Sonic Boom: Opera’s Big New Voice Takes Flight in Carmen

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Ryan Speedo Green.

Courtesy / Dario Acosta

Ryan Speedo Green.

When Ryan Speedo Green opens up, his voice rolls like thunder. It booms off walls, blasts through the door, and rockets down a winding hallway, a gathering force of nature.

He is talking and reflecting minutes before rehearsal at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, his mind racing back to a school trip at the Metropolitan Opera, to an enchanting mezzo-soprano and a show-stopping baritone, to an aria that captivated him from the very first note.

When Green, at age 15, heard Denyce Graves sing the title role of Carmen, time stopped. He does not remember breathing. Like a Disney character under a spell, a magical spirit swept over him. “She made me laugh, she made me cry,” Green said, his eyes soft and gentle, his voice deep and strong. “She made me feel every emotion on the emotional spectrum.”

Ryan Speedo Green as Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, a play by Gioachino Rossini.

Wiener Staatsoper Michael Poehn

Ryan Speedo Green as Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, a play by Gioachino Rossini.

Graves, an African American, gave Green, a young man of color, hope. He recognized a place in opera for someone who looked like him. More than a decade later, Green – “Speedo” to friends – is preparing for the role of Escamillo in Carmen at the Tobin on Oct. 27-29.

“I’ve come full circle,” he said. “Fifteen years ago I saw Carmen. And now I’m singing one of the lead roles. It is truly humbling.”

An emerging star, the New York Times calls him “a scene-stealing bass-baritone with a robust voice.” The Philadelphia Inquirer says he “exudes charisma in ways that even the best bass soloist can’t always manage …” Opera News lauds him for “an entrancing stage presence.”

Green is a large man – 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, size 17 feet – with a story as big as his body and voice. He grew up in the shadow of trouble – in a trailer park in rural Virginia, in a shanty across the street from a drug dealer – and spent two months in a juvenile detention center, some of it in solitary confinement, for threatening his mother and brother at the age of 12.

According to the biography, Sing for Your Life, by Daniel Bergner, Green suffered abuse – belt lashings and punches to the stomach from his mother – and was prone to bursts of anger. He pulled a knife on his mom. He threw a desk across an elementary classroom.

“When you hate yourself,” he said, “it’s hard to show love to others.”

A self-described bully, Green’s temperament and size suited him for football. A middle school football coach directed him to choir, suggesting it would be an easy elective. The choir teacher had him audition for a prestigious school. The Governor’s School for the Arts accepted him – not because of his vocal prowess but because of a shortage of boys in the classical voice program.

Then came the school trip to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. After watching Graves as Carmen, Green told his choral director, Robert Brown, that he’d sing on that stage. Brown told Green not so fast. He first had to learn the piano and how to read music. He had to learn to sing in a foreign language and perform without forgetting words or succumbing to stage fright. He had to finish high school, study music in college, graduate, and enter a young artists music program. And then maybe, just maybe, he would be able to audition for the Met.

Green absorbed the long to-do list, making a mental note of each requirement, and set about fulfilling his vow. The journey was long and difficult and then came the hardest part in 2011: entering the most important operatic voice competition in the U.S., the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Ryan Speedo Green as the King of Egypt in Aida, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

Wiener Staatsoper Michael Poehn

Ryan Speedo Green as the King of Egypt in Aida, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

The field counted more than 1,200 aspirants, many classically trained since their youth, some at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music. Green’s earliest musical memory was inside a cold cell at 12, an age when others were aiming for vocal careers. In solitary confinement, he listened to Usher and the Backstreet Boys on radio, a reward for good behavior. For Green, music was an escape, a form of therapy. For those whom he would compete against, kids approximately his age, it was an art form, a dream.

Twelve years later, he was the longest of shots at the Met Council Auditions. Though he had a master’s of music in voice performance from Florida State, Green could not read music fluently, and did not know Italian, which, as Bergner writes, is “one of opera’s most essential tongues.”

Even more daunting: most bass-baritones do not mature until their mid-30s or even 40. Green was 24. And yet, he possessed a massive voice, one able to cover more than twice as many notes as most people. Green advanced from the first round of auditions in Denver to the finals in New York City. When he was one of five winners selected, there was no American Idol-like guaranteed contract and no promise of stardom. All Green had achieved, Bergner wrote in a New York Times Magazine piece, was “a toehold on the bottom rung of another ladder to be climbed.”

Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam in Boris Godunov, an opera by Modest Mussorgsky.

Wiener Staatsoper Michael Poehn

Ryan Speedo Green as Varlaam in Boris Godunov, an opera by Modest Mussorgsky.

Now here he is, six years removed from that bottom rung, a burgeoning international star. Green sings with the Vienna State Opera in Germany, tours the U.S. and enjoys critical acclaim. Of his performance as Colline in Puccini’s La Bohe’me at the Met, the New York Times called Green, “the real showstopper.” He’s appeared on CBS This Morning and National Public Radio. He’s the subject of a 311-page biography. “I’m living a dream,” he said.

There is joy in his voice but pain in a place no one can see, his memory and soul. The horror of being shackled and taken to juvenile detention is never far from his mind. Neither is the terror of solitary confinement. When his mood darkens and life doesn’t break his way, he turns old nightmares into fuel. “This is nothing compared to that,” Green reminds himself, “You can get through this.”

The past, while excruciating, allows Green to embrace another role: encourager of troubled youth.

“I want teenagers and children to know your past doesn’t define you,” he said. “It only makes you stronger. … A lot of kids who go into juvee, this is the lowest part of life. A lot of them don’t get the help and support they need when they get out. So they revert. They latch onto pain and sadness and it controls them. They haven’t learned that their past doesn’t define them. That a mistake can always be fixed, especially when you’re young. That there is always a way out.”

When Green left juvenile detention, he made a decision at 12 people often don’t make as adults. He changed friends. He immersed himself in the Latin Club and football, whatever was available to keep him out of trouble.

“I don’t know how or why I did that,” Green said. “I just did not want to end up back in juvenile detention.”   

The role of Escamillo in Carmen, conducted by Garrett Keast and directed by Conor Hanratty, represents another rung up in the ladder. As a bass-baritone, Green often plays a menacing villain. But not in Carmen.

“This is one of the few times in the operatic world,” Green said, “where I actually do get the girl. … To be able to sing this is a huge step up. Doing well in this role could open so many doors to so many bigger roles.”

Minutes before rehearsal in the H-E-B Performance Hall, Green lowers his voice. It can be thunderous but now it is tender. He’s recalling the body-building father who assigned him the middle name, “Speedo,” and the reasons behind it. For starters, “Speedo” represented his father’s favorite sporting brand. Then there was the timing of Ryan’s birth: April Fool’s Day.

His mother did not care for “Speedo,” but friends thought it was cool so it stuck. When the young man came to opera, he had a ready-made nickname. “Lots of people have the name, ‘Ryan,’” he said. “Nobody has ‘Speedo.’”

If the name doesn’t sound made for opera, the voice certainly does. The massive, still-maturing bass-baritone has carried him from obscurity to budding celebrity, from a lonely cell to an international stage.

“If you have passion for something, anything is possible,” Green said, his voice beginning to rise. “I grew up in a trailer park in a single mother household. I came out of juvee and now I’m singing in the Metropolitan Opera.”

The stage beckons. Rehearsal begins. The voice is about to take flight.

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