the most difficult part of the concert, just being on your toes night in and night out because you never know how you're going to perform as a unit."

Dixon has sung with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Portland Opera, Opera Columbus, Michigan Opera Theatre and Virginia Opera. He thinks being one of Three Mo' Tenors will do good things for his opera career. Already he has been offered the chance to sing the Duke in Rigoletto.

"I think it will lead me to more opportunities," he says. "This is about name recognition. You can't get those principal roles unless people know who you are. People don't buy tickets primarily because they like the operas alone; they buy tickets because they are fans of certain singers. Opera companies I have worked with are very happy Three Mo' Tenors has played in their markets. It gives them a chance to build their audience for a guy like me to come in and do a role for them."

Three Mo' Tenors is going to be around a while. There's a Christmas CD in the works, and Dixon is talking about expanding the repertoire to range even wider, from the lieder of Schubert to the rap of Sean "Puffy" Combs.

"People communicate differently, but they're still using the same harmonic language," he says. "There's a no-holds-barred policy as far we're concerned."

* * *

PREVIEW: Three Mo' Tenors perform at 8 p.m. Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $21-$49. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045.

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