Robert McPherson was walking down the busy streets of New York when he got the call — finally, he’d make it to the Metropolitan Opera stage.
“I may have done a little hop, skip, dance and gave a little bit of a ‘woo’,” McPherson recalled. “And, of course, in New York, nobody really looked twice. It’s just a Thursday to them.”
Years of voice lessons, concerts, gigs, awards and challenges had finally paid off for the Federal Way High School graduate. In spring 2016, the tenor will make that debut as Basilio in “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Met.
But he won’t stop until then. A career retrospective, McPherson will perform “Journey from Federal Way to the Met” at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4 at the Knutzen Family Theatre.
McPherson grew up as a shy “preacher’s kid,” who was raised singing choir on Bethel Christian Center’s stage. At Federal Way High School, former choir director Lary Belz exposed him to opera, classical and other musical styles. It was during that time McPherson gravitated to opera.
McPherson began voice lessons at age 14, studying with professor Tom Goleeke at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.
“What I remember during that time was taking a love and a passion and making it a craft,” McPherson said. “I don’t think I truly understood the amount of work that was required to achieve the level that you want to be at.”
Although McPherson had always been musical — he studied the piano and trombone — singing was where his own personality shined.
“I found that love and that passion was enough to the point to put me on that stage as a kid even though I had terrible stage fright,” he said, adding that eventually the stage became his comfort zone that allowed him to be his authentic self.
However, not everything came easy.
McPherson sang at a state competition when he was a senior in high school in which one judge put him in first place, one included him in the top three and another graded him so low, he didn’t place at all.
“It taught me something, because Lary Belz was there and he thought it was the best thing I’d ever done and he clearly thought I should have placed, but it taught me competition, in the grand scheme of life, doesn’t really mean a lot.”
McPherson learned it’s better to be the best possible self, versus looking outwards.
“I describe my career as going up the down escalator,” he laughed. “It takes a certain amount of forward motion just to stand still so you always have to be pushing yourself, you always have to be working harder.”
Ironically, during his senior year in college, he competed in the national Metropolitan Opera competition at the district level and advanced to the northwest region at age 22. Two years later, he did the same competition and two judges told him he had “no future in opera.”
“At age 24 I was washed up,” McPherson joked. “Fortunately, my voice teacher at the time, Bill Eddy, rest his soul, I had never heard him swear such a blue streak as when I told him what was said to me.”
He said if Eddy was so passionate, angry and outraged about this, a man who’d known him for years, then he would choose to listen to him, not the judges.
“He was unwavering in his support, you know for a poor kid from Federal Way, Washington, to believe that this strange unknown world was even an option for me that I could make it happen, was a gift,” McPherson said.
“Bill had this way of making it feel like, at times, he and I were against the world,” McPherson recalled. “And Bill always made me feel like those were good odds.”
Eddy passed away eight years ago at the age of 95 but it wasn’t before he got to see McPherson’s career start to take off.
After the transition from a career change, (McPherson was a working actor until the age of 26), the doors finally started to “open up.” He went to the world finals for the Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia and knew this was what he was meant to do.
Last season, McPherson performed as Lord Percy in “Anna Bolena” at the Welsh National Opera and as Tamino in “Magic Flute” at the English National Opera. He started this season singing Duca in “Act III of Rigoletto” in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Stars of Lyric Opera concert. He was also Leopold in “La Juive” with Belgium’s Vlaamse Opera and New Israeli Opera in performances of “Britten’s War Requiem.”
Most recently, he performed as Nemorino in “L’elisir d’Amore” at Vashon Opera.
In between it all, he sings for Opera On Tap, a Seattle-based group that tears down stereotypes of “stuffy” opera by bringing music to the bar scene.
All of these shows, as well as past shows, have allowed McPherson to always be in “prep-mode” for his nine performances at the Met this spring.
“You always kind of feel like you’re storming the hill and you get to the top of the hill and ‘oh, there’s another one, I’ve got to storm that!” he said.
This mentality hasn’t left him now that he’s preparing to check off a mile mark in his dream as an opera singer.
Although he would love to be asked back to the Met after his shows, McPherson’s long-term goals are to continue to build upon and firmly establish himself as a top tier opera singer.
“What I want to do, my major goal is to work in some of the best houses with amazing colleagues performing phenomenal music that has survived the ages, that’s really what it comes down to,” McPherson said. “And that doesn’t always happen in the biggest of houses.”
To hear McPherson sing music from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “L’elisier d’Amore” and “Barber of Seville” at his “Journey from Federal Way to the Met” career retrospective, purchase tickets at robmctenor.com or robmctenor.brownpapertickets.com.