In conversation with
by Desmond Chewyn
photography | Karoliina Bärlund
After a period of Latin-American domination, the past few years have seen the rise of young American tenors whose high vocal range and effortless money-notes have made the likes of John Osborn, Lawrence Brownlee and Stephen Costello into operatic crown-princes. Yet none has quite owned a stable of princely, heroic roles the way in which New Orleans-born Bryan Hymel has.
First-time dad to a six-month-old daughter, Bryan squeezes in a family holiday combined with coaching sessions for one of his biggest challenges to date – a role debut in a major new production of Guillaume Tell, headlining the glitzy Munich Opera Festival this summer. Looking back at his career over the past 24 months and you will see he’s rather used to such daunting tasks.
"I missed Idina Menzel!" Bryan is still stuck on his missed-opportunity to meet one of his idols when talking about his coveted Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2013. "She came on to perform straight after I won and I was busy backstage doing all the press stuff." A year later, another opera production which Bryan starred in also took home an Olivier for "Team Stefan" as Bryan lovingly nick-named his collaborators for the much-debated show by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim.
Bryan and I made a pact last summer after his debut in Salzburg: if I came to New Orleans, a night out must be in order – no matter how busy either one of us would be. What would be a better way of combining business and pleasure. "A photoshoot and interview while we are jazz-bar hopping, how does that sound?" I suggested. And so the tenor, our photographer Karoliina and I embarked on a vaguely (and you know why!) memorable night of the Big Easy's infamous 'fishbowls' and Purple Haze, with Bryan casually slipping in and out of designer outfits, creating a minor commotion as we went along. Then again, he's probably used to that, too.
Substituting a fellow artist has long been a gateway to recognition for many artists. But it would be fair so say few have turned those occasions into such career cornerstones as you. From stepping in for Jonas Kaufmann at Covent Garden to Marcello Giordani at the Met – did you ever anticipate the impact those performances would have on your career? What went through your mind back then?
I did have a feeling that Énée in Les Troyens would play big part in my career. When I first sang the role in Amsterdam I had many weeks to live with the character and get to know him. When I received the call from Covent Garden, my heart literally skipped a beat. I knew that this would be a huge opportunity, but also that I had to be in absolute top form. Since I felt like I knew Énée inside and out, I jumped at the chance. The confidence that Maestro Papanno and David McVicar had in me enabled me to face the task head on. The ovation I received on the opening night was truly overwhelming and humbling. When the Met opportunity arose, it was a bit trickier. After finishing the run of Robert le diable in London, I needed to fly immediately to New York and perform with very little rehearsal. It was scary, but I knew that I had to do it. Debuting at the Met as Énée was followed by my first world-wide HD broadcast – a mythical ‘once in a life time opportunity’ and I got 2 within 6 months!
How much of an influence do you think such a musical, cultured and vibrant city as your hometown of New Orleans have on you as a person and as a performer?
Music grabs people everywhere, but the influence of Jazz was particularly special. New Orleans Jazz compels one to smile, and this feeling can be seen and felt all over the city. I try to bring this joy into my performances as much as possible. Opera singing and the particular roles I sing are so demanding that it’s tempting to focus solely on vocal technique; but this is not the art of opera. It’s only when the emotion that inspires such high notes or rapid moving fioratura are joined that we enter the artistic realm. This is what resonates with the audience, allowing us to move them. Growing up in the joyful musicality of New Orleans showed me that immediate connection between music and life.
Considering the obvious French connection with your home city, were all the French grande operas you have made your calling cards in this meteoric ride of a career a conscious choice?
It was not a conscious choice to pursue these roles. I had very little exposure to this music and focused largely on the standard Italian repertoire in my studies. Since my Italian grandfather loved to play Mario Lanza’s records, I felt a more organic connection to that repertoire. When I started studying with my current voice teacher Bill Schuman in New York, he showed me how to access the extremely high register that is necessary to sing this heroic French repertoire. After years of study and conditioning, my voice gained the strength and stamina to sustain the high tessitura of roles like Robert le diable, Arnold in Guillaume Tell and Énée. Now I try to maintain a healthy balance between these demanding heroic roles and more lyric ones like La bohème, Lucia and Rigoletto, in order to keep my voice fresh and flexible.
You once had an ambition to become a Broadway conductor. Has your passion for Broadway musicals changed since you have become engrossed in the world of opera? What do you think about the certain snobbery dividing the two camps of classical/operatic and musical theatre?
I wouldn’t say my passion has changed, but rather my focus. My wife Irini and I love musical theater, and we try to see shows in London and New York as often as possible. We particularly love the ones with a big jazz orchestra and full company tap dance numbers. I think that it’s unfortunate that there is this divide between the two audiences. Stephen Sondheim was asked the difference between Sweeny Todd when done by an opera company and a Broadway company, and his answer was “the audience.” It is the audience’s expectations that make this distinction, although this was less evident before the use of microphones. Amplification has changed the game of singing in musicals completely by allowing the singer to use a style that is much closer to speech. In opera we need to choose vowels that project our voice out over the orchestra. An additional issue in America is the language. Of course we have the supertitles to help, but there can still be a something lost in translation.
The characteristics of American operatic voices are often associated with impeccable technique, excellent projection and the ability to cut through the orchestra – understandably since the houses in the States are much larger in size. However, these traits often sound to the European ear as lacking in subtlety and being somewhat unexpressive. You have obviously proven otherwise. However, do you find a trace of truth in this generalisation?
American singers are exceptionally well trained, but sometimes all this training can take away the little imperfections that give a singer his or her charm. There is a massive system in place of summer programs, graduate schools, competitions and apprenticeships, all of which require at least 2 rounds of auditions and offer a flurry of feedback. I remember one year getting so much varying and conflicting advice that I just gave up on the whole system. Although some students do very well in that environment, when you have a competition with 8 or more judges the winners are sometimes the least offensive or polarizing rather than the most exciting. Additionally, bigger voices tend to take longer to settle down and get a hold on their technique. The American system doesn’t really have a way to allow for all that time. If you do an undergraduate, a master’s and then an apprentice system, you’re probably around 27 when you finish. What will happen to a bigger voice in those 5-7 years it needs to be ready for career? In Europe you can fest in smaller houses while your voice matures and work your way up – but America doesn’t have an equivalent option. I know of more than a few of these kinds of voices who have fallen through the cracks and it’s a real pity. I was fortunate to find the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia when I was 27, and after 3 years and a few well-placed auditions my career found traction in Europe. Ultimately, I think the uniqueness of my voice has played a big part in my success.
Has fatherhood altered certain aspects of you as a stage performer?
I have certainly grown as a person and, therefore, an artist after becoming a father. It’s fascinating to observe my daughter as she discovers the world around her, and I try to imagine what it was like to experience things for the first time. Énée is the only role I’ve sung who is a father, and in it there’s a touching exchange before he goes off to war to defend Didon. I’m not quite sure how my fatherhood will effect my performance in that moment, but I know it will be more profound for me.
A recording might be a testimony of one’s art at a certain point of one’s career. Nonetheless, in this day and age where the recording industry matters so little on many levels – and particularly for a privileged international artist like yourself whose performances have regularly been preserved on film – why is recording a solo album so important for you? What can we expect from it that we might not have already heard live or through a broadcast performance?
Recordings are an integral bridge between singers and the general public, especially when that singer is no longer singing. So many of the great legends are known only to my generation through recordings. In college I couldn’t get enough. My first year it was Pavarotti. Then I learned how to listen to older recordings and went through an intense Björling phase. His album of duets with Robert Merrill, Zinka Milanov, and Licia Albanese was a revelation because of its varying repertoire. This led me to his Butterfly recording with de los Ángeles and Bohème under Sir Thomas Beecham, Turandot with Nillson, Tebaldi and Tozzi and so on and so on. Later, I discovered Gigli and Schipa while studying in Italy and that led to Caruso, Correlli and Del Monaco. Recordings provide a frame of reference and starting point from which to start our own individual journey as a vocalist or even just a listener. Without these glimpses into the history, these singers might only be names in the operatic mythology whose voices are lost in time. When Warner approached me to make an album of French heroic music, I was thrilled. This is the label whose catalogue includes names like Caruso and Callas and, in the French repertoire, César Vezzani and George Thill. It is a huge honor, and I approach it with great humility and responsibility. The album will consist of works by Meyerbeer, Verdi, Berlioz and Massenet, as well as pieces new to me by Reyer and Rabaud. I am particularly excited about the aria and cabaletta from Robert le diable, which I used to audition for the role, but was cut from the production in London due to time constraints.
With all the great hindrances opera companies – and opera as a genre – is experiencing, do you think the art form has come close to hitting rock bottom? And what do you think of the theory that opera may have to perish, with an exception of certain institutions keeping it alive as a museum art form, before it can reinvent itself to become a relevant form of art in the twenty-first century such as theatre and dance have done?
Well, it’s no secret that these are difficult times for us, but I don’t think that opera has to die to be reborn, necessarily. We do need to reconnect with our audience and find more effective ways of attracting new ones. In a world that is increasingly more digital, opera offers an acoustical retreat; an invitation to hear voices truly as they are – not pumped up, lip-synced or auto-tuned. I once attended a concert in a gothic style church in America and the electricity went out just before the music began. Naturally a multitude of candles were close at hand and the concert carried on after a little rearranging. Out of this quiet darkness, the music and candlelight picked us up and transported us to another time. These kinds of ‘authentic’ experiences are rare today, but add something real to our modern lifestyle. In a completely opposite direction, there’s the sporting side to opera. It is the training and discipline that enables us to project our voices out over the orchestra for 3 to 5 hours at a time, day after day, year after year. Along with this, there are so many different facets to be admired about a performance, but they’re not all immediately accessible. Sure the music may be lovely and a singer’s voice impressive, but this is merely scratching the surface of what opera offers. In the same way that one can learn to appreciate fine wine, I think we can foster a new passion in our audiences.
We chose Carousel bar as our final stop. It was the old haunt of Tennesse Williams, Hemingway, Capote and Faulkner whenever they were in town. Here we were quite literally spun gently around, bathed in dim, tinted light bulbs, deep in some nostalgic topics of conversation as if under some kind of spell. Or it could have been the result of those mean cocktails the barman concocted for us! At an early hour of the morning we jumped off the merry-go-round to say our goodbyes. I was rather impressed how steady Bryan was by that point. This is after all a tenor whose feet are firmly on the ground. His heart and head are in the right places, too, I feel. It’s about time New Orleans adds an operatic star to its illustrious list of musical royalties.
This article first appeared in the American issue of Auditorium | Summer 2014
Bryan Hymel photographed in New Orleans exclusively for ©Auditorium by Karoliina Bärlund