Warren Moulton on the Operatic Life

Warren Moulton grew up in the central-Illinois town of Fairbury and moved to New York City in 1988, at the age of 24, aiming to launch his career in opera. But “it was the first time I’d been away from home [other than college],” Moulton says. “I just couldn’t hack it, and after four months I came back to Fairbury, totally defeated.”

He worked the graveyard shift at a gas station and moved into a trailer with two friends, one named Mike and the other nicknamed Scummy.

Moulton had studied music at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, before transferring to Illinois State University. He moved to Chicago in 1991 and tried again to launch his singing career—this time, with much more success.

In the 1990s, in addition to performing with institutions like Chicago Opera Theater and singing weekly at the Chicago Cultural Center, he performed regularly on “the Jewish ladies luncheon circuit.” It consisted of dozens of social clubs that held luncheons and dinners and dances.

“My signature was that I sang and also did what they called ‘the funny stuff’”—telling jokes and bantering with the audience. “It was not something I ever saw myself doing,” Moulton says. “I wanted to be an Opera Singer—capital O, capital S. But it was a lot of fun. It was a great era for opera and theater and the arts in general.”

Since the early 2000s, Moulton has been part of The Other 3 Tenors, a Chicago-based group that performs opera classics and older pop music favorites at various venues around Chicago and nationwide. He also maintains a YouTube channel, Dead Tenors Society, where “familiar and not so familiar voices of a bygone era are showcased in rare recordings.”

 The Other 3 Tenors. Moulton is on the right.

The Other 3 Tenors. Moulton is on the right.

Moulton will appear in Carmina Burana with West Suburban Symphony on June 26; and in Broadway Blitz at the Acorn Theater in Three Oaks, MI, July 23 and 24.

Here are highlights from a recent conversation with him.

The Artist as a Young Man

I knew I wanted to be a performer, from the time I was four years old, whether that was playing guitar or telling jokes. I knew I wanted to be in front of people, entertaining them. I knew I was going to do something that was not normal.

I grew up in a household with four sisters, so I was always competing for attention. I was not good at anything athletically, which in my school was fatal—a small, Midwestern school. If you didn’t play football or basketball, you had no social status. So I had to find something that I was good at.

At first it was art. I liked to draw cartoons, and then discovered theater and then music. And they all intermingled. I had to make a decision about what to do with them. And I realized as a junior in high school that I wasn’t good enough to make it in the world of graphic art. So I went into singing.

Influences

My primary influences were Johnny Cash, Mario Lanza, Groucho Marx, and Ernie Kovacs. Those are the people that made me want to be in this business. Johnny Cash speaks for himself. He had a weekly variety show on ABC when I was a kid, and it was my dream to be on the Johnny Cash show. Mario Lanza had this theater-shaking voice. But at a crucial point in his life, maybe in his late 20s, he decided to take the Hollywood route instead of the opera house route, thinking, "I’ll just do this for a few years and make a lot of money, get a reputation, and then I’ll be able to divide my time." Well, it took all of his time, and it destroyed him. He was 38 when he died. So there’s maybe a lesson there.

Groucho Marx was one of the funniest, wittiest people. Damn good writer, too. I love his sense of humor, and there’s a little bit in my one-man shows that I do. And Ernie Kovacs was a TV pioneer who showed that there were no limits. And did things in the early TV medium—these hilarious shows.

Elvis

I love Elvis—even fat, bloated, drug-addicted Elvis. I never get tired of listening to him. He was the best there was, pound for pound. And there were a lot of pounds. He was one of the top five performers of the twentieth century. Because he was so comfortable. He just did his thing. If you catch some of the shows they filmed when he was doing the Vegas thing, it was like the whole Rat Pack combined into one guy. He had the finest orchestra, the finest sidemen, the finest choral singers in the world up there on the stage with him.

It’s a pity what happened to him. Because people think of him as this fat, disgusting, sweaty guy who’s babbling incoherently. And it’s sad that his image is tarnished because of that. Because he was really a phenomenal performer. I’m not a big fan of gospel music, but I like what he did with it because he was so honest. There’s nothing put on or preachy about it. It’s just a man and his creator, and just singing those praises. And he’s very sincere.

I remember—I was in my dad’s barbershop—when the news came over the radio that he’d died in a Memphis hospital. And it was like a sledgehammer. Because I’d been watching him and listening to his records as far back as I could remember.

Favorite Chicago story

Around 1998 or so, my friend Valentine Judge (yes, Valentine Judge) invited me to a birthday party for her husband, Tony. Singers are never simply invited to parties as guests, and I was asked to bring along a few pieces to sing, just in case the opportunity arose for a bit of music. After being asked five or six times whether I would be singing, [my fiancee and accompanist] Gabriella and I found a secluded nook near the piano to decide on the appropriate piece.

After a few minutes of looking through our sheet music, an elderly gentleman in a red-checkered shirt asked if he could join us. It was Studs Terkel. I was absolutely slack jawed that this legend was seeking out our company. He sat down and began to ask us questions about our lives, our careers, our families . . . and he was genuinely interested in what we had to say.

When Studs—and it was Studs . . . he scolded me for referring to him as Mr. Terkel—learned that I was an opera singer, he asked if I would consider singing a particular aria, "Una furtiva lagrima." When I replied that I would, he told me, "That’s from 'The Elixir of Love' by Donizetti, you know . . . just a terrific piece." Studs then proceeded to unfold the entire plot of the opera, as only Studs Terkel could. As he wrapped up his synopsis, he suggested, "You should tell that story before you sing that aria."

"No, Studs," I said, "You should tell that story!"

He seemed taken aback by this suggestion. "You really think so?" he asked. "Do you think people will enjoy that?" As Gabriella played the lengthy intro to the aria, Studs stood by the piano and told the guests the very entertaining story of "The Elixir of Love." Then he introduced me and Gabriella and I launched into the aria. Even though I gave the performance of my life that night, it was anticlimactic. You can’t follow Studs Terkel.

Dead Tenors Society

I’ve got records all over the floor, I’ve got shelves of records, I’ve got close to 3,000 LPs and 78s of old opera singers, most of them tenors. And I was at the point where I was ready to get rid of them. And somebody said, "You should start a YouTube channel to showcase some of these."

And that has become my all-consuming passion when I’m not singing or sleeping or eating—putting together videos of these old, obscure, dead tenors. They don't go viral, but I do have videos with 14 or 15,000 views. And I just surpassed 900 subscribers, which I’m very happy about. I’ve got over 1,000 videos up now, and I made my first $100 in December. So, in a year, I made my first $100. And I’d say I’ve got at least another five or six years worth of material, at the pace I’m going.

The way I look at it is, it’s money for nothing. And it surprises me how many people are interested in something this obscure. And people get very heated about it. Some of these tenors died not that many years ago, and there are people out there who knew some of them personally. So if someone says something critical of them, one of their friends will chime in and defend them. I wish people cared as much about real issues as they do about this stuff.