Friday, August 2, 2013

Featured singer: Ryan McKinny, baritone

I recently raved about Ryan McKinny in Glimmerglass Opera's production of Der Fliegende Holländer
Of course one must begin by discussing the Dutchman himself, sung by Barihunk Ryan McKinny. Not only were his singing and characterization beautiful and nuanced, but his stage presence was electric. His duet with Senta was spellbinding, and one could feel the pain when he believes Senta has betrayed him. And what a bit of bad-boy eye candy he is in costume!
Photo: Simon Pauly Photography
His accomplishments are many, and the Internet is dripping with praise for his singing and acting. Just two examples:
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny ... brought a huge, darkly resonant sound to the role of Jochanaan. Gripped from the start with an almost frightening religious intensity, McKinny seemed to exist in another spiritual realm, one that Salome had no hope of reaching, despite her seductive entreaties.
-George Dansker, Opera News, June 2012

Hercules [Gluck's Alceste] is ideally cast with Ryan McKinny. He imparts to the adolescent warrior a thoroughly self-ironic character without drifting into slap-stick. His sonorous baritone is wielded with elegance at all times, despite all the demanding stage action.
- Ingo Rekatzky, Leipzig Almanac, May 12, 2010

I was thrilled when the very kind public relations diva at Glimmerglass put me in touch with Ryan and forwarded some interview questions to him. Long-time readers might recognize some of the questions I ask every singer.

I can get background and training from your web site, but if you want to add anything to what's there, now is your opportunity.

Being a singer is a big part of my life, but the biggest thing in my life is my family. My wife Tonya, daughter Emma, son Louis, and I travel together to nearly all of my jobs. It is an amazing life. I am extremely grateful.

Photo: Karli Cadel for Glimmerglass
I hardly know what to ask about your status as barihunk.  We've all seen your pecs pics. Is there anything specific about being a barihunk you'd like to say?

Hmm. It's always a tricky thing to discuss. I am grateful for anything that will help bring people to the opera. On the other hand, if one is solely interested in seeing people with no clothes on, there is an entire Internet full of people who do that better than I do… and without the cost of an opera ticket! Having previously been an overweight person, I am interested in having a healthy body, more for the possibility of living a longer and happier life, than for showing off my abs in an opera. I do hope that when I look back on my career twenty or thirty years from now, that the word "Barihunk" is more of a footnote than the headline...

I've spoken with other very fit and athletic singers, who often have very strong opinions about this:  What do you think about casting as we seem to have it nowadays, which is often more for the HD broadcast than for the actual vocal requirements of the role?  What about less fit or less beautiful people who are very good singers and/or very exciting performers, who don't get the opportunities?

This seems to be a very hot topic of discussion lately. First of all, I'm not sure I agree with the premise that casting is done more for the HD broadcast than for vocal requirements. It is very difficult to parse out why one person is cast over another, even from our perspective. There are several young singers in my peer group, many of whom are my close friends, who are overweight or obese, but are singing major roles at major opera houses because their talent demands to be recognized. 

I believe in opera as an immersive musical dramatic experience. I want to limit the amount of time the audience spends asking themselves questions that take them out of that experience, such as "Well, she doesn't LOOK like she has consumption!"

However! Sometimes I think we go to extremes to indulge the prejudice of the audience. I once was at an after party for an opening of Cenerentola and I heard a patron say "Well I liked it, except I couldn't get over the fact that the prince was played by a black guy." This is obviously deplorable and thankfully in this case the fantastic tenor who sang Ramiro is invited to sing all over the world despite the occasional bigot in the audience, though race in opera is unfortunately not a closed issue either.

I realize there are multiple factors that make the two situations not entirely comparable. But I wonder why we think overweight people can't fall in love, or don't have their hearts broken, or don't want revenge, or don't die tragic deaths. I think opera is particularly good at compelling people toward empathy through music, and that is something we should protect by showcasing singers of all shapes, sizes, colors.

In my opinion the way to keep the audience in the world of the performance despite their all too human preconceived notions of beauty, is to be excellent actors and singers. We need to concentrate our abilities as story tellers and music makers and as human beings so intensely that the audience never has a chance to do anything other than go along with us. 

If any director asked you to show the full Monty--in other words, to perform completely naked--would you do it?  

I would say it's highly unlikely. I might possibly make an exception for a production/director I trusted, and if I knew it was one hundred percent necessary and not just exploitative.

Many singers have overcome bad training or other obstacles to have a career. Have you had any kind of roadblocks to success? 

I have been very lucky to have had very good training even early on in seemingly unlikely places like Pasadena City College. Great teachers and mentors have found their way to me every step along the way. The path hasn't always been easy, as I suppose is true for anyone pursuing something they deeply care about. The year-in, year-out grind of striving to be better, to learn more, to be recognized, to make a living, and ultimately to search for one's voice as an artist can take its toll. I am grateful to have made it to where I am now, relatively unscathed, without having given up, and with so many exciting things happening.

How old are you? How has your voice changed over the years?

I am 32 years old. A baby by dramatic baritone standards. My voice has certainly grown in color and size over the past 10 years as you would expect. Although I think learning to sing (an ongoing process) has had a bigger affect on the sounds I can make than my actual instrument.

What's your favorite role to sing? (And don't take the cop-out "Whatever I'm singing next!") 

I have to say, so far, the Dutchman is my favorite role to sing. The character is complex, the vocal writing is beautiful and intense and it just seems to fit me. A close second would probably be Kurwenal in Tristan and Isolde.

Are there roles you'd love to sing that are outside of your fach? Are there roles within your fach you don't want to ever sing [again]? 

I am extremely lucky in this category in that I happen to love the music that my voice sings well. I imagine there are people who are bel canto experts who dream of singing Wagner, or heldentenors who would love to sing Rossini (hard for me to imagine!) but I have always really loved Wagner and Verdi.

Have you done much teaching or master class work?  How has that affected your own vocal technique and performing?

I have done some masterclass work, and hours of informal chatting with other singers about vocal technique, though no real teaching yet. I am in awe of excellent vocal teachers and coaches. So much of what we do is difficult to describe, and each of us has our own vocabulary for how things feel and sound. It certainly seems as much art as science.

What are some examples of dumb interview questions you get?  (Don't include mine!  :-P  )

You mean besides this one…? [n.b. Har har har...] I don't think I've quite yet achieved the level of fame that would earn me scores of interviews filled with dumb questions.

I have been asked several times lately if I got the giant chest tattoo just for this Dutchman production. I think they'd need to add a rider to my contract if I were going to be asked to permanently vandalize myself for a summer opera run!

My favorite question from "Inside the Actor's Studio": What's your favorite swear word? 

"Fuck!" I know it's a popular choice, but it's just so versatile. Though I don't use it as much as I used to, since having your small children parrot your vulgarities is decidedly a parenting fail.

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