CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It is not a requirement of a circus ringmaster that he be a classically trained opera singer.
That's just the route Johnathan Lee Iverson happened to take. As it turns out, that classical training was a plus.
"I wasn't the first singing ringmaster, but they made it clear to me that they were going to up the ante on their music and they wanted someone who could handle the rigors of what they were going to do," said Iverson, who joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey at the end of 1998.
He joins the circus for performances at the Civic Center through Sunday.
Iverson's training began early, when he joined the Boys Choir of Harlem and became its lead tenor at age 11. He developed poise and stage presence with performances that included the venerable Luciano Pavarotti and travels that took the choir around the world.
Fresh out of the University of Hartford, Iverson auditioned for Ringling Bros. and became not only the youngest ringmaster it had hired, but the first African-American.
Although he left after three tours with the circus to pursue other performance opportunities, Iverson returned to join the circus's 140th edition a couple of years ago and stayed on.
"Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey suits me," he said. "I'll tell you, I can still do opera and I'm still young enough to do it. I knew deep in my heart that I needed the technique; I wanted the technical facility that opera singers have.
"But I know in my heart I'm not the type of performer that could do the same type of repertoire for years and years. I'm not one of them. I like new material and Ringling Bros. fits me like a glove because every two years it's a brand new show.
"I'm the only one on the planet singing my songs. They were literally crafted for my voice. That's so cool."
Iverson said he still carefully trains his voice and prepares for every performance with the circus.
"I still continue to study voice; in fact, my teacher is written into my contract and the show accommodates me by bringing him to me occasionally. He keeps me in shape."
Iverson said circus management has been kind to accommodate other requests, too, such as helping him stay away from dust and dirt as much as possible.
"I wouldn't survive this gig otherwise. This is a singer's nightmare," he said. "Imagine this: I'm in different weather conditions every night. I'm singing in arenas where some are old. All are congested and they're pushing recycled air around.