Alumnus Makes Met Opera Debut
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumnus Rocky Sellers was on a four-day vacation in New Orleans, eating chicken étouffée at Antoine’s Restaurant and chatting with his friends about life, when he saw an email on his phone. “It was like a scene in a movie. I thought, ‘No, wait. What?’ I said to my friends, ‘I want you to read it to make sure.’ I read the email again and again.”
The message was from Paul Hopper, associate artistic administrator of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Sellers had been covering—that is, serving as understudy—for Calvin Griffin in the role of Adult Robert in Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the life of New York Times columnist Charles Blow. Griffin had tested positive for COVID-19 and was isolating for 10 days, so Sellers would be going on as Adult Robert on October 8 and 13—his mainstage Met debut. He called Hopper back, “I’m ready. This is amazing news!”
“I thought I was going to lose it,” says Sellers. “I was so happy. I have friends who have covered for the Met for years and never gone on.”
Band Geek to Feeling FancySellers grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Eugene, a lab supervisor at a chemical plant, and Estrelita, a high school cosmetology teacher and beauty shop owner. His younger sister, Razel, graduated from UT in 2019.
His first foray into singing did not go well. When he was seven or eight, he sang an Easter solo in church. “I was nervous. I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I became a band geek.” He played the clarinet, flute, and piccolo until his junior year at Central High School, when he switched to choir. “I wanted to do it all,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m done with musical instruments.’”
His years being a part of an orchestra came in handy when he transitioned to opera. Vocal scores do not usually have the musical dictations that the orchestra scores do. “I usually go to the library near the Met to look at the full orchestra score and make sure all the dictations align,” says Sellers. “Using a metronome, which I picked up in orchestra days, has been very useful when learning music.”
For his show choir audition, he sang India.Arie’s “I Am Ready for Love.”
“It was a cappella and I couldn’t stay in the key of the song because I got lost during a run,” he remembers. “I knew I was not going to nail it, but I loved the song so much that I had to sing it. I explained that I was switching keys. The guy doing the audition said he liked that I was aware that I was switching keys.” Sellers’s choir won Tennessee All West, then All State, and he made the All-State Choir as a Bass 2.
A friend he’d met at the All West competition introduced him to an opera voice teacher. “I thought, ‘I like the idea of singing in another language. I feel fancy.’” At an Opera Memphis camp before his senior year of high school he did his first opera scene, singing Don Alfonso in Così Fan Tutte.
Rocky on Rocky Top
When it was time to pick a college, Sellers was considering the Manhattan School of Music, but thanks to his ACT score he was invited to come to UT for a campus visit. “I got on a bus with a bunch of guys and stayed for a weekend,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Everybody is so welcoming and so nice. It’s calling my name.’”
He was one of seven chosen to audition for the Grace Moore Scholarship in Voice. “I didn’t win it, but I got a lot of money. I met Pappa [Professor of Voice Andy Wentzel]. He had a unique studio and chose one or rarely two undergraduates a year. He took me under his wing for all four years. Lord knows I was a rambunctious freshman. He navigated me to be on the straight and narrow. We had heart-to-hearts.
“He was a father figure to me and a mentor. He’s been there as a guiding hand throughout my career and even to this day. He knows the ins and outs of the opera world, and he’s been great about guiding me through, keeping me going. Sometimes you may not hit that high note or have an off day, but you have to keep going.”
With the UT Opera Theatre, Sellers sang Barone Douphol in La Traviata, Henry Davis in Street Scene, Leporello in Don Giovanni, and Betto in Gianni Schicchi.
After graduating with his bachelor’s in vocal performance in 2010, Sellers packed up and went to Philly, where he had a friend attending the Curtis Institute of Music. “It was eye opening. I had never heard such fierce high-level singing. I spent the year just listening, living, learning.”
He started his master’s at the Manhattan School of Music but didn’t finish because he landed a succession of young artist programs with the Santa Fe Opera, Sarasota Opera, Opera Saratoga, Opera Naples, and Opera on the James in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then sang as a guest artist with the Manhattan Opera Studio.
The Road to the Met
In 2015, he covered Joe in Showboat for the Portland [Oregon] Opera and then sang the role with the Natchez Festival of Music in 2016. He sang Dr. Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love with Portland Opera to Go and the Pacific Opera Project in 2017. That year he also made his Tokyo debut singing Male 3 in a new work, Four Nights of Dream. In 2019, he was Valerie in Stonewall with the New York City Opera.
In 2019, he competed in the Met Opera Competition in Nebraska. (Wentzel was one of the judges.) “Based on my audition there,” says Sellers, “I was referred to the chorus master at the Met, Maestro Donald Columbo. He gave me a personal audition for the chorus for Porgy and Bess. Two days later, I got a cover and chorus opportunity for a mini-role in Porgy—the Fourth Crapshooter. (Denisha Ballew, who received her Master of Music from UT in 2016, sang in the Porgy chorus.)
In February of 2020, a mainstage audition got him the job of principal cover for the Undertaker in Porgy and Bess and then for Adult Robert in Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “My heart stopped,” he says. (Ballew sang the role of Verna and in a chorus of women in Fire.)
Sellers received contracts to participate in 2021–22 season productions of Porgy and Bess, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, as well as Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, Die Meistersinger, and Don Carlos.
Before the season, he and two friends decided to take four days in New Orleans, sitting by the pool at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel, eating beignets and sipping coffee at Café du Monde, sampling the buffet at the Court of Two Sisters, and touring a swamp on an airboat. Then came the email.
Back in his apartment in Brooklyn, Sellers girded for his October 8 debut: “I ate my favorite comfort food. I watched some anime. Andy [Wentzel] called and said, ‘You’re going to remember this moment for the rest of your life. Just live it.’ I just felt this sense of energy. I was so hyper focused, bouncing around with joy. I’ve never felt so much adrenaline in my life. My colleagues were so great.”
Latonia Moore, who sings Billie the mother, told him, “This is your time, and you shine. Live it and live in it.”
Sellers debuted on October 8 and 13 and knocked ’em dead, like Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. He has signed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago to cover Adult Robert in their spring production of Fire, so he will fly back and forth from Chicago back to New York for the Met production of Don Carlos as needed.
“His story really is one of persistence and being prepared and ready,” says Wentzel.
Needing more space, Sellers recently moved from Brooklyn to an apartment in Washington Heights, a block away from a view of the Hudson River and a straight 30-minute shot on the Number 1 train to Lincoln Center.
Says Sellers, “I will continue growing and learning as an artist in hopes of expanding my career to even greater heights—La Scala, Paris Opera, Royal Opera House, Sydney Opera House, Vienna State Opera, to name a few—so I can become a beacon of light for people, specifically people of color, who need someone to look up to and see themselves in, so they can keep their hopes and know that their dreams can become a reality.”