1956: In a trailer park in Rapid City, S.Dak., Mervyn Moore, the half-Indian son of a traveling preacher, is sitting in front of his television set. On the black-and-white screen he watches a darkly handsome man singing opera. He is singing beautifully. “He had an incredible aura,” recalls Moore, now a man of 33. “When he sang there was magic. I couldn’t express it then, but I knew I wanted to do to people what Mario Lanza did to me.”
1984: The fat lady has sung. One of the nation’s most prestigious vocal contests, the Indiana Opera Theatre Competition, is over, and first prize is awarded to a mezzo soprano. But receiving far more attention is a dramatic tenor deserving of the adjective: a strikingly handsome 6-foot Sioux named White Eagle. He has a luxurious black mane cascading over his tuxedo jacket. His voice, says one judge, “comes right out of the sky. This is the most exciting tenor I’ve heard in some time.” Although he has badly muffed one of his four competition arias, the strapping singer nevertheless walks away from the Indianapolis concert hall with a special $500 prize, a guest appearance with the host opera company and a 22-performance contract with another. Nobody is saying that White Eagle—the former Mervyn Moore—is ready for the Met after only two years of singing opera. But he has come a long way toward realizing his trailer park dream of 28 years ago.
Despite his early inspiration by Lanza, White Eagle’s formative years sound more like Marjoe than The Great Caruso. The son of Indian evangelical preacher Marries Moore and his wife, Frances, he was known as Mervyn rather than his Indian name when he got his first music job—as a tent revival soloist—at age 6. He remained Mervyn until 1982, appearing for a while with an inspirational music group and in a duo (Moore and Moore) with wife Betty. Then both the duo and the marriage broke up, and Moore moved to Denver, where his parents lived, to lick his wounds. “I’d had it with traveling and cheap motels,” he says. “It all just fell apart. I felt like everything I had worked for had been for nothing.”
When he emerged from his depression, it was as White Eagle. His hair grown long and his name legally changed, he sang again—not religious music but, at a friend’s invitation, the lead part of Riccardo in a Denver production of Verdi’s A Masked Ball. White Eagle found opera compelling. “It has such emotion,” he says. “Everything about it is bigger than life—and yet it’s not real.” His raw talent earned him appearances with several Colorado companies, and when his audition tape arrived at the Indianapolis competition office, contest director Elaine Bookwalter took one listen and, she says, “picked up the phone and told him to get on a plane.” The rest are grace notes.
When he’s not involved in a production, White Eagle often does fund raisers for his father’s home for Indian orphans in South Dakota. On these occasions he has been known to don a Sioux chieftain’s hand-beaded white leather jacket and eagle-feather headdress and sing Amazing Grace while the plate is passed.
Such behavior has caused some to echo the words of an Indianapolis contest judge, who accused White Eagle of “overplaying the Indian routine.” The tenor replies indignantly that he is providing a role model for young native Americans. “We can keep our heritage,” he says. “We can keep our culture. But we have to assimilate to survive. The kids look up to me, and they think maybe they can be artists, too.”
Like White Eagle, or Mario Lanza.