A CHRISTIAN IMMIGRANT FROM EGYPT AND A MUSICIAN, Boutros was studying at Curtis Institute of Music in the 1990s when his path first crossed with Rogers’. Boutros’ roommate was Alan Morrison, an organist and the son of concert pianist Jeannine Morrison. The Morrisons were close friends with the Rogerses—Joanne Rogers was a concert pianist too, and she and Jeannine often performed together.
Alan Morrison appeared on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1994, showing Rogers how to play a pipe organ. On another episode Morrison played piano with Demarre and Anthony McGill, brothers who play the flute and clarinet. After hearing them, Rogers turned to the camera.
“Those young men, they spend their time doing healthy things,” Rogers told the audience. “Things that don’t hurt anybody. In fact their music helps -people. They practice as they play, and they make life better by doing it. I’m very proud of them for what they do, how they do it, and who they are. When you use your time doing constructive things, helpful things, and learn to do them as well as you possibly can, I’m proud of you too.” Then Rogers started singing his song, “I’m proud of you ...”
Having grown up in Egypt, Boutros had never watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, so his roommate Morrison put it on one day. At first Boutros found it slow and uninteresting, but that changed as he watched.
“I wanted to cry,” said Boutros. “What this man was doing psychologically for kids—I’m watching a genius.”
Fred Rogers himself studied music composition, and he composed hundreds of songs. He loved spending time with musicians. Morrison sent a tape of one of Boutros’ recitals to Rogers, thinking he would like Boutros’ voice. Rogers got in touch.
“He just decided he was going to pray for me and encourage me,” said Boutros. Rogers wrote letters regularly, attended Boutros’ programs, and, after Boutros graduated, helped with money while Boutros got on his feet.
They would work on music together, Rogers asking Boutros to show how he did piano improvisation. Boutros says Rogers was “not a small composer,” writing technically difficult pieces, like an arrangement of Chopin. They began by discussing music but moved on to “talking about God all the time.”
Soon after school, Boutros was performing The Messiah in Chile, and he got nervous about his visa coming back. The visa was in order, but Boutros worried he might be sent back to Egypt, and he hadn’t been able to obtain clear answers from the embassy. He called Rogers, who contacted U.S. diplomats in Chile, who invited Boutros to the local office and comforted him about the visa.
The Rogerses had Boutros up for long visits at their “crooked house,” as they called it, in Nantucket. Boutros remembers going to the grocery store with Rogers where fans would mob the PBS star. Boutros offered to do the grocery shopping, but Rogers insisted that he was a guest.
One conversation with Rogers stuck with Boutros throughout his career. They were eating at a diner in New York and Rogers ordered a sandwich, then asked if it cost extra to add cheese. The waiter said cheese was 40 cents extra. Rogers said he’d have the sandwich without the cheese. Forty cents isn’t much, is it? Boutros asked. Rogers told him he would spend a lot of money on his shoes, because he needed to have good shoes, but the cheese wasn’t necessary for his life’s work.
“That’s when I decided I was going to get a grand piano,” said Boutros. “Not a bad upright piano.”
Boutros sang with the Met Opera for about five seasons and performed multiple times with the legendary pianist Martha Argerich. He now directs music at New York’s Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church—composing, singing, and leading orchestras. This past December he premiered a piece he wrote in Coptic based on Isaiah 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”