Metropolitan Opera usher takes the stage for ‘Porgy and Bess’

When "Porgy and Bess" opened on Sept. 23, Tshombe Selby wasn't doing his job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead, he was up on the stage as part of the chorus of the show, which is back at the Met for the first time in 30 years. Photo Credit: Newsday / Marcus Santos

Tenor Tshombe Selby’s journey has taken him from a church choir in North Carolina to the “Super Bowl” of opera houses.

When "Porgy and Bess" opened on Sept. 23, Tshombe Selby wasn't doing his job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead, he was up on the stage as part of the chorus of the show, which is back at the Met for the first time in 30 years.
When "Porgy and Bess" opened on Sept. 23, Tshombe Selby wasn’t doing his job as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. Instead, he was up on the stage as part of the chorus of the show, which is back at the Met for the first time in 30 years. Photo Credit: Michele Herrmann

After years of watching magic happen on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Tshombe Selby is standing in the middle of it.

The talented tenor, who works as an usher at the famed opera house, is part of the ensemble in the current production of “Porgy and Bess.”

“It felt wonderful,” Selby, 35 said, after the opera’s Monday premiere. “I’ve done solo work at Carnegie Hall and other places throughout the United States and beyond. But as an opera singer, this is the Super Bowl.”

Selby said he soaked in the moment while staying focused on his part.

“You have a job to do and you want to give the art form what it deserves,” he said. “There’s really no time to be caught up in your feelings…you are now giving it all to the audience.”

Selby has spent years honing his skills through lessons and performances that have taken him to Canada and Ukraine as well as around the United States.

His love of singing started during his childhood on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The grandeur of the church choir caught his attention.

“I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I liked the effect singing had on people — to make them cry, bring them up when they are down.”

He spent hours on his front porch with a small keyboard imitating the choir, so much so that his neighbors howled for the tot to “shut up!”

Selby remembers being in fourth grade and belting out the national anthem before a crowd of 700 people at a local basketball game. He went on to continue singing in the church and in school productions.

During his studies at Elizabeth City State University, Selby joined the University Choir which performed around the country and in Africa. 

Tshombe Selby, an aspiring opera singer and usher at the Metropolitan Opera, is now also working as a member of the chorus in the current production of
Tshombe Selby, an aspiring opera singer and usher at the Metropolitan Opera, is now also working as a member of the chorus in the current production of “Porgy and Bess.” Photo Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

It was a YouTube clip of legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti singing “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” that drew him to opera.

“I went to my voice teacher and did the cadenza at the end and he was blown away,” Selby said. “He looked at me and said, ‘We have something.’ “

Another key moment was flipping past “American Idol” and hearing the emotional “Nessun dorma” aria from “Turandot” shortly after his father passed away.

“It spoke to me so much,” he said.

In 2013 he moved to New York City to study at the New York Opera Studio with Nico and Carol Castel. Supporters in the North Carolina arts community have also helped finance his lessons.

Over the last five years, Selby has performed with regional opera companies and sung at numerous concerts.

And a job as usher at the Metropolitan Opera gave him a front-row seat to its lavish productions and revered singers — along with vital benefits as a member of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

His first taste of the famous stage came last year with a small part as a soldier in Richard Wagner’s epic “The Ring of the Nibelung” opera. But his dream — which he fully expects to realize — is to perform in “La Bohème” as Rodolfo.

“The Met is more than a stage — it’s all the people who make up the building,” Selby said. “It really is a family and they have all supported me so much.”

He shares his enthusiasm for opera with his colleagues as well as the patrons looking for their seats in his role as an usher. He knows they may be celebrating birthdays, anniversaries or remembering loved ones who used to accompany them to performances.

"It’s about the public and making sure that someone else is having a fabulous evening," Selby said.

Lisa L. Colangelo