Once upon a time, singing was his hobby, John Brandon said.
Now, it's his career, says the Ooltewah resident who's becoming a nationally known baritone.
"I can do what I love and get paid for it," he said.
Brandon, who will present a benefit concert at 8 p.m. Thursday at New Hope Presbyterian Church with local singers Harv Wileman, Beth DeRoy and Kelly Stultz and pianist Jason Duroy, made his debut with the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera earlier this month.
Earlier this year, his roles included Morales in "Carmen" with the North Carolina Opera, Gaylord Ravenal in "Showboat" with Opera Naples and Morales and Dancairo in "Carmen" with Opera Birmingham.
Brandon also has appeared in other regional opera companies, toured internationally with several vocal ensembles and been invited to perform at concerts and recitals across the United States and the Bahamas.
The McCallie School graduate said he realized several years ago the competition gets tougher the further he advances in his career.
"When I went from McCallie to Westminster [Choir College], I thought, 'I need to up my game. There's a lot of good singers,' " he said. "When I went from Westminster to my first young-artist audition, I almost walked out of the room. It was the first time I heard talent from all over the country.
"When you're done with your formal training, usually the path that you go into is a young-artist program. Most companies across the country have them. There's thousands and thousands of people with vocal performance degrees who line up to audition. If [you're] granted an audition, you're up against the best people in the country in their 20s. So it was intimidating at first."
Now, Brandon routinely auditions for larger roles with companies in even more intimidating locales such at New York City.
"You just try your best, and you try to show them that one thing that makes you a cut above others so that you can get hired," he said. "It's a tough business."
Q What is your ambition with your singing career?
A I'm actually currently speaking to a few agents. I'm sort of at that age where, being 26, you're coming out of your formal education. I've done a few young-artist programs, and now I'm in the midst of doing secondary and comprimario roles with really great regional companies. I have to keep in mind that 26 is still quite young for an opera singer. I won't hit my peak vocally until I'm in my 40s or 50s. It's such a long journey and a long process; but as a 26-year-old, I'm getting hired pretty consistently. So my goal is to make my living solely on the sound of my voice, solely on performing with symphonies and opera companies across the world. I would like to have an international vocal career.
Q How difficult is it to break into this business?
A I heard a statistic recently that an NCAA basketball player - and there's thousands of them - [has] a better chance of going to the NBA than a college student with a degree in vocal performance has the chance of becoming a full-time professional opera singer. That is just to say that it is quite rare to make your living solely on the sound of your voice as an opera singer. And it's not just about the voice. You have to have a good amount of acting training. People have to like to work with you. You have to look the part. You have to sound the part. You have to be sort of your own entrepreneur.
Q Who were your influences in Chattanooga?
A My voice teacher was Robert Regal, and I started studying with him when I was 15 years old.... I was in the Chattanooga Boys Choir for four years - [first] under Everett O'Neal, who passed away when I was in my second year there, and then Ron Starnes took over. Once I came to McCallie, it was [director of music] Lew Cisto, for sure. He was a sort of a vocal coach, if you will. He also taught me a lot of repertoire. We worked on things other than singing. We worked on conducting, all-around musicianship training. And I sang in the McCallie Men's Ensemble under his direction. We toured in Scotland and New York City, and that really got me excited about music, and it made me want to pursue it as a major in college.
Q What influenced you to do a concert at the church?
A While I was in the Boys Choir, I was also in the New Hope Presbyterian youth choir. And that was under the direction of [director of music] Janet Sump.... I always sort of wanted, even when I first graduated, to come back to Chattanooga to share my voice, to sort of give back.
Contact Clint Cooper at ccooper@timesfreepress or 423-757-6497.