Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Michael Spyres: A tenor who resonates

The American tenor Michael Spyres has taken an impressive and unusual highway through the operatic world. Hailing from a musical family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's little town on the prairie, he is 38 yet has already tackled 64 different roles, from baroque to bel canto to Berlioz. He is convinced he has sung the latter's Faust more than anyone else alive. And it's not exactly that he doesn't like Puccini, but... 

In this 4 July special, I meet the US's mercurial Renaissance-man backstage at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate... 

Michael Spyres as Mitridate at the Royal Opera House. Photo ROH/Bill Cooper

JD: Michael, lovely to meet you. How are you enjoying Mitridate?

MS: The role itself is absolutely incredible. People don’t realise, simply because it’s not done enough in repertory, but it’s so difficult. As a character it’s comparable to Otello, or to any of the truly great characters in the repertoire. The real Mithridate was one of the most mythic people who ever lived. He was 72 when he died and he thwarted the Roman army for 39 years – which is 39 years more than most people ever did! He was a famous polyglot and spoke 22 languages: he owned the Black Sea and everything around it, there were 22 different regions and he made it a point to learn all the languages.

There’s also a word in French and high English – “mithridisation” and “mithridatism” – which means to take small amounts of poison in order to be immune to it. He believed that if you take small amounts of poison every day then as you get older you do become immune. One of the main dangers for kings was patricide or death by poisoning – nearly everyone died of poison! – so he grew up in a strict regimen of taking poison every day so he would be immune. But when the Romans were finally defeating him, he tried to poison himself and couldn’t die from that, so he either stabbed himself or had a friend do it so that the Romans couldn’t. He was this epic, amazing person and even if some of his story is exaggerated nowadays, it doesn’t matter; he was a real king and was able to hold off and defeat the Roman army.

(Here, a different interpretation: Save Pontus, Change Europe)

JD: Mozart’s portrayal of him is extraordinarily sophisticated.

MS: From the beginning you get to see the heart and the beauty of him, but in the recitatives you can also see this cunning, brilliant man who would pit people against each other. In his first aria, he says: “Thank God I’m back home – I thought I’d never see this place again. It’s OK to lose but I still hold my head high…” And you find out just afterwards, in the recitative, that this is totally a ruse, because he’s sent false information to his sons to test if they’re loyal or not. In the recit you hear him say he faked his own death just to see if they were traitors. Wooah!

About half way through you start to see his inner turmoil and the anger he feels because he knows he’s ageing. He died when he was 72 and usually kings died when they were about 30, killed by their brothers or their sons. But the way Mozart and Metastasio wrote the character, based on the Racine play, it shows he’s an old man used to conquering everything, but the worst thing for him is not losing the battle but losing his heart, losing his love. You see this throughout the opera. He’s scared, just like all of us, that nobody’s going to love him again… 

There’s a wonderful scene between him and the queen in which she says, “Yes, I’ll go to the alter as your slave and do whatever you want.” He's so incensed: “So I have to drag you to the altar – you don’t want to marry me, you’re just going to do it out of spite?” And you see this crazy rage and jealousy in him. But then at the end he gives his sons freedom and says that at the end of his life he wants to be again the great lion that he is. “Please marry her, and I’m sorry I’m a terrible person, but I’m showing you how to live. This is how a real person should live - no regrets…” At the end he says “I can die happy now because I’ve done what I need to” – and he just dies. I can’t think of a more complex character. You’re a god among men, a god personified. Hoffmann or Otello would be comparable, but there’s only a handful of characters who run the gamut of what a Shakespearean character is and this is definitely one of them.

JD: Mozart was only 14 when he wrote it – what an astounding thought…

MS: Mozart had three major influences: Mysliveček, JC Bach and another I only found out about because I did an obscure baroque opera in Lisbon called Antigono, by Antonio Mazzoni. I did the modern revival a few years ago and we made a recording. The only time people had ever heard it was three performances in 1755 – it’s an incredible piece, but it was lost because of the terrible fire in 1755 in Lisbon. When Mozart, aged 12, was travelling through Italy with his father, Mazzoni taught the boy counterpoint in Bologna. Antigono was almost the same kind of story as Mitridate – it’s a formulaic thing but a large character. But the fact that Mozart was able to write such touching and beautiful music was just beyond compare. To anyone who thinks it fails in comparison to his later works I’d say: no, it’s something completely different. You can’t compare it and you shouldn’t, because it’s raw, amazing emotion. Some of his duets, Aspasia’s arias and the vocal writing with the recitatives – there’s nothing like it.

At the last full rehearsal before we went on the stage, Graham Vick, who’s one of the greatest directors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, got us all round and said: I want you to realise that 26 years ago I premiered this here, and now I see this in a completely different light and I see the absolute genius of Mozart – this little boy who was shuffled around and hauled out by his father all over Europe. You can see the animosity in the letters, you can see his wish to be just a normal boy – all the angst and the problems between father and son is written into the music. He was a mature being already at that age, because he was forced to be and he had the genius to do it.

JD: Your particular type of tenor is something unusual and special. What was your path towards finding your true voice?

MS: Everyone finds their own path, but I had a different path than anybody! I started as a baritone. And I wanted to be Mel Blanc, who was the voice-over person for all the Loony Tunes cartoons. When I was young I’d imitate everything, all the time and growing up I sang with my family every kind of music there was – church music, bluegrass, folk. Then when I was in college I made money by doing commercials and I was a radio DJ and I would do commercials in different characters – and then I started getting into the idea that “Oh, you can make a living being an opera singer, that’s weird…” Obviously I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I thought “I’ll just take the recordings and start imitating the best”.

The big thing happened when I was 20 years old – and it was with this production of Mitridate. In my two years of vocal study, 18-21, we had a VHS of this production and I heard Bruce Ford for the first time. I didn’t know you could sound like this as a tenor. I’d never heard a sound like it – it’s like a baritone, but it’s obviously a tenor role, and that’s what I want to do. Low notes were the easiest things in the world – high notes, ugh, they were so hard! But this was totally different from anything I heard in Verdi and Puccini.

In the US, everyone said you can’t make a career out of this, you just cannot – and that’s still true if you’re in the sticks. So I decided that if I really wanted to learn to sing I needed to go to Europe and try to figure out this weird baritenor kind of repertoire. It took another six years of auditioning to think OK, I can do this weird trick of different mixed techniques, so I started doing a lot of Rossini roles.

Michael Spyres. Photo: Dax Bedell

JD: It sounds like it wasn’t an easy beginning?

MS: I was in Vienna for two years at the conservatory, and it’s a very Mozart-heavy town, so it was an invaluable experience. That was the first time I got to sing these arias in public and I crashed and burned. It was so hard! I was 26 and it just didn’t work. I went back to the drawing board and started doing lots of Rossini again. This is my third time doing Mitridate in the last year and only now is it starting to feel good and right.

This is one of the most difficult fachs of tenor, because you have to do a real mix of baritonal and tenor sounds, but you have to keep it up in the extreme highs, the same kind of colour as a baritone but not using the full voice. It’s a voix mixte and it’s really tricky to navigate and very technical, but you don’t want people to know you’re doing it! So that’s how I got into it: years and years of practice and failure and finally things started to click. And now, depending on repertoire, I change my technique. You have to, because it was written for different people with different techniques.

JD: Next up, you’re singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms?

MS: There’s a huge misconception about Berlioz! He was a big admirer of the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, he admired Rossini and you can hear it constantly in his music. Everyone thinks of Berlioz as these unimaginable, gigantic pieces that are ultimately verismo – and it’s absolutely false. In order to sing Berlioz, you have to be able to sing full voice, high, and get over the orchestra, but the majority of his writing is for a lyrical voice. He had Nourrit, who was known for doing a lot of voix mixte and had various kinds of colour-changing sounds, not full-voice high Cs. He had him in mind for Benvenuto Cellini. But Nourrit was having vocal problems and tragically then killed himself that year and Berlioz wrote it for Gilbert Duprez instead. But a work like Lélio is so lyrical and beautiful, I can’t imagine some Puccini singer trying to sing it: it’s all lightness and is based completely on the text.

There’s a great quote from Berlioz. He used to say: “Above all, resonate”. He meant that both literally and figuratively. I sang the Grande Messe des Morts in this massive cathedral that it was intended for [Les Invalides], and in there Berlioz had realised that he needed more people, it was too big a place, so the choir’s about 180-200 people and the orchestra’s 120. I had friends at the performance and they said when I opened up and started singing they could feel the sound resonating.

Berlioz was this great artist and dreamer but although he had a giant ego, it was all about the art for him and he connected everything to the text. He believed in art permeating society and being an infectious thing, but it always has to be for a reason, it’s not just superfluous. He was unlike anybody else and I love him!

JD: This isn’t entirely your Proms debut?

MS: I did the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with John Eliot Gardiner two years ago. I’ve never done solo stuff there before, though, so I’m excited. I love the Proms because it’s an awakening of classical music for ‘everyperson’. I’m not saying that opera isn’t an elitist thing – because it is, as it takes so much money to be able to put on an opera. But the coolest thing about the Proms is that for many people this is their only possibility that they might see something that’ll change their lives. So that’s why I love the Proms. And I’ll give ‘em a good show, because now I’ve done Faust more than, as far as I know, any other living person. I could conduct it with my eyes closed – but all I have to do is sing, so it’s great! I love the piece so much, mainly because I did the production with Terry Gilliam in the original French in Belgium and that changed my life.

JD: What’s it like to work with Gilliam?

MS: He’s a madman and he’s wonderful! He seriously reminds me of my uncle. We’ve kept in really good touch. We’re very much of the same kind of mind – we’d start talking and still be there four hours later. We have similar ideas and that’s also why he’s taken a liking, like me too, to Berlioz. There are so many accounts of Berlioz being a true artist – ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to do this because the art demands it’ – and I’ve done that many times in my life. Of course I’ve failed – but I’ve succeeded too!
As Faust in Gilliam's production

JD: The production was brilliant, but quite controversial, involving a concentration camp…

MS: To me it’s one of the most poignant productions I’ve ever been a part of. I have many friends and colleagues who say ‘Oh, opera’s going in such a bad direction, all these director things that kill the production’ – but you have a choice to take that or not, and we have to do the projects we believe in. I’ve been fortunate that out of my 64 operas I’ve done, there have only been two or three that I haven’t been really thrilled about.

JD: You don’t mind ‘Regietheater’, then?

MS: It depends on the director and the ideas. I’m a director myself, I have my own opera company in the States that I run with my family. We’re basically the von Trapps – we put on the shows, my brother helps run the company and my sister’s a Broadway singer. I take it very seriously, I can see when a director is just doing something for their own ego and I choose not to be around those kinds of people.

It’s a difficult thing, being a director. Today they’re in a weird position where these are major decisions, it takes huge amounts of money to put on a project and everybody’s under pressure to do a brand-new, original idea. Many people have an idea, but it doesn’t necessarily work with the music. Many directors are not musicians to start out with – they’re dramatists, which is a great concept on paper, but if you have to listen to a piece for four hours and you don’t take into account the audience – you’re gonna die! So I’m fine with any project as long as it’s well thought out and it makes sense with the music. Because the whole reason you’re there is because of the music.

It’s gone crazy in certain places. I won’t name names, but there was one instance where L’Italiana in Algeri was being produced and the director wanted to have his name bigger on the poster than the composer’s name or the opera’s title. Fortunately the festival director said no. That’s how crazy people get!

JD: Do you see yourself moving more into directing in the future?

MS: Yes, absolutely. I’m so inspired, the more I read about the origins of opera. From Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first opera, until the late 19th century, all singers were actors and directors. Nowadays things are so specialised that people say “I’m just a singer” and some don’t even act! It’s completely the opposite of what it should be. All of us need to be acting, dancing, singing, learning as much as we can. That is why opera created this wave of art because it was the first artform where everyone came together, with the idea that we’re all part of it, we all need to be able to do a little bit of everything.

Michael Spyres
That was the great thing, growing up in my family. We built our own amphitheatre. We built the stage first and everyone sat on hay bales. I’m from a famous little town called Mansfield, Missouri – it was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House of the Prairie books. Because of the books, we have many visitors come through there. My mother wrote a musical about Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were growing up and it’s now in its 28th year. At its biggest we had about 120 people involved, which was 10 per cent of the town! So I’ve grown up around this and I’ve been so vindicated reading about the origins of opera, what got me into opera and how it split from its origins.

JD: The idea that you can do just do one thing and the world owes you a living, that’s going nowhere fast…

MS: Of course! And people are tired of that. One of my favourite futurist speakers is Michio Kaku, a fantastic theoretical physicist. A big subject now is what’s going to happen when people become obsolete in jobs. In the next 30-50 years half the people are going to be cut out because of robots, so what’s going to happen? What are the jobs that will be left? You’ve got to be an artist, a musician, someone who comes up with new ideas. For a long time everyone wanted to have a good stable job, but now people are being replaced by robots. But a robot will never be able to be an artist or a musician – that’s what’s so exciting.

JD: I hope you’re right!

MS: They can try! But we are such complex creatures in music. You can hear a piece that’s done by a robot and it doesn’t feel right, it’s just algorithms. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of music and art. I feel I came at the right time because by the time I’m in my later years more and more people will be coming to art, because that’s where the ideas come from. The same thing applies to the computer programmers – they have the technicality and the vision for what needs to be done. Opera is basically the computer of the art world.

JD: You sing, you act, you direct: are you also tempted to write an opera?

A few years ago my brother wrote a libretto, my mum helped – we took the music from The Magic Flute and created a story based on Alice in Wonderland to take to all the kids in the area who’d never seen opera before, in 32 schools that were among the poorest in the community. Yes, someday I want to write an opera – that’s what I’m leaning towards.

JD: What about future roles to sing? Any big dreams?

MS: I’ve basically done every role I wanted to do, except Verdi’s Otello. I’ll do that someday – but like Kaufmann, I’m smart and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m 50 for that, so I’ve got over a decade – but the other dream roles are Monteverdi’s Orfeo and a lot of Rameau and Gluck, great epic works on Greek stories. But modern opera for the most part is not as appealing to me as a singer.

I like Puccini. I love Puccini. But it’s like he put down pure gold on paper and if you want to do him justice you’ve got to do what he wrote – and if you live within the characters that he wrote there’s not a lot of freedom. I’ve taken a lot of flack for saying that – people say, ‘Oh you just don’t like Puccini because you can’t sing it’ – but actually I can sing it, I just don’t like it, because I believe in doing what the composer wanted you to do and for my character there’s very little in Puccini that I find interesting as an actor and singer. I love it when other people do it, but for me personally I get angry because I want to do my own thing, but I shouldn’t – he wrote it so perfectly and beautifully that it’s just right! So that’s why most of the verismo period doesn’t appeal to me – there’s not enough freedom for me,

As far as dream roles go, I’ve done most of them and I know it’s crazy to say that. But I’ve done 64 already and I’m 38: operas from modern to the earliest stuff, and a range from the lowest operas written for a tenor voice to the highest, so I’ve lived out all my major fantasies as far as roles are concerned. Now I’m just looking for true content and characterisation. I find many of the more obscure things much more rewarding. I’d love to do Die tote Stadt – that’s a dream. I love Die tote Stadt – Korngold was one of the greatest. The same with Massenet: he came on the heels of verismo and was able to marry the two, and Korngold did the same thing. Korngold is so overlooked, just because he went into film. But have you listened to his film scores? They’re better than anything! Come on, you can’t write better than that.

JD: You just made this Korngold biographer very happy! Thank you, Michael, and toitoitoi for the final Mitridate.

And – as Loony Tunes would say – that’s all, folks!

The final performance of Mitridate is on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House – booking here. Michael Spyres sings Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms on 8 August – booking here.