Beyond the Bio: Tenor Orson Van Gay II – Staying Connected to Character

Orson Van Gay II has captivated audiences in classical and contemporary opera and concert performances with his charisma and “fine heroic tenor” (San Francisco Classical Voice). Van Gay has garnered acclaim for roles in his home of Southern California and across the United States, with Broadway World declaring, “his sound was fluent and his high notes golden,” and Voix des Arts stating, “The vitality of his work was gratifyingly unflappable.”

Van Gay’s 2023-24 concert season includes solo appearances with the Muse/ique Symphony, Redlands Symphony Orchestra, and performances of Mozart’s Requiem with the Modesto Symphony. He also voices the role of Tamino in Pocket Opera’s animated/live-action film version of A Pocket Magic Flute, to be shown in schools and educational programs in conjunction with the San Francisco Opera Guild. His recent roles have included Danilo in The Merry Widow, for which he earned Pocket Opera’s inaugural Hurst Artist of the Year Award in 2022; Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore with the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice; Alfredo in La Traviata with Piedmont Opera; the title role of Candide with Angels Vocal Art; Orlando in The Industry’s acclaimed site-specific production of Hopscotch; and both The Athlete in I Can’t Breathe and Rodolfo in La Bohème with Pacific Opera Project. Of his portrayal of The Young Man in The Last Romance with Kansas New Theater, Broadway World wrote, “Van Gay II is one of the finest operatic tenors I have had the pleasure of hearing in a very long time.”

But Orson didn’t discover his love or talent for opera until he was well into his twenties.

Orson grew up in Los Angeles in a family of musicians – his parents met in college, where his father played bass in a Motown-era band and his mother studied opera. As a child, he remembers fondly that his family was “overwhelmingly supportive” of all his endeavors. “I grew up watching the Disney Channel – I loved Kids Incorporated,” he recalls. “And one day, I said, ‘Mom, that’s what I want to do.’ And my mom said, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and get you an agent and see what happens.’ And that was when I landed my very first gig.” Orson’s first TV credit was a guest appearance in the role of Tyler on that very same Disney show. Orson loved music and theater, but mostly stuck to singing R&B and popular music. He left LA to study science at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

While there, Orson did an audition for a local musical theater company. They suggested he consider singing for Virginia Opera, and he did, snagging an open spot in the opera chorus. It changed his life. “When I saw what the principal artists were doing,” he says, “I knew. That’s what I want to do.” He returned to school and changed his career path to vocal performance. Opera provided a whole new set of challenges for Orson, and he welcomed the study and focus needed for his new operatic journey. He discovered recordings of Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price, and Jessye Norman – and used them as his pillars of inspiration. “Opera is a living and breathing art form and I want to be a part of continuing that narrative.”

When he was ready to make the move away from Virginia, Orson was torn between heading to New York – the oft-traveled path for emerging opera singers – and back to Los Angeles. “My heart was drawn back home,” he says. “It felt like starting from scratch,” but he had to give it a try. In 2015, an audition for the L.A. Opera gave him the affirmation he needed that he was on the right path. He was cast in the company’s world premiere of Figaro 90210, debuting the role of Bernard Curson (aka “Cherubino”). Since then, Orson has performed with the company as The Messenger in Il Trovatore, Ramerrez in The Prospector, and has sung in the company’s “Connects,” “City of Hope,” and “I AM LA” series. He also got connected to Long Beach Opera, where he has performed the roles of Vitaliano in Handel’s Giustino, Gérard in Les Enfants Terribles, and Raymond Santana in Anthony Davis’ Pulitzer Prize winning opera, The Central Park Five, a role Van Gay premiered with the same company in 2019.

The shift in work over the past few years allowed Orson to put some of the pieces in his parallel careers together. “The pandemic revealed how important it is to focus on uplifting the soul to better humanity,” he says. He switched from solely pursuing his classical music career path to simultaneously enjoying success in singing, acting, and voiceover work. “Having started my career as an actor,” he realized, “I have a unique approach that allows me to connect with the audience through the embodiment of a character.” He has been seen on a number of nationally recognized television series and commercials, and even co-starred on the Disney series Coop & Cami Ask the World in 2020. He is appreciative to be able to foster all his talents, and grateful to be “back on television with a full beard instead of as an adolescent with a voice two octaves higher!”

This month, Orson self-released his first solo EP, Colors of a Lyric with pianist Lenny Hayes. For the program, he says, “I wanted to share some of the iconic pieces that have helped to shape my musical career. To give listeners an intimate experience of who I am as an artist. I’m so excited to share this special recording with opera fans.”

With a life full of music and theater, Orson has rediscovered the joy and authenticity he first found as a child actor. “In these trying times,” he says, “it is even more important for artists to share their talents and gifts with the world, so that people may, for just even a moment, transcend to a place of positivity, inspiration and light.”