Jubilant Sykes has sung classical and spiritual music at the Metropolitan Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, London's Barbican Centre and the Hollywood Bowl.

But Hartford Stage is a decidedly different venue for a veteran of the world's concert stages.

This time he'll be in character, playing lyric tenor Roland Hayes, the first world-renowned African American classical vocalist, in the premiere of Daniel Beaty's "Breath & Imagination," which begins preview performances Thursday at Hartford Stage. The show opens Jan. 16 and plays through Feb. 9.

"Breath & Imagination," a co-production with Pittsburgh's City Theatre, is a play with music — spirituals, classical pieces and original songs by Beaty — which chronicles Hayes' life, career and his relationship with his mother, Angel Mo', played by Kecia Lewis-Evans (Broadway's "Leap of Faith," "Chicago" and "Once on This Island"). Tom Frey ("2 Pianos/4 Hands") is cast as The Accompanist/Officer/Pa/Preacher/Mr. Calhoun/Miss Robinson/ Frenchman/King George V.

The Hartford gig is not Sykes' first acting job. He made his theatrical debut in 2001 in "Bloomer Girl," City Center's Encores! production of the work by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen. He experienced character acting when he performed the role of the Celebrant in the Grammy Award-nominated 2009 recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."

After performing "Mass" at the Hollywood Bowl, he received a letter from Oscar-winner Helen Hunt who said he created a riveting character and should think about acting as well as singing.

"I was always interested in exploring acting," says Sykes, during a break in rehearsals in downtown Hartford. "From my earliest days as a singer, I always had a lot of actor friends and there was a part of me that wanted to do that, too. But I was a shy kid so I hid behind music and then the music took off and the singing is what happened for me. I just didn't have the time to pursue it. Life went by."

Since the early '90s he has performed in concert and recorded albums starting with "Jubilant Sykes" on Sony Classical in 1998, followed by "Wait for Me," which was a combination of classical, spiritual and pop songs, "Jubilation" with American classical guitarist Christopher Parkering, "Jubilant" with jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, "Mass," and "Jubilant Sykes Sings Copland and Spirituals" with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Sykes, who lives in Los Angeles, says when he was contacted about the Hartford Stage role, he brushed it off. "There's nothing worse than a baritone trying to be a tenor," he laughs. But once he read the script and learned the show was more about the acting and "discovering the essence of who this man was," he eagerly accepted.

"I related to [Roland Hayes] as a man," he says. "I understood his desire — not just to sing, but to be an artist. I just got it."

Finding His Voice

Sykes grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., in a home that often had music playing. His father, who performed trumpet when he was younger, loved Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and jazz. Jubilant Sykes loved Motown music. But there was no classical or spiritual music playing on the phonograph or the radio, though Sykes was familiar with spiritual music at his Baptist church. "But I couldn't relate to it because they were all just ripping and screaming the music — which I thought was great — but I was into the Jackson 5 sound."

"To me singing was singing. It was Michael Jackson. It was just fun."

When he was in middle school, a teacher, Linda Anderson, heard something special in Sykes' boy-soprano voice and steered him to vocal training,.

His attitude toward music took another turn when he heard a recording of opera soprano Leontyne Price when he was about 13 "and I couldn't get my head around it. I thought, 'What is she singing?' It was such an enormous sound and I thought, 'How does a human do that? What is it?' And I wanted to sing those songs, too."

Sykes went to California State University, Fullerton, where he saw his first opera, "Rigoletto' "but I thought it was boring with everyone singing just loudly."

While other students were focused on a specific career trajectory, Sykes says he had no vision for himself, "something that is only starting to change now," he says.

In college, he also started appreciating spiritual music in a new way after he heard Price singing a cappella "Were You There?" "I knew I could own that music, and that culturally, emotionally, it was mine. I didn't have to be taught that."

But he also understood that teachers would sometimes tell students not to sing spiritials as part of their repertoire "because otherwise you would get pegged as 'the guy who sings spirituals' or 'a Christian singer' and would be stuck doing just that. But for me, singing [that material] was an extension of who I was." In 1996 he was named Vocalist of the Year by Sacred Music USA.

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