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Opera singer Tenor Limmie Pulliam reflects on his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 47

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIMMIE PULLIAM: (As Moses, singing) Lord, who am I to go unto Pharaoh?

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is the soul-stirring tenor of Limmie Pulliam. He stopped singing for about a decade, disheartened at rejection after rejection for classical roles. But Limmie Pulliam is now singing at Carnegie Hall. He's performing in "The Ordering Of Moses," and he joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PULLIAM: It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: You studied opera at Oberlin College and began to go on a singing career. What happened?

PULLIAM: As you mentioned, it was just a number of things. I became a bit disheartened with the industry. There were so many requirements that were heaped upon artists to not only sound good, but they wanted you to - you know, to look a certain way. So it was difficult for an artist of size to have much career advancement. And I'd always made myself a promise that if it ever stopped being fun, I would move on to do something else. And so I kept that promise to myself, and I moved on.

SIMON: What did you move on to?

PULLIAM: Job to job and worked in collections and used my language skills I had acquired in studying opera to do foreign-language calls for collection agencies.

SIMON: (Laughter) I'd pay up immediately if you called me.

PULLIAM: You know, I was not one of those who would call and berate the customers and say, you know, pay your bills. Pay your bill. I was very nice and and basically just called and had a conversation with people the way I wished those who called me would have done. You know, I did that for a bit. And then I ended up in the security industry working for a large concert producer before starting my own firm and providing security services for special events and personal security services and things of that nature.

SIMON: If I might put it this way, was the physicality that you thought might have been a drawback in being cast in some roles golden in the security industry?

PULLIAM: It was. It came in quite handy. It was a good deterrent to anyone who would wish harm on any client or event that we were in charge of. So one industry's, you know, downside is another industry's positive point.

SIMON: What brought you back to singing opera onstage and now at Carnegie Hall?

PULLIAM: Well, it's kind of a roundabout way. I - after taking a leave of absence from our security firm to accept a position of field organizer with the Missouri leg of then-Senator Obama's presidential campaign - his first presidential campaign - I was doing some events in my duties. And we had invited the local beauty queen to sing the national anthem. And little did I know, she got cold feet and decided she no longer wanted to do it and didn't show up. And so my boss looks at me and says, I remember on your resume that you used to sing opera. Why don't you sing it?

SIMON: (Laughter) Wait, I've seen this movie. Go ahead. Yeah.

PULLIAM: And, you know, I said, you know, it's been years since I've sung. I don't know if - you know, the national anthem isn't an easy song to sing. He said, well, nobody's going to know. And I said, well, I'll know. And he didn't leave me much choice. So I got up, and I did it one time. And that one time turned into a couple of times with other events. And it was during the singing of the national anthem that I began to notice changes in my voice. You know, it had been years since I had last seriously sung, but the changes were evident immediately. And they began to pique my interest and the thoughts of, hmm, this is something different; this is something special.

SIMON: What changes? To those of us who are not opera singers, what did you hear?

PULLIAM: It had gained a certain warmth. It had matured. And it had taken on a much more burnished, darker quality to it that I felt really kind of set me apart from anyone that I was hearing in the industry currently.

SIMON: Well, you'd lived. I mean, you hadn't just been on stage. You'd lived.

PULLIAM: Yes. And, you know, those experiences all went into creating this new instrument that I began to - once the campaign had ended - to work privately on my own, nurturing and trying to build this voice with the help, luckily, of videotapes from lessons I had from Oberlin.

SIMON: You have been back singing for almost a decade, right?

PULLIAM: Actually, a lot longer than a decade. Made my first kind of foray out in January of 2012 for the National Opera Association's vocal competition, which I'm glad to say I end up - I won. And that started me on a path that leads us to us having this discussion today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PULLIAM: (As character, singing in non-English language).

SIMON: You sang with the great Cleveland Opera, right?

PULLIAM: I did, and let's see, Memphis Opera - you know, a number of orchestras, a number of opera companies. Last month made my debut with the Metropolitan Opera singing Radames in "Aida." This month, we're making our Carnegie Hall debut.

SIMON: What's it like to be out there with your voice again?

PULLIAM: To be honest, it's been difficult to enjoy the experiences because so many of these wonderful professional highs have been kind of preceded by some extremely personal lows for me. I lost my father in May of 2022, and that was immediately followed by my debut with the Cleveland Orchestra singing "Otello." I lost my eldest sister in November of 2022, and that preceded my debut at the Metropolitan Opera.

SIMON: Knowing how important it is to your family, is that going to make it a little tougher?

PULLIAM: Not necessarily. I've learned to try not to put more stress on myself than necessary. I know that I've done the work to be prepared. I am pretty good at compartmentalizing once I'm on stage, but it's in those moments afterwards where, you know, those thoughts may creep in. As with my Metropolitan debut, I was able to to push those thoughts back until it came time for the curtain call. I began to think about the importance of this moment and how much it would have meant to my dad, how much it would have meant to my sister. As artists do, we constantly allow ourselves to be vulnerable in front of our audiences. And I think that has to be my most vulnerable moment ever to be standing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and sort of dissolving into tears at the thought of what my father and my sister would think of that moment.

SIMON: I'm sure we're being heard by some people who nurture a dream and have had some rejections and disappointments. What might you say to them based on what you've learned in life?

PULLIAM: Well, I would say to - you know, if you have a dream of achieving something - to go for it. In the going, be persistent. Be consistent. And do the necessary work. My mantra has become, you know, if you stay ready, you don't have to get ready. You never know when that phone call may come, whether it's a performance or offer you a particular role or any other type of job opportunity. But do the work to be prepared when that call comes.

SIMON: Tenor Limmie Pulliam, who last night made his debut at Carnegie Hall performing with the Oberlin Orchestra and Conservatory Choral Ensembles. Mr. Pulliam, thanks so much for speaking to us.

PULLIAM: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PULLIAM: (As Moses, singing) Triumphed gloriously.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As Miriam, singing) The horse and his rider, he hath thrown into the sea.

PULLIAM: (As Moses, singing) Jehovah is my strength and my song Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.