Wichita native Chris Mann’s singing career has been steadily building for years. In fact, this is the third column I’ve written about the Mann, a Southeast High grad and veteran of the Wichita theater scene, since I first became aware of him in 2010.
But now, really, really big things are happening for Mann, whose singing abilities were on display last Sunday in front of, oh, only about 37 million people.
Mann, 29, appeared on the post-Super Bowl episode of NBC’s hit show “The Voice,” an “American Idol”-esque competition whose star-powered panel of judges is populated by Christina Aguilera, Blake Shelton, Cee-Lo Green and Adam Levine. The episode of the show, which was its second season premiere, had the best rating for a show following the Super Bowl since a 2006 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” NBC hasn’t earned a higher rating for an entertainment show since the “Friends” finale in 2004.
Calling from Los Angeles, where he lives now, Mann told me earlier this week that his life blew up — in a good way — the moment he appeared on screen on Sunday.
“Right then, while it’s airing, my phone exploded. I got over 400 text messages,” he said. “I got 9,000 new ‘likes’ on Facebook and immediately got hundreds of new Twitter followers. It was really mind-blowing stuff for somebody who for years has been trying to scrape together 100 new followers a month.”
Mann, the son of Patti and Mike, a local Dillon’s pharmacist, grew up in Wichita and graduated from Southeast in 2000. When he was 15, he started vocal lessons at Wichita State University and while in high school he worked in two Music Theatre of Wichita companies. Later, he attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where he majored in opera.
Although opera was his passion, Mann spent the years after college trying to find his musical niche — and he earned a long string of high-profile gigs. He recorded his own album, performed on soundtracks for “Glee,” “Sex and the City 2” and “Avatar,” toured with singer India.Arie and “Glee” and “Wicked” star Idina Menzel, and sang on commercials. In late 2010, he was cast as a “Warbler,” a popular group of singers on “Glee,” and he appeared on several episodes.
But about a year ago, Mann said, he started to have a bit of a musical identity crisis. He’d been trying to create a pop career for years and would get close to the big time but never all the way there. He decided to leave “Glee” and focus on his original love — opera and classical music.
“After I walked away from ‘Glee,’ I rededicated myself to that style,” he said. “This is what feels the most real to me. I have tried to do pop, and I can do it, but it’s not real and it’s not true and nothing was happening with it. I started singing again in this classical way, and all kinds of things started happening.”
Mann taped Sunday’s episode of “The Voice” back in October, and keeping the secret has been torture, he said.
In the episode, Mann is shown walking into the “blind auditions” with his parents. When it’s his turn on stage, he belts out a moving version of Andrea Bocelli’s “Because We Believe,” nailing all of the soaring high notes.
Both Green and Aguilera swirled their chairs around, signaling that they wanted Mann to continue on the show. Mann, choked up by the end of the song, was allowed to choose which singer’s “team” he wanted to be a part of, and he picked Aguilera. (He’s already been to her house with his fellow teammates for dinner and strategy planning.)
During the next several weeks, the four judges will continue to choose singers until each one has assembled a team of 12. The rest of the season is spent with the judges pitting their team members against each other until one singer remains. The winning singer gets $100,000 and a recording contract with Universal.
Mann says he likely will appear again sometime in March, when the “Battle Round” commences. In that round, he’ll have to sing a duet with another finalist, and only one of them will continue.
For now, Mann said, he’s reveling in the feeling of finally having the audience he’s spent years working for.
“I’ve always known and my parents have always believed if I could just get in front of an audience, I could do it, but it’s been impossible to make that happen,” he said. “Now I have people e-mailing me from all over the world. I’m so honored and blessed, and I can’t wait to keep going and see what else is going to happen.”