A Conversation with Ryan Speedo Green
The gifted bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green has starred at the Met and the Vienna State Opera, among other international opera houses. The story of his rise from poverty and juvenile delinquency to the world’s great stages is the subject of Daniel Bergner’s book Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family. At the closing session of Opera Conference 2017, Green chatted with OPERA America’s president and CEO, Marc A. Scorca, about his extraordinary life journey. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
SCORCA: Let’s start at the beginning: Who brought you to your first opera? GREEN: I was 15 and I was at a magnet school in Norfolk, Virginia, called Governor’s School for the Arts. We took a field trip to New York City and saw Carmen at the Met. Just walking into the Met was a huge experience for a kid like me, coming from a trailer park in Virginia. But what made it even more special was the fact that the title role was played by an African-American woman by the name of Denyce Graves. I thought opera was something that was sung by a ginormous white Viking lady, breaking windows with her voice. But seeing this person who looked like me on stage opened a huge door in my mind to what I could do as a musician, as an artist and as an African-American. Afterward, we got to go backstage and meet her. I had seen this diva on stage performing one of the great roles, but backstage she greeted all of us, 40 high school kids, like we were her best friends. This fall, when I had my first major role at the Metropolitan Opera, Colline in La Bohème, I went into the green room to greet my family and friends, and who was there but Denyce Graves. She had heard about my story and how much she meant to me, so she came to see me and tell me how much that meant to her.
Do you think you, in particular, were naturally drawn to opera? Or do you think that it has the potential to draw in anybody who walks into the opera house?
I think if someone my age or younger walks in and sees a production that could come from the 1920s, they could be put off. But modern productions, placed in different periods with different plotlines, are giving it a more diverse appeal. And it helps that there are so many composers now who are writing modern operas with modern stories.
Have you done any new operas?
Have you ever heard of The Death of Klinghoffer? I was in the Met production that was so welcomed by the New York community [laughter]. Actually, I think the problems were partly our fault and partly the fault of the protesters. We should have had more discussions with the community, and the protesters should have done more research on the piece itself. One three-minute aria is not an entire opera. And operas have bad guys — Scarpia did some awful things!
In Sing for Your Life, you talk about the people who have mattered to you. You’ve got a great quote in there from your high school teacher Robert Brown: “Education without application is use-less information.”
He was a chorus master and voice teacher, and sort of a father to so many of the young singers. When I first got into the program, I was not the best of musicians: I could barely read music. Also, I had a really horrible stage-fright problem. My first opera role was the Ghost in Ballad of Baby Doe and I had two lines. I practiced them for weeks, but at the final dress, the conductor had to stare at me and speak the words, because I could not get them out of my mouth. They thought about taking the part away from me, but Robert Brown told them he would be my voice teacher and he would make sure that by the end of my sophomore year I had all the tools to be a part of the program. He kicked my butt. We were having voice lessons once a week, but he told me that I would need at least three a week. My mother was raising me by herself, and she said, “I can’t afford that.” And so he said, “Okay, I’ll do it for free.” He took it upon himself to drive 40 minutes to my trailer and 40 minutes back home three times a week so I could learn the rudimentary skills that most high school musicians knew already. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
What an investment he made in you to recruit you into the art form he loved so much!
He comes across just magnificently in the book.
The book can’t even give him justice. I didn’t know my father, but he was a father figure to me. After that first Carmen, I walked out of the Met and told him that I wanted to sing there. It was the first time I had ever spoken a dream out loud and the first time I had a focused motive in my life. And Mr. Brown told me I could do it. But he gave me this really long list of things that I had to do first, like going to multiple schools and to young artist programs and learning how to play piano and learning a foreign language. I was a 15-year-old kid who could barely read music, but I took it to heart, and as I got older I checked off each thing that he said I had to do. And nine years later I had my debut at the Met.
You have the most amazing basso profundo speaking voice. If I had a voice studio and you walked in with that speaking voice, I would say, “You’re going to be an opera singer!” Was that what you sounded like at 15?
No, I was a tenor actually! I had dreams of singing high Cs when I was in high school, and alas those dreams did not come true. I had a squeaky high voice for most of high school. Things changed around college.
Before high school, you had an early mentor in your teacher Elizabeth Hughes.
Yes. When I was about seven or eight years old, I was a very, very, very bad child, to put it mildly. I was put into a sort of special class for the worst kids in my school district. Imagine this little five-foot-one-inch lady with blond curly hair, and the way that I introduced myself to her was by throwing my desk at her and telling her that I would not be taught by a white woman. And instead of kicking me out of her class and sending me to the principal like most teachers would have done — and they’d be absolutely correct in doing so — she took away my chair and told me I could learn from the floor. When I was ready to learn from my desk, I could have my desk and chair back. It was a tough-love lesson, but she didn’t give up on me. She taught all of us the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech and made each of us recite it every day because she wanted all of us to know that despite our color, despite our background, what mattered was the content of our character. When I was young, I didn’t fully understand what the speech meant, but it has stayed with me. It’s been my mantra.
You say in the book, “The people who said I was worth something — Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Brown — that’s so rare in this world. I would give anything to be that person for someone.” I hear this as a request: an encouragement for all of us to reach out to young people who need our help.
I mean, it can start anywhere in life, like the positive reinforcement we get at home. My mom did the best she could. But there were a lot of problems surrounding me and my family, so I always sort of hated myself and where I came from. And to hear positive reinforcement from people who didn’t have to love me because they’re my blood, there’s no words for how much that can mean to a person. Even now, when someone tells me I’m doing something right as a musician — because most of the time people tell me when I’m doing something wrong — it is an amazing feeling. So when you go backstage or to a young artist program and tell a singer, “I really like the way you sing,” that person will take that to the bank.
At this conference, we’ve heard from some really dynamic women of color who’ve talked about feeling uncomfortable when they attend opera performances. They said they feel like outsiders. And certainly Sing for Your Life documents your sense of being an outsider when you entered the opera world. Has this sense diminished over time, or do you still feel like an outsider?
That sense has definitely diminished. At this point in my life, people are thinking not “Can he sing opera?” but “Where is his career going to lead him?” My background and the color of my skin have become less relevant.
What can we in the field of opera do to make those who are new to our world feel less like outsiders?
I’m currently living in Vienna, Austria, and singing with the Vienna State Opera. Every member of their ensemble at some point does outreach. They own a smaller opera house across the street, and they perform children’s operas or abridged versions of operas at least three or four times a week, for children from ages 5 to 14. So that means every year, for at least ten years, children who live in Vienna are going to see at least one opera a year. So opera becomes part of their culture. Any day of the week, if you look at standing room, which are the cheapest tickets, you’ll see teenagers there and people in their 20s, standing through an entire opera of Mozart or Verdi or some new piece. If you want to go on a nice date — go to the opera. That mentality is lacking here in the United States, where we’re actually taking away money to educate our children in music. Overseas they do it incredibly well, which is why the Wiener Staatsoper is at 99 percent capacity every night.
Eric Owens is quoted in the book, saying, “The antidote to color, to all the crap going through the minds of the people behind the casting table, is to sing so well that people go, ‘Oh, shit.’”
We have many, many conversations about race in America. It’s important to not shy away from those conversations, because we all have preconceptions. I have them, you have them, we all have them — about people, sexual preferences, religions, everything. If you’re an auditioner and a six-foot-five-inch, 300-pound black man walks in, you may think “I hope he can sing in Italian” instead of “I hope he sounds like Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Sam Ramey.” Those preconceptions can’t be solved unless you have conversations about it, unless you talk about it, and unless you look at yourself and how you view others.
It must have added incredible pressure when you auditioned. You weren’t only nervous about rhythm and pitch and words, but also about the impression you’d make.
At my first patron event as a young artist at Opera Colorado, a woman, Ellie Caulkins, asked me, “Have you ever done a Met competition?” I was like, “No, I’m not ready for that.” And she said, “Actually, I think you are and you should do it.” If you know Ellie Caulkins, you know that when she wants something, nothing can stop her. So I said, “I’m gonna do it,” even though I didn’t think I was in the same league as other singers my age. I had a lot of self-doubt because of my background. I never thought, “I’m here to audition because I think that I could make it.” But hey, it turned out okay.
Your career must have baffled your family.
For my family, opera was something that was an elitist white art form. And I mean honestly, it still is. There’s a trickle of color around, and it’s getting better with every generation, but yet if you think about it, it’s only been 60 years since someone like me was allowed to sing on the stage of the Met. Not that long ago, I wouldn’t even be able to sit in this chair with you and have this conversation. So it’s our duty to make sure that people in ethnic communities know what opportunities lie for them in this business. We should be doing outreach to bring operas to those kids, especially in the worst communities in America.
You say in the book: “There’s nothing prouder to me than being African-American. There’s no race more special in the United States. We persevered. Being African-American is the greatest gift God could have given to me.” What do you mean by that?
African-Americans are the only ethnicity in America that didn’t choose to be here. That alone, the fact that we have survived and persevered, is one huge part of America’s strength. We are an ethnicity of survivors and conquerors. We have done amazing things for this country when we weren’t given the opportunity or the rights. So I’m proud, beyond proud. And I think if minorities were allowed more opportunities to be a part of the classical-music world at a young age, you’d be surprised at what kind of artists we’d produce. It would no longer be a European art form — it would be an American art form.