by Lou Mancinelli
Germantown resident, opera singer and high school senior Christian Eason is on the brink of discovering his voice. It’s something he’s been working on for six years. He’s got the knowledge of a veteran singer and a fresh but old sound.
In November, the 18-year-old performed alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra at this year’s Marian Anderson Award Gala Performance, which celebrates the arts. There he shared the Kimmel Center stage with his idol Lawrence Brownlee and celebrated this year’s honoree, James Earl Jones.
(Lawrence Brownlee is one of the most consistently sought-after operatic tenors on the international scene. He was named the Seattle Opera’s 2008 Artist of the Year, received the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s 2007 Alter Award for Artistic Excellence, and was the winner of both the 2006 Kennedy Center Marian Anderson Award and Richard Tucker Foundation Award, a feat never before achieved by any artist in the same year.)
Eason also shared the stage with his cousin and accompanist, Jason Ikeem Rodgers, a pianist and conductor. As a baby, Eason listened to Rodgers play Beethoven and Rachmaninoff on the piano until the hours well past midnight. That’s where his opera singing is rooted, though it’s something that blossomed later. (Both cousins grew up in depressed areas of Philadelphia, where involvement in classical music is rare.)
Eason is a two-time recipient of the Marian Anderson Young Artist Study Grant (first one, $2000; second one, $1800) given to young performers to help them further understand their craft. Past recipients of the Marian Anderson Award include Maya Angelou and Harry Belafonte.
“Christian’s talent is a testament to the power of the grant initiative, which was created to support high school-age artists with financial challenges with funds raised through the annual Award Gala and the Lenfest Foundation,” explained Laura Feragen, vice-president of
Star Group Communications, which handled publicity for the Marian Anderson Gala.
“In the early 1900s, Marian Anderson did not have the means to foster her music education, a situation that still holds true today with students like Christian,” she said. “His mother could barely make ends meet, let alone afford music lessons. The grant money helped pay for voice lessons and transportation as well as enabling him to rent a tux for performances, so he could look like a serious artist.”
For Eason, who has applied to schools like Juilliard School for the Performing Arts and New York University, his craft, his instrument, is his voice. Raised in Philadelphia, he has lived in various neighborhoods across the city. His singing career started when he was 10. His family is also a musical group, The Eason Singers, which started in gospel and switched to pop when they signed with Atlantic Records.
Christian got his early musical training from his mother and aunts, all musicians.
But when he was 12, he moved to suburban Georgia to live with his sister, Coolta. She was 16 years older than he, and she had moved out of the house when he was a baby. His sister listened to lots of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber (composer of “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” etc.), and she helped him develop a taste for more highbrow music than he was used to.
When he returned to Philadelphia three years later, Eason knew he wanted to pursue classical singing. His cousin suggested that he attend Girard Academy Music Program (GAMP), a piece of advice strengthened by the recommendation of his mentor, Virginia Lam, a talent mentor for the Philadelphia School District.
“Music is the root at the school,” said Lam about the fifth through twelfth grade GAMP. “The root starts with vocal music and then branches out into other areas. He (Christian) is in an atmosphere where every step he takes there is music.”
“It’s like my home,” said Eason about GAMP. “Everyone is a musician. Everyone has their own style … I sing opera in the hallways.” At GAMP, Eason dabbled in his first studies in operatic technique.
“He actually started to realize his voice in our summer music program,” said Lam. “He did not know the depth and breadth of his voice.” She said every step of the way he’s been supported by family, school, institutions that give awards and others who recognize “he is a star on the stage.”
In 2010, while a sophomore, he enrolled in his first vocal lessons at the Settlement Music School. He learned things like how to cover his voice so it isn’t brassy. Opera singers want to release all tension in the throat and mouth. “I never knew that there was so many things about singing,” Christian said.
For example, learning to keep the larynx down. To do that, yawn and try to breathe out with sound, and sing the scales, he explained. Place your fingers on your Adam’s Apple and recognize how low in the throat it is. Open up your throat. You want nothing in the way of your voice. It’s like a wind tunnel or a circular conduit of energy.
“It was really hard for me,” he said about practicing the technique. “I don’t know if it’s really hard for other people just starting out.”
Eason now studies with Jesus Garcia, an internationally acclaimed professional opera singer who’s been on Broadway and who has won Tony Awards for his performances. Eason himself wants to pursue the life of a professional opera singer. He’s prepared for its transient character, a lifestyle he’s familiar with.
“I said this is a new path, and I want to take it,” said Eason about pursuing classical and opera singing as opposed to the gospel and pop roots he first learned as a young singer. “It makes me unique for where I come from.”
Eason has learned that it is important to practice but not to over- practice; to challenge yourself but not strain yourself. More than two-and-a-half hours a day might do just that. He learned from watching Brownlee rehearse how to hold back. It has been said that a key element of good art is knowing when to stop.
The young Germantown singer has indeed learned the right time to stop a practice session, but he is not likely to stop his overall pursuit of excellence until he overcomes the almost impossible odds against achieving a successful career in the world of operatic music.