A countertenor’s journey from busking on the Metro to Carnegie Hall

Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST - Hisham Breedlove sings countertenor for tips in the Court House Metro station.

You don’t hear it when you step off the train, or after you’ve scaled the first batch of congested steps, or while you’re pushing through the swarm of commuters collecting at the Metro turnstiles.

It’s on the protracted escalator ride up — the stairs you sprint for exercise — that the faint warbling starts to sound more like melody. The hollow notes break the usual rumblings. The swooshing. The screeching. The “Hello, I’m Janet Napolitano, Secretary of . . . ” you know the rest. And when you hit the passage adorned with posters of a coy Brian Williams and a man offering you a plate of linguine, you remove your ear buds to hear an aria — opera, interrupting your morning Playlist.

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Countertenor Hisham Breedlove makes the Court House Metro station his stage. Having performed at Carnegie Hall, Breedlove now treats Metro riders every Friday as he works to complete his degree from Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park.

Countertenor Hisham Breedlove makes the Court House Metro station his stage. Having performed at Carnegie Hall, Breedlove now treats Metro riders every Friday as he works to complete his degree from Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park.

(Ricardo Cabrera) - Hisham Breedlove, center’ performs in the Washington Adventist University’s production of "The Marriage of Figaro" with Janice Torres and Eduardo Gonzalez. Discovered while singing in the Metro, Breedlove will graduate in the spring.

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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.

No change.

“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.’ ”

In April, Breedlove, a student at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, will graduate with a degree in music performance and attempt to begin his career in opera. It has taken him decades to hone his craft, and almost eight years to graduate from the small college that learned of his talent in 2004, after a student spotted him singing in the Metro. At almost 30, a latecomer to professional opera, he may be too old and too green to make it his career.

But Breedlove doesn’t seem worried about the odds. He’s defied them before.

From busker to Carnegie Hall

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Breedlove sits in a Starbucks in Chinatown, a familiar haunt for the singer who became a barista after moving from Zimbabwe when he was 17.

“I always order tea,” he says in his over-enunciated English, one often mistaken for highbrow British. “Tea is for the voice, but it’s also part of African culture. We’re tea drinkers.”

Breedlove was born in Washington. His family moved to Zimbabwe shortly after he was born to be closer to his mother’s family. Inspired by his grandmother, an opera singer, he started taking voice lessons at age 9, which is not uncommon in the musical culture of the African country.

“We were colonized by the British,” he says matter-of-factly. “As a result, classical music is very popular there. Everyone takes up a couple of instruments.”

But at a young age, Breedlove’s voice stood out among his peers’. At 11, he auditioned for South Africa’s Drakensberg Boys Choir, what he says is Africa’s equivalent of the Vienna Boys’ Choir .

“We drove to South Africa for my audition, and the school requested that my parents leave me there. They left me there for two years,” he stops to smile. “Best experience of my life.”

At 13, he graduated — as is the fate of young men who grow up in boys choirs. He continued private lessons until he immigrated to America, his parents, whom he calls “the best in the world,” wanting him to further his education in the United States. He settled briefly in Connecticut and found himself isolated, in community college and working for a man his parents sent him to live with. He now realizes that he spent his first year in America as an indentured servant. “I was 17 with the mind-set of a 12-year-old,” he says without ire or expression. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be working all the time for free.”

He managed to get a job at McDonald’s after being told, “that’s what all Americans do,” and later “upgraded” to a Starbucks in New Haven, near Yale’s campus. It was there, where he met students from the esteemed conservatory, that he realized he wanted to be a professional singer.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he moved to Washington to be closer to his older sister. In and out of colleges, he worked odd jobs and dropped out of college when the financial burden became too much. “I owed $11,000 to Howard University. I just couldn’t pay it. It all seemed futile,” he says.

He got a job as a host at a Cheesecake Factory.

“I was miserable, and I just kept praying this one prayer from the depth of my soul, ‘Please, God, help me find a way to make money singing.’ A few weeks later, he was on his way to work and saw a woman singing Irish folk melodies in the Friendship Heights Metro station. “I just watched her for 15 minutes. She must have made over $30. I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this, too.’”

The next day, he arrived at the station a few hours before his scheduled shift. Nervous and drenched with sweat, he took a breath and began an aria — he’s since forgotten the first one he sang. A woman stopped. Then another. Then five or so. He ended to applause from a small crowd. A few hours later, he counted nearly $200 in tips. He left the Metro station, walked across the street, and quit his job at the Cheesecake Factory.

* * *

Months later, a chorus member from Washington Adventist University heard him singing and invited him to audition for the university’s choir. Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse, the orchestra director at Washington Adventist, had written an oratorio that the choir was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall. Impressed with his audition, James Bingham, the choir director and music department chair, invited Breedlove to sing with them for the debut performance. After the concert, the small private Seventh-Day Adventist college, which boasts a strong choral program, offered him a full-tuition scholarship to study vocal performance.

“His voice had great potential, but it was in a very raw state,” says Bingham. “He’s been working hard on it ever since. We needed a male alto in the choir and that’s why we accepted him.”

“He has quite an unusual gift,” says Deborah Thurlow, Breedlove’s private vocal coach and an adjunct professor at the university. “It takes a lot of work for any kind of singer to get to the point where they are polished, and he’s now at the point. He just needs to finish school and get out and audition for directors in town.”

Breedlove‘s optimistic outlook is almost as boyish as his voice. In a strange way, he’s made it on the Metro, winning a scholarship for his audacity and talent. In his mind, success comes when it comes. Thurlow, though, is more realistic about the way musicians build careers. “He has to get out there and audition, and that takes a lot of money. You need a head shot, a CD, you need to travel,” she says. “But Washington is a chorale town, there are lots of conductors here he can sing for. There are also pockets of Europe — the Netherlands, Britain, Germany — where his voice is in demand.”

Thurlow says, in some ways, Breedlove is lucky. His voice is needed to perform baroque operas, such as works by Handel and Vivaldi and early music that once relied upon the castrati, male singers who were castrated to preserve their unbroken, pure and rich voices.

“It has a limited repertoire,” echoed Bingham. “But that type of voice also fits into chorale music. The alto part is sung by men at the National Cathedral.”

Does he have what it takes to make it professionally?

“I think so,” says Bingham. “He’s still learning like we all are. Hisham is a law unto himself. He could do something very fine if he keeps working hard.”

Not a social experiment

It has been shared 147,376 times on Facebook and counting: The meme based on Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning feature “Pearls Before Breakfast,” published by The Washington Post in 2007. The story was a high-profile social experiment. Joshua Bell, one of the most famous violinists in the world, performed a 45-minute concert at the height of rush hour on his $2 million Stradivarius — incognito in the D.C. Metro. Weingarten asks, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

It didn’t transcend the walls of the L’Enfant Plaza station. Commuters ignored Bell’s music, and this sad fact, caught on hidden camera, shocked readers. Last month, a retelling of the story went viral on Facebook, resonating again with people disappointed in Washington’s apparent disengagement.

Is Washington as awful as the country thinks it is?

But the experiment didn’t account for Bell’s inexperience: the professional violinist was an amateur busker. Busking is a skill in itself, and Breedlove is a seasoned street performer. He’s savvy, choosing to sing at affluent, suburban locations, not the heart of Washington’s bureaucratic establishment. He has impeccable timing, busking mostly on Fridays, when some people have extra minutes to spend listening to chant. While violinists can’t make much eye contact with passersby, Breedlove smiles at them, and sings songs they’ve most likely heard at weddings or funerals.

Unlike in Bell’s extreme case, where a professional experienced visible rejection, Breedlove’s experience is less cinematic. There are highs and lows, lean days and fat days. “Sometimes I really don’t want to go sing, but I need to pay a bill,” he says.

Sometimes he, too, hits the snooze button before work.

“It’s tough on the voice,” says Thurlow. “He’ll make enough to pay the rent, to pay his Metro fares. But he can only do it for so long at a time. It’s not sustainable.” Thurlow says using his voice in the Metro for hours at a time is not only harmful, but unreliable. “It’s innovative, but he’s shooed away sometimes. I hope he has higher aspirations than singing in the Metro.”

After eight years of singing, he’s noticed certain peculiarities of human behavior, how people interact with him, with others, with the music he makes. “Human beings are a hell of a lot nicer than we think they are,” he says. Still, musicians don’t tip buskers. He’s never received cash from a woman carrying a cello, but if a man throws a dollar into the case of his shawl-covered mbara — the national instrument of Zimbabwe — four others will, too: “It’s monkey see, monkey do,” Breedlove laughs.

He’s adamant that in this cash-strapped recession, gratuities haven’t gone down. Hymns and religious music, such as Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” tend to make him more money, and many treat his pockets like a collection plate.

* * *

Two weeks after this interview, Breedlove started work at Target in Columbia Heights. He spent some of the money he earned singing that week on red shirts and khaki pants for the job. He hopes to move to Europe one day, perhaps Germany. “It’s tough right now,” he says, “But I feel kind of good about it. It’s a reminder of where I came from, and I’m going to propel myself forward. I’m sure of it. ”

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