Before he discovered the talent that would change his life, opera singer Justin Swain already had a precious gift: the ability to see beyond his circumstances.
Having survived poverty and abuse as a child, the Columbus native had the talent, the drive and the mentors (in the form of school teachers) that allowed him to dream big. But the dream took an unexpected turn.
“Originally, the plan was to perform for a living,” Swain says. “I discovered I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would.”
In addition to the difficult task of making a living full-time as an opera singer, there was another downside: “I didn’t want to live out of a suitcase.”
As a graduate student at The Ohio State University, Swain discovered the comparatively lucrative gig of tutoring, and the dream was quickly and permanently re-shaped.
“It’s a rare opportunity to be the person that nurtures [others’] talent,” he says. “I see people come alive in a way that’s truly rare … as they begin to fully realize who they are.”
The 35-year-old baritone is now an Adjunct Professor of Voice (Classical, Contemporary, Musical Theatre) & Lyric Diction at Ohio University. His university website bio notes that he “has served as Opera Columbus’ Teaching Artist, been featured in the Columbus Italian Festival, in concert with Harmony Project Columbus, and has performed world premiere works in and around Central Ohio.”
But teaching is his passion, and it consumes most of his waking hours.
“I’m stretched pretty thin,” he admits, between his course load at OU, private tutoring in Columbus and elsewhere, and several projects that allow him to get back on stage and sing.
One of his recent Athens performances, at Donkey Coffee, was a “gender swap cabaret,” in which Swain sang musical theatre numbers originally written for and performed by women.
“We as a collective culture typically see men in the dominant, go-getter role, and females as more submissive,” he says. “The cabaret was a chance to turn that on its end.”
An upcoming performance, in which he’s paired with an Ohio State professor, Ed Bak, will celebrate the music of a little-known Black composer of the early 20th Century, Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Swain and Bak will take the stage at Glidden Recital Hall on the Ohio University campus at 8 p.m., on Saturday, Feb. 25. (Admission is free.)
Swain says that despite his teaching focus, he still enjoys the opportunity to perform publicly. “It’s a chance to share something I’m passionate about,” he says.
He maintains a strong interest in contemporary pop and show music as well, listing Imogen Heap, Reeve Carney and Ben Platt among his favorite performers. Still, he deems his own voice best suited to what he studied from the beginning.
“At the collegiate level, you’re typically pushed toward classical music,” he says. “I’m classically trained, and I’m most comfortable with that.”
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