Future Prairie Radio Season Two Episode Seven: Singing Over Ourselves with Onry
Hi, my name is Emmanuel Onry. I'm a Portland native, an opera singer, and a contemporary, soulful artist. I'm an educator. I strive to bring all these worlds together and bring culture and diversity to my listeners.
As a kid, probably about seven years old, I turned on the TV one day, and there was an opera on. It was the only thing, the only channel that came through at that time. I sat down and I started to recognize a connection between Marvel and the superheroes that everyone celebrated back in the 90s. I witnessed a connection between superhero culture and what I saw on TV before my eyes, which was classical opera music.
We think it's a stuffy thing, but for this seven-year old's eyes, it was: villains, people cheating on one another, hearts being broken, death, betrayal. It was extremely exciting. With that in mind, I said, “This is what I want to do.” I ran to my siblings and to my stepdad at the time, and I said, “I want to be an opera singer...ooo-ooh!” I hadn't hit puberty yet. I had this huge, high soprano voice, and I was singing around. Little did I know, several years before I was born, my mother also wanted to be an opera singer. She auditioned, and she was accepted for the Portland Opera. Then someone came along and told her that she couldn't do it because she had three kids. She totally gave up that dream. She never told me this until later on in life.
When I was ten years old, my father passed away, and there wasn't a lot of conversation around his death. From that moment on, I went mute as a kid. That year was a very silent year for me. Other than music, I was fairly quiet. It was the year that a lot of people didn't have a chance to get to know me; I lost a lot. However, there's one thing that stood very, very close to me during that time, and that was singing and music. There were moments I would sing over myself. I’d weep and cry. I would sing hymns I witnessed at church at the time, or sing different songs that would breathe life into me, would comfort and console me. Oftentimes, I'd be singing at one or two o'clock in the morning crying and weeping myself to sleep. That was the thing that comforted me. And yes, I did hear, “[knock-knock]...you need to cut that out. Cut that out, son. It's late, like, stop that.”
Music was a real tangible thing for me. My whole family sang, but I didn't have any training. I was told I should probably never sing. The gift “wasn't given to me” (quote from my aunt). “Baby, you need to grow up and be a doctor if you're going to do something, because you didn't receive the gift.”
Then at age thirteen, Miss Helen Deets from Clear Creek Middle School came to me. She told me that I should sing in choir. I was like, “Okay, sure, my family sings.” She heard me sing, and I was like, “This was fun”. She was like, “You actually have a really, really, great voice.” She gave me a song from “Carmen” later on; she started putting me into different competitions.
When I went into high school, I was told that I should not sing classical music because my voice was soulful, and that the color of my skin was connected to my soulful voice and therefore, I should stick with what I know. That was a subtle way of saying, “You're African American; this type of music is not meant for you.”
There was another moment that I found my voice, and I would say that it was probably around the age of eleven. I was going to church one day, and I was allowed to walk to church for the first time by myself. I didn't have to go to Sunday School, so it was a day to be celebrated. On my walk there, I witnessed a dog that hit a fence, and the fence toppled a little bit. I was like, “That was a close call.” He kept on hitting the fence and eventually the fence falls over. This dog is charging in, and all the sudden, I use a big voice. The dog stopped. I was thinking to myself, “This dog is listening to me. This is strange.” I continued to talk to the dog, yelling with a huge voice. My voice was traveling a block and a half, trying to get this dog's attention. The dog stops, goes back. There was a voice that lived inside of me that was really, big, and there was something about it that was convicting, honest, authentic, real. It had command to it. Later on, I realized that's the same sound classical singers use.
I eventually started to mimic that same sound. I had this big space. I knew that space; I knew that command, emotion, healing, how to sing to the soul. From that moment, I started to cultivate those things. I studied about three hours a day in my garage. Then I started to compete. Two years after that, my junior and senior year, I became the number one [high school] opera singer in the state of Oregon.
I was doing gospel music and trying to keep both worlds very separate. I had a chance to tour to sing background for Josh Groban. Then I witnessed a moment between pop music and gospel music like with his “You Raise Me Up”: gospel backgrounds, classical singer in front. I thought, “There might be a niche to this.”
Now I'm using the same technique with a little bit more soul, and a lot more authentic classical music, or traditional classical music and more, and also very traditional gospel music that I know, and fusing them into an EP project, which I'm creating now.
Everyone has a voice, and everyone has the ability to sing. I believe that the human voice can be strengthened like the human ear by working on intonation, vibrato, breathing, and other technical things. Some people have it naturally, and other people have to work for it, like myself. The great thing about working for something is that you can also create a science out of it as well. That is the part that I really love about being a vocal coach and working vocal health and public speakers. It's a major thing of knowing what someone is doing with the voice in order to change it and create a healthy voice.
Many public speakers lose their voices quite often because of their speech patterns, using the voice wrong, speaking too harshly on the voice, or not remembering to simply breathe between sentences. They're running out of air by using the voice wrong. That's where we as vocal coaches, and people who've studied vocal health, are able to assist both speakers and singers.
Everyone has the ability to sing, you just have to work for it.
We're losing the power of the voice in many ways: being able to advocate for ourselves, speaking out about right and wrong. We’re constantly using technology, where we communicate silently with our hands. We're more increasingly losing the ability to use the voice. Why do we need to reclaim the voice? Well, you have to wonder why it's so scary to do karaoke in front of our friends. There's something vulnerable about using the voice. The voice is very telling. As a vocal coach, I'm able to assess if a person is sad, depressed, what they've drunk the night before, what they've eaten the night before, what they've eaten before the lesson. I'm able to tell if the person is having issues with coming in on entrances too late or too early. Maybe they have issues with hesitating in their daily life or they deal with issues of being on time. There are tons of assessments that I can assess from hearing a person sing. We can change the voice by changing regimens in our daily lives.
There's power in using our voice when we use it correctly.
There are small changes that we can make, both in our daily lives and in our musical lives, by simply using the voice — to breathe life into individuals and circumstances, and also to to kill off or damage. Action follows the voice.
When I am teaching a technique in vocal sessions, I will tell someone to do a visual action that reminds them of where the sound is going, or how to visualize the sound. Usually that causes a change instantly within the voice. If a person is singing high, sometimes we think of squeezing the voice. When we get stressed, or we think something is difficult, we squeeze the voice, we put stress on the voice. What if we do something with our hands and make our hands fall down while the voice is shooting high? That's called contrary motion. We can use that same contrary motion in life to decrease stress. Reclaiming the voice in that powerful way can both bring forth a change in mental health. That is the power of the voice.
I’m someone who, like many other artists, never fit in. We live very, very lonely lives, and then we find other people who don't fit in who are like us, and then we're like, “Wait a second, this might be a thing. Maybe if I live life long enough, I'll maybe find a community of people who are not status quo, who see the world as I do, who are authentic.”
I grew up in the ghettos of Portland. There were ghettos, believe it or not. One summer there were six killings. They didn't happen to die, they were murders. To grow up in a space like that, but then to somehow arrive into a community and culture of singing week after week inside auditoriums with predominantly White audiences...there's a dichotomy there.
My first rehearsal: I walked into our rehearsal space right off of Water Avenue. I see this Russian woman who is the custodian. She greets me. I see that she's Slavic, and start a conversation. She says, “Yeah, I'm Russian. I'm from Ukraine.” I say, “I spent time in Ukraine.” We have this full conversation in Russian; she's helping me out as I'm, you know, stumbling through. She tells me that no one has spoken to her in the last three weeks, because her English is broken. She appreciated me taking time to speak to her. So then I go to rehearsal.
Then the artistic director approaches me, “So, your last name is French?”
I say, “Yes, it is.”
She says, “...but you speak Russian.”
She goes, “You also speak French?”
“Yeah, I'm okay.”
She looks me in the eye a little bit, and then I look her in the eye. We take a pause, then she goes, “What are you, a part of the witness protection program or something?”
We both laugh. Then she looks at me again. I realize, “Hmm, that's a very odd statement. If I said that I was a part of the witness protection program, that would be more convincing than for me to be an African American young person that also has the skill set that everyone else in this room has. They are all linguists. You have to study about three or four different languages in order to be in the opera. It'd be easier for me to joke about being a part of (or to be a part of) the witness protection program, than to be in the same space and simply love the same music.”
I realized from that moment, all eyes were on me.
The Russian woman said, “I like the chernyy guy.” Chernyy means Black. People were talking. I was new, young, African American. All eyes were questioning why I was in the room. “How did you get here? Why are you here? Everyone is twice your age. You've got to pay attention and you got to show up. Learn your music, and whatever issues that you have with learning, just learn the music, figure it out, do your best to shine.” I did. I ended up being recorded on a few things with OPB, having different photo shoots, being heavily involved in the company. Other doors began to open up as well. But it was odd, it was lonely. I had friends come along and help me and teach me along the way, but the experience of going into this space with no one else looking like me was a very lonely experience.
In many spaces I felt like I had to work overtime in order to regain soulfulness. The soulfulness that's experimental in Portland, the indie and jazz communities, that fuels my soul. I had to reach out to all these different communities to fuel this space, because I was doing rehearsals at time, which was heavy. I knew I needed soulfulness to maintain my own authenticity. With my own music I hope to take all these fusions of sounds and put them into one EP.
I have felt like the poster child. You dress up, you play the part, and then you go home into a world that looks nothing like the opera. I've been on stage, and seen people in the audience. After the show, they give me a thumbs up, “Good job.” Then I take off, you know, the wardrobe and makeup, and I'm walking home, and I try waving at people. They grab their purses and pull their partners closer. They don't speak, they don't use their words. I’ll go out of my way to say, “Hey, did you enjoy the show?”
They'll say, “Yeah, I enjoyed the show. You should see it sometime.”
My response is, “Ah, thanks. Actually, I was on stage.”
“No way. That is so cool. Wait, you mean you were on stage?”
“Absolutely. I was on stage.”
People don't see you. You bring them into an experience on stage and they see you as part of a story. Outside of that, they don't necessarily see you.
A friend of mine performed “The Color Purple”. She was getting on the subway in New York. “I got on the subway” and someone called her a “black b****”. They said, “Move out the way.” They pushed her out of the way and they got on to the subway. It almost made her late for her show.
She gets to the show, she performs the show, you know, raving reviews. Aterwards, they have a talkback, and they're signing autographs. That same man who called her a “black b****” comes up to her and says, “Hey, that was the most amazing performance. Thank you so much...” raving and raving and raving about who she is and her performance on stage.
She's looking with a blank face like, “You don't see at all that I'm that black b**** that you pushed off the subway. You don't see me at all.” He's asking for an autograph.
That is show business. Some people see you on stage and they see you as your gift, they see you as this stunning thing, but they don't see you day to day, and nor will they treat you with honor, dignity, or simply, “I see you, you're here, you're human, you're like me,” common courtesy.
That is the strange dichotomy I experience hour by hour, place by place: Portland, LA, New York. People don't treat you a certain way in the States, till they think that you're worth something. We need to work on that, treating people with utmost respect. You never know who you're talking to, who you're listening to, or who you're sitting on train with, or who you've cut off on the street. It's always good to simply do good because good is good. You don't have to taste all of the best pies in the world to know that a pie is good. You know that it's good because it's good. That's my way of navigating the world. You know some things are good, because it's good. You know what is righteous, because it's righteous. It feels good down to my soul.
If I have to question if it is, then maybe there might be some ill intention there. Let's search and see what that is. But goodness is good and it's important to treat individuals as such.
It's extremely important for artists to a) be an artist, and b) use your superpowers and your influence for good.
I’m finding ways to use my voice as an activist.
I'm working with this company called Third Angle New Music on a project called “Sanctuaries”. It’s an opera about gentrification in Portland.
Gentrification is a dichotomy. Classical music is a mostly, European, White form of music that an all-black cast will be performing. Most African Americans come from a soulful, gospel, type of music, a jazz background, rock and roll. Our culture was the genesis of those. To end up doing an opera about the gentrification history of Portland, being initially a White utopia, is wild. These are the things that are and that were, and are again becoming. I was not necessarily wanted in this city; my family was allowed to be here. They created red lines in order for us not to be in certain spaces. “Let's get rid of the riff raff. It's wrong. It's bad. Crime rates. There's no good in this space. Let's totally change it. And not only change it, but push everyone out that looks like this specific demographic.” It's hurtful. So to navigate this story artistically and honestly, to do the soul work together, is exciting.
I encourage every artist to use your voice to your advantage by helping educate. Educate, and educate in love. Continue to be the students, as well.
I’m working with an African American Requiem. Damien Jeter, is a phenomenal composer and opera singer, is talking about our story, the American story.
For African American roles for men, we have two stereotypes: either you are overweight and funny, or you are muscular and sexy; you are the sex symbol. Very few roles have anything in between. If you're short, skinny, this or that, you're not fit for the camera, you're not fit for the role. It breaks my heart when other ethnicities are able to show who they are.
I have to break that mold and do that work.
In activism, speaking, singing, living, it's important to me to encourage other creatives to no longer fear, or feel like they're alone. I'm in it with you.
I'm extremely excited about the EP that's coming. It is the only time in my life I've felt like I have had work that represents who I am as an artist and an individual. I have to navigate many spaces in many worlds every day. I can put them into one song: the Slavic community, the Black community. I’m able to add all these beautiful, inspired sounds, and visuals, and I'm able to put them into one project and be very intentional about that. We've created it in classical form, but we have traditional sounds of gospel music, and also soul music with pop technique. There are different formats and different cadences that we use and different canons. These inform the listener about what's coming next. We're planting small sections that are preparing the listeners’ ears for what is to come. In my song ”Living in the Light”, we have taken three or four different melodies from other tracks and planted them.