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'Decision-makers are not comfortable with seeing a black male hero with a white heroine' ... Noah Stewart. Photograph: Mitch Jenkins
I so wanted to be able to diss Noah Stewart, classical music's latest "sensation". For a start, his record company, Universal, is promoting him as the "first modern opera star". (Callas, Pavarotti, Domingo anyone?) Then there is the "first black artist to top the classical music charts" factor, which Stewart became this week; a landmark of sorts, but a largely meaningless claim given how few discs you have to sell to top that peculiar chart. Stewart's album is being sold under Easy Listening in my local HMV, where it is ranked No 2 to In My Dreams by the Military Wives. Finally, I thought his Deep River on the Today programme this week was a bit grim, though it was 8.30am and his accompanist was Justin Webb.
The case against seemed strong, but Stewart's enthusiasm has won me over. We spoke when he had just arrived in Detroit, where he is rehearsing Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. He had been travelling for a day, and had an hour and a half before his rehearsal, but it was impossible to get him off the phone. Stewart talks non-stop. He is happy to discuss his tough upbringing in Harlem and his struggles at New York's Juilliard School of Music. He sings tracks that didn't make it on to the disc down the phone to me.
Opera singers who cross over often abandon the slog of singing on stage. It's much easier to bash out Some Enchanted Evening with a mic in a concert hall than to sing Aida. But the 33-year-old Stewart insists he wants to go on building an opera career. "There are lots of roles I want to sing. I haven't even started yet." A young tenor, black, beautiful, raised by a single mom, Stewart is eminently marketable – but there is something real to market here.
He fell in love with opera at 15. He had won a singing competition at 12 and enrolled at the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, but had no interest in opera until he saw a video of the great black American soprano Leontyne Price singing the Verdi Requiem. "I thought, holy cow – the tone, the intensity, seeing her with a 300-member chorus and an 80-strong orchestra and [Herbert von] Karajan conducting. I want to be that." When Price signed discs at the local Tower Records he was fourth in line. "'Ms Price,' I said, 'you are an inspiration.' 'Go to Juilliard,' she told me. 'That's where I went.'"
His mother was surprised when he announced he wanted to be an opera singer. "She gave me an odd look and said, 'A what?' She had no idea what opera was. 'Isn't that for old people?' But she accepted it. I wouldn't have achieved anything without her support." Still, his spell at Juilliard was a disappointment. "I was ahead of the curve when I got there. I knew what I wanted to be as an artist, and I already knew Italian. But you were critiqued so severely that I lost all my confidence."
It was very cliquey, he says, and he felt he was given few opportunities. He was starting to learn that life was tough for black tenors. "Decision-makers are not comfortable seeing a black male hero with a white heroine." Black basses are fine, he says; they tend to play the dodgy characters. Ditto black sopranos (natural victims). But a black Romeo? The only plus was that the stress of studying at Juilliard made him lose weight, and the fat kid turned into a handsome young man.
He took a four-year break afterwards, doing odd jobs and singing only sporadically. "That was a really low point, because I was a long way away from music. I was sleeping late, my technique wasn't right, and even my mom, who always has the answer, said, 'Noah, I don't know what to tell you.'" He took a job as a receptionist at Carnegie Hall in the hope that someone would give him a break, but his boss just told him to stop humming. He sang in restaurants, only to be told by one diner it was a shame his colour meant he would never sing Carmen on stage.
Eventually the break did come, on a young artists' programme at San Francisco Opera. He was understudying Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth when the singer playing the role fell ill. Other roles followed, including a well-received Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly at Opera North last year and a part in Judith Weir's widely derided Miss Fortune at the Royal Opera House.
Universal spotted him in 2010, invited him to make a demo, then gave him a five-disc deal – an offer even the world's most established singers would kill for. His debut disc combines opera with lush recordings of popular standards, and will be of particular appeal to those who want to hear Nights in White Satin and Fields of Gold sung in Italian. It is easy to mock – the disc includes an operatic version of Hallelujah with the oddest chord change you will ever hear – but his rendition of Pourquoi Me Réveiller from Massenet's Werther is by no means negligible. Stewart is not Pavarotti or Corelli, but opera nut that he is, he realises that. He's a young guy who's trying to sustain three careers – on the opera stage, in the concert hall and in the murky world of crossover. And if he can help spread the word about the most visceral and exhilarating art form in the world, and perhaps get one extra person into the opera house, who cares about the hype?
• Noah Stewart's UK tour starts on 17 March. Details: noahofficial.com