Podcast 77: John Holiday

We welcome John Holiday, multitalented countertenor and recent finalist on The Voice.  John describes his incredible journey from growing up in a small town near Houston to becoming a sought-after international opera singer soon to be making his Metropolitan Opera debut.  He offers many uplifting life lessons along the way, including how to deal with fear and how to  celebrate one’s own uniqueness and true self in the face of enormous pressure to succeed. John  shares how growing up in a gospel choir aids his process as a classical and pop singer, and lets  us in on some of the sage advice he got from John Legend. As always, we provide his personal  playlist. Come bask in the light of this gracious rising star!

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Episode Notes

  • Texas Native and International Countertenor, John Holiday, who has graced some of the worlds most amazing halls from Singapore, to Paris, to NYC. 
    • Some may know him from season 19 of NBC’s The Voice, where he was a top 5 finalist 
      • OR they may know him from The Conservatory of Music at Lawrence University, where he serves as an Associate Professor of Voice.

John grew up in Rosenberg Texas, a suburb of Houston.

  • Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas
    • William R. Adams – Director

His first introduction to opera was through the boys choir:

  • When he was 12 years old, he saw Denyce Graves on stage for the first time, and in that moment he knew that a career as a singer could be a possibility for him. She was singing Marguerite in The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz at Jones Hall with the Houston Symphony, John sang the treble “boy” solo.

The choir also went on tour to Mexico with the Houston Symphony performing Carmina Burana by Carl Orff

John was the first African-American Drum Major at his High School.

  • His 1st opera role debut was as Gherardino in Gianni Schicchi with the Southern Western Methodist University.
    • The first full role he sang was Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare by Handel at the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music.
      • As an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera he covered the role of Corrado in Griselda by Vivaldi.
        • First Professional roles were the 1st Oracle & 1st Cardinal in Glass’s Galileo Galilei with Portland Opera.

SAVE THE BOYS – Opera Philadelphia Channel commission

  • Music by Tyshawn Sorey
  • Lyrics from “Save the Boys,” poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
    • John Holiday, counter-tenor
    • Grant Loehnig, pianist
      • Opera Philadelphia Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, the Newark-born multi-instrumentalist and composer will premiere a new work on the Opera Philadelphia Channel inspired by “Save the Boys,” an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, February 12, 2021 at 8pm
        • Save the Boys is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. This new work was composed for and performed by renowned countertenor John Holiday and pianist Grant Loehnig, Opera Philadelphia’s head of music staff.

Lyrics for “Save the Boys”, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Like Dives in the deeps of Hell
I cannot break this fearful spell
Nor quench the fires I’ve madly nursed,
Nor cool this dreadful raging thirst.
Take back your pledge–ye come too late!
Ye cannot save me from my fate,
Nor bring me back departed joys;
But ye can try to save the boys.

Ye bid me break my fiery chain,
Arise and be a man again,
When every street with snares is spread,
And nets of sin where’er I tread.
No; I must reap as I did sow.
The seeds of sin bring crops of woe;
But with my latest breath I’ll crave
That ye will try the boys to save.

These bloodshot eyes were once so bright;
This sin-crushed heart was glad and light;
But by the wine-cup’s ruddy glow
I traced a path to shame and woe.
A captive to my galling chain,
I’ve tried to rise, but tried in vain –
The cup allures and then destroys.
Oh! from its thraldom save the boys.

Take from your streets those traps of hell
Into whose gilded snares I fell.
Oh! freemen, from these foul decoys
Arise, and vote to save the boys.
Oh ye who license men to trade
In draughts that charm and then degrade,
Before ye hear the cry, Too late,
Oh, save the boys from my sad fate.

Maya Angelou quote: 
“Words are things, and if you ball your fist and throw them, they stick to the wall.”


  • All music is beautiful and that good music is not elitist. There should be no separation between serious music and popular music. As long as it is well-written, beautiful and has a real emotional message behind it then he can connect to it. 
    • You can find that in the music and singing of Jazz or Rhythm & Blues greats such as Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn and Nina Simone.

“Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol and made popular by Billie Holiday

“Ombra mai fu” by Handel

Nina Simone quote:
“An Artist’s job is to be a reflection of the times.”


  • His job is to lift others up and be a good example, a good steward of his gift.
    • African-American singers have to be 2-3 times better than white singers to get cast in an opera role.
      • early mentors include his mother, grandmother and Aunt Brenda.

Bill T. Jones quote:
“You must surrender to let the Gods enter the room.”

NBC’s The Voice, season 19

Once you are confirmed as a competitor on the show you provide a song list to the producers of songs that would be right for you, ones you’ve sung already or have wanted to sing.

  • Halo by Beyonce, Ryan Tedder and Evan Bogart was chosen for him to sing in the Finale by his mentor, John Legend, a song he never thought he could sing.
    • Holiday finally realized he had to surrender to the music and let it speak.
      • This experience taught him that could sing anything.

Team members (singers) spend at least 2-3 hours a week meeting with their mentors. Legend talked with John about style, staging, and leaning into the uniqueness of who he is.

Linda Bucher is John’s life coach

Brene Brown quote (Houston based thought leader and University of Houston research professor)
“Fear is worthy of a seat in your audience.”

Jenifer Lewis quotes: (star of ABC’s sitcom Black-ish and the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It) 

  • “The elevator to success is broken, take the stairs.”
  • “You are the lone person at the end of the night in the limousine, you have to be happy with yourself.”

Marianne Williamson quote (from her poem “Our Greatest Fear”)
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Oprah quote:
“What good is it to have something nice if you can’t share it?”


  • OPERA America webinar about recovery from the pandemic
    • Opera and the Arts can be part of the healing process.


  • Dallas Opera recital in 2019
    • The audience was seventy-five percent people of color.

Opera Philadelphia & Glimmerglass Festival are doing excellent work in championing diversity. It is an important part of their mission.

Opera Philadelphia – David Devan, Sarah Williams and Michael Eberhard.

Eurydice – Metropolitan Opera 11/23 – 12/16 2021

  • Matthew Aucoin, composer
  • Sarah Ruhl, librettist
    • John created the role of Orpheus’s double in the Los Angeles Opera world premiere production in 2020.
      • He will make his Met Opera debut sharing this role with Jakub Jozef Orlinski
        • John was originally going to make his Met Opera debut in the 2020-21 Season singing Nireno in Giulio Cesare by Handel.

Bio: John Holiday

Countertenor John Holiday has established himself as “one of the finest countertenors of his generation”(Los Angeles Times). His voice has been praised as “a thing of astonishing beauty” (New Yorker), “arrestingly powerful, secure and dramatically high” (Wall Street Journal), “exceptional [and] strong…even in its highest range” (The New York Times) and “timeless” (Washington Post). Holiday’s unique voice and powerful story have been the subject of profiles in The New Yorker, CNN’s Great Big StoryLos Angeles Times, and more.

In 2021, Holiday will make his anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice as Orpheus’s Double, and is slated to make his role debut as Cherubino in Le Nozze Di Figaro at Dallas Opera. An acclaimed concert singer, Holiday has performed at world-renowned venues such as Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, London’s Barbican Center, and the Philharmonie de Paris. His career highlights have included a tour with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic; the Sorceress in Barrie Kosky’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and the world premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice as Orpheus’s Double at the Los Angeles Opera; the world premiere of Daniel Roumain’s We Shall Not Be Moved with Opera Philadelphia and the Dutch National Opera; title role in Xerxes at the Glimmerglass Festival; and Caesar in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egittoat Wolf Trap Opera. 

Outside of classical repertoire, Holiday excels in jazz and gospel music having opened for Grammy award winner Jason Mraz in concert. In 2018, Holiday sang the national anthem for his hometown team the Houston Rockets, and in 2019, Holiday performed at the star-studded Ozwald Boateng Harlem Runway Show at The Apollo Theater, in a performance that was covered by Vogue, Forbes, and CNN, and attended by celebrities Jamie Foxx, Idris Elba, Dapper Dan and others. Additionally, in 2019 Holiday performed Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” at the Apollo Theater Spring Gala.

Holiday has been the recipient of numerous major competitions and award programs such as the 2017 Marian Anderson Vocal Award; the 2014 Richard Tucker Foundation’s Sara Tucker award; first place at the 2013 Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition, the 2012 Sullivan Foundation, and the 2011 Dallas Opera Guild Vocal Competition; and third place winner in the 2014 OPERALIA competition. In addition, Holiday was selected among WQXR’s prestigious 20 for 20 Artists to Watch, named one of BroadwayWorld’s “New York Opera Gifts that Keep on Giving,” nominated for “Newcomer of the Year” by the German magazine Opernwelt, and listed as one of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 100 honorees for 2018. 

John Holiday received a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati College –Conservatory of Music and the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies from The Juilliard School in New York City. Holiday grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, located near Houston, and attended the town’s public schools.

Credits: This episode of The Indie Opera Podcast was recorded on Zoom, with co-hosts Peter Szep, Ashley Renee Watkins, Brooke Larimer, Walker Lewis, and our special guest Afton Battle, Afton Battle, the General Director of Fort Worth Opera. Our show is created with the support of Associate Producer Chuck Sachs; Jonathan Blalock PR Consultant; and Rosha Créan who created our theme music, and Gregory moomjy, web correspondent. This episode was edited by Peter Szep.

We would like to thank The Voice, The Academy of Ancient Music, Opera Philadelphia, WQXR, and Rio Souma for permission to use their clips on this episode.

Video/Audio Credits

  • “Fix You” by Coldplay (The Voice, season 19)
  • “Ah, ch’infelice!” (Vivaldi) with Academy of Ancient Music
  • “Save the Boys” Music, Tyshawn Sorey (Pictured), Lyric, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Opera Philadelphia
  • “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Handel) Brent Funderburk, piano – WQXR
  • “Misty” by Erroll Garner (blind audition – The Voice, season 19)
  • “All My Air” by Rio Souma

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