A thin, gangly man, just over 6 feet tall, stands at the intersection of four tunnels in the Court House metro. Commuters walk past him doing the same double take.
It’s a man? A grown man? Singing that high?
In the register of both woman and 10-year-old boy, Hisham Breedlove, 29, sings opera in Metro stations. A trained countertenor, he’s been practicing and honing his craft for almost a decade underground. Now, he makes Court House his primary stage. “It has the best acoustics,” says the man who’s tested many a station.
But on this brisk Friday morning in February, Breedlove — wearing fitted corduroys, a red windbreaker and a black backpack that looks heavier than he does — lays a colorful shawl and a few shiny quarters on the ground “to attract attention.” He takes a sip from his bottle of green tea, and begins belting Langston Hughes’s “Song to a Dark Virgin,” his voice carrying through the tunnels and reaching up to the Cosi on Clarendon Boulevard.
A woman dressed in a trench coat and slacks passes by and opens her purse.
“Next time,” she mouths to him. He bows and smiles back at her.
Charles Edwards, an older man in a panama hat and suspenders, walks by and hands Breedlove some bills. He stops for a moment.
“It’s haunting,” he says. Edwards is one of Breedlove’s newest regulars, having seen him at Court House for the past few weeks. “I can hear him for 30 seconds before I see him, when I start my walk toward the Metro.”
“I can’t help but stop and listen,” says Stephen Schwartz, who listened to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Se tu m’ami” before continuing his walk down the tunnel. “I’m such a fan of early music, and it’s so rare to hear opera, let alone a countertenor.”
The countertenor is a male singing voice that has the range of an alto or mezzo-soprano — parts most often sung by women. It’s a rare voice, and many scholars refuse to acknowledge it as its own voice type, because most men can access lower vocal registers, as well. Breedlove is a baritone who can also sing the male falsetto. To those who know opera, this Metro singer has a rare and well-trained gift. To those who don’t, he’s a man with a woman’s voice.
After one hour, Breedlove has earned around $70, solid tips for this illegal activity. “The Metro police are really kind,” he says. “They’ll come over and say, ‘I’m sorry but you can’t do that here.’ They’re nicer to me probably because I’m not causing a problem. I’m just singing ‘Panis Angelicus.’ ”