This evening the Met will present its first performance of Terence Blanchard’s opera Champion about the life of boxer Emile Griffith. The leading role will be sung by Ryan Speedo Green whose life story is worthy of its own opera. It’s already been the subject of a book – Sing For Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family by Daniel Bergner. Written in 2016, it tells the story of Green’s trip from from poverty, abuse, anger, violence, and imprisonment to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. It’s a tale more improbable than the wildest libretto.
Born in Suffolk Virginia in 1986 he was given the middle name of Speedo by his father after the maker of the eponymous swim briefs. His father was a bodybuilder and wore the briefs. He also disappeared when Ryan was four. He ran off with family’s babysitter. Frequently beaten by his mother, he tried to stab her when he was 12. Before that he had been thrown out of four preschool day care centers for violent and disruptive behavior.
In handcuffs and leg irons he was taken to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development. The center was the last stop for unmanageable children. Named for a racist eugenicist (it’s since been renamed), Green’ behavior there was violent, verbally threatening; he was frequently placed in solitary confinement. He stayed at the center for two years after which he was mysteriously released back to the custody of his mother who had sent him there to begin with. His relationship with his mother remains difficult to this day. His father reappeared and they re-established a connection. When Cecil, his father, died suddenly from a heart attack Green was shaken. When his half-brother told him that Cecil didn’t think Green was his son, he was upset, but came to believe that he was Cecil’s son no matter what his father thought.
Bergner’s technique is to switch between Green’s attempt to learn the basics and then the nuances of opera starting from a beginning where he had a voice, but no knowledge of how to read music or to pronounce any of the languages in which opera is written and then back to his tortured childhood. This stylistic device works well enough, though I don’t think it adds much to a simple telling of the singer’s story in strict chronological order. It does, however, allow a break from the horrors of his early years.
The inevitable question Green’s story raises is how does a person overcome a childhood that would irreversibly maim just about anyone to become a star at the Met, an institution as removed from black poverty as can be imagined? The answer to this question is inevitably complex.
He had several teachers during his violent phase who saw something in him and were patient enough to allow him to grow away, albeit slowly, from violence and debilitating anger. He entered a school for talented students where he spent half of his day – The Governor’s School in Norfolk. He made a white friend with whom he spent a lot of time and from whose family he learned a lot. His school took him to New York where he heard a performance of Carmen with Denyce Graves in the title role. After hearing the Toreador Song he proclaimed that he wanted to sing at the Met. He listened to the radio and worked on his English pronunciation. Inevitably, he was called an Oreo by both blacks and whites.
He was taken under the tutelage of Robert Brown a pianist and voice teacher who instructed him without fee. He even drove him back and forth from the trailer park in which he lived – 45 minutes each way. Brown and Alan Fischer the chairman of the vocal music department at Governor’s helped him get a scholarship at the University of Hartford. He subsequently got a Master in Music degree from Florida State University. Sadly, Brown died shortly thereafter from AIDS
Despite the two degrees, his knowledge of singing and languages was woefully inadequate to meet the demands of opera. Despite his vocal inadequacy, the potential of his bass-baritone voice was enough for him to be one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He was then accepted into the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. His progress was laborious, but real and steady. The Met offered him a contract after he finished the Lindemann Program and then the Vienna State Opera did the same. Thus, far he has sung small and medium parts at these two great companies. Tonight’s production of Champion will be his first starring role at the Met.
Green is now married and the father of a son. A major career in a very difficult profession seems to be his. So what about the question raised above. How did he do it? The answer is not entirely knowable. Green’s success against the longest of odds is due to the combination of persistence, character, hard work, the assistance of key figures in his life, and that most elusive and important aspect of life – good luck.