On TV, the singer’s face was hidden. But little pieces of personality still emerged from the dim lighting.
The black fedora with a pink feather tucked into the left side. A long blue coat. Arms that extended upward as the singer’s voice went higher and higher.
One minute and 15 seconds into the singer’s audition for “The Voice,” Kelly Clarkson turned her chair. Her mouth dropped wide open when she saw the singer. She stood up and brought both hands to her face in shock.
And then, as the song finished, the 8 million-plus viewers tuning in were finally able to see what had brought Clarkson to her feet: The person channeling Ella Fitzgerald and showing off a three-octave range while singing the jazz standard “Misty” was not, as Clarkson and likely most others had assumed, a woman.
It was a man named John Holiday.
“Your range is so incredible I didn’t know you were a dude,” Clarkson told the singer. “My face, that will be a GIF. I was so shocked when I turned around.”
As a countertenor — a male whose vocal range is equivalent to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano — Holiday says he gets that reaction a lot. But that didn’t make seeing Clarkson’s response on national TV any less fun.
“She was really shocked,” he said with a laugh. “And that’s good. That’s a good thing.”
The singer’s family and close friends were also surprised because he managed to keep going on “The Voice” a secret for months. The night his audition aired, Holiday said he had around 150 text messages and anywhere from 50 to 60 missed phone calls.
He’s since made it to the show’s top 17, making it through Tuesday night’s knockout round and advancing to the live shows.
At 35, Holiday — who is primarily an opera singer — already has a fairly extensive career. He’s performed on some of the biggest stages around the world, had a fan in the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, earned an artist diploma from the Juilliard School in 2014 and is making a major debut at the Metropolitan Opera next year.
But the promise of next year comes after the pandemic put a stop to everything he had been planning.
Like all artists in a COVID-19 world, Holiday’s performing career came to a crashing halt in March. Big debuts and other performances were either postponed or canceled — including a gig with Utah Opera in January.
“Everything that I had scheduled — absolutely gone,” he told the Deseret News via a recent Zoom call. “And even some things that I had for the 2021 season, gone already. That’s life, right now.”
Teaching is one thing that has helped keep him afloat financially during a time that has been largely unstable for performing artists. Coming from a family line of musicians and educators, Holiday has taught voice to a rising generation of performers at Lawrence University for three years.
“I just want to remind people that a lot of the people to whom you look for joy and happiness, they are experiencing a lot of sadness and grief,” Holiday said from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin. “People need to remember the entertainment industry right now. I would solicit the prayers and good thoughts of the people of Utah and all over the world to keep the artists — not just singers — I mean dancers, actors, painters, all of us, in your prayers and your thoughts, because it’s a tough time.”
It’s paradoxical that the entertainment people often turn to during challenging times is in lower supply these days, Holiday said. Even as a kid, he saw firsthand how music can heal and inspire — whether it was singing the ABCs over his school intercom, or moving people to tears while performing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” for his elementary school’s Christmas program, or watching his grandmother give her time to play the piano at multiple churches every Sunday.
And that’s what propelled him to pursue music professionally.
“Every time that I would get up in church, I would feel something when I sang. And I thought, even at a young age, ‘Maybe this is a thing that connects me to the man upstairs,’” Holiday said. “I do believe that God gave me a gift to share.
“If your gift can change and save someone’s life, why not share it?”
So in the late summer, as live entertainment was curtailed and more people were staying at home and in need of encouragement, Holiday decided to bring his voice to a different kind of stage.
“Look at me.”
Holiday had only sung the first three words of “Misty” when Legend turned his chair, throwing his hat in the ring for a chance to coach the singer. Legend wanted Holiday on his team so badly that he even used his one and only block for the audition round to prevent Clarkson from snagging the singer.
Holiday’s plan was to go with whoever turned first, so Legend made it fairly easy. But beyond that simple stipulation, as a Black singer who grew up singing in church with his grandmother in Rosenberg, Texas, Holiday felt a connection with Legend.
“He is a big proponent of Black excellence,” Holiday said. “He speaks a lot about social injustice, social issues that are going on in the United States and abroad, and that’s also something that is a big part of my life. And he’s a fantastic human being. More than any of those things … he’s a kind and compassionate human being and that’s what matters to me.
“But I can say the same thing about Kelly and Gwen and Blake — they are all incredibly nice and throughout this process, I can tell you that what you see on the TV is truly who they are,” Holiday continued. “They have such beautiful spirits.”
Working with Legend — who on the show has described Holiday’s voice as “otherworldly” — the singer learned to step even deeper into his uniqueness and embrace the high voice that he was sometimes bullied for as a kid.
“I don’t even understand how you’re real,” Stefani said after hearing him perform during the pre-taped Battle round that aired earlier this month.
“The world needed to hear your voice, and we’re so lucky that you came here,” Legend added.
Now, Holiday has resumed filming and will be competing in the live shows, which start Nov. 30.
The singer was still in California filming for “The Voice” when Justice Ginbsurg, a well-known lover of opera and a personal fan of his, died at the age of 87.
He had come to know the Supreme Court justice through her god-grandson, one of his closest friends. With emotion, Holiday recalled how on that Friday, Sept. 18, an earthquake shook the greater Los Angeles area.
“I thought, ‘It’s her saying goodbye,’” he said with a smile. “I found out after her passing that when she couldn’t make it to see performances of mine, she would check in with the general director of the opera houses at which I was performing and she would request a rehearsal video of me. So she was always following me.”
Holiday has gained a number of new followers since his audition for “The Voice” aired on Oct. 19. Being in the show’s live episodes, which rely on audience voting, that fanbase will come in handy. But for Holiday, being on a competition show like “The Voice” right now is about a lot more than winning.
“When I sing, my prayer is that it will help to elevate someone out of a position where they feel like there is no more hope,” Holiday said. “It doesn’t go unnoticed in my mind that there are people out there who are struggling, who are grieving loss of loved ones, loss of work, don’t know where their next check is coming from, where their next meal is coming from.
“Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I hope that in the 10 minutes that people get to see me on TV that I can remind them that it will get better,” he continued. “Even though it’s chaotic right now, it’s gonna get better. I don’t have to win the show if I’ve done that for somebody else. If I can do that, I’ve already won.”