Almaviva has interviewed up and coming American tenor Bryan Hymel in London, in person, in premises kindly offered to Opera Lively by the Press Department of the Royal Opera House (thank you Ms. Ann Richards, and thank you Kate Davis - production pictures were also sent to us by the ROH and are to be credited to ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper, used with authorization). Bryan was singing Énée, the main male role in Berlioz's masterpiece Les Troyens at Covent Garden, a run that has just finished and earned the young tenor the utmost praise from the British press. Opera Lively interviewed the great Anna Caterina Antonacci in association with the same production; see her intelligent answers [here]. You may also want to consult our extensive series of in-depth articles (nine of them) on all things Les Troyens, including detailed musical analysis and considerations about its literary source, greatest singers, its symbolism, trivia, etc. - read them [here]. Without false modesty, I'd say that they are among the best reference material one can find in the Internet about this outstanding opera (Almaviva's third favorite after the Ring and Tristan und Isolde).
Bryan's enthusiasm for the big breaks he's been getting in his still short career are contagious (Jonas Kaufmann was scheduled for this role but withdrew due to illness, opening space for still another choice opportunity for Bryan), and we feel happy for this fellow American who is making it big in Europe, and has been singing in prestigious houses such as La Scala, Covent Garden, Bayerische, and DNO. He has also had his debut in Houston and is a regular at Santa Fe Opera.
It is with pleasure that we see his career blossom, and we hope that this interview will help bring more attention to Bryan from this side of the pond, since we'd definitely love to see him doing more in his native US - we don't want to lose Bryan to Europe! Well, we say it in a joking good sense; it's great to see him in Europe too (sospiro, jflatter, Soave_Fanciulla, and Almaviva saw him live in Les Troyens in London, and other Opera Lively members have seen him in Amsterdam). Also endearing is the way he expresses his love for his wife - Bryan seems to be a really nice man. Staff members MAuer and Festat helped with this interview; the former with questions, and the latter with transcription duties - their help is appreciated.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
SINGER: Bryan Hymel
BORN IN: New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
FACH: In between Lyric and Dramatic Tenor with a predominant top
RECENTLY IN: Les Troyens (Énée), Royal Opera House - Covent Garden
NEXT IN: Concerts - Santa Fe Opera Gala, August 4; Evening of Italian Opera, Saratoga, August 9; Operas - La Bohème (Rodolfo), Opera Company of Philadelphia, September 28 and 30, and October 3, 5, 7; Robert Le Diable (Robert), Royal Opera House - Covent Garden, December 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21; 2012
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
This season, flourishing tenor Bryan Hymel has returned to the the Royal Opera House to sing Énée in Les Troyens under Maestro Sir Antonio Pappano and stage director David McVicar, in a role that he did as well for De Nederlandse Opera in Pierre Audi's production in Amsterdam. He will be once more at the ROH for the title role of Robert Le Diable in December, after doing Rodolfo in La Bohème in Philadelphia in September and October, as well as concerts in Santa Fe and Saratoga. Mr. Hymel sang earlier this season the Prince in the Royal Opera House's first-ever staging of Rusalka, and performed the title roles in Faust with Lyric Opera Baltimore and Robert Le Diable in Salerno, Italy with the Teatro Municipale.
Last season Mr. Hymel made his debut at Teatro alla Scala singing Don José in Carmen, a role he later reprised at the Bayerische Staatsoper. He then returned to the Santa Fe Opera to sing the title role in Faust. Mr. Hymel has appeared in many of the world’s most accomplished Opera Houses and festivals. He sang Pinkerton in a revival of the late director Anthony Minghella's production of Madama Butterfly at English National Opera and with the Canadian Opera Company; Don José in Carmen with the Canadian Opera Company and in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s filmed 3D version. Mr. Hymel made his European debut as the Prince in Rusalka at the Wexford Festival Opera and has appeared as Luigi in Il tabarro and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi with New Orleans Opera, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with Palm Beach Opera, and Guido in Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy at the Bard Festival under the direction of Leon Botstein.
A sought-after recitalist and concert performer, Mr. Hymel made his New York recital debut with Michelle DeYoung under the auspices of the George London Foundation; his Carnegie Hall debut with Opera Orchestra of New York, in a gala concert also featuring Renée Fleming, Marcello Giordani, and Dolora Zajick; and London recital debut on the Rosenblatt Recital Series; and also appeared as Don José in a concert performance of Carmen with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Caracas, Venezuela, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Among his accolades, New Orleans native Bryan Hymel is the Top Prize Winner of the 2009 Gerda Lissner Foundation Competition, and First-Prize Winner of the 2008 Licia Albanese/Puccini Foundation Competition, the 2008 Loren L. Zachary Vocal Competition, and the 2008 Giulio Gari Foundation Competition. He was a grand finalist in the 2000 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.
Bryan studied at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia under Bill Schuman and also participated in San Francisco Opera Center’s Merola Program
EXCLUSIVE OPERA LIVELY INTERVIEW WITH BRYAN HYMEL
Opera Lively: The first reviews are in for the Royal Opera’s new production of Les Troyens, and they are very positive. To quote from one of them: “Tenor Bryan Hymel is solid in his lower register and displays high notes of prodigious power and beauty.” Énée is a tremendously difficult role, isn’t it? There are not only the repeated high notes, but the sheer length of the role, as well. How do you prepare yourself for it?
Bryan Hymel: Well, I first did it two years ago. It was really difficult. It's still difficult today. We did six or eight performances in Amsterdam, and so far we've done three here and it's all about the pacing of how you start and how you warm up. And also you need to take your time to rest, really get a good night of sleep, and eat healthy, leading up to it. This is especially important for this opera in particular, because the first part the adrenaline is going and everything is working for you, but some of the hardest singing comes in the last hour and a half. The duet with Didon it is very difficult and comes at the end of the fourth act. Then you have another intermission of thirty minutes, to sit back and try to stay in the zone. The break is mainly for the orchestra and for the set changes, but for me it would be easier to just do it all at once rather than space it out.
The tessitura sits high, which I think is difficult and challenging for light tenors to sing it. It is not the most challenging part of the role for me, because my voice lies high anyway. I feel that it fits what my voice does naturally. Well, it's just twice as long (laughs). Berlioz intended it or at least envisioned it being performed in two separate nights. The role of Énée in the first part is important but is just a supporting role if anything, whereas in the second part it definitely feels like an entire Bohème. You're out there and you're singing and it's all part of it. But each time that we do it here, the more I have days to relax and rest and come and do it comfortably, the easier act 5 gets, because by that time of course you're tired. Even if your voice isn't necessarily tired, your whole body is, for being in it. For a five o'clock curtain I get to the theater around four o'clock and the show starts at five, and then I don't sing the hardest part which is act 5 until almost 10 minutes to ten. So it's six hours. If you arrived at seven o'clock for a 7:30 curtain in Bohème, you'd be done by 10:30, you’d be having dinner by then. [laughs]
OL: When you stop for thirty minutes is it harder on the voice to have to warm up again for the second part, or is the break welcome to rest the voice?
BH: I think it does help to rest, but at that point I just want to finish. I would probably rather just sing it right off, right away, or just not have as long a break; thirty minutes is a long time backstage. If you're in the house maybe you need to used the restroom or you want to get something to drink or snack. Thirty minutes might not seem like that much. But when I walk offstage I go back to the dressing room; I just sit there and sing a little bit more, just trying to keep warmed up. But once act five starts again there's still another ten minutes before I go on and start the aria, so...
OL: What about the character of Énée himself – he’s not always sympathetic. Yes, he has a destiny to fulfill, but knowing this, he still allows himself to become romantically involved with Didon and then abandons her. Yet he’s clearly intended to be the opera’s hero. How do you see him?
BH: Yes, especially in this production, he is first and foremost a warrior. He’s been in the midst of war when the show starts. I don't think he goes there looking for love, if you will. He goes looking for shelter and a place to be, but a series of events happens to him... Depending on how you want to look into the supernatural aspect, he has this bloody ghost who has been killed in war appearing to him, maybe in a dream, but the way we’re staging it, it is very real here. So I think he's caught between two drives. I'm sure he would rather stay with her, at least for that time being.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
There is a sense of his ego and his pride, because in the aria he says "To be crowned in the fields of Italy in this heroic death that I have been promised by the gods". So he has that in there, but the pressure is just building and building and building, until he just *has* to escape. And he doesn't want to do it, and even though in the aria he says "I can't leave without seeing her," after the ghost comes he says "No, I have to leave right now". As I'm running to leave I run into her and I don't have a choice but to confront her.
It's really heartbreaking, and we've tried to tell that story in this production, especially in act four, after they've met and they've gone off to the war, to build the love story... Being with her is not just convenient for him; he has fallen in love with Didon and with the idea of the utopian society that they have come into. But with this idea of them being warriors in perpetual war on a greater human idea scale, if that idea of conquering and moving on is there, it's going to be hard for him to escape it and just stay behind with Didon.
OL: I found interesting that when he runs into her he drops his sword. It's kind of symbolic that he drops his weapon, the one he is supposed to use to fulfill his mission...
BH: Absolutely! It's her power that almost knocks is out of his hand. And yes, it was not just by accident that we did that. I almost throw the sword to the ground, really, because that's the tangible choice...
OL: It’s a symbol of duty, right?
BH: Of course. And then likewise, when he says "no, I'm leaving", you hear the music, the same music that we heard earlier, and then I go and I pick up the sword and I don't look at her again. I cannot look at her. He just has to focus on the sword, sheet it, and then she realizes it's no use to try and hold him back.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
OL: The reviews also called your duet with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon at the end of the fourth act the high point of the night. Was this the first time you’ve worked with her?
BH: Eva-Maria and I did this show, Les Troyens, in Amsterdam but she sang Cassandra. So although I've worked with her before, we never really worked with each other closely on stage, especially not this closely. But it was nice because we knew each other and so that helped the process of integrating me into the show after everybody had been here for three weeks before I joined.
And, yes, I’ve loved working with her; she's a wonderful person, a real sincere sweetheart, a beautiful singer, a beautiful musician, and she has really been just on my side and been very encouraging to me. I spend the most time with her on stage and in rehearsals and everything else, so that's been really important. Everybody has been very supportive. Toni Pappano has been wonderful and helpful, allowing me to make it and helping me to sing this role as well as I can; maybe even better than I can, because of the inspiration that he gives.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
OL: What about Sir David McVicar?
BH: David has been wonderful as well. Stage directors are very crucial to the process. They can make a character and a singer look good and feel good and believable if they make you believe in their vision. He is very good about being clear and I think his ideas are good, which makes it easy to get behind them and support them, because they seem like the obvious choice. You couldn't think of another or better way to do it. It's the first time I've worked with David personally. I sang a production of his La Bohème, but he wasn't there.
OL: It was a revival.
BH: Yes, it was a revival.
OL: And is he strong in directing the acting?
BH: Yes, absolutely. He's funny because he said that he was not a good actor, which is a lie, a complete lie. Because when he is explaining something to you, especially if you've tried it and it's not quite what he had in mind, he takes on the character not in a way to show you "do it just like this" but in a way that when you look at his face or expression and his eyes, you understand what he means. Sometimes that is just a better way to communicate than just talking words around it. And he is very high energy, and very hands on. I was saying earlier to somebody else how we've really dug our hands into this and have not been afraid to get our hands dirty with the emotions and with the struggle between the characters and the overall ideas that we were trying to put to the forefront in this piece.
OL: One of the greatest interpreters of Énée was Jon Vickers, who had that big dramatic timbre. You have also sung Don José and Cavaradossi, which are usually considered roles for spinto voices. But your repertoire also includes more purely lyric roles such as Edgardo, Alfredo, and Arturo in I Puritani. How would you describe your voice?
BH: Well, that's a tricky one. First off I don't think I'm a dramatic or even a spinto. I would say that the color of my voice has opened the door towards a certain heavier repertoire, because I don't think that I have standard Italianate sound. I’ve tried to sing in an Italian way and to train Bel Canto but I think my timbre landed itself, especially earlier on, in a different way.
This has been an issue since I’ve started singing, from my first voice teacher on, because the strengths of my voice were always in the top of it. My top was just always there. I don't want to say that I wasn't taught because of course my teachers have helped me, but before I even took any voice lessons I remember I was doing a musical for my high school and there was a really high note that they needed people to sing and nobody else could hit it like I could. I found out afterwards that it was a high C! I didn't know what this meant. I mean, I knew it because I had played piano, but I didn't know anything about opera. They said "somebody's got to sing this note if we can't" so I said, "okay, I will try it" and was able to do it and figured it out. It was only later when I started studying singing, that I realized that not every tenor has this kind of way.
Some of them have started as baritones and have built their way up, building the top notes one by one, half-step by half-step. My path has been the opposite: it was kind of a battle to fill in the middle and the lower register. I'm thrilled actually about that reviewer who said that I have "good, strong low notes" — because I have before gotten reviews that said my low voice all but fell off a cliff in the scene where they send all the pigs off the cliff in Der Freischütz, which I’ve never really sang. This was at school, at AVA [Editor’s note: The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia]. It was kind of funny and even that being said, it was like a whole note low C.
But back to the point, I've been trying to get the middle and the passaggio to match the rest of my top. In doing that it has allowed the color of my voice to come out. I think this is why with Czech music and even with some Russian music that I've done, people respond to that a lot. The Rusalka role here in Covent Garden and when I did it first for the Wexford festival was really well received.
I think that I feel most at home in the high French repertoire. Énée is almost uncategorical, because like you said, John Vickers may be the most famous, together with Gary Lakes, Ben Heppner, and all these big dramatic Wagner voices that sang it or recorded it. Even Del Monaco did it in Italian, in a recording from La Scala. I can understand why it's a dream to have a voice of that size and weight sing it because of its heroic nature, but the tessitura is so high for those voices that Del Monaco had to take the aria down a half-step. I know that Jon Vickers in live performances took the duet down a half-step because it's just really high, even for me, and my voice is high!
Right before I came here I was doing a role that I'm going to sing here in London next year, Robert le diable, and it has C sharps, Ds. And Ds are extremely high notes and they're not written for Rossini voices. You have to have a more sizable voice, it’s like Guillaume Tell, it's something like that. And so we're looking at La Damnation de Faust and Benvenuto Cellini, some of these other high and heroic French roles, even La Favorite which is not done a lot but is done even less in French than La Favorita in Italian.
OL: I find it to be one of the most beautiful Donizetti operas.
BH: Oh, yes! I agree! “Spirto gentil” is one of the arias that I learned towards the end of my undergraduate years and surely thereafter, and it's gorgeous and it's hard, it's really hard! (laughs) It was a good lead up; an aria to learn and to practice before, say, singing the Faust aria, because I would say the Faust aria maybe is a little bit harder, but it's still the same thing, you sing it through, there's a middle section, you return to the first section but with a high C. And it's hard to stay fresh for the high C. I mean, the high C in the “Salut demeure chaste et pure” is one of the hardest high Cs, I think, in the repertoire. I mean, you get something like Bohème, it's a piece of cake. [laughs]
OL: To elaborate a little more on what we're talking about, let’s consider the following: Les Troyens is very difficult for the tenor, because one needs here a dramatic tenor of a grade sufficient to sing characters like Otello and Tristan, in order to project over a very, very, very large orchestra. But Otello and Tristan are relatively easy by comparison, because here we also need someone with incredible stamina, since this character spans both parts of this long opera, and the tessitura often includes such challenging notes as high B flat, B natural, and high C, in sustained manner.
BH: Yes, it's exactly like we were just saying there. There's a couple of ways or things to keep in mind. I'm thrilled to be doing this interview, by the way; these are great questions because I think they are very pointed to the concept! There's been a lot of discussion on wheter Énée is a Tristan, an Otello, or is somewhere in the middle, because Gedda recorded it too - I'm not sure, he may have done it on stage once. Gregory Kunde is of course on the DVD from the Châtelet. I am somewhere in the middle between Kunde and a Heldentenor like Jon Vickers.
BH: But when they did at Châtelet they did it with period instruments and the orchestra that it was written for, and so it is a big difference.
OL: That's right.
BH: And the pitch was not as high as it is now, so... I remember when I was an undergraduate and we were learning Handel and Mozart, and earlier music that all young singers should learn. We were talking about how they didn't really sing full throated tenor at the time. So these arias were written to be sung in a different way and it was always something that was hard for me, because I could never do it really, in all honesty. My voice just didn't work in that way.
A lot of singers with smaller voices can just be very expressive and musical at a young age, because they just can do it. I had the musicality within me from playing piano and trumpet, but I did not know how to make my voice do that. I would not be able to do it for more than the first half of the aria and then I'd be dead by the second half. It really just took years of understanding the technique and practicing and building. It’s similar to what the old singers of the golden era like Flagstad used to talk about when singing Wagner: it's like becoming weight lifters; it takes years to be able to build the muscles and be able to withstand that and actually be able to do it and not just go out and kill yourself in one night. That might be the best night of your career, but would be the first and only.
So I think it's been good for me to do this. I remember when I first accepted to do this role in Amsterdam, lots of people said "You're crazy, you shouldn't do this, you're going to kill yourself," but I didn't kill myself, obviously. That doesn't mean that it wasn't hard and that I didn't struggle because especially towards the end of the performances I was really exhausted.
I remember again when I was in school that all my teachers and every judge in competitions would tell us: "You don't even begin to be a real tenor until you're 35". Well, I'm still not 35 yet, and I'm still working everyday to become a "real tenor". But the thing is, even in the past year I have felt that settling of the voice. It helps with consistency. The best way I could think to explain it is that if singing is like throwing darts, the bull's eye is getting bigger and bigger, it's becoming natural and I don't have to try so very hard. Because of that, the level of consistency goes up.
I am almost an obsessive technician. I love it. I had to become like this, because of the what we were saying earlier, about how my voice could not do the things I wanted it to do musically. I think this is part of the artistry. We'll always be having to find new ways for our voice to be able to sing a certain phrase, and be able to not just make it through but to sing it beautifully.
The duet, “Nuit d'vresse,” is a perfect example, because you're tired, you've been onstage the whole time. You'd give half of your feet for a sip or water at that point. But you just have to keep going, from the septet, into the sextet, into the duet, just straight. And you sing the whole time. Berlioz needed, maybe, if I could suggest anything to him, just a couple of more rests in between things. For instance, the entrance aria: you come onstage and it’s the 58 most difficult seconds of music I've ever sung, just straight like that.
And in this production you run on and tell the story about what you just saw down by the seaside, and there's really no easy way to get around the fact that you have to run on doing it and be convincing on the fact that you've been running - and it's also so hard to sing! In Amsterdam they got away with it because the coming on was done in slow motion, so you gave the illusion that you were running.
I have to say it really worked. At first I was thinking "oh, I don't know, it looks like a cheat, it looks like an easy way out because everybody knows that this is difficult to sing", but it ended up working and then it was much easier to sing because you were just standing there. You know, at the Proms it will be much easier to sing it then it will be here (laughs)! But Toni Pappano was committed to it, I was committed to making it work.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
This is different from a concert performance. When we're doing it on stage, and people are paying their money to see Les Troyens done, when we’ve got a horse that's on fire and everything else, we need to make this happen. And it's my job as a singer to do the best I can. I started going to the gym more and running faster to build my lungs up a little bit more for that. I grew up playing trumpet, I have pretty strong breath control, but the excitement and the running back there, it's hard!
OL - The aria "Inutiles Regrets!" has a wide range and seems fiendishly difficult in its strange rhythm and sudden shifts [range F3 to A#/Bb5. Tessitura G3 to G#/Ab4]. Any comments about it?
BH: Yes, it's definitely difficult like this. And that's exactly what I was thinking about when I said he could have written a couple more rests, just some little orchestra interludes... David really helped to make the drama of this aria and make the aria seems shorter for me. It's about 7 minutes and there is very little break in there. I do think that it was genius or luck, whatever it was — we tenors will be thankful for it — that it was written well. The chromaticism is incredible. It's funny, my wife and I were sitting in the dressing room two shows ago, and I was just plunking out the melody. I was singing but I was away from the piano, and I wanted to make sure that I was in tune, and I was playing it through and it is incredibly chromatic. The melody by itself is not particularly beautiful, but set in the atmosphere of the Berlioz music it flows incredibly easily.
I maybe thankfully forgot how difficult it was to learn this for the first time. Because when I learned this for Amsterdam I remembered it took me forever. I felt like it was just an endless roll. Of course I always knew that the duet was beautiful, I loved [sings] "Je suis Énée"; that part was cool and you makes you feel really heroic. But some of the music like the septet made me think "this is kind of boring, I feel like I'm going back to choir school", because the tenor line is exactly like what you would sing in the first tenor part in some cantata. It's D, F, E flat, oh... really tight and soft. And we were doing it here, and of course, Eva-Maria and I were dead center stage, right down in the middle, so we had to sing almost softer than anybody else, because they're all for the backstage, so they can afford to sing louder.
And now having done it and having lived with the work and the piece made me realize that the septet is actually one of the most beautiful and inspirational music to be part of, and then the duet actually flows easily, more easily out of that if you can relax and allow the atmosphere to do it. And then it sings itself! It sings itself as long as you're healthy and as long as you feel good and you've been smart about the way you’ve sung up to that point. It's been surprisingly easier than I thought it was going to be.
The high C, though, because I would go just a little bit longer in the aria, [sings it] “bienfaitrice” [with a long line] and because it's so short sometimes you want to go [sings again, faster] “bienfaitrice” and like *grip* it. And then it just sounds like you’re going to crack it. It is tricky. You know, Jon Vickers sang [sings] "Mon âme," with some kind of help with the vocal A of âme on the high C, but Berlioz wrote “bienfaitrice” so that's what *I'm* going to try and sing (laughs).
OL: That was a very authentic production. Pappano really did justice to Berlioz.
BH: Yes! I think so.
OL: No cuts. Did you see that The Independent reviewed it complaining that there were no cuts? And I was thinking “what is this critic talking about, I’m thrilled that there were no cuts.”
BH: Especially in works like this, that are rarely done, I feel that if you're going to do it you should do the piece and let it stand on its own. If you don't like this ballet, if you don't like that aria, you're entitled to your opinion. These critics and the paying public are all entitled to their opinion. But I think that you as the artist, unless it is really just unbearable, you need to just do it.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
These works have grown and there is the one version for Vienna and another one for Paris and another one for Milan... They add music, they take it out. So when you get to those kinds of things you should just pick which version you are going to do, and do that one. As long as it works as a whole, as a piece, then great! But to butcher something or just take something out just because it's too long, I think there is something missing in the artistic integrity of what's going on... We're going through this with cuts of Robert le diable right now, it's Meyerbeer, and let me tell you, that's a long piece!
BH: Almost as long as this one. And there are discussions about wanting to do one of the arias and cabaletta that is in there, and I'm trying up to push and to do it. I think that we are almost there. We have discussed it with the conductor and the stage director, but it's a big piece and I *can* sing it, so if you can sing it you should do it! If somebody can’t sing it, then fine. But maybe I'll live to eat these words right now as I’m saying I can sing it (laughs) but, it's beautiful music that Chris Merritt found in the library at Paris Opera, and it's now in the score! I mean, it's not even in the back as an appendix, it's in the score, so, let’s do it!
OL: Is that a critical edition they are doing?
BH: Yes, I think so. I think it was put together between Paris and Ricordi who is the publisher, and it is massive, I think it has almost seven hundred pages, like this [makes a sign of thickness with his fingers]. But Robert has considerably more ballet than this one does. It's going to be fun.
OL: Jonas Kaufmann, whom you replaced as Énée, has deliberately pursued a very diverse repertoire, in the sense of singing several roles that are very different from each other. The same is true for Plácido Domingo. Do you see yourself following a similar career path once your voice matures more, or would you rather to specialize in a more narrow repertoire?
BH: Well, first off I have much respect both for Jonas and for Plácido, of course. These guys have different voices than me. I think they have more options, such as these Wagner roles that both of them have done, and done very well. I don't know if I'll ever sing Wagner and that's neither good nor bad. I'm here to sing what I *can* sing.
The fact that I did Cavaradossi in Bordeaux doesn’t prove much, because Bordeaux is a seven hundred-seat house; I was twenty-nine at the time, and it was a great opportunity. Many people, managers included, will tell you to sit on the couch, look at the scores, go through them, and they’ll say that you should only sing this and that. But not everybody has that option. I remember it at the time; this was the job that I had been offered; it was one of three jobs that had been offered that year, so I said “I'm either going to sing and do it.”
“Recondita armonia” was one of the first arias I ever learned because where it sat is high enough. My voice was - I’ll almost say always - naturally big, but especially the top of it was always full and that aria sits high. It's all F, G, A, B-flat, so it was easy for me. So we did it and I think it was a success. It wasn't perfect, but Bordeaux was certainly happy that I was there and it was a great learning experience.
This is another thing that I just want to touch on. It’s about how you become a singer, how you actually make it out there. Because lots of opera companies have these young artist programs where they take very talented people with great voices and throw them into all kinds of crazy situations. Maybe some people can really benefit and learn from that. I think that for me, I would have been overwhelmed. I studied through a four years traditional university in New Orleans, and then worked for three years, singing in regional companies, Rigoletto, Tamino, Don Ottavio, this kind of standard and safe repertoire. And I realized, even just singing in small houses in the US, that I wasn't ready.
I mean, I wasn't ready; I was twenty-three, twenty-four. But I was getting hired so that's enough to kind of make one think "well, maybe I am ready", but I just knew I wasn't; my technique wasn't ready, I wasn't prepared. Something I think is very critical for young singers and for singers in general, is that you have to know your voice well enough. If something is not going right; if you're having trouble with this part of an aria or this part of the show, you need to know how to fix it yourself. Because when you're in school and your teacher and your coaches are there and they hear you every day you, you almost have no time to go astray, to go down the wrong path.
But you need to be able to – one - recognize that you're going the wrong way; and two - figure out how to get yourself back on the path. This is, I think, the most underrated skill. People talk about charisma and all these other things which of course you have to have too, but if you don’t know how get your voice on a path, if your technique is not there and you don't know how to sustain this through a crazy career…
Because once it starts going it becomes very busy. Both Plácido and Jonas are famous for the number of times they sing - fifty to sixty dates a year. That's A LOT of singing. And performances are not just singing. If you're a good performer, which of course these guys are and I aspire to be, you go out there and you give what you have to give. It's not like rehearsing. In rehearsals or even if I'm just practicing in my house, you give it and then you get back. But when you're in the scene, the emotion and the staging amplify everything, and if you're not in charge of it, if you're not comfortable with it, you can run into trouble. You have to be smart.
That being said, I would love to do this high French repertoire. It's not standard. I remember when Rossini operas were not standard and now they are staging all these Cenerentolas, and Juan Diego Flórez, Larry Brownlee, all these guys are wonderful in this rep. So, this high French repertoire could perfectly become standard as well. I would love to sing that Les Huguenots and some of this other really beautiful music, that is incredibly hard to cast... and I’d love to do I puritani again.
It's tricky. To have a tenor with a full voice that sings it like Luciano did, the opera company takes a big risk, because if that tenor can't do it or gets sick at the last moment, this is not a Bohème tenor, this is not a Rigoletto tenor that you can just find anywhere; you need someone to replace your full voiced-tenor. It's a big risk to take.
OL: Earlier this year, you sang the Prince in Rusalka with the Royal Opera. You’d mentioned in another interview how much you enjoyed working with the conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and how supportive he was of his singers. Are there other maestros with whom you’ve worked who you would characterize as “singers’ conductors?”
BH: Sure. Yannick is wonderful. This was the first time that we worked together. I'm doing another concert with him and the Philadelphia Orchestra in August. I'm very much looking forward to that. Maestro Pappano of course is a wonderful singers' conductor. I mean, both of his parents were singers, he studied singing, they taught singing...
OL: His wife is a voice teacher, right?
BH: She is a voice coach, I think. She's a pianist and a coach. She's wonderful, Pam, yes, and she's been here a lot for this Les Troyens to kind of offer help and balancing with all these issues. I think Tony Pappano really knows and really likes singers. There were times when I was on stage - not recently - where I’d wonder if the conductor even liked singers. Because they're either not a priority or... I don't know. I don't like to talk about who is not great [laughs]. But no, I've been very lucky. Yannick is wonderful, Maestro Pappano as well, and Gustavo Dudamel is wonderful. We did Carmen at La Scala and we had never worked together.
I knew him because of another great singers' conductor, Simon Rattle. We did Carmen, I sang Don José with his wife Magdalena Kožená, in Venezuela for Gustavo's orchestra down there. And so, working with Simon was wonderful. Again, inspirational. You sing better than you kind of can on your own, just in the same way that the orchestra plays better, or in a more inspired way under these conductors. It's really I think a charisma thing. But, yes, Gustavo and Simon Rattle and Yannick and Pappano... it's the embarrassment of riches, actually, with all the wonderful people that I got to work with...
OL: The Royal Opera Les Troyens was not the first time you were called upon to replace Jonas Kaufmann in a performance. You also had to step in for him as Don José at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. How was for you, receiving that call from your agent, in both occasions?
BH: Well, it's funny. I was already in Munich singing a small role, Ismaele in Nabucco, and I actually was planning to go and see Jonas that night. I had only seen him sing Traviata at the Met back in 2006, it was his debut. And I thought it was great. I was looking forward to going to see him because at that time he was very much established but he was not yet Jonas Kaufmann the superstar. So I was looking forward to go in to see that, my wife and I both. And then I got a call from the house, not from my agent, but from the house — it was the night before — saying that he wasn't feeling great and that he'd put them on standby. In Germany a lot of times they don’t get it covered. There's nobody. You put them on standby and if they need somebody, they'll find somebody else in Germany to be there. If the guy cancels then he cancels; you put on your other singer and you hope for the best with the audience and such.
So when they called me to say that, I was already saying "okay". It was fine because I was just coming from doing it at La Scala earlier in that season, and that was a hugely nervous situation to be in. It was the same thing; I had to replace another tenor who was sick. Yes, it was fine; I went through with the staging director; Carmen was Anita Rachvelishvili; we did it both in Toronto and at La Scala together, so I felt comfortable in that way.
And then we get ready to start the show and I'm standing offstage, and the intendant goes out to make the announcement that he's canceled and the audience goes crazy. They're screaming, they're booing, you know, clearly they're not happy. That was a moment of "oh-oh, this is fear" because not only am I going to have to go out there and sing this role for which I had had no rehearsal, no nothing; I had just checked a couple of tempos with the conductor, and then I have an audience that is not happy.
OL: And it's his hometown!
BH: And it is his hometown, of course, right?! (laughs) So, you know... But I went out there and they clapped after the duet with Micaëla, which is always a good sign. I've done thirty performances now of Carmen, which is not so much by the standards of a career but after, say, four years into a career, thirty performances of Carmen is enough to get a feel of it. And sometimes people clap after the aria and sometimes they don't. Maybe it's because you sang one better than the other or you didn't, who knows... But once I heard them clap after the duet, I calmed down, I was thinking, “OK, everything is okay, it's fine.” And it was the night after that Nabucco performance. I had to sing two nights on a row. Ismaele is nothing; it is not the most taxing role, but it would have been nice to just sit around and relax the night before.
OL: But you won the audience over anyway, even though your voice is very different from Mr. Kaufmann’s.
BH: Yes, I think this is one of the great things about opera, and about singers. I wish this for young people of my generation: that people just... become more educated. And about knowing more about singing, Jonas' voice and my voice are not very much alike at all. The fact that we sing some of the same roles is just a factor of the color of my voice. He is able to sing those roles too, he has great top for such a dark voice! It's completely admirable, I'd be thrilled to go to the opera house and hear him sing any night of the week. But the audience... My José is not at all like his; it's much more... I have a lighter voice! The aria and the duets, I think, are where I can really show what I can do. Because to be honest with you, act three and the last duet, they're low for me! I mean, I have to sing a lot in the middle and it's harder for me to make the same amount of sound as somebody who's got a heavier voice, and this is neither good nor bad.
Jonas is ten years older than me; I'm sure my voice in ten years will be lower and therefore it will be a different ball game. But I think there's something interesting to be heard from all these kinds of performances, with all these different kinds of singers. Back in days when you had Bergonzi and Corelli and Tucker and all these guys singing at the same time, you could have your pick! I would love for us to be able to go to the theater and be able to pick and choose between those singers. And I think that in a place like Covent Garden in London and at the Met you have this kind of possibility and potential. I think we can like everybody... Calleja, and Grigolo, everybody's got their strengths and I think it's great for the art form. It's exciting to be in the ring with these guys if you will.
OL: Did he give you any advice when that happened in any of the two occasions?
BH: Unfortunately I have never met him, actually. I've seen him, but never actually spoken to him. I have friends who have, and they say he is a really nice guy and I hope one day down the road we will maybe just be in the same opera house; run into each other in the canteen or something.
OL: But you keep replacing him, and getting those great reviews. Is that a big break for you?
BH: Yes, I think it's a huge break for me and I think that's part of the operatic tradition. As long as people are out there singing people are going to be not feeling up to singing that night and that's just how it goes. I think it's also part of the excitement. Let me tell you, there's a big difference between getting a contract and working towards something, and just getting that call. There's a difference in the way the energy goes; the experience is different...
Likewise for La Scala, when I got called there, it was huge! One day I was getting ready to sing my last performance of Bohème in Atlanta, Georgia, back home in the States, and my mom was there. We were ready to drive back to New Orleans and spend a couple of days with my family there, and the night before I get a call saying "La Scala has lost a tenor for Carmen, can you come tomorrow after the show?" I said "Sure!", because this is La Scala; you just do it, you go! And you're happy to do so, but it's completely different when you know you have eight months to prepare for something.
In all honesty, I don't know that this would've changed how the performance has gone on for this Les Troyens if I had known months leading up to it. But I’ll tell you, I would've been practicing different things; I would've been putting this into my voice months ago, or re-putting it in, because it’s not like you forget it, but like we said earlier, the voice grows. Things change and the coordination changes. In these years in your thirties where your voice is changing things can feel different just six months apart. I sang Faust this summer in Santa Fe, and then I sang it again in March, and already then I had to go back and re-find where a certain part will fit in my voice; a little bit differently than it did before. Certain things were better, certain things were more difficult, you know...
OL: Is the audience more critical here in Europe?
BH: Yes. I think they are just more experienced than American audiences, aside from, say, New York and Chicago and San Francisco, places that have had a long-standing tradition of people going to the opera; because you need to go, in order to be educated. You need to go in and experience live opera to be able to discern between the size of voices, or the color and the weight of the voices. These are things that you can't really learn from listening to recordings.
I only heard Luciano sing live once, and it wasn't even in an opera house, it was an arena concert somewhere, and I was completely bowled over how... "Wow, that's the beautiful sound coming over his speakers that I have heard in every recording of the three tenors I've ever had". But I had the chance to hear Plácido sing in the house with no microphone, no amplification; I thought that his voice was just much more beautiful live than I had ever realized on a recording, and it's just because the size of Plácido's voice is different! It bowled me over the first time when I heard him sing live in the Met.
I think the audiences are a little bit more critical over here. In places like Atlanta and New Orleans where I have sung — and I love singing for that kind of home crowd — they look for just more traditional things. Their preference is a little bit more... cliché, not in a bad way, but just the way that they want to see Luciano's Bohème.
OL: OK. Hey, I had meant to ask you something else about that particular production of Rusalka that you did and came from the Salzburg Festival, but I forgot, so, let's backtrack a little and consider it again. It was fairly typical of what the Germans refer to as Regietheater. In this particular staging, for example, Rusalka became a prostitute. Piotr Beczala, who sang the Prince at Salzburg, has been critical of Regie productions. What are your views on very unconventional stagings? You’ve also sung with a number of American opera companies, where stagings are usually much more traditional. Do you have a preference for either type of staging?
BH: The Rusalka production, I enjoyed it, honestly. I didn't think that there was anything that was too far out there. Rusalka is a dark piece that lends itself to these kinds of things... and it's about sex! It’s about the corruption of purity, actually, probably more accurately.
OL – It’s considered to be a fairy tale but it’s not really one, if you think more deeply about it.
BH - I can understand why it went that way because the music is very beautiful. The Czech people are very protective of Rusalka, they really do not like seeing one of their national treasures — and I've been told this by Czech people — trampled on, they would say. It was no disrespect to the piece, or to them. I think that this is a movement within opera and I think that it's a very valid one, personally. I have not done a lot of Regie productions. I've only worked in Munich, in Germany, and there was nothing crazy about their Nabucco. I thought it was great, I thought it was fine. Pierre Audi’s production of Les Troyens, I would consider that Regietheater and I thought it was fine.
OL: The sets look like a spaceship.
BH: It could be, yes, but in the theater it doesn't look like a spaceship at all, but all the pictures make it look like a spaceship. Even one of my friends who is not an opera fan and doesn't know anything about opera - I know him from just living in Philadelphia - he likes to call that production “Star Wars meets opera.” Because there is this big, long black stuff that is very Darth Vader-y... and it's cool but we played a lot with the angles and who we were talking to, and whether or not we were looking at them while we were talking to them... And this was a very interesting concept, and I thought it worked great.
This one here at Covent Garden is much more true to human life; it gets your hands dirty. I think maybe the Didon and Énée in Pierre Audi's production touched each other once, whereas in this one we were kissing and were all over each other. This was done in order to show the humanness of the two characters and of their love, because David was really strong about this. He didn't want to just have the love story between Didon and Énée take a backseat, because otherwise it's ridiculous that she kills herself.
©ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper
BH: You think she's the crazy woman being overly dramatic, and there's not a lot of music to do it, so we really had to find the moments to try to make that work. I think we found some nice ways to show that love to each other. There's a point where she leaves her stole with me, and the way that I look at it an caress it...
But then it also kind of turns me off into the character, thinking: "How did I find myself here? I left Troy to found this empire in Italy and here I am, completely off course, in love with this woman who is wonderful but I never vouched for this, I’m in this foreign world...” I think it’s a real moment of his when she gets these doubts. He abandons here, but it’s nothing so trite as he’s just tired of her; he just has to fulfill his duty. The guy is really haunted by his duty, and he's got to do it.
OL: So, moving on. I was thinking of asking you whether or not the fact that you are from New Orleans has influenced you in your choice of the French repertoire, given that the presence of French culture in New Orleans is still felt. But I think we went through this enough, no? I believe you’d say that you picked this high French repertoire rather because of where it sits in your voice.
BH: I would say that, yes. It’s definitely more where it sits in my voice. But, you know, my dad's family has Cajun and Acadian in it, so it could be a factor... But my mom has Italianate in it; she is half Italian, half German; my dad is half German, half French. So as far as European languages are concerned I'm good, but I don't have a German sound; I don't have a strict Italianate sound, and the French sound... I don't really have that either. I think I got a unique sound and I'm fortunate in that way. And to be honest with you I've got one voice, it can't be anything else. This is all it is, so, you know... [laughs]
OL: Your wife, Irini Kyriakidou, is also an opera singer – she recently made her Royal Opera House debut as Zerlina. There is always something of a balancing act in a marriage where both partners have careers outside the home. But when those careers entail frequent travel and work in cities on two or more continents, the situation must be particularly challenging. How do you and your wife cope with such a demanding lifestyle and the separations it must involve? [Readers - don't miss his wife's YouTube clip that we've posted at the end of this interview]
BH: Well, I tell you, the way that we deal with it is that we make the most of the time that we have together. Although her Giovanni was right before Rusalka started, I was here for her not working. I was off and it was great! Because I just got to sit back, relax, take care of her, do whatever she needed, get whatever she wanted to eat, to just be feeling her best and be prepared, to do the best job she could. That's what I did and it was really a treat for me to do that.
And we've only been married a year and a month now, and so it hasn't been long, we're definitely still in our honeymoon period. We've been able to spend more time together than I think either of us anticipated. It just worked out that way that we've been able to be in the same place. Right after we got married she was off for the summer and was able to come with me to Santa Fe. So we got married in New Orleans, and then went out to Santa Fe for Faust. It was a great production that was there, and it was difficult, but I had already done Faust; so it was almost like an extended honeymoon for us. To be able to have that together… [looks dreamy] And Santa Fe Opera treated us wonderfully!
OL: That's where I'm going next.
BH: Oh, you really?
BH: You're a lucky man, I'm also going there after I leave here. I think we're going to miss each other; when will you be there?
OL: Next weekend, for Maometto II, with Luca Pisaroni... And Leah Crocetto, she's wonderful, I've just seen her in Il Trovatore live, in North Carolina. We're interviewing Luca the 11th, via Skype, and then I’ll meet him down there for the opening night on the 14th. [This interview with Bryan happened on July 3rd]
BH – Oh wow, great, how fun! I'm singing a gala concert in August 4th with Susan Graham there, and I'm going to sing the aria and cabaletta from Guillaume Tell. Susan and I have a especial duet; I’m not sure I can say it, so I'll just say this: a especial duet that we're going to sing together, and a couple of more things. I love Santa Fe; I'm very much looking forward to being back there.
OL: You were a member of the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera after your graduation from Loyola. You’re now singing leading roles at some major international houses – the Royal Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, La Scala, the Netherlands Opera. Is a Met debut in sight, or are you at a liberty to say? What about other major American houses?
BH: A Met debut *is* in sight, I can say that it *is* going to happen. I don't know if I can say when or what it is going to be, but it is going to happen.
OL: They usually get upset if their plans are publicized in advance...
BH: Yes, we're still trying to work to make everything happen. But the Met has been a Holy Grail for me, since my Met competition that I did in 2000; it was only the second voice competition I had ever done. I think I did one in Aspen the year before. And so I went there; I did the districts, and then the regionals and made it to New York into the semi-finals, and then made it to the finals and I just got way too far and too fast; I had no idea, I had no appreciation for where I was or how far I had come. And then it kind of took the Met hearing me and saying "ok, well, we don’t think you're ready yet" and I'd go and do an audition and they would say "well, maybe this, or maybe this can work out" but we just were never able to get it together, and so like I said it’s been this Holy Grail that I've kind of been after.
Only just very recently they have come up with a project that I think is going to work, and I couldn't be happier, honestly. Because the Met is the Met, there's nothing that you can say about it... I'm thrilled; I hope that it all works out. San Francisco of course would be wonderful too.
I think that in Europe, because there's more opera and there's a brighter scope and palate of what is out there, it was easier for them to take a chance on me, given that I’m not a tenor with Italianate sound, or a more traditional sounding tenor. And my career just kind of took off over here because the dates that I got went well, and I got hired off of that. And then once my career got started, the audition season in America is October, November, December, and I was always here working. I couldn't get back over to the US for that.
And I didn't come through the Met's program for young singers, or Chicago's, Houston's, or San Francisco's program... [Editor’s note – he’s been through the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera which is a summer program for young artists, but not through the Adler Program with is the more long term program in that company] and there are great singers that have come through all those programs and most of the houses were able to cast their seasons with those singers.
But that’s all great! I'm happy to be getting back more to the US now. I had my Houston Grand Opera debut earlier this year, again jumping in for a tenor who had gotten sick. And so... whatever path one has to take in order to make it happen, that's your path — and you can't really pick it, you can try to aim for it, but... I’ve got more breaks because somebody was just under the weather and then they turned out to be great things that I would not have gotten otherwise.
OL: I think that probably with this one here, with all the buzz and favorable reviews around your Les Troyens here at the Covent Garden you're probably starting to get your own contracts!
BH: Yes, I hope so. I don't want to sound too self-deprecating, you know, because there are exciting things that have been coming up; but I think that this role will undoubtedly jump-start things. Again, companies have to feel that they can trust whoever they're hiring, especially for tenors.
OL: Yes, when I interviewed Matthew Polenzani he said the best endorsement is when a company tells you "we want you back". The public, the critics... art is art, it’s live theater, you can like it or not; but the companies, they know what they're doing! If they want you back it's because you really did well.
BH: Sure! Yes! You know, some people audition better than they perform, and I might be the opposite; I might be someone who doesn’t audition so well. I don't know, for me it seems we're not worlds away from one another. I tell you, I always get hired off performances and not auditions!
OL: To end the interview, we’d like you to tell us a bit more about your background growing up in New Orleans; whether your parents were into classical music, what influences you had growing up in that very musical city...
BH: Sure. Yes, I’m a native of New Orleans, I did grow up there, and did my undergraduate at Loyola. I had a wonderful teacher there and he really is the one who helped foster my love for opera, and we're still very close – his name is Philip Frohnmayer. Neither my parents are musicians or singers. I think they had the talent, just not the opportunity to study it. They both come from working class families and it was their priority to give my sister and I the best education they could get us. And we went to Catholic school, a private school that had wonderful music teachers and programs. You know, had we not been in that situation, maybe my dad would have had a chance at singing... My dad probably has a voice very similar to mine, but maybe a little bit heavier, because he is shorter and stockier, like a Jon Vickers almost... but his speaking voice when he was my age is almost identical to mine.
About the influences growing up in New Orleans: jazz was a big one, and a lot of musical theater too. It was how I got my foot in the door with theater and doing all that kind of stuff.
OL - How did you decide to go into opera?
BH: I didn't even go to an opera before I was 18 and only because I had auditioned for a scholarship in the university and they gave me a full scholarship to study singing. That’s when I started considering opera. Before, I wanted to be a Broadway conductor, because I play trumpet, and I play the piano. And I did stuff with choir; it just made more sense. But, you know, I was convinced by my teacher that my talent for singing was especial enough that we should at least give it a shot.
OL: Early in your career, you also sang several roles with the New Orleans Opera, including Luigi in Il Tabarro and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. Have you been back to sing with the company again in recent years, or do you have any plans to sing there again in the next few years?
BH – We’re trying to go back there and do something this season; we’re trying to work it out. I mean, that city is suffering, and it is not an issue of anything other than if we can program it and they can fill the seats; we are going to do it. Plácido has been very good; he’s given a concert at the beginning of the season that will definitely help to put some money into the company. I hope it works out; I’d love to go back there. My mom and dad and my sister have traveled to see me sing all over the world, but a lot of my extended family haven’t; the last time they’ve seen me sing on stage was maybe when I was in college, and things have changed a lot since then (laughs).
OL: It was a nice interview! Good luck, and I hope to see you soon at the Met!
BH: Thank you!
Let's listen to Bryan Hymel singing "Nuit d'Ivresse" from Les Troyens in Amsterdam:
And here, the Prince's aria in Rusalka:
And here, in Carmen, "La Fleur que tu m'avais jetée" - starts at 2'17"
And here is a bonus: the singer's exceptionally beautiful wife, Irini Kyriakidou, shows off her crystalline voice:
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