I first wrote about Michael Spyres six years ago. I have since wondered why he has not been engaged by the Met. The perpetually becalmed company keeps recycling tenors who are well past their expiration dates. Spyres who has continued to improve since I became aware of him has achieved a vocal technique unique in my experience. He has managed to seamlessly combine multiple vocal registers that allows him to sing the high notes that were written into the bel canto opera while singing low notes that are well into the baritone register. Runs and trills are no problem for him. He seems to be able to sing almost anything in the tenor range. He’s especially good at French opera. But he can sing Mozart and both Rossini’s and Verdi’s Otello – the last only in concert thus far. Because of his ability to shift vocal registers he has a range of about three octaves.
So why hasn’t the Met, allegedly the world’s greatest opera company, engaged him? The Met is notorious for making bad casting decisions and is currently preoccupied with empty seats. The HD telecast showed that even La Traviata couldn’t sell out the house. When an orchestra seat can cost more than $400 it’s not surprising that the theater is not always full. Anyway, regardless of reason, Spyres has yet to appear on the company’s roster. He’s not on next season’s tenor list as well.
When any organization is run by the same person for more than 10 years ossification is certain. Look, if you can stand it, at congress. The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, has been in charge for more than 10 years. As far as I can tell from my remote location, he’s had one good idea – the HD telecasts.
Here are 11 examples of what Sypres can do. Make up your own mind as to where he should be singing. I’ll start with French opera; strictly speaking Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust isn’t really really an opera, but I’ll put it in this category. First O ma tendre amie! from Hérold’s Le Pré Aux Clercs. The work is a three act opéra comique initially performed in Paris in 1832. It enjoyed enormous success for more than a century, though it has been rarely performed over the past 65 years.
Berlioz Lélio, or the Return to Life also was first performed in 1832. It was intended as a follow up the Symphonie Fantastique. It was written for a narrator, solo voices, chorus, and an orchestra including pianos. O mon bonheur is a song of simple austere beauty. There are no vocal fireworks here. Tone and line are the requirements for this lovely piece. Nature immense is from the fourth act of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust. He called it a dramatic legend, but it’s often done in a staged version as though it were an opera. This excerpt is taken from such a staging. Virtually every tenor who can get the notes out sings Ah, lève toi soleil from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.
Spyres ability to blend vocal registers is shown in Balena il man del figlio from Rossini’s Ermione. It is a two act tragic opera first performed in Naples in 1819. This aria is sung by Pirro the son of Achilles and the king of Epirus during the third scene of Act 2. The high notes are expected, but note the low ones. The whole scena is presented here. A tanto duol… Ascolta, o padre is from Bellini’s Bianca e Fernando which was the composer’s first staged opera (as Bianca e Gernando in 1826).
Now the two Otellos. Rossini’s version was first performed in 1816, the same year as the premiere of his Barber. The story deviates substantially from Shakespeare’s play. All the action takes place in Venice. In addition to Otello, Rodrigo and Iago are tenor roles. There is also an alternative happy ending. Ah! sì, per voi già sento occurs in Act 1. The great love duet from Verdi’s Otello concludes what had been a tumultuous act with a blissful and poignant close. Spyres is joined by the late soprano Elizabeth Connell. Note how the color of his tone changes to the dramatic texture needed for Verdi’s Moor. Già nella notte densa. I’m almost certain that he’ll add this role to his staged repertoire before too long.
To finish here are three different types of aria which highlight Spyres extraordinary versatility. Un’aura amorosa from Mozart’s Così fan Tutte is sung with beauty and restraint. Donna non vidi mai from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has a high tessitura throughout the whole aria. Spyres, who has said he doesn’t care that much for Puccini, handles the aria with ease and produces the sound needed for this role. The third is a bon bon – Dein ist mein ganzes from Lehar’s The Land of Smiles.
The title of this article is deliberately provocative. The other candidates for the successor to Richard Tucker, thus far the only American tenor who can bear comparison with the best from Europe, who are currently active all sing at the Met. The failure to bring Spyres to the USA’s premiere opera company can be considered nothing less than musical malfeasance. One has to go back a century to Leo Slezak to find a tenor whose range approached that of Spyres.