A Story of Race, Music, and Family
By Daniel Bergner
Late in Daniel Bergner’s deeply moving new book, “Sing for Your Life” — an incisive portrait of a young black man from a poor and constricted home in southeastern Virginia who comes to possess, of all things, the potential for greatness at the highest levels of opera — there is a small scene that conveys the maddening odds against ever truly slipping through the cage of other people’s perceptions. Ryan Speedo Green, Bergner’s 6-foot-5, 300-pound protagonist, stands in the Manhattan living room of an influential Metropolitan Opera patron, beside a piano and little portraits of Napoleon and his family. His hostess and her guests would like Ryan to perform an encore for them. He politely declines. He has only prepared the one Broadway tune he just sang. “Oh, you should do ‘Ol’ Man River,’ ” the elderly black pianist suggests, referring to a humiliating number about the unceasing misery of being black. It is a song white audiences have lapped up — and demanded of black vocalists — since it was first staged on Broadway in 1927. Green both knows it by heart and detests it; he is black, but he is also a student of Verdi and Mahler.
At times like this, “Ryan seemed utterly alone,” Bergner writes. The hostess and her husband as well as their guests “formed a white chorus,” cheering Green on to recite the demeaning song. “And here he was in a room packed with well-meaning people who did not see him, who perhaps were incapable of seeing him, who possibly refused to see him, and who were eager to have him inhabit an object of pity, to hear him be that pitiable object with every note that rose from behind his ribs and from within his throat, to gather around the big brawny black man and listen to him lament his oppressed and thwarted and minuscule life.”
Valerie beat Ryan “with a belt, hit him in the stomach with closed fists, knocked him down and kicked him, according to state records,” Bergner writes, “though years later, with me, he said that he did not remember the kicking; . . . it was too painful to believe that she would assault him in this particular way.” It got so bad that, after another beating when he was just a sixth grader, Ryan pulled a knife on his mother. When Valerie subdued him, she noticed a drawing on the floor titled “my killing plan,” depicting her with a severed head. She called the police and had Ryan committed to the DeJarnette Center, a juvenile detention facility where he spent two horrific months, often in solitary confinement.
Bergner is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine who has written a novel and several books of nonfiction, covering subjects as diverse as female desire and war in Sierra Leone. He expanded “Sing for Your Life” from his 2011 Times Magazine article of the same title. Through painstaking reporting and surprisingly candid interviews with Valerie and other family members, teachers and mentors conducted over several years, he intersperses the past and present into a stranger-than-fiction bildungsroman of Green’s excruciating childhood and improbable early adulthood. It is a journey that ricochets from various troubled homes, including a two-traffic-light trailer-park town in rural Virginia, to the nightmarish DeJarnette Center, to a dilapidated shack in a drug- and-crime-addled shantytown, and eventually to the cutthroat finals of the National Council Auditions at the Metropolitan Opera, a talent search open to any singer between the ages of 20 and 30. As a result of his showing there, Green was the sole finalist to receive an invitation to audition for the Met’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, an intensive multiyear incubator that would polish him.
But to reach that stage, both literal and metaphorical, Ryan would have to overcome limitations few, if any, of the other contestants could imagine. “I have to be more special with less,” is how he put it, an enormous understatement. Despite the fact that he was at the time of the competition a 24-year-old graduate of the conservatory at Florida State, “not only did Ryan appear incapable of reading music with rudimentary fluency, let alone with any appreciation for Mozart’s nuances,” Bergner writes, “he didn’t know the basics of Italian, one of opera’s most essential tongues.” “He couldn’t read the recipe, let alone cook,” one of the Lindemann instructors said. Yet Green’s natural gifts were undeniable; they included humility, a relentless work ethic, personal charisma, acting ability — an increasingly prized asset — and what appeared to be a once-in-a-generation vocal capacity: “Ryan’s voice,” Bergner writes, “covered more than twice as many notes as an average person’s.”