Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Michael Spyres

The American tenor Michael Spyres created quite a stir when he stepped in to take on the role of Rodrigo in the Royal Opera’s La Donna del lago. Londoners who missed his performance will get another chance to hear what all the fuss was about when he sings the title role in La Damnation de Faust under the baton of Valery Gergiev at the Barbican on 3rd November and 7th November.

We caught up with him in the midst of preparations for the part, and explored his fascinating career so far, as well as what looks like a stellar future.

My colleague Sam Smith, who reviewed your unexpected role debut as Rodrigo in La donna del lago at Covent Garden, remarked on your “power and grit” and capacity to be “menacing or soft as required.” Could you tell us about that performance, which also had you compared favourably to Juan Diego Flórez?

My Covent Garden debut was quite a remarkable moment and I am so grateful for how well my performance was received. It had been a dream of mine since I began singing opera to one day sing at the famed Royal Opera House and the circumstances could not have been better for me to make my debut as Rodrigo even if it was a bit nerve racking having not been originally scheduled to perform on opening night. I was fortunate enough to have sung with Flórez and DiDonato in Milan in this very opera so the camaraderie was already there and this piece in particular shows all three of us in our best light. I had no idea that I would be substituting for my colleague until the morning of the opening night when the administration informed me I would be going on. I must say I was a bit nervous that I would remember everything but I felt confident in my abilities and fortunately all went better than I could have ever hoped for.

You’ll be singing at the Barbican soon, in Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust. Is the role of Faust – in any of its manifestations – an especially challenging one?

Berlioz wrote the role of Faust with a very specific tenor in mind, to stretch the boundaries of what is usually expected of a tenor. The subject matter of Goethe’s Faust is such a grandiose tale and Berlioz rose to the occasion by writing a character whose vocal requirements are to switch seamlessly between essentially a baritone tessitura then to a high tenor and back again. I believe Berlioz captured the duality of character that we all experience, for example in the first and second act the bulk of singing is comfortably within the baritone range with the writing extending up to an A only on three notes. Act III is a different story and in order for him to represent a rebirth of character who is no longer grounded but now swept away to ecstasy, Berlioz notates a much higher tenor in which two C sharps are mandatory. Act IV returns to a tessitura that is comfortably a dramatic baritone, and many tenors do not have the ability to cut through the dense orchestral writing that is every bit as dramatic as that of Wagner.

Who are your musical heroes or role models in terms of the tenor voice?

The biggest influence on me becoming a tenor was Mario Lanza. I sang as a baritone until I discovered Lanza and once I heard his voice I decided no matter what, I would become a tenor like him. I became obsessed with his voice and I acquired every recording he ever made including rare home recordings. Later as I started studying to become a tenor I was influenced by so many different tenors but the one who intrigued me the most was Nicolai Gedda. I was blown away by Gedda’s ability to switch between all types of repertoire and his flawless command of five languages. I knew if I wanted to become a true tenor that I would have to rise to his level of artistry and strive to achieve his knowledge of language even if it took my whole career. When I was twenty-one I heard for the first time one of the voices that would change my understanding of what a tenor is, and that is when I heard Chris Merritt. It took me so many years to become a real tenor and listening to Chris Merritt made me realize that there are so many possibilities and that I did not have to give up my lower range to become a tenor, but I did need to work on my high range! Of course I respect Domingo not only for his amazing singing but for his career overall. I have now performed almost fifty roles in my career but I have a long way to go before I even come close to what Domingo has accomplished over the years.

You have been a self-taught singer since a fairly young age; this is quite unusual – could you tell us what made you want to ‘go it alone?’

I had the right grounding from my parents because they taught me through the years the fundamentals needed to get me going on the path that I am on. I had my first proper voice lessons for a year when I was seventeen as a baritone with Jane Munson-Berg in Springfield, Missouri, U.S.A. and she gave me the tools I needed for good singing. I then studied for two and a half years under a wonderful teacher Dr Robert Mirshak who pushed me into the tenor direction. At the age of twenty-one my teacher decided to leave for New York and I had no clue what to do, I only knew one thing and that was if I want to become a tenor I would have to do it myself. I decided to learn everything I could about the voice by reading old books and listening to every recording I could get my hands on. For me going it alone is the only way that you can truly learn about your voice because at the end of the day you are the one that has to sing up there. I am not at all against teachers but I really want to encourage singers to become self sufficient and find within themselves a deeper understanding about what singing and technique is rather than just perpetuating what someone else has taught you without you ever questioning “does this work for me and my understanding of singing?”

You have already worked with many great conductors and singers: with whom do you especially look forward to working, and why?

I have been extremely fortunate to have worked with almost all of the living legends of conducting and singing. The greatest aspect of my career has been diversity; Harnoncourt, Muti, Gardiner, Deneve, Jurowski, Orbelian, and Zedda. I will always look forward to working with Riccardo Muti and Sir John Eliot Gardiner because the two of them are very similar in their demands of a singer; neither will settle for anything but your best. I first worked with Muti in Salzburg, and intense is the word to describe his work ethic. Working with Sir John Eliot Gardiner is also one of the highlights of my career and I jump at any opportunity to sing with him; he is such a brilliant scholar and musician. I am also very much looking forward to my debut with Maestro Gergiev in a few weeks as I will be singing and recording with the LSO at the Barbican. I am sure it will be an experience to get to know and work with Gergiev and I must say I am anxiously awaiting our meeting.

Your repertoire is very wide but centres on Mozart and Rossini. Do you have any particular influences in terms of this style of singing?

Mozart has had a large impact on my career and my path to becoming a singer. I moved to Vienna as my first home in Europe and in Wien you cannot get away from Mozart. I was a member of the Schoenberg Chor and I can’t even begin to count the number of pieces I sang in choir and as a soloist in those four years living in Wien. The pinnacle of artistry when it comes to Mozart is without a doubt Fritz Wunderlich. He was nearly flawless when he sang Mozart and brought me to the realization of just how amazing Mozart’s vocal writing was. While in the Schoenberg Chor I worked on multiple occasions with the Mozart expert Nicolas Harnoncourt and learned everything about style from him as well as the head of the Schoenberg Chor who is also considered one of the leading experts on Mozart. Rossini came after Mozart for me but his impact was even more significant on my career path. Once I discovered Rossini everything changed for me and almost all of my major debuts and successes have been because of Rossini and in particular his baritenor repertoire. I had many influences in Rossinian repertoire starting with the four U.S. born legends of Rossini; Chris Merritt, Rockwell Blake, Gregory Kunde and Bruce Ford

There is always a desire – egged on by journalists of course – to find ‘the new hot tenor’ or ‘the new three tenors.’ How do you view this kind of publicity – do you think it is detrimental to the music or are the disadvantages outweighed by the positive aspects?

I absolutely believe that the advantages outweigh the negative aspects of this star making mentality. Apply this argument to another medium such as football and you will see that every profession is based on this principle and you always have to have a Beckham or a Pelé to sell to the public but it does not mean that they are the only players and that they have somehow bastardized the art of their profession by becoming a star. We need stars and honestly I cannot thank Juan Diego Flórez, Rolando Villazón, Anna Netrebko and Joyce DiDonato enough for what they and their people have accomplished in the last 10 years because honestly they are why my many of my colleagues and I have careers today. Should Opera be an elitist form of art that only someone privileged enough to have had elocution lessons in the finer things of life gets to appreciate? When people blame this or that they are kidding themselves because art will live if there is a need for it in society which I am betting there always will be.

How do you feel about recordings where the singer is given prominence over the composer?

The reality is that the person who breathes life into a composition is the performer but there is a symbiotic relationship between composer and performer in order for the recording to have happened. Ultimately people buy a recording for personal reasons whether they like the performer or the compositions but it is almost always easier to sell a product with the performer since they are the living representation of the composition. I would argue that it is perfectly valid for the performer to be given prominence since a composer needs a performer to give life to their music or else it lies dead on the page like a masterfully sculpted natural wonder until someone comes along and sings its praises.

Some singers declare that they never listen to other singers’ recordings, and they never read their reviews. What is your view on this?

I believe that we all have to find our own way to our unique art. I know many singers who will not listen to any recordings and will never read their reviews, but to me this is quite childish and a waste of a good resource for improvement and ultimately they become poorer artists by the act of shutting everyone out. Some people are very fragile though and cannot read criticisms but I have always tried to look for substance and truth when reading negative reviews on my performances. I also understand that many people want to come up with their own interpretation of a character and don’t want to be influenced by recordings of others but this to me is a bit of veiled narcissism and often times I have sung with colleagues who thought they were doing something completely original but ended up completely unoriginal because they just did not do their homework. What people fail to realize is that the more knowledge and examples you research the more options you have to formulate an original idea and the less chance you have at imitating something that has come before.

Your recording ‘A Fool for Love‘ was well reviewed; do you have plans for any further CDs?

I would love to record another solo album and have many ideas for the future. I am in talks about a future project to record various arias written for the great 19th century tenor Adolphe Nourritt.  Many scholars have described Nourritt as the greatest tenor of all time so it is an honour for me to become known for singing his ‘unsingable’ roles. I have many other ideas for recordings such as a CD dedicated to the lengendary baritenor of the 19th century Andrea Nozzari. I have performed all but two of the operas written for Nozzari and I feel the baritenor repertoire has not been properly represented in recordings so it is my dream to record this fantastical music composed for him. My next full opera recording will be in just a few weeks as Faust with the LSO under the baton of Gergiev.

Which are the roles that have provided you with the greatest challenges so far, and which ones do you regard as those which most display your particular qualities?

Well to be honest I have made my career by performing every possible extreme. My breakthrough roles have been so varied that they have gone from the entire spectrum of the tenor voice from the lowest roles ever written (Otello, Baldassare, and Rodrigo) as well as the highest roles written for tenor (Arnold, Raoul, and Lindoro). One of the most challenging roles though was Antigono by the master baroque composer Antonio Mazzoni in which he wrote the most extreme role I have ever heard for any voice. Everything was written in to it from two octave jumps to a range in extension that is unparalleled from low D in the bass range until the high G in the soprano range, three and a half octaves in total. Hoffmann was also one of the most challenging roles I have ever taken on; it made me consciously aware of how to juggle the responsibilities of energy, vocal stamina, and acting.

What do you have coming up in terms of house and role debuts, and to which of these are you most looking forward?

I am really looking forward to my house and role debut in the title role of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini with Terry Gilliam at English National Opera this season. Terry Gilliam has been a huge influence since I was a child and when I was lucky enough to work with him in Belgium in his La Damnation de Faust it was an experience that I will never forget. After ENO I will return to Pesaro for my debut as the title role in Aureliano in Palmira, I then have the honour to sing in the Berlioz festival in Berlioz’s hometown as the title role in Damnation de Faust. After this season I debut next season in Amsterdam as Libenskoff in Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims. As you can see, I will be doing quite a few debuts in the coming years but two of the most exciting will happen in Paris. I will be returning to the legendary Opera Comique for a forgotten gem of French opera Le Pré aux Clercs and then after Comique I will make my make my house debut at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées as the title role in Mozart’s Mitridate, Ré di Ponto.

What is your view of ‘Directors’ opera’ – i.e. the kind of production where a singer is compelled to undress whilst negotiating fearsome coloratura, or eviscerate a crocodile in mid-recitative? Have you ever had to do anything on-stage which made you think “Oh don’t be absurd?”

For me it is always about context and whether or not the idea is a well thought out and effective idea. I have been quite lucky not to have had the troubles with directors that some of my colleagues have experienced. I have thus far not had a director ask me to do something that I was not willing to do. I was completely nude on stage during Billy Budd but the concept was very powerful and made total sense because I had just been beaten by Claggart and it fit the context of the scene. In Damnation de Faust, Terry Gilliam had me upside down on a swastika in a strait jacket thirty feet in the air, so I have seen my share of challenging staging but so far I’ve felt able to comply with all that has been asked of me.

If you had to select just one role as your ‘calling card,’ which one would it be, and why?

I have had the chance to perform many memorable roles in my career already but I would have to say that my favourite role in which I get to be the most myself is with Hoffmann. I grew up singing and performing since before I could talk and in Hoffmann you have to bring out every aspect of a performer. I love the fact that within the character you have to be an actor just as much as a singer. I also love the meta aspects that present themselves while performing Hoffmann, for instance you the singer are performing in an opera composed about an actual person that once lived and the opera is about his famous writings in which he performs the imagined characters and throughout the opera it is revealed the characters he performs are facets of his own psyche and the muse is his true love in the end which is in turn what inspired Offenbach to write his masterpiece about Hoffmann and ultimately what makes me in love with the piece. To be able to perform this particular character is truly an honour and it makes me realize that art can transcend time as well as lives which is true in my case and this is to me the greatest gift that anyone could ask for.

How do you see your career developing over the next 10 years?

I hope for my career to keep developing much as it has the last five years. I see myself singing more of the Verdi repertoire as well as moving into more of the serious French grand repertoire and hopefully choice roles from Wagner. I hope I will always be hired throughout my career for bel canto as well as Baroque and Classical genres. They are so many roles that are perfect for a more mature singer in all genres such as Rossini’s Otello, Mozart’s Idomeneo or Handel’s Tamerlano. No matter what , I see my future as anything but normal. My only wish is to keep growing as an artist and to challenge myself and learn with every new role that I take on. I see myself conducting as well as teaching in the future. I have directed plays and would love to have the opportunity again but my final aspirations are to be in charge of a small Opera house or Conservatory and to inspire and influence the next generation of music and art lovers.

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More on Michael Spyres
Prom 59: Benvenuto Cellini @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Prom 31: La damnation de Faust @ Royal Albert Hall, London
Chelsea Opera Group / Balsadonna @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Interview: Michael Spyres