Sidney Outlaw isn’t content to stay in his lane. During 2020 he became a bit of a recluse, and his art manifested in other ways: writing (12 journals and counting), reading 29 books, and honing what he described as studying with the focus and concentration of a “Jedi musician.” This time of examination and seclusion shaped his interpretation of composer Antonio Salieri — someone people think they know, but perhaps only one-dimensionally — in the upcoming on-demand Opera San José production of Mozart and Salieri.
“I took a survey of what type of musician, what type of man I wanted to be — what type of mentor I wanted to be,” said Outlaw. “So, I’m looking dramatically at things now that are presented to me — is this a story I want to tell? Is this a story I should be telling because of context? We live in that world now too — is this my story to tell?”
Composed by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the libretto of this rarely performed one-act opera comes from by the 1830 play Mozart and Salieri, by Alexander Pushkin. Told through the perspective of Vienna’s leading composer at the time, Salieri, the plot delves into the rumor that Salieri, jealous of the brazen brilliance of newcomer Mozart, poisoned him. In this rendition, Mozart will be performed by Grammy-nominated baritone, Simon Barrad. Opera San José prepared the production as if taking it to the stage, with Outlaw describing the cameras later coming in as if filming “a Netflix series.” He described how the pandemic opened the option of streaming to operagoers, something he thinks might be a secondary way to experience opera in addition to but not replacing staged performances in opera houses.
“So many other people will be able to see it in addition to the way we traditionally do opera,” said Outlaw. “Warren Buffet says you’ve got to have more than one source of income. You have to have more than one way of getting opera out to the people.”
Outlaw leapt at the opportunity to play Salieri and sing in Russian, a language that he loves, and in which he has performed before publicly in recital with Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. He hopes to one day sing Eugene Onegin.
“I saw this opportunity for me to take a skillset that I’ve learned and have been sitting on because typically I’m not cast in such a role. People usually cast me in comedic operas and things like that,” said Outlaw.
As prep for stepping into performing Salieri, Outlaw met for two months each Sunday with Gina Levinson, his Russian diction coach and professor at Juilliard. Outlaw praised the production’s conductor, Donato Cabrera, and especially director Fenlon Lamb for her guidance, saying he left San José as a better opera singer than when he arrived because of the good ways she challenged and pushed him in the role.
“My objective was to show Salieri’s humanity and to give a glimpse — they say there are two sides to every story, so I just got a chance to tell his side of the story and hopefully not villainize him,” said Outlaw. “Fenlon really helped me with that. She was really a great second set of eyes. Donato was a wonderful second set of ears.”
In 2022, Outlaw will perform as Marcello in the Florentine Opera production of La bohème, as Figaro in Pensacola Opera’s Barber of Seville, and as Jake in Porgy and Bess with Greensboro Opera. The Merola Opera program and Juilliard graduate is also in-demand as a recitalist and concert singer.
“I’ve always wanted the three faceted career of recital, concert, and opera, and so I’m literally, like Alicia Keys — living my dreams,” said Outlaw. “To be able to take that and bring it back to the classroom, I’m grateful. And I take everybody that ever helped me along the way, onstage with me every single time I go up there.”
The multi-award-winning baritone and recently Grammy-nominated vocalist said he loves to tell Black stories through recitals he performs with mentor and pianist Warren Jones, including a three-act opera called Frederick Douglass that sets his July Fourth speech to music and a song cycle set to poems by Langston Hughes. He traveled to Guinea as an Arts Envoy with the U.S. State Department, where he performed a program of American music in honor of Black History Month and in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King.
“We are the truth tellers as artists. We are here to remind people and reflect the times through the art,” said Outlaw. “It’s not a situation of I’m no longer going to sing Mozart and Verdi and only sing Black composers. I was raised that there is enough room at the table for everyone — my mama and grandmama are going to go get another table and attach it and those people can join. I take that with me in my own practice as a performer and promote that to my students.”
Outlaw teaches at Ithaca College and in 2020 was also teaching at Queens College, in New York City. He has a saying with his students, “Honey, you’ve got to out-Viola Viola Davis when you get on that stage, and they know what that means.” One of Outlaw’s favorite comedians taught him something invaluable when he was younger in the industry and coming into his own, seeing colleagues’ careers flourish.
“Kathy Griffin taught me how to lean into the idea that my career was blossoming slow and how to laugh at that and grow from that,” said Outlaw. “My career bloomed late and I’m grateful for it now, looking back on it.”
You can watch the on-demand virtual performance at home, starting Thursday, Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. PT through Oct. 31, 2021. The stream gives the option of English, Spanish, or Vietnamese subtitles. Tickets range in price from $40 per household for 30-day streaming access to $65 with an add-on of a pass to the virtual VIP cast party. For more information, visit https://www.operasj.org/ or call (408) 437-4450.