Michael Spyres: Star Ascendant

Beatrice di Tenda, presented by the Collegiate Chorale with James Bagwell conducting will command much attention owing to the participation of Angela Meade in the title role to be sure. However, Michael may just threaten to steal a fair bit of the NY spotlight as Orombello as he caps off a calendar year in which his star keeps rising ever higher.
Having begun 2012 with a well-received Candide (Rome Opera) and a notable outing as Edgardo (Minnesota Opera), Michael won favorable press for his first Masaniello in Opera Comique’s La Muette de Portici, along with an enthusiastic reception from the discerning Parisian public. Following a lauded Caramoor turn in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia he repeated the success with his debut in the same production at the Pesaro Festival.
Book ending his assumption of the title role of La Damnation de Faust for his Flemish Opera debut and the upcoming Beatrice were a handful of successful concert appearances. After trying for months to find a time to talk to the peripatetic tenor, Opera Today caught up with Michael Spyres via email as he was putting the finishing touches on his upcoming Bellini role.
OT: You “grew up in a family of musicians.” Have any other family members pursued a career in music?
MS: Yes! I was named after my uncle whose life was cut short by cancer. He was pursuing a career in Opera and at age 35 was diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer. My mother was on her way to studying voice at Juilliard back in the 60’s but decided to have a family instead. My older brother and I have toured Japan in Traviata, I was Alfredo and he was Gastone. He and I also recorded Rossini’s Otello together in Germany. My sister is quite a successful singer and actress in the New England area of the United States. As a family we have performed 5 different operas together!
OT: Did you always think you would be a professional singer? If you weren’t a singer what would you be doing?
MS: To be honest I always wanted to be a singer. I have done many other things in my life such as teaching, waiter, construction worker, gardener, but I always considered myself a singer even in the 5 years that I did no singing at all on stage. My other passion in life has always been comedy and I also wanted to be a stand up comedian. Now if I was not singing I would more than likely be a construction worker and have my own building crew. I love physical work.
OT: Speaking of family or relationships what are the challenges of sustaining ties with a busy travel schedule? What practical solutions have you found? Do family and friends get to see you perform often? Who is your toughest critic?
MS: I am married and she is a singer as well. We travel together 90 percent of the time and are lucky enough to get to sing together about twice a year. My family and friends travel and see me at least once a year. We have managed my career to where we see friends and family every three months because any longer than you start to become a bit disconnected. Both of my parents are retired teachers so they have a little more time to come and visit. Well my toughest critics are my two best friends, my wife and my agent. But if we are being really honest I am my own biggest critic. That is the only way that I have learned to sing, by being relentless at deconstructing my weaknesses as a singer. I have not had a teacher since I was 21 and so one needs to be quite self aware and critical if one wants to improve.
OT: You have a varied repertoire, with a good deal of Rossini and Mozart. Do you have any role models for singing in this style?
MS: My biggest influence in the Rossini repertoire is Raul Gimenez. His elegance and style are something to behold. Very few people have become the artist that he is. Every intention is heard and you hear how intelligently crafted each phrase is. For Mozart it is of course Fritz Wunderlich. He understood and felt Mozart as no one else has. His handling of his instrument had such grace and dignity that few others have even come close to his understanding of the voice.
OT: The role of Candide always seems deceptively simple, even naive to me, but has been essayed by top singers like Rounesville, Hadley, and Groves among others. What drew you to the part?
Spyres_02.gifMichael Spyres as Masaniello in La Muette de Portici [Photo by E. Carecchio courtesy of Michael Spyres]
MS: Candide is one of the truly well rounded characters for the tenor repertoire. Bernstein perfectly captured the character that Voltaire wrote. Candide is the nature of man’s journey from child to man. He is constantly questioning and trying to find answers in a world that doesn’t make sense. Candide is unabashedly naive but he does not stay that way. Through his difficult journey he begins to understand the world better and in turn starts to realize what a responsibility and burden it is to be a sentient being and in this sense it must be noted that the parallels between Tamino and Candide are undeniable.
He begins as a privileged child of the world with a family and home and he is then excommunicated and has to start living his life for himself. Indeed he is forced to live every stage of life; bliss, love, loss, pain, loss of faith, enlightenment, despair, anger, frustration, and finally acceptance of it all. He goes through, albeit in extreme form, what all of us go through in our path to becoming a true Mensch. I love the fact that throughout the entire journey he never stops believing in the good of the world. Maybe this is a naive thought to some but if it were not for this thought we would never have evolved to this point. Essentially, Candide is the reflection of what we all are which is children trying to make some sense of life. Any questions?
OT: Has any role(s) become a calling card, or point of entry to certain houses?
MS: Well, it seems that I have carved my niche in doing the roles that only a handful of people do. Fortunately I feel right at home in the ‘baritenori’ roles as well as the French grand opera repertoire and happily these types of roles are the roles that I’ve always been interested in because of the extreme vocal and acting challenges involved. I will be performing my first Hoffmann in French (I’ve sung the role before, but in German) in Barcelona next year and I’m hoping that that might become my calling card. I am extremely attracted to the role of Hoffman because of the fact that you need to be a good actor as well as (have the) voice and these types of roles to me are the most exciting because they challenge you to become a true artist rather than just a ‘facet’ of a what an operatic singer is required to be. I find it very disheartening and quite tragic that many people believe that in order to be an operatic singer you just need to have a voice. This needs to change.
OT: You seem to be committing to certain roles in titles that are not often performed like Tell, Muette, Betulia, and Huguenots. And certainly Ciro in Babilonia in Pesaro last August was a real rarity. Is there a payoff for a rising (or established) singer to undertake the huge effort to learn these parts, even if you will likely not have that many chances to perform them? What is the payoff on the investment?
MS: I love a challenge and I love to learn new music. Nothing is more exhilarating to me than learning a new piece of music. I find that every new part that I take on helps me become a more well rounded singer. Every new challenge forces you to learn about your voice and yourself in a different way and this is why I love singing the more obscure repertoire, not to say that I have anything against our modern view of standard repertoire but there is a wealth of knowledge if only you search for it in the rest of the operatic repertoire that will touch and move you in a way that our current standard repertoire can not. To date I have sung 44 different roles in four languages and I must say that each of these roles have been extremely beneficial in shaping who I am and it has humbled me by broadening my horizons and making me realize how much great art is out there.
OT: Like many other exciting American singers, you seem to be working most of the time in Europe. What’s up with that? There seem to be numerous stateside companies. Are they not asking? Or just not interested in American names? Not doing repertoire that interests you or that you are currently performing? Is there possibly a snob factor at work in American houses’ hiring?
MS: I am starting to sing in the United States but to be honest the U.S. and the E.U. are two different operatic worlds. I have been living mostly in Europe for eight years now and it just takes time to start making the connections back home. Just like in any business it is who you know and who they know. I did not attend any of the prominent schools in the United States and I was only involved in one young artist program which was Opera Theatre Saint Louis. I think this is a very big part of why I haven’t sung much in the United States to date but that is changing.
I am very excited to be singing my first Bellini role as Orombello in Beatrice di Tenda with the ASO and the Collegiate Chorale at Carnegie Hall on 5 December. I have been very fortunate to have sung many Bel Canto roles thus far but with every new composer comes new discoveries of my own instrument through the study of the unique writing from each composers wishes. Bellini truly understood the beauty of the human voice through the simplicity of the creative melodic line and along with Rossini and Mozart knew how to spin a breathtaking melody. Next April, I will be singing Leicester in Maria Stuarda in Washington D.C. and in the near future I will be singing in Chicago Lyric Opera and returning to the Caramoor Festival.
OT: Was there a production/performance where, because of personal achievement, or critical/audience reaction that you felt “okay, I have ‘arrived’ and I can make a living at this?” Or better, “wow, I have gotten really good at this!???” Have you had any moments like, “I can’t believe I am on the same stage with (major star)”? Any star-struck experiences?
MS: The last few years have been very important for me in terms of confidence and achievement. I feel as though I started to realize that I was on my way when Deutsche Oper Berlin asked me to sing German repertoire, then La Scala invited me to sing Italian repertoire, and subsequently Opera Comique of Paris asked me to sing French repertoire. La Muette de Portici at the Opera Comique was a real success for me because of the audience reaction and the critical reaction to my performances made me very touched. The greatest audience response that I have ever had was actually in Caramoor of this year. It was quite a special moment when I was singing the trio from La donna del Lago at La Scala with Juan Diego Florez and Joyce DiDonato. These two singers have garnered massive success over the years and to sing on stage with the top of your field is a good feeling!
OT: How do you learn your roles? Do you listen to other singer’s recordings? Do you play any instruments? Major influences on your career? Teachers? Can you sum up your approach to singing technique?
MS: Because of the amount of new repertoire that I perform I usually start familiarizing myself with a piece around eight months before and then three months before I start actively memorizing then the month before is intense study. Most of the time I am learning two operas while performing another and this can be maddening unless you have a system.
I absolutely listen to other singers in fact I am adamant and almost obsessed with old recordings. I usually listen to live recordings as they are much way for me to judge how the opera should sound. I am fortunate to have a huge advantage in my voice category simply for the fact that Nicolai Gedda came before me. As far as instruments I play the guitar, the piano, the trumpet, and the saxophone a bit. My father was a band and choir teacher and so I had my pick of any instrument to play after school. I had voice lessons in high school for a year and then I had 3 years of college as a voice major with Dr. Robert Mirshak. He was instrumental in my career as well as Dr. Guy Webb, my choir director in college. Since I was 21 I have been a self taught singer.
As far as technique goes I have a lot to say on the subject. Firstly, one must always strive to sing healthfully and intelligently. It takes many, many hours in the practice room with even more hours of self reflection. Look at Jean de Reszke, or Ivan Kozlovsky, and Nicolai Gedda, and Placido Domingo: the most common thread within these tenors is the fact that they all had/have a great understanding of their instrument. Unfortunately I feel that in the realm of vocal technique very few people actually think for themselves. This is understandable because of the complex and enigmatic nature of our voice. Up until the last few years we were never able to see inside of the throat when someone is singing.
I think it is about time that people start being more scientific about their claims. The realization that I have come to is that one should sing through an entire role and analyze if there are inconsistencies in where ones overtones are occurring. If you do not understand the role with your own voice then it might be too soon and you should work on your technique for that specific repertoire. The reality of the situation is that almost every role was composed for a different singer in mind based on their particular strengths or weaknesses. Our job as a singer is to find the right repertoire for ones specific voice and the fach system is a good guide but it is not the end all be all. I believe that whether you speak of Concone, Vacchai, Marchesi, Rossini, etc… All technique is based on a few basic principles.
My belief of technique is that of Breath, support of that breath and the study of how to manipulate your body to make the most effective sound for the expression you need to convey. I was fortunate in that I learned from a young age about how important breath coupled with support and self expression was because of the various instruments I played. One can argue a lifetime on how to best support or convey expression, but you must always keep in mind that singing technique has fundamentals and there are physical laws to the body, such as without air there can be no sound and without support of that air the proper sound cannot be achieved.
The area of technique that concerns me is that many people do not realize that all performers need to be multi tasking and flexible enough to honor the wishes of the director, the conductor, and most importantly the composer. One must understand first how to make the proper sounds for the repertoire that one sings. I have sung every type of music since I was able to make a sound but I have always kept an acute sense for proper technique of each type of music that I sing whether it be folk, gospel, pop, lieder, or opera. I feel that this is where many people fail in their idea of “technique” because many people’s definition of technique is so small minded.
OT: How was your experience with Edgardo in Minnesota? It’s a big leap from Arturo, huh? I have seen a couple of top tier lyric tenors (including Araiza) be challenged to their limit by the part. Last Edgardo I heard was Filianoti with his big steely voice. How do you feel it fit, for you?
MS: You are correct that Edgardo is a difficult sing and a big leap from Arturo. The funny thing is that Edgardo is not on stage nearly as much as Arnold, Raoul, or Romeo but when he is, he is always singing in the passaggio. I felt quite good about Edgardo but it is a role that your throat and mindset have to adjust to and once you become more aware of the problematic areas you can start to feel comfortable. The truth is that it was written for a specific voice in a different era with a different singing technique and us modern singers are always going to be in trouble unless we strive to slightly change our views on why it was written in that way.
OT: I am especially impressed by the richness and presence of your middle and lower voice (hmm, does any tenor want to hear that??). Did you always train as a tenor? I hasten to add, your top has excellent body, and a vibrant ping as well. Was it easy above the staff from the start?
MS: Thank you. No I did not always train as a tenor. When I began my studies at 18, I was a baritone because it was much more natural for me. The first aria I ever learned was Leporello’s Madamina aria from Don Giovanni. My voice teacher was the one who realized that I was actually a tenor. It took many years of practice to get used to that idea. It actually took years before I could sing above an F sharp without reverting to head voice, but I am a quite obsessive person once I have decided to do something. I left school and lived with my parents for five years while working temp jobs. When I would come home I would sing and learn rep for six to eight hours and often till one or two in the morning. I have amazing parents! What is interesting is that only in the last three years have I gotten used to the tenor sensations. Many of these factors in combination with my body structure lend themselves to the idea of me becoming a dramatic tenor in the years to come, we’ll see hopefully!
OT: With the Faust and Muette and Tell figuring prominently in your ascent, and with the upcoming Idomeneo and Cellini do you see yourself moving more permanently into heavier lyric parts? You seem to be charting a course into Gedda or even Vickers territory with these role assumptions. On purpose? Coincidence?
MS: Honestly, for the most part I am doing the roles that people are casting me in. My voice does have a darker quality which lends itself to these heavier lyric parts but on a conscious level Gedda is one of my biggest heroes so that probably factors in subconsciously as well. I am honestly just trying to do every role that comes my way in a healthy and well thought out manner. If people want to categorize me as a specific type of singer then that’s their business. I do not put so much stock in worrying about which voice category I am going to be or am currently. What interests me the most is the pursuit of becoming a better artist.
OT: Any current directors you especially enjoy working with? Singers? The great Ewa Podles is certainly a towering, imposing vocal presence on stage. How do you find her as a colleague?
MS: Terry Gilliam was always one of my heroes as a child. It was a dream come true to be able to perform Faust with Terry on his La Damnation de Faust. He was truly an inspiration and his vision of what an opera can be should be taken to heart. I believe that he will change the face of Opera! I have had the amazing honor of working with many great directors but I feel one the most incredible directors out there is Thaddeus Strassberger. He and I have formed a friendship and a mutual respect over our collaborations. His understanding of opera in the broader spectrum of entertainment and art combine to make the performer and audience experience an astounding night at the opera. Ewa has a confidence on stage like no one else and her commitment to her actions no matter how grandiose the gesture is something to behold and something that we can all as performers learn from
OT: What is the worst thing that has happened to you during a performance? And the best performance moment ever? Anything you would refuse (or have refused) to do on stage? Anything weird you have been directed to do? Any thoughts on Konzept productions?
MS: The worst thing was my debut as Lindoro in Belgrade when I was singing my opening aria and I looked down to my astonishment having a bloody right hand. I had somehow cut myself and didn’t realize it and in the middle of the aria I was going through many mixed emotions of trying to figure out what to do while singing a very difficult aria. I still have the scar to this day and I wear it proudly.
The best moment on stage I ever had was while doing La Boheme in Springfield, in the Cafe Momus scene. I stood up to sing to toast friends and Mimi, and I realized that everything I was singing about was happening because my wife was singing Mimi, my brother Benoit/Alcindoro, and my Father, Mother, sister in-law, niece, and nephew were all in the chorus! That was a great moment that I will always cherish.
As far as anything I would refuse to do I have not come across it. Actually in Terry Gilliam’s production of La damnation de Faust I was hung upside down and hoisted 20 feet in the air nailed to a swastika…so. I understand the need for wanting something new in concept productions but many productions I have seen have little to no continuity because let’s face it, there are specific reasons why composers composed for a certain period and also why certain dramatic implications only work in that period. Truly successful productions understand this fact and strive to make their concept true to what has been written.
When I see a new production that is so obviously not well thought out I am always reminded of people who say they are modern artists and have come up with some brilliant new idea, but in fact they have just not done their research and have too big of an ego to delve into the true meaning of art in operatic form; careful study, constant questioning, self reflection, honing one’s craft, being fearless, etc… These are the qualities of an artist and not who can come up with the best one liner, unless of course your profession happens to be a comedian!
OT: Who are you eager to work with and why? Who are among your favorite singers, current or past?
MS: I am so honored to have been able to know and work with three living legends; Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Riccardo Muti, and Alberto Zedda. I have learned so much with my collaboration of each of these men and welcome the chance to work with them again. Almost every singer that I listen to is from the past to be honest. Here is a list of some of my favorite tenors: Aureliano Pertile, Andre D’Arkor, Miguel Fleta, Fernando de Lucia, George Thill, Ferrucio Tagliavini, Gigli, Caruso, Bjoerling, Lanza, Wunderlich, Gedda, Bruce Ford, and Raul Gimenez but I will stop there.
OT: Your recent solo CD, A Fool For Love (released on Delos) was certainly well-received. Were you happy with the experience? Anything you wish you could change about it? Any selections you regret leaving out, or that ended up on the cutting room floor?
MS: Well firstly I’m extremely honored and happy to have a solo CD with orchestra out on the market. It was always a dream of mine to have my own album come out and now that is reality and I couldn’t be more thankful for Delos and Constantine Orbelian for believing in me enough to make this CD. I was able to manage almost every piece that I wanted on to the album but unfortunately I was not able to record Plus blanche hermine from Les Huguenots as planned.
I tried to make the CD with half standard repertoire and half slightly more obscure and I would say that we achieved this. I do wish that I would have had more recording time in the studio. We literally had 13 hours to rehearse and record 13 different arias with a newly formed orchestra who had never played together. We recorded four days then directly after we also performed two concerts, one in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg two days after. I am not complaining but it was a bit extreme and these types of difficulties and time/money constrains are a reality for putting out an album of this nature.
OT: What do you do to unwind? On a ‘dream’ night off what would you do? Where are you living now? And where would you like to live (if it’s not the same place) and why?
MS: My wife and I go for drives and explore the local history and food of every location we go to. We plan on lots of good eating and beach time. I would have a great meal and conversation with my wife and friends and then go for moonlight drive while listening to Nick Drake or Sarah Siskind. After arriving at home we would fall asleep watching old movies. That sounds pretty perfect to me! I am based in Missouri in the U.S. but we are only ever there around three months out of the year so the rest of the time it is on the road. We really want to live in Portugal for our E.U. base because the people are so nice and open and the food and wine is fantastic. It is truly the most underrated country in the E.U.
OT: Any major house debuts coming up besides Covent Garden? Any nibbles from the Met?
MS: Yes! Here is my debut schedule for next year as it stands right now: Teatro Liceu in Barcelona as Hoffmann, Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari as Masaniello, my debut in Munich with two concerts of La damnation de Faust with Salonen conducting, and finally Alfred in Fledermaus at the Chicago Lyric. Nothing planned for the Met at this point in time.
OT: Where would you like to see your career (and life) taking you in the next five years? What role would you love to do some day? What role do you wish you could do but don’t ever see it being in your Fach?
MS: I would love to be having the same type of career doing new and challenging repertoire that I am having now but I would like to be doing more concert repertoire while teaching part time as well. I would also like to do more charity work and benefit concerts to help various causes that I believe in. My wife and I are explorers and we would love to backpack around Asia, Australia, and South America. A few roles that I would love to perform is Peter Grimes, Eleazar, Hermann, Huon, Mitridate, Tito, Orfeo, Vasco da Gama, Tom Rakewell, and Otello. I would love to sing Hamlet in Ambrois Thomas’ Hamlet, and Boris Godunov, as well as Falstaff but this may never happen…but one can dream!

image_description=Michael Spyres
product_title=Michael Spyres: Star Ascendant
product_by=An interview by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Michael Spyres [Photo courtesy of Michael Spyres]