As a rising young tenor in the 1990s, Limmie Pulliam dreamed of a career that would take him to the world’s top stages. But Pulliam, who has struggled with excessive weight for much of his life, quit singing in his early 20s because of concerns about body shaming in the music industry, finding work instead as a debt collector and a security guard.
Now, after spending much of the past decade rebuilding his voice and career, Pulliam, 47, is finally realizing his dream. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall on Friday with the Oberlin Orchestra, singing the title role in R. Nathaniel Dett’s “The Ordering of Moses.” And last month, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of Radamès in Verdi’s “Aida,” filling in for a tenor who had canceled his appearance — making Pulliam the first Black singer to perform that role in the Met’s history.
His solemn performance received a warm ovation at Carnegie.
“To hear Limmie succeed in this moment so beautifully, and at this point in his life, was personally satisfying for me,” said Timothy LeFebvre, the chair of the voice department at Oberlin. “We always cheer on our colleagues when they reach these notable achievements, but even more so when it is so hard fought.”
In an interview, Pulliam reflected on his 12-year break from singing and the challenges facing larger artists, who once were common in the industry but have faced pressure in recent years to slim down. He also talked about how a chance to perform the national anthem while working as a field organizer in Missouri for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign allowed him to rediscover his voice. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
After you attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, you seemed destined for a career in opera. Then you quit. What happened?
There was a lot of pressure on artists in terms of appearance. The industry cared about things that really had nothing to do with the voice, but with physicality, and that made it difficult for singers of size. It made it easy for me to walk away. I made myself a promise that if it ever stopped being fun, I would do something else. And so I did.
What was it like at the time for singers struggling with concerns about their weight?
People within the industry were able to make comments regarding someone’s physical look with impunity. In other industries, that would not be accepted, but it was almost widely accepted within the classical music world. It felt like it was OK to make fun of people of size and that we weren’t worthy of careers. It was a very difficult time, and it’s still a very difficult time.
What would people say to you?
I’ve had general directors send me email messages complimenting me on my voice and then saying, “Well, when you lose 50 pounds, get in touch with me again, and I’ll give you a live audition.”
How did it feel to hear those comments?
I began to look at rejection in a different way. I used to get a bit down when I received a note like that or just a flat-out refusal about an audition. But I began to use that as fuel to make me want to work even harder — to be an even better vocalist. I thought, “They may not want me right now, but they will need me at some point.”
During your break from classical music, you worked a variety of jobs, eventually starting your own security firm. Did you sing at all, even for your own pleasure — at home, in the shower, at church?
Not really. I was deliberately making the decision not to sing. I just didn’t have the desire. I wasn’t singing that much in church, and I rarely listened to the radio in the car. There wasn’t much going on musically for me during that time. I was just concentrating on this new life that I was trying to build and trying to move forward.
And then, in 2007, when you were 31 and working as a field organizer for the Obama campaign in Missouri, your home state, you got an unexpected chance to perform the national anthem.
We had invited someone to sing the national anthem. And they got cold feet at the last minute and decided they didn’t want to do it. And it happened to be an event that I had invited my boss to attend. And he immediately said, “I remember seeing on your résumé that you used to be an opera singer. Why don’t you sing it?” And I said, “Well, you know, I haven’t sung for a number of years. And the national anthem is not an easy song to sing. I’m not sure I can pull it off.” It was terrifying; it was not something I had practiced or prepared. I did not know what was going to come out.
But he convinced me to do it. And I sang at the event and ended up singing at several other events. And in doing so, I noticed some very interesting changes in my voice. It had taken on a more mature, burnished quality. And it had grown substantially in size. And it really piqued my interest as to the type of repertoire I could possibly sing with this new instrument.
Your returned to the stage five years later, when you were 36, at the National Opera Association’s vocal competition. How did you prepare?
I pulled out my old lesson tapes from the conservatory and began working with those lesson tapes and polishing things, just out of interest to see what the voice could do. And I eventually reached out to a voice teacher in Memphis, Tenn., and began working with her. We realized that we had something that was special — that there wasn’t anyone like me as an artist out there. We were working to rekindle the voice. That’s when I found the joy again in singing.
Was it easy to get back into the business?
It took a good three years or so before that first staged operatic engagement came, and it came because I was posting clips of my singing on YouTube and other platforms and just sharing wherever I could, and reaching out to friends who were still in the industry and letting them know I was back and basically trying to sing for anyone who would hear me.
A friend saw a clip of me singing “Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano” from Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” with my former high school choir director playing the piano. She shared it with her husband, who happened to be the music director of a small opera company in the Seattle area. They invited me to to sing the role of Canio in “Pagliacci.”
You were the first Black singer to perform the role of Radamès at the Met. Do you feel that classical music is doing enough to address racial and ethnic disparities?
As a Black man, I’m usually the only one who looks like me in a rehearsal setting. So there always is a sense of isolation, of not fitting in. You have to learn to work through that and do your job to the best of your ability.
We always seem to have had celebrated Black female voices in the industry, like Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett. But the list of Black men has always been quite short. There are some in the industry who have difficulty in seeing Black males in romantic leads. We’ve made progress, and we just have to keep pushing forward and breaking down some of these walls.
How did it feel to make your debut at Carnegie Hall?
It was very difficult for me to enjoy it fully. It has been a challenging year for me personally. On May 8, my father passed away. And the following week, after the funeral, I left to get on a plane to prepare for my debut with the Cleveland Orchestra singing the role of Otello. I arrived in New York on Nov. 10 to begin my cover contract with the Met for “Aida.” On Nov. 14, my eldest sister passed away.
It has been an emotional roller coaster for me. One never knows how grief will manifest itself. And grief is a very sneaky thing. And it pops up on you at very odd times, and you never know what’s going to trigger it. I was able to make it through because of the strength of my faith and knowing that my loved ones were in complete support of me and my career and would have wanted me to be where I was.
What did your family say to you after the performance?
My mother walked up to me and gave me a hug and a kiss and said: “God bless you. I’m extremely proud of you.” My oldest brother, whenever I go to perform, he always reminds me to make the family proud. And his response on Friday night was, “That’s how you make us proud.”