See that kid over there? Yeah, the one with the ‘80s style rapper hair. The burrito technician on the Chipotle assembly line who, his bosses told him, was way too slow with your carnitas.
You know what that guy does in his off time?
He sings opera. In German.
“And then he talks to us in Italian, too. Man, I hate it when he does that,” said one of Anthony Anderson’s six siblings, all of whom are pretty stunned at their baby brother’s surprising obsession.
And, yes, he sings in Italian, too. Like that time he sang the part of Figaro.
“I learn what they all mean, and then I speak the pieces first, so I know what I’m saying, so I have the feeling and the emotion right, you know what I mean?”
Did I mention that Anderson is 18?
But as he performed at an impressive two-hour solo concert on Saturday — from “Come raggio di sol” in Italian to “Nacht und Traüme” in German to a bouncy, bawdy Gershwin tune, you would have guessed you were listening to a 40-year-old opera veteran. All the pieces were done gorgeously, and with emotion and empathy not generally found in string-bean teenage boys who are asked to wear a tuxedo. There were audible gasps in the audience when he dipped into the spiritual, “I Want to Die Easy” like an old soul.
“That? What you heard up there tonight? It’s hard to believe that’s coming from an 18-year-old. You have to understand, this is really, really rare,” said Michael Crabill, who accompanied Anderson on piano during a concert Saturday night.
Crabill said he had heard baritones from around the world sing German lieder when he performed in a piano master course at the Franz Schubert Institute in Austria and he thinks the inner-city kid raised by a single mom is as good as any of them. Only he doesn’t have all the extra voice coaches and fancy schooling they’ve had most of their lives.
It’s clear he has the talent. His sumptuous, velvet baritone filled the nave at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Logan Circle with a full body and command of the verses and sentiments. And his teachers say he has an incredible work ethic. He does the work, he learns the language, he practices hard and often.
What he doesn’t have?
He can’t afford a school that would let him pursue his rare talent.
“And that’s just a tragedy, because he belongs somewhere, that voice of his needs to get him in somewhere,” said Sylvia Twine, one of his teachers at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District.
Anderson could be to opera what Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson is to football. But college recruiters aren’t stumbling over each other to hand out scholarships for German lieder singers, are they?
It was clear early on that Anderson had a good voice. His mom said he sang morning, noon and night as a kid. His dad, who died when Anderson was 3 years old, also sang and played piano.
“So it was in his blood,” said mom Charlene Anderson. But opera? “He didn’t get that from me,” she said. “Never really heard it before he started singing it.”
When he auditioned at Ellington, Anderson did one of the required pieces, the Star Spangled Banner, and then did a little air guitar and Linkin Park.
Nothing unusual. He followed the path of other voice students at the school, learning music theory and choir and ear training his freshman and sophomore years.
Then, he met German lieder music.
“A lot of people get to the German and look at it and, well, see it as harsh,” said Daphne Dunston-Wharton, one of the teachers at Ellington. “But Anthony somehow related to it. He really wanted to do the work on the German. And when I heard him, I knew he was going to go far.”
So while his friends were into cars or girls or hanging out, Anderson was singing German opera. And then he put on velvet knickers to sing the part of Figaro, or a tunic and little feathered cap for his role as Papageno in “The Magic Flute.”
You can guess what the reaction was.
“A lot of my friends turned away from me,” he said. “I wasn’t, you know, on the streets with them. I was trying to live in two worlds. That part was really hard.
“If any of them could see my now? In my tuxedo?,” he said, grabbing his own lapels. “They wouldn’t recognize me.”
Two years in a row, he was a finalist in the regional George Shirley African American Operatic Aria and Art Song Competition. After one of the competitions, when he was just 16 and had performed at the Detroit Opera House, Shirley, the first African American tenor to perform a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, took Anderson and his teacher, Twine, out to breakfast.
“And you know what George Shirley told Anthony? ‘That young man who beat you, he just had a larger voice,’” Twine said. “But he told Anthony that he was the better singer.”
Anderson was accepted to the Manhattan School of Music last year. But even with financial aid, he couldn’t make it happen. He’s one of seven kids. His mom works at Walmart, and his jobs at Chipotle and the church simply weren’t enough.
So he tried a less expensive school, Virginia Commonwealth University. He got a financial aid package and thought he would be able to cover the balance — about $9,000. But with his classes and his time on stage singing, his hours and salary from the fast-food restaurant weren’t enough. He can’t return to school until he pays off what he owes for the first semester. So he’s stuck. Back in D.C.
And that’s why the concert on Saturday night wasn’t just a concert. Anderson had started a GoFundMe page to raise money to clear his bill and pay for next semester, and his teachers went around to the audience with collection plates, hoping some folks would write a check. And he’ll keep working fast food.
“ I know sometimes, God closes a door,” he said. “But I’m going to reopen this one.”