By Maggie Miles | Outer Banks Voice on March 23, 2023
When Tshombe Selby was a child, he loved singing so much he would sing all day on his front porch. “My Aunt Madam gave me a piano and I would be on the screened-in front porch out there just screaming at the top of my lungs to the point that neighbors would call the house, ‘Can you get him to be quiet?!’ And then the neighbors would go back and forth with each other, saying, ‘No, we love it! Let him sing! Make a joyful noise to the Lord! Listen!’” Selby recalled.
According to Selby, who turns 39 in a few days, it was support from neighbors, family and community members that catapulted him from his front porch in Manteo to center stage at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City for his upcoming debut solo role as Mano in “Champion,” which starts on April 10.
“Champion” is written by Terence Blanchard, who debuted at the Met in its 2021-22 season with his show “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” which made history as the first opera ever shown at the Met composed by an African American, going on to win a Grammy for Opera of the Year in 2023.
Selby was on the Met stage as part of the ensemble in “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” and “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin, for which he has won two Grammys, but “Champion” will be his first solo role.
“Champion” is based on the true story of Emile Griffith, a closeted young hat maker-turned-prizefighter from the U.S. Virgin Islands, who rose to fame six decades ago to become world champion and ultimately become part of one the greatest tragedies in sports history. In a nationally televised championship fight on March 24, 1962, Griffith killed his archrival, Benny “The Kid” Paret in the ring after Paret called Griffith a “maricon,” a gay slur in Spanish.
The opera showcases Griffith grappling with the guilt of killing another human being and coming to terms with his sexuality in a time when it was ostracized. Selby plays Manuel Alfaro, Paret’s strong-willed coach who convinces Paret to fight Griffith despite the fact that Paret had been battered in several recent fights and the Griffith fight was scheduled only three months after one of those difficult ring wars.
“It’s very interesting to play and do stories about actual people and the people who were alive in our lifetime,” Selby noted. “It’s a mixed-race cast. And, you know, we have to deal with all kinds of things from segregation to, you know, the boxing world and just you know, just how things happen.”
Growing up, when Selby wasn’t singing on his front porch, he was singing in the choir at Haven Creek Baptist Church in Manteo. His family has been a part of the church since its conception. His great-grandmother and grandmother sang in the choir. In kindergarten, he told his mother and grandmother he wanted in on the fun.
“Because everybody stood up and the choir used to come marching down the aisles in a procession, and I just thought it was the best thing. And then the senior choir was the best thing in the world because I’m a tenor and so the ladies sang really high and people really reacted to them…You know, how they affected the flow of the service and the spirit of the church was just so exciting for me,” he recalled.
In eighth grade, Selby rose to become Minister of Music at the church, and later attended Elizabeth City State with hopes to become a music teacher and eventually a principal. But then his dad passed away suddenly. He couldn’t find the words to express the pain he felt. And then he heard Puccini’s Nessun Dorma.
“Just the music that Puccini wrote…when my dad passed away, the feelings could not really be put into words and Nessun Dorma spoke to me. It just embodied all of the emotions that I was feeling,” recalled Selby.
When he graduated from Elizabeth City State, Selby went to work to support his family. He got a job driving a school bus, he worked as a proctor at the alternative school, he cut grass, he worked as a bouncer at the Pit nightclub, was a sales associate at J Crew, continued as the Minister of Music at Haven Creek, and became the Choir Master at Lost Colony for three seasons.
During his time at the Lost Colony, when Tshombe expressed his dream of becoming a successful opera singer, he points to a few key patrons of the arts who really helped make it happen. William Massey, a Roanoke Island Historical Association Board Member, began raising the initial funds. And Selby give a special thanks to two other supporters who helped raise the bulk of the funds that launched him on his career — Lebame Houston, author/director of the stage production on the life of Queen Elizabeth I titled “Elizabeth R,” and historian of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, and Barbara Hird, famed local actress who played Queen Elizabeth I in both dramas.
“I can’t emphasize enough how the community, Especially Elizabeth R and Company, dropped everything to get me to this point,” Selby stated. “Labame and Barbara used the full force of their organization to make sure I made it.”
While the others focused on funding, Charles Massey, then the Director of Marketing at The Lost Colony, happened to have a friend at the Metropolitan Opera House. He made a call to see if he could get Selby a job as an usher.
“I said, ‘I’ve never asked you for a favor, but I’m asking you to help me out,” Massey recalled telling his friend. Selby got an interview and was offered the job. Then the whole community rallied. The fundraising included a recital put on by Tshombe at the Pioneer Theater in downtown Manteo. It was Houston that handed him the check that sent him to New York City in 2013.
“Without the support of Manteo and Dare County and others I would not be here. I would not be here because they literally put gas in my car, and I want to say spirit and well wishes in my heart and positive thoughts in my brain for me to continue this journey,” said Selby.
“Tshombe has earned, and deserves, every good thing that he has worked so hard to achieve. We are thrilled about his continuing successes, and will continue to support him in every way we can. He is an example of determination and tenacity of purpose,” Houston told the Voice.
“Tshombe was put on this earth to do what he’s now doing. He’s worked hard to have each door open and he’s there now proving it to all of us. We’re all applauding him from afar,” Charles Massey concurred.
Selby’s career has taken him to the stage at Carnegie Hall, to performances in places like Canada and Ukraine. But when you talk to him, you learn that he would much rather talk about the budding talent of young folks on the Outer Banks who may deserve to see their name in lights.
“Sometimes it’s unfortunate that your validation doesn’t happen until you are on some kind of board or you’re on you’re doing something outside of the town. There are many talented young people in our town who don’t get any praise or any kind of acknowledgement from what they’re doing if they’re different until they do it on a broader spectrum. So, there are other Tshombes, there are other whoevers, that are seen as, you know, odd ducks,” he offered.
And for anyone with trepidation about the opera, Selby says give it a try.
“Channel your Lost Colony roots and be voyagers of the unknown,” he declared. “Become your own Virginia Dare and dare to be different.”
More than anything, Selby wants people to know that he thinks about his community and family at each audition, at each performance. He calls himself a son of the Outer Banks.
“I’m so proud to be from Manteo, up the road,” he stated, referencing a term referring to the northern part of Roanoke Island, where he grew up. “The only downside of being an opera singer in New York City is that I’m always away from home.”
The Metropolitan Opera, “Champion” will be live streamed at the Kill Devil Hills Movies 10 on April 29th at 12:55 pm. Tickets available at www.rctheatres.com.
What a beautiful story…thanks for sharing it with us readers. Mr. Selby…wish you continued success!
Just a mom
Fantastic story of hard work and belief in a dream!
Congratulations to Selby! And a great big cheers to all his friends and supporters!
Tshombe is one of those singers who can raise the hair on your arms with the power of his voice. Besides a world class voice, he owns the stage with his commanding presence. When asked what I like about living on the beach, I’ll relate the usual positives, but if the questioner seems truly interested, I’ll tell the story of how this community rallied behind a young man and helped propel him toward bigger and better things.
Incredible awesome story!!!!!!!!!
LOVE this story!