• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Ryan McKinny

    [Opera Lively interview # 111] On the occasion of the Glimmerglass Festival that ended a few days ago, Opera Lively's envoy interviewed in person the excellent young American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny who gathered excellent reviews from critics everywhere for his great rendition of the title role in Francesca Zambello's production of The Flying Dutchman. Our readers may recognize the singer from his participation in the DVD The Audition, a documentary featuring the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions finals. It is nice to see that his career has developed quite nicely.



    Photo by Simon Pauly

    In addition to this piece, read our coverage of The Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass Festival including interviews with Senta singer Melody Moore [here], stage director Francesca Zambello [here], and our review [here].

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    Singer: Ryan McKinny
    Fach: Bass-baritone
    Recently in: Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (title role), The Glimmerglass Festival
    Next in: Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Theseus), The Metropolitan Opera, October 11, 15, 19, 23, 26, 31, 2013 - Click [here] for tickets
    Then, an Arizona Opera concert on November 3, followed by the title role in Rigoletto at
    Houston Grand Opera - January 24, 26, 29, February 1, 7, 9, 2014; Winterreise - Wolf Trap - March 7; Donner - Das Rheingold, Houston Grand Opera - April 11, 13, 17, 23, 26; Escamillo - Carmen, Houston Grand Opera - April 25, 27, 30, May 2, 4, 8, 10.
    Web site: click [here]

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    Artistic Biography

    American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny has been praised for his “elegant and articulate” vocalism (OC Register), as well as a powerful voice that “drips with gold.” (Opera News)

    Mr. McKinny made a major role debut as Kurwenal in Christof Loy’s production of Tristan und Isolde alongside Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme at Houston Grand Opera in the 2012 – 2013 season. He also debuted at Theater Basel as Nathanael in the world premiere of Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini’s Der Sandmann in a production by Christof Loy, at the Canadian Opera Company as Melot in Peter Sellars’s production of Tristan und Isolde under Jiří Bělohlávek, and at Palm Beach Opera as Jochanaan in Salome. In the summer of 2013, Mr. McKinny sang his first production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer as the Dutchman in a new Francesca Zambello production at the Glimmerglass Festival. On the concert stage, he reprised the role of the Entertainer in Shostakovich’s Orango with the London Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, which he had already sung with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a Peter Sellars production the season before, in the world premiere of this incomplete opera. Future seasons will see him at the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, English National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Deutsche Oper Berlin.

    In the 2011 – 2012 season, Mr. McKinny made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Lieutenant Ratcliffe in Billy Budd. Other highlights included his role debut as Jochanaan in Salome at New Orleans Opera and a return to Oper Leipzig as Hercules in Alceste. He was also a member of the ensemble at the Deutsche Oper Berlin where his roles included Peter in Hänsel und Gretel, Escamillo in Carmen, Un Frate in a new production of Don Carlo under Donald Runnicles, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, bass soloist in a staged version of Verdi’s Messa da requiem, and Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia. He also debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Jahja Ling, was bass soloist in Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Grant Park Music Festival, Monterone in concert performances of Rigoletto with the LA Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel, and bass soloist in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at the Aspen Music Festival with Robert Spano.

    Recently, Mr. McKinny debuted at the English National Opera as Tiridate in David Alden’s production of Radamisto to great acclaim. He also debuted at Semperoper Dresden and Hamburg State Opera as Escamillo in Carmen, Deutsche Oper am Rhein for his role debut as Amfortas in Parsifal, and returned to Oper Leipzig for the revival of Gluck’s Alceste. Mr. McKinny was seen at Houston Grand Opera as the Herald in Lohengrin conducted by Patrick Summers, then at Los Angeles Opera in two new roles: Leone in Handel’s Tamerlano with Plácido Domingo and Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia. He also performed the bass-baritone roles in Oedipus Rex for his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas and with the Sydney Festival in Sydney, Australia under the direction of Peter Sellars. Mr. McKinny was heard in a special recital of Schubert’s Die Winterreise during the Sydney Festival, which was broadcast on ABC, Australia’s public radio.

    An alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Mr. McKinny has performed a number of roles on the mainstage, including Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro, Ramfis in Aida, Peter in Hänsel und Gretel, Masetto in Don Giovanni, Zuniga in Carmen, Don Pedro in Béatrice et Bénédict, Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Sam in Un ballo in maschera, Flint in Billy Budd, and Pietro in Simon Boccanegra. At the Wolf Trap Opera Company, Mr. McKinny has sung Barone di Kelbar in Verdi’s Un giorno di regno, Le Gouverneur in Rossini’s Le comte Ory and Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro.

    While a student at the Juilliard School, Mr. McKinny made his Carnegie Hall debut in Handel’s Messiah with the Musica Sacra Orchestra. At the Aspen Music Festival, he sang his first performance of Winterreise accompanied on the piano by Richard Bado. Additionally, he sang the world premiere of Henrik Strindberg’s I Thought Someone Came By at New York’s Alice Tully Hall.

    Mr. McKinny was the first recipient of the Birgit Nilsson Prize for singing Wagner at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition held at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Kirsten Flagstad/George London Award from the George London Foundation. He also represented the United States in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, where he was a finalist in the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize. He was a Grand Finalist in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and is featured in the film The Audition released by Decca on DVD.



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    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Ryan McKinny

    © 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.

    Credits - Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Photos of the singer are recovered from his website with authorization and credited when credit is known; fair promotional use. Glimmerglass production pictures were kindly authorized by the Marketing Department at Glimmerglass Festival, and are credited under the image.


    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Let’s start by talking about your title role in The Flying Dutchman. What do you think of this production?


    Ryan McKinny – It is a great production. Very often you see stand and sing versions of this piece, with everybody stationary on stage. Instead, we worked very hard in creating relationships between the characters. Francesca’s ideas of using one platform and having all those ropes signifying various symbolic elements worked really well. Working in this production has been a pleasure.

    OL - What advice or direction did you get from Francesca Zambello?

    RM – When Francesca is directing a show, we sit around a table and talk through the entire libretto, in original language and in English. We stumble on some ideas all together. We used extensively her notion that the Dutchman is burdened with guilt. All the women who had tried to save him in the past had failed and were damned with him. He has a long list of people he has hurt. Even when he thinks Senta might be the one, he still hesitates about whether or not he wants to put her through this, because he has found his own feelings towards her. This helped me in trying to find a real human character in the Dutchman, and not just a scary ghost.


    Ryan as The Dutchman - Photo by Karli Cadel / Glimmerglass Festival

    OL – Yes. I did notice that in your characterization of the Dutchman, you made him feel scary and dark, while at the same time withdrawn, almost shy, and ambivalent.

    RM – Yes. There are many different ways you can go with a role like that. It was essential for me to convey that he cares about Senta. The fact that she has right away so much empathy for him is different than what other women he has met have demonstrated. While the others would say “I’ll marry you, but only because you have all this treasure,” Senta is the first person who has understanding for his pain. This was important to him, and their resulting connection is something that I adore.


    With Melody Moore's Senta - Photo by Karli Cadel / Glimmerglass Festival


    OL - What are some of the vocal challenges in this role?

    RM – It is very difficult to sing. It sits in two worlds. It is Wagner, and it does have some classic Wagnerian moments, but it is also bel canto. You have many long phrases sometimes high in the voice, but also down low, and the orchestration can be quite loud. You have to sing big a lot of the time. Also, it is a long role in some of the scenes and an endurance challenge even though the opera is not quite long. It gets to be very fatiguing after a while. I’m lucky in that it fits my voice quite nicely. As long as I sing the way I know how to sing, it works out pretty well.

    OL - You are developing an early career rich in Wagnerian roles, having done now your first Dutchman, and having been engaged in two productions of Tristan und Isolde – and you even won the first Birgit Nilsson prize for singing Wagner or Strauss at the Operalia. Although you’ve done plenty of other repertory from Baroque to contemporary, sometimes I’ve heard from singers that once you get into this path, you can be typecast and only be invited to do Wagner – which of course is not necessarily a bad thing. But how do you see your relationship with Wagner’s music evolving with time?

    RM – Yes, that’s a great question. I worked very hard with my manager to schedule enough Wagner that I keep developing in that repertoire, but not so much. I don’t want to be typecast as you say, but more important than that, maybe, is that doing too much of that kind of heavy repertoire all the time can be really difficult on the voice, especially for a young singer as I am. I also think that to have the potential to become a great singer in those types of roles, it takes many, many years of practice and performing them, to reach the peak of your abilities. So, I’m happy that I’m able to start these roles at the age that I am, and I’m very mindful to try to keep my repertoire varied. I have a lot of Britten coming up, and some Italian pieces, some Mozart, and musical theater in there too, but my overall focus in my career is probably going to be in the German repertoire.

    OL – Yes, embracing Wagner fully at your young age can be concerning for the health of the voice.

    RM – Yes. The most important issue is that you have to sing well, and you can’t be tricked into trying to sing loud all the time, which can be detrimental. You look at the great Wagnerian baritones - somebody like Hans Hotter, Jim Morris, or George London; they don’t sing loud all the time. They sing beautifully, in a way that their voices cut through the orchestra. If you look at the score, especially in the later Wagner operas, he is very careful about the orchestration, so if you are mindful of that you are not yelling the whole night long. A lot of this is pacing. You need to worry about how many of these roles you do in a row in your career, or in a season. It is a challenge.

    OL - Tell me about being a member of the ensemble at Deutsche Oper Berlin. How was that experience, for you?

    RM – I moved to Germany so I could learn the language. I knew I wanted to sing a lot of Wagner and Strauss. Being at Deutsche Oper was an excellent experience for me. They do so many different kinds of repertoire there! I was around many great singers. I saw my first full Ring cycle there. Working with Maestro Runnicles was great. I made connections and good friends in Germany and really enjoyed living there; I like that country. The Germans get a bad reputation but are not actually unfriendly.

    OL – Is the ensemble work with all the variation in the repertoire, very challenging as opposed to being hired by an opera company and spending several weeks preparing for a single role?

    RM – In a lot of ways it was very similar to my experience in a Young Artist Program at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. At that time I was nearly in every show that they did, often in very different kinds of repertoire. The fast situation in the German company is comparable: you are doing a different opera every day. That can be very difficult especially if you are singing bigger roles. But you get used to it, and it is a good experience. Here in the United States you get five or six weeks of rehearsal and everything is very put together. Often in Germany we would have maybe a few days of rehearsal. You learn to be on your feet and be ready for anything.

    OL - Your career has been very much split between Europe, mainly Germany, and the United States. Is this challenging? Would you want to focus more on one side of the Atlantic, or is it just the way it goes for young singers these days?

    RM – Oh, I think it’s the way it goes. Ideally we try to split time, and be up in America as an American singer. I enjoy working over there and I enjoy being here as well. My next few years will be mostly in America but I have a few things happening over there. If you spend too much time here or there, you get forgotten by people. It’s something to watch for, but so far it has gone quite well.

    OL – What about the hardships of frequent travel?

    RM – Traveling is definitely difficult. I often travel with my wife and my two children, so going back and forth to Europe can be trying. I’ve been lucky that I spent long periods of time there, and then long periods here. If I had to go back and forth every few weeks, it would have been more challenging.

    OL – Once your children get to school age, it could get worse.

    RM – Yes, we now do what we call travel school for our eldest daughter. It’s basically what we would call home school in America. We have a school in Houston where we live, and when we are at home, Emma our daughter spends a few days a week there, and then when we are on the road we teach her. So far that is going well, but we’ll see for how long we will be able to keep it up.

    OL – How old is she?

    RM – She is seven.

    OL – It’s good for you that your wife can travel with you. It must make it all a lot easier.

    RM – Yes, I am very lucky. As a singer, it can be a lonely lifestyle. I feel very, very fortunate that my wife is able and willing to travel with me and that I have a family. After a performance, good or bad, singers talk about going to a hotel by themselves and getting a little bit of a letdown. For me it is nice to go back to people I know love me, no matter what. [laughs]

    OL – You get to center your core and recharge your batteries.

    RM – Exactly, yes!

    OL – Good for you! You sang in a broadcast performance of Schubert’s Die Winterreise for Australia Broadcasting Corporation. Was it difficult to learn?

    RM – I’ve sung the Winterreise cycle three times now, and I’m doing a fourth one this season for Wolf Trap Opera in the spring. The first time I learned it, was when I did it in Aspen. It is quite difficult. It is much like learning a Wagnerian role, honestly; practically like singing a one-person opera. It is one hour and twenty minutes of singing straight through, but I love that piece.

    OL – Yes, it’s very beautiful and poetic, but singing non-stop can be killing, right?

    RM – Yes, it is very intense. You have to learn to pace, so that you don’t lose your voice by the end. And just for your concentration, it takes a lot of mental focus.

    OL - Tell me about the psychology of the character Nathaniel that you sang in the world premiere of Der Sandmann by Andrea Scartazzini.


    As Nathaniel in Basel with Agneta Einchenholz - photo by Monika Rittershaus


    RM – That character is one of my favorites. He is a struggling writer, and depending on your reading of the story, he is either schizophrenic – he hallucinates, he is crazy – or there are some kind of ghost characters. I play him from the perspective that he is hallucinating his father who has already died. He has these fantasies about what his life might be like if he was a famous writer, or if his girlfriend looked and acted differently. There was an intense rehearsal period. Christof Loy was the director. It’s a great piece, actually. I really enjoyed doing it. He was also the director of the Tristan und Isolde I did in Houston. He is really a fantastic director.

    OL – What about the vocal challenge of contemporary music?

    RM – That was quite difficult, with Der Sandmann. It called for a lot of screaming, with very high and very low singing and extreme intervals that were not tonal, most of the time; but I enjoyed that kind of challenge. If you have a solid vocal technique you can use your voice in many ways. We had to be careful because we had several performances. As anyone who spent some time in a football game will know, you can lose your voice pretty easily if you are screaming for hours. But mostly, like in Wagner, you sing with your own voice, with the way you know how to sing, and that keeps you safe.

    OL - You chose an aria from Rachmaninoff's Aleko for the Met 2007 Southwest Region Competition--I believe it was "Ves' tabor spit". That was taking a big chance wasn't it? How did you go about picking that particular aria to audition with? Were you at all afraid you might end up a casualty of it?

    RM – [laughs] That aria I first learned when I was in California, before I went to Juilliard. It is a beautiful aria. The opera isn’t done very often but the aria is sung fairly often. I had a good Russian coach so I felt pretty confident about my Russian. That is a good piece to show. I knew that my voice had the potential to sing some more dramatic music at that point – I already thought that I’d be singing some Wagner some day. But I wasn’t quite ready to sing something like the Dutchman’s aria in audition. So, that aria was a good way to show that kind of singing, while being a little bit safer.

    OL - In many ways, the Met 2007 Nationals was a defining moment for you. You sang well and certainly the video [that contest came up on DVD] shows that you acquitted yourself well with an excellent on-screen presence. How did these auditions change your personal and professional life?

    RM – I can be quite a perfectionist with my own performances. I’m not ever completely satisfied. I was frustrated with my performance in the Finals because I felt I didn’t do my best work. I often think about that. But it taught me lessons about how to prepare for something, how to pick repertoire, and also taught me about competitions. Nearly all those people who were in those Finals - whether they won or not - are having careers. Competitions are a way for people to hear different kinds of singers and to support young singers who need some extra exposure. But you don’t really compete with those people in the opera world. My friend Jamie Barton who is a dramatic mezzo, she and I are never going to compete for the same role in an opera company. [laughs] So sitting in a competition next to each other, is interesting for that situation, but it doesn’t mean you are better or worse. But a lot of people saw that, and many of them started to sort of follow me from that point on, so I think that overall, it’s been very helpful for my career.

    OL – Yes, I do feel that in your last number you didn’t do very well, and apparently you agree.

    RM – Yes, yes. I didn’t really know what to be singing, honestly. I started looking at singing some Wagner pieces. If I was doing it now, I’d be singing the Dutchman or Amfortas, and that would fit a lot more. I didn’t quite have the right repertoire. And also, I just wasn’t as good a singer as I am now. It takes time.

    OL – Did you have a coach, trying to help you through those auditions?

    RM – Oh yes, I’m sure like everybody else there, I had coaches trying to help me. It is important to understand about young singers in these competitions or in singing roles, that through your twenties and even your thirties, your voice changes, while career events are happening quickly. When you hear people in that phase of their lives, it is good to follow them and not judge too quickly what you think they might do with their careers.

    OL – Let me address now a more psychological aspect. You are heading for to the Met in a Britten opera in his centennial year in a comprimario role. Theseus is silent for two acts then has some recitatives. The experience of being in such a prestigious stage for a young singer trying to break into the bigger roles but only getting a small part must be psychologically daunting. How do you feel about that?

    RM – It is and can be daunting. It is difficult when you don’t have a lot of time to show what you can do. In my case I’m lucky that they know who I am there, and they like me and want to see me progress. I don’t have to stand out in the sense that I’m not coming out of nowhere. I just want to do the best that I can do for that piece. So my goal is just to sing Theseus as well as I can and be part of the drama of the production as well as I can, and not really worry about if I get noticed, or if I get some career boost from it. Mostly, I’m there to do my job. If I do my job well, I expect that they will notice that, and will want me to come back again.

    OL – Good attitude! Well, you are getting a good boost from this Dutchman. You’ve been getting very good reviews.

    RM – Yes, definitely many people came to see the Dutchman here and they had very nice comments. It is good for me because I’ve been focusing on this repertoire for a long time. People have wanted to wait and see how I would handle a lead Wagnerian role. So far, the experience has been very successful.

    OL - I’ve observed that you have had very tragic roles, and just the occasional comedy. It may have been a matter of opportunity, but is there anything else that explains it?

    RM – I enjoy doing comedy. I think what my voice does best is probably why I’ve done more tragedies. My voice seems to match that music a little better. I think I excel at characters that have some kind of pain or anguish going on. I’m not quite sure of the reason for that. [laughs] But I also enjoy comedy and I will do some more in the future.

    OL - Please describe your encounter with opera, growing up.

    RM – Both my parents were classical guitarists when I was a child. I sang in some choirs. Most of my introduction into vocal music was through choirs of one kind or another. I sang a lot of musicals when I was a kid. When I was a teenager I started going to the opera. I had a choir director who was also a voice teacher who gave me some lessons and suggested that I might be interested in pursuing a career in opera. I started collecting all the recordings I could get. There is a great public library outside of Los Angeles that has loads of recordings, and I just checked out everything I could. I remember one of the first great operatic baritones that I could not stop listening to was Leonard Warren. I was listening to his Rigoletto, and I just fell in love with it, pretty much right away, as soon as I was exposed to it. Then I started going to operas as often as I could, in Los Angeles and in Orange County, and it went from there.

    OL - Please describe your training path – I know you’re a Juilliard graduate, but what came before and after?

    RM – When I finished high school I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do with myself, so I went to Pasadena City College. I was mostly interested in choral music. I had a teacher there who was very supportive of me as a singer, so I spent three years there and I transferred to Cal State Northridge. I spent one year there and felt that I could be more challenged. I got serious about this as a career, and I thought I had a good chance. I auditioned for Juilliard, and for Manhattan School of Music, and for Mannes College The New School for Music, because I wanted to move to New York. I was accepted at all three and I chose to go to Juilliard. I moved there and worked very hard the three years I was there. I spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival. From there I went to the Houston Grand Opera Studio for two and a half seasons, where I finished my training and began my career.

    OL - What are some of your non-operatic interests?

    RM – I really love other kinds of music. I am very interested in bluegrass. I like to play bluegrass guitar, and to play golf once in a while. I really like to cook. I cook for our family all the time.


    Photo by Simon Pauly

    OL – Oh, that’s a very nice Dad. Do you sing to them?

    RM – [laughs] Yes, sometimes I sing to them. My eldest likes to come to the opera. She came to The Flying Dutchman, actually. She thought it was pretty neat.

    OL – How old is the youngest?

    RM – The youngest one is three. He doesn’t quite have the patience for an entire opera, but he likes to listen to pieces.

    OL – I’m surprised that your 7-year-old does.

    RM – I know. I am, too. It’s impressive, actually. [laughs]

    OL – Anything else you like to do?

    RM – Yes, I read a lot. But what I do besides singing is that I’m a Dad. [laughs] And it seems like sometimes I’m a travel agent, because I’m working on our travel schedule so often.

    OL - How do you describe your take on life and your personality?

    RM – When I talk to young singers and they ask me about how to have a career, I tell them that you have to separate things into the ones you can’t do anything about – if someone likes the sound of your voice – and the ones that you can do something about, like show up on time, learn your music, be a good colleague, learn the languages, study, practice. It’s kind of my take on life too, which is that there are many factors we can’t control, and then there are a whole lot of things we can control, and if you take advantage of these, you might find that you can reach your potential as a person, maybe. I’m still working on that. It’s a question I often think about, especially in terms of opera – what’s the point of opera? Why are we doing this? I think it is a connection to other people. We stand on stage and sing without any electronic amplification, and you as an audience member can hear what I am going through as a person. You can hear that in the air, and we can all experience it together; and hopefully that creates some kind of empathy, and we understand each other better as human beings. It’s my outlook on life.

    As for my personality, I’m mostly a pretty calm person. I’m sort of subdued, until you get to be better friends with me; then I can be kind of goofy sometimes, and silly. I like to laugh a lot.

    OL – Anything you’d like to add?

    RM – You have covered most of it. This was very interesting, thank you.

    OL – Thank you!

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    Let's listen to the award-winning performance of the gifted bass-baritone at the La Scala Operalia with Plácido Domingo conducting; his rendition is quite extraordinary and impressive; no wonder he won the Birgit Nilsson prize for it!



    And here, a bit of his outstanding Winterreise:



    After listening to these great performances, our readers will understand why they should be following the career of this great young singer!

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