Man of the House

Following his star turn last season in the Met premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green returns this month to headline the first revival of Blanchard’s groundbreaking Fire Shut Up in My Bones, followed by performances as Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen. Green, who began his Met career in 2011 as a winner of the National Council Auditions and a member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, recently spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about his rise to become one of the company’s most important artists.

After this month, you’ll have sung 17 different roles at the Met. How did the company become so central to your career?
The first opera I ever saw was at the Met, when I was 15 years old, and the Met became my dream. Whether it would be to sing in the chorus or in the smallest role or as a soloist, I just wanted to be a part of this house. Now, it feels like destiny, like the Met found me and shaped my future as a human.

You’ve come a long way from your early days in the young artist program.
From the very beginning of my training in the Lindemann program, I was taught that there’s no such thing as a small role, especially at the Met. If you prepare even the smallest role with the same energy and respect that you would give the title role, not only will you feel gratified as an artist, but you’ll be noticed for your effort. As I’ve gotten more and more opportunities, putting in the hard work each step of the way has prepared me for the responsibility of roles like Young Emile in Champion last year and Charles in Fire Shut Up in My Bones this season.

This will mark your third time collaborating with Terence Blanchard, after Champion and singing Uncle Paul in the Met premiere of Fire. How does it change your experience to work with a living composer?
In the first run of Fire, I was supposed to sing a minor role, and Arthur Woodley was scheduled to sing Uncle Paul. But Arthur sadly passed away shortly before we started rehearsals, and the Met asked me to take on Uncle Paul. The role as written wasn’t a perfect fit for my voice, but Terence was absolutely willing and excited to explore ways to make the music and my voice work well together. And I know he was just as helpful molding Charles’s music to Will Liverman’s voice, which sits quite high for the role. But it’s actually a very comfortable range for me, so even though I know Terence is ready to make any adjustments we might need, he and I have agreed that we’ll start by approaching it come scritto.

Terence is one of the world’s great jazz composers, and his operas reflect that. Did you have any prior jazz experience?
I never sang jazz or R&B growing up, and I have no background in gospel music either. When I went to church as a child, I was the kid falling asleep in the pew. The first thing I ever sang with effort was opera. I’m really a one-trick pony, so I approach Champion and Fire with a purely operatic mindset. The stereotypes that follow African Americans in this business upset me because they assume that these other styles are my background, when actually it’s the opposite. It’s working with Terence’s music that has made me discover new things about my voice, not singing Boris Godunov or Carmen. 

Charles experiences severe trauma as a child and carries those demons into adulthood. How do you connect with the character?
I can’t specifically relate to his sexual assault, but just like him, the worst parts of my life were when I was a child. My most traumatic experience came when I was 12 years old and was locked up for a summer in juvenile detention. From that day on, I searched for a way to move forward. In the opera, Charles looks for salvation and self-respect in the toxic masculinity of a fraternity, in a woman’s arms, at church. But it isn’t until he confronts himself and faces his trauma that he can see that it wasn’t his fault, and he can start to move past it. Just like him, it took me a long time to find my own self-worth and to realize that my childhood wasn’t my fault.

After Fire, you move on to something completely different: the swaggering Escamillo in Carmen.
It’s my 17th Met role, but it’s also the opera that started it all. That first performance I saw when I was 15 was Carmen, and now, 22 years later, I’m finally getting to sing it on the Met stage. It feels like I’m really coming home.