Though they’ve been out of touch ever since, the tenor Gran Wilson still remembers giving a student named Curtis Bannister his grounding as a classical singer nearly 20 years ago. Championed in his heyday by the likes of Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland, Wilson now coordinates the University of Maryland’s highly respected opera studio. “Curtis was a real talent,” Wilson says. “He was a wonderful performer, with good body control, great stage savvy. He had the things you can’t teach. And he could sing. But these kids are so mercurial. Who ever knows what direction they’re going to take? I thought, If I teach him some technique, he’ll survive whichever way he wants to go.”
Sure enough, Bannister’s credits today are all over the place, ranging from a precocious run in the punishing title role of Verdi’s Otello (at 28!) to musicals such as Sweeney Todd, The Pajama Game, The Gospel at Colonus, and Ragtime, not to mention an appearance in the ensemble of Maurice Béjart’s seething Boléro with the touring Paris Opera Ballet. Now 36, Bannister made waves in February as the wrongfully imprisoned Florestan in Heartbeat Opera’s #BLM reboot of Beethoven’s Fidelio.
Other major breaks are in the offing, including a world premiere at Chicago Opera Theater, opening April 23. Quamino’s Map—libretto by the Alaskan-born playwright Deborah Brevoort, music by Errollyn Wallen, who hails from Belize—tells the story of a former slave from the colonies who’s making his way in 18th-century London; that’s Bannister’s part. And in November, more surprisingly, he comes to the big screen in the Marvel Studios superhero saga Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a project under wraps tight as the Mummy’s. On a recent Zoom call, Bannister brought us up to speed on his banner year.
Matthew Gurewitsch: Back in the silent era, Geraldine Farrar was big box office at the Met and big box office at the movies, even miming the role of Carmen. Today, we’ve got some photogenic opera stars who light up the screen in opera broadcasts, but nobody’s casting them in big-budget action movies. What’s your secret weapon?
Curtis Bannister: Initially, I had my sights just on theater. Opera followed later in my undergrad studies, thanks to a great voice teacher. TV and film came in 2017, after I signed with my first agent. I find that the three genres complement each other. What I’m able to bring to opera, that full-throated, over-the-top dramatic quality … that can be integrated into theater, and directors like that. Turns out it can work in movies too.
M.G.: Quamino’s Map picks up the little-known theme of former slaves repatriated in England after fighting with the British in the Revolutionary War. Are you doing research of your own to prepare, or are you basically trusting the creators of the opera to have done the homework for you?
C.B.: I’m actually doing both. The libretto was inspired by the novel Incomparable World, by S. I. Martin. The novel discusses former Black slaves in England and the hierarchy of class within the Black population. The opera is a fantasy based in realism. To create a well-rounded character, I need to make it a fantasy rooted in truth. Both are important to creating a well-rounded and relatable character.
M.G.: What are the driving passions for your character, Juba Freeman?
C.B.: It all comes down to identity. Who am I? How do I tick? Why are things the way they are? Who can I be in this new world? He’s a young man who has been taught what he has to do to survive in the Revolution. But then he’s thrown into a new society where these things are forbidden. In America, the British said, “You need to steal for us. It’s for the Crown and for your freedom.” And in London, they say, “You can’t sit with us. You can’t be with us. And things we might have told you to do over there—you can’t do those things here. You can’t make a living that way in normal society. What we told you is O.K. is not O.K.”
M.G.: I’m guessing there must be a love interest or a mentor somewhere in the mix to help him sort these questions out.
C.B.: Yes. There’s Amelia Alumond, a high-class Black Briton Juba falls in love and lust with. And there’s Quamino Dolly, a map-maker, 15 or 20 years older than Juba, who has the wisdom to become his guide in a practical way.
M.G.: So, despite the fact that Juba isn’t the title character, the story is really his story?
C.B.: I’d say that’s true. The opera has 12 scenes. I’m in 10 of them.
M.G.: And by my count, the opera has just 10 characters. Whereas my advance intel on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever indicates that it has a star-studded cast of thousands. And they’re not even revealing your character’s name. Any chance we might blink and miss you?
C.B.: Can’t say. They’re still working on the final cut.
Quamino’s Map opens at Chicago Opera Theater on April 23
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii