Johnathan Lee Iverson is coming to Hartford soon. The University of Hartford Hartt School grad will be here as the ringmaster of the fame Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus “Legends” which will open at the XL Center on May 8. Iverson, who received his degree in voice performance from the West Hartford University, became the first African-American and the youngest ringmaster in its history, and is now celebrating 15 years as the exuberant master of ceremonies of The Greatest Show On Earth. A New York City native who, at 11 years old, was a member of the famous boys Choir of Harlem, Iverson was enthused, flamboyant and absolutely bombastic as he Spilled the Beans with Java.
Q: So what characteristics do you need to be a good ringmaster?
A: Definitely confidence, but you have to be careful with that word nowadays. People can construe confidence as arrogance and it’s really not. Great confidence is when you prepare and who you are and what you are not. You don’t need to be handsome, although I am (joking,) and you do need to have a presence and a well-trained voice.
Q: Do you ever feel a lot of pressure or stress? I mean you kind of set the tone for the whole show.
A: That is where the confidence comes in. Confidence is about knowing and understanding and being realistic. I always say everything has a science and an aesthetic. The science is what you have to build something, so as a ringmaster you understand the mechanics how you do what you do and what is going on around you. There is no pressure when you are confident. A ringmaster is a paid braggart. the guy who gets to talk smack but he backs it up with what he is presenting. And our circus will more than validate what I am barking about.
Q: Since you began in 1998, how many shows have you done?
A: I contend a Ringling ringmaster could easily be counted among the busiest vocalists in the world. It is a fun fact to think about. I mean, millions of people have heard my voice. We just started the tour in January and I have already done 150 shows. This tour still has another year and three quarters to go so how many shows have I done during my career, I couldn’t even guess.
Q: What did you family say when you came home and announced ‘I’m joining the circus to be ringmaster!’?
A: They said ‘what is that?’ They were worried I was going to be working with animals and once they realized that was not the case, they were okay.
Q: You are billed as the first African American ringmaster and the youngest ringmaster in the history of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Do you feel like some kind of trailblazer?
A: You know how it is. When you are the first guy to do something, it is considered a great experiment and people see it and say “okay this might work out.” the first person to do anything is the one under all the pressure. But the second one to do it, he’s got it good. When the first one hits a homerun it opens the window for others. Let’s be real. Even the NBA and NFL were very boring until they let the blacks play.
Q: What are the myths about the circus and what are some of the realities?
A: The greatest myth of course is that this maniacal idea that we mistreat animals. For our circus, the animals are treated professionally and in extremely humane conditions. There are a zillion agencies that regulate our industry and our animals are well taken care of.
Another one of the great myths is that the circus is made up of n’er do wells or people with no skills. My answer to that, your favorite movie star has 99 chances to get it right when they are filming something. The performers in the circus have one shot or it could cost them their lives. If we are going to define art as something that reaches an audience, circus wins it hands down. For circus artists, what they do is their being. They are not playing a character or a role. Even without makeup you can tell who the clowns are. When you are an acrobat, that is what you are and those are the skills you have and do. You can’t be a make-believe ringmaster or animal trainer. The circus is a calling, a vocation. Not a side project. You don’t do it for the money. It is what makes your blood beat.
Q: What can Hartford expect when you come to town?
A: Hartford has a sensitive history when it comes to the circus and the city has been generous to us considering that sensitive history. We are bringing a good show, always the greatest show on earth. We put so much into it. Our audience is at the forefront of our minds, because they are trusting us with their time, money and imagination. We have prancing pigs, leaping kangaroos, a unicorn, even a wooly mammoth and lions and tigers, the king of the bit cats, Alex Macy, the First Family of the Motorcycle Globe, the Urias Family, the Medeiros Troupe hair hangers, the pre-show Animal Open House and some of the most beautiful dancers in the world.
Q: Do you remember the first time you went to the circus?
A: I was probably 8 and it was at Madison Square Garden. The one thing that stuck with me is I had a crush on the girl next to me and paid more attention to her than the circus. But I remember the big parade and that the show was billed as having a unicorn and I was so upset when I found out that while it was a “uni” corn, it was a doggone goat that had just one horn.
Q: What is something no one knows about you?
A: I trained to be an opera singer but I don’t sing in the shower. I tried it but it just seemed weird. When I go into the bathroom I just focus on whatever it is I’m doing in there.
Ticket prices begin at $18. Information: xlcenter.com