Saturday, May 21, 2011

New York Times: 'Sing for Your Life'

[Ryan Speedo Green (]

Published: May 19, 2011
“Ryan Speedo Green stands almost six-foot-five and weighs 300 pounds and wears size 17 shoes, and on a Sunday afternoon in March he was running in place and doing jumping jacks as he waited in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera for his turn to sing. It was the semifinals of the most important operatic voice competition in America, and Ryan was seized by such anxiety that he felt his massive body vanishing. Seventeen of the 22 singers left in the contest had gone before him; to his ears their performances were spectacular. He was fighting off the feeling that he didn’t belong here. Ryan, who is African-American, grew up in low-income housing and a trailer park in southeastern Virginia. When he was 12, he spent time in juvenile detention for threatening his brother and mother. During high school he moved to a street of shacklike homes, with a drug dealer’s headquarters across from his family’s front door and with bullet holes from stray gunfire just above his mother’s bedroom window.

“Now, almost 25, he stopped his calisthenics and stepped onstage where, under the Met’s gilded ceiling and Austrian chandeliers, he would deliver the first of his two songs — Banquo’s terrified aria from Verdi’s 'Macbeth' — alone except for a pianist who would accompany him. In the theater’s otherwise empty orchestra level, seven judges sat isolated behind their laptops, waiting for him to begin. Families of the contestants filled the first balcony; his mother was up there, gazing down on him. Out of reverence for Verdi’s music, he had wanted his performance to be pure, unadorned by any acting, but as he began the aria, singing of 'a thousand nightmares' in the aftermath of the King of Scotland’s murder, Ryan’s absolutely unmoving feet and rigid posture seemed to reflect not an artistic choice or the character’s alarm but, instead, Ryan’s own fear. His immense voice sounded constrained along with his limbs and torso. When the song was over, the judges conferred, and Ryan hurried to the wings for a sip of water. He returned, having unbuttoned his suit jacket to reveal a bright red vest, and this time he unleashed himself as he sang Leporello’s list of his master’s amorous conquests from 'Don Giovanni.' The sumptuous vibrations of his bass-baritone spread through the house as he reveled in his character’s taunting sexual glee. He flitted his fingers through the air, leaned back against the piano and shimmied.

“After the performances, while the judges debated and tallied, the singers gathered with their families in an area whose broad windows overlook Lincoln Center’s plaza. Ryan’s mother, Valerie Elloinchi, a tall woman in a cream-colored dress who grew up in a Brooklyn housing project, was in proud tears. The contestants were told to line up. Gayletha Nichols, the competition’s director, a former opera singer draped in elegant fabrics, would read out the finalists; only eight would move on. Ryan studied Nichols’s eyes for some hint that he was among them. He scarcely breathed, worried he might miss his name. As she called forward three low-voiced men, but not him, his body wilted to one side. When she read out the seventh name — not his — he knew it was over. There were four deep voices among the seven. It was clear, he said later, that a tenor or a woman would be the eighth.

“When Nichols announced his name, Ryan’s fists burst from his pockets. He squatted down, then sprang upward, his 300 pounds exploding into the air. The eight finalists would spend the following week within the Met’s practice chambers, being molded by the Met’s coaches and schooled by the conductor for the finals — a concert with the Met orchestra the next Sunday, in front of a packed house. Ryan belonged, however briefly, within one of the greatest opera houses in the world.”

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