A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me, / The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
With these words in the 26th section of his Song of Myself, Walt Whitman expressed with eloquent decadence the primal thrill of hearing a magnificent tenor voice, an experience shared by opera lovers since the first performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in 1607. During Whitman’s long life, tenor singing underwent a remarkable transformation: five years before the poet’s birth in 1819, Giovanni Battista Rubini débuted in Pavia, launching a career that culminated in performances of the most demanding rôles in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. The masters of bel canto inherited from Mozart a style of composing for the tenor voice that was founded upon grace rather than power, taking from the exquisitely-wrought music for characters like Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Ferrando in Così fan tutte, and Tamino in Die Zauberflöte the inspiration for the incomparable arcs of melody that stretched across the 19th Century from Cherubini to Puccini. In 1835, Rubini created the rôle of Arturo in Bellini’s I puritani, his music famously taking him to top C-sharp in his entrance aria and to top F in the penultimate scene but also—more importantly—unleashing a flood of melody that washed over Italian opera for generations to come. The nutrients of bel canto enriched the gardens of creativity from which Luisa Miller, La Gioconda, Mefistofele, and Manon Lescaut sprang, and central to the development of the genre in the land of its birth was the rise of the Romantic tenor. In France, the haute-contres of Lully and Rameau evolved into the heady occupants of the stratospheric environs of Adam and Auber, and even German music embarked in rôles like Huon in Weber’s Oberon on a new path that led to Lohengrin, Siegfried, and Parsifal. The French, German, and Italian styles collided in the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, the Italianized German composer whose Parisian scores defined Grand Opera and, in turn, influenced Verdi, Wagner, and their contemporaries on every side of the Alps. The rôle of Raoul de Nangis in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots is the sort of part which many tenors dream of singing but, upon waking, think better of it. The bel canto masterpieces of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti were the core repertory of the inaugural season of New York’s Academy of Music in 1854, and Saverio Mercadante’s Il giuramento was the vessel with which Brooklyn’s Academy made its operatic maiden voyage in 1861, but the sparse surviving documentation of musical life prior to the organization of the Metropolitan Opera in 1880 makes it virtually impossible to determine which tenors Whitman may have heard; and in which operas. The legacies of too many of the great tenors of the 19th Century are now reduced to footnotes in pedagogues’ histories of singing, and some of the richest rôles composed for singers like Rubini and Adolphe Nourrit—who, in addition to the Rossini parts for which he is most remembered, also created the title rôle in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, Raoul in Les Huguenots, and Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive—go unsung because of the lack of singers capable of handling their difficulties. At the 2009 Music Festival on the Annandale-on-Hudson campus of New York’s Bard College, Les Huguenots greeted the 21st Century with an authentic recreation of the spirit of its 19th-Century splendor, anchored by the critically-acclaimed singing of a young American tenor. Having already traversed a wide repertory in the first seasons of an extraordinarily promising career, ranging from Raoul in Les Huguenots at Bard and barnstorming Rossini performances at Pesaro and Wildbad to Alfred in a production of Johann Strauß’s Die Fledermaus opening at Lyric Opera of Chicago on 10 December, Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres is poised to make an indelible mark on tenor singing in the new millennium. Could he have heard the pulse-quickening ‘ping’ of the upper register, the dizzying virtuosity in bravura music, and the melting lyricism of the messa di voce, to what poetic paroxysms might the singing of Michael Spyres have inspired Whitman?
Though offering arias by a field of composers as diverse as Bizet, Lehár, Massenet, and Richard Strauss, Mr. Spyres’s début recital disc, A Fool for Love [Delos DE 3414], is a delightful exploration of the flow of Italian bel canto from Rossini and Donizetti to Verdi, Puccini, and Cilèa. Interestingly, several of the bel canto scores that collected dust on library shelves during the 20th Century have been among the most successful operatic ‘rediscoveries’ of the fledgling 21st Century, while performances of the ‘standard’ Italian repertory—Verdi and Puccini, that is—have steadily declined in quality, if not in popularity. The irony of this situation is not lost on Mr. Spyres, whose early experiences with musical education were typical of the challenges faced by many young singers as they begin to shape their careers. ‘When I was in my early twenties,’ Mr. Spyres recollects, ‘I would audition, and quite respected teachers in New York told me not to waste my time with Mozart and that I should only sing later Verdi and Puccini with my darker timbre and my strong middle and lower voice.’ Changes of scenery promulgated altered perceptions of the young singer’s abilities, however. ‘I went to Austria to do auditions, and many [adjudicators] said I was perfect for Mozart and lighter French repertoire. After a few years of auditioning all over the E.U., I was told everything from “Your voice is too big and dark for Mozart and Rossini” to “You have a small, thin voice and should stick to character rôles.”’ This combat with the differing interpretations of his natural gifts led to perhaps the most critical artistic epiphany of Mr. Spyres’s career. ‘I eventually stopped trying to please everyone and decided to audition and follow my passions for serious Rossini [rôles] and French Grand Opera,’ he says. ‘It was in this time that the right mixture of vocal development and the crucial moment of meeting the right people to perpetuate my career happened. I absolutely believe that if this shift in repertoire had not happened, then we would not be speaking of my career at this moment.’ He is also keenly aware of the fact that the pacing and progress of a young singer’s career and assumptions of new rôles are not always matters left to his own intuition. ‘What many people fail to realize,’ Mr. Spyres says, ‘is that singers’ careers are not completely up to their respective wishes. I have found it rather the contrary from this and have perceived that almost all careers are made because of one or two influential people’s perceptions about in which [Fach] they can categorize you or to what singer they can compare you.’ This, Mr. Spyres intimates, provides the key to successfully launching a career as an artist: in order to get one’s foot in the door, someone or some fortuitous circumstance must first open that door. ‘One must be offered rôles in order to have a career in the first place,’ he says, ‘and many people never get this opportunity, whether it be [that] they are offered rôles in the wrong Fach or that they have not met the correct people to introduce them into their respective niches. It took me almost five years of unsuccessfully auditioning the wrong repertoire until I found the right balance between what I would like my career to be and what people would hire me for.’
Michael Spyres in the title rôle of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Gran Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona) in February 2013, with Natalie Dessay as Antonia [Photo by A. Bofill, © Gran Teatre del Liceu]
With remarkable candor, Mr. Spyres concedes that marketability is a significant factor in the formation and sustenance of a meaningful career in opera. ‘Many people do not realize that every region in every country and, in many cases, every house can be a different world when it comes to your voice,’ he suggests. ‘When choosing repertoire, every aspect should be taken into consideration, whether it is Arnold in Guillaume Tell or Alfred in Die Fledermaus. What I mean by this is size of house, tastes of the public in the country to your respective voice, and physical and vocal technical requirements. Every house is different in acoustics, and sometimes the smaller houses can be much more damning to vocal development than larger houses and rôles.’ Mr. Spyres bases his choices of repertory both on an exceptionally complete cognizance of his own vocal resources and on a knowledge of the history—and histrionics—of opera that is lamentably rare among young singers. ‘I prefer to focus on proper technique and rôle requirements as these are much better gauges of whether or not I should sing a rôle.’ He offers the rôle of Don José in Bizet’s Carmen as an example of how he evaluates a part in its appropriate musical and historical contexts. ‘Nowadays, many would say that [Don José] is one of the most dramatic rôles, and currently only spinto or dramatic tenors are hired for the rôle, but it was written for a lyric tenor [the rôle was created by Paul Lhérie, who also sang in the premières of operas by Delibes, Massenet, and Saint-Saëns before starting a second, equally-acclaimed career as a baritone] at the Opéra-Comique, which seats 1,248; quite a small auditorium in comparison with modern opera houses like the MET, which seats 3,800. This is what I mean when I refer to taking it all in context because operas that were written with specific singers in mind require certain vocal demands that get lost in our modern way of thinking about opera on such a grandiose scale.’
Mr. Spyres’s exhilarating singing of the rôle of Raoul de Nangis in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots offers an ideal example of the ways in which his careful consideration of all aspects of a rôle’s demands informs his choices of repertory. Created in the opera’s 1836 première at the Salle Le Peletier—the seating capacity of which was approximately 1,900—by Adolphe Nourrit, bel canto tenor par excellence, Raoul’s music became the property of Polish tenor Jean de Reske at the Metropolitan Opera during the last decade of the 19th Century. Last heard at the MET in the 1914 – 1915 Season, when Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli alternated as Raoul, Les Huguenots disappeared from the world’s stages until 1962, when the famed La Scala production partnered Franco Corelli’s Raoul with the Marguerite de Valois of Dame Joan Sutherland and the Valentine of Giulietta Simionato. In short, by the time that Mr. Spyres sang Raoul at Bard College in 2009, the rôle had amassed nearly two centuries of performance traditions that deviated further from Meyerbeer’s and Nourrit’s standards with each subsequent generation. With its formidable tessitura, Raoul de Nangis is one of the most treacherous rôles in the tenor repertory, but Mr. Spyres’s approach to this and any other rôle is founded upon appreciation of the music’s possibilities rather than its perils. ‘It is my full belief that a rôle or a house cannot injure a voice,’ he states. ‘In fact, it is always improper technique, whether [it] comes in the form of vocal straining in the attempt to make [the voice] sound larger or taking a rôle that is technically beyond [the singer’s capabilities], that damages a voice. In all cases of ruining a voice, it is simply the lack of proper vocal technique.’ With this in mind, Mr. Spyres compares the demands of a rôle with what he can bring to it, both musically and dramatically. ‘I have always tried to just sing to the best of my abilities,’ he confides. ‘If someone believes that I am right for a particular rôle, then I weigh the factors and make a judgment. I have not made all the right choices, but the key to my success is consistently learning from my mistakes.’
Michael Spyres as Baldassare in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at Pesaro, August 2012 [Photo by Eugenio Pini, © Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro]
It may seem like the most basic tenet of common sense to state that a vital component of a singer’s pursuit of a successful career is the ability to endure the small and large demands of a singer’s life, but many young singers embark on this uncertain journey without an appreciable understanding of this. ‘A very important consideration that should be noted is personal and public sustainability,’ Mr. Spyres says of his approach to making a career as a singer. ‘Many young singers fail to realize that they, too, will grow older and that the public will more than likely become bored with them unless they evolve. There should always be an end goal, and too often singers only focus on this house or that rôle without thinking, “Where is there to go after I achieve this?”’ Focusing on his individual philosophy of triumphing as a singer throughout a long career, Mr. Spyres employs celestial imagery. ‘Too often, a singer’s career is described as a “shooting star,” without realization of the gravity of the term,’ he says. ‘Those who understand [know] that a shooting star is just a blip in the cosmos. In contrast, I would like instead to view my career [as] an ever-evolving planet.’
For Mr. Spyres, this evolution includes a broad repertory of characters he longs to portray. ‘I would love to consistently be singing Rossini’s Otello and Verdi’s Otello, as well as following in the footsteps of the great Ramón Vinay, alternating Iago and Otello [in Verdi’s Otello],’ he says. ‘There are many rôles by Verdi that I want to perform, but, honestly, there are too many in all types of repertoire to mention!’ Nonetheless, there are a few rôles in particular that pique his interest. ‘Pelléas, Orfeo, Peter Grimes, Huon…where do I start with my fantasy rôles?’ he laughs. One colleague whose career provides Mr. Spyres with a tangible benchmark is Plácido Domingo. ‘My lofty goal is to catch Domingo,’ he admits. ‘I have already performed over fifty rôles, but I still have such a long way to go to even come close to [matching] Domingo’s career.’ He adds, ‘In my career of—already!—fifteen years, I have sung virtually every type of rôle from the highest—Arnold [in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell], Lindoro [in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri], and Leicester [in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda]—to the lowest—[Rossini’s] Otello, Rodrigo [in Rossini’s La donna del lago], and Baldassare [in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia]—and to the vocal extremes—Faust [in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust], Mazzoni’s Antigono, and Raoul [in Les Huguenots]. Only time will tell how my voice and career will develop, but I will say that my voice has consistently become more secure while I continue to grow as an artist. That is all I could ever ask.’
Sadly, the voices of many young tenors of the new millennium are tattered beyond recognition after fifteen years of singing. Devoting so much energy to rôles composed for the legendary Nourrit, the music for which can range from baritonal depths to flights in altissimo in the space of a few bars, not occasionally but consistently, would be disastrous for a singer less in command of both his throat and his mind than Mr. Spyres. Opera is not an exact science, but Mr. Spyres reveals himself to be a no-nonsense singer who fully understands that it also is not a game of chance. There are absolutes in opera, of course: when one approaches any of the rôles created for a singer like Nourrit, one either has the notes in one’s voice or does not. There are other considerations, however; such as the fact that Nourrit was never expected to shout top Ds over an orchestra of ninety players to a house occupied by four thousand listeners. That the tenor who sings Rodrigo in La donna del lago possesses a top D is a vital qualification, but too few singers bother to ask whether they know how to properly produce and project the tone and whether it is a sound that an audience will want to hear. It is his asking himself all of these questions that sets Michael Spyres apart. The breadth of his repertory reveals that the voice is a magnificent instrument, and hearing any of his performances, whether in an opera house or in one’s own living room via his recordings, discloses a burnished timbre, an unstoppable virtuosity, and an uncanny skill for matching the colorations of his tone with nuances of text that are uniquely his. Perhaps the most disheartening element of opera in the 21st Century is that so much of what transpires on the world’s stages is artifice. Spend even a few moments with Michael Spyres, and it is apparent that, as an artist and an individual, nothing is faked, least of all his dedication to singing and to continuing to refine his craft for many years to come. To borrow a conceit from Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, it is true that many artists have inspired poets to celebration in verse, but the artistry of Michael Spyres is the rare gift that is poetry itself.
The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Spyres for his time, kindness, and candor in responding to questions for this article, as well as for use of the photographs, which are included with his permission. Special thanks are also offered to Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications for facilitating this article.