Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Singer Profile: Ryan McKinny, Bass-Baritone

Longtime readers might recall I wrote a profile of bass-baritone Ryan McKinny last year, after seeing his amazing Dutchman in Der Fliegende Hollander. Of his Dutchman I wrote:
Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman
 Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
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!
Last year's profile was based on questions I submitted by email, because schedules prevented a real meeting. Last week, however, I was able to get a half hour of Ryan's time for an interview in person. I had quite recently seen his excellent Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

How have you been since last year? 
Really good! It was a big season for me. My first Rigoletto, which was cool—very exciting. A Streetcar Named Desire in LA, working with Renee Fleming. It's been really nice.

The reviews for Streetcar were great.
We got some nice press. Audience response was really good. The play is so good. The opera is good too—I think it's underrated. The story and the characters carry the whole thing. And Renee is wonderful in everything she does.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Los Angeles Opera
Photo: Robert Millard
Stanley Kowalski is not Rigoletto. He's a lot like Billy Bigelow (in Carousel), in a sort of talky way. It's mostly about bringing the character out. I worked really hard on characterization in the opera. Blanche gets these beautiful arias and Stanley gets this kind of aggressive music, so the trick is to make him still be real. Brad Dalton (director) and I worked hard on making that happen, and I think we did a good job.

When you get really aggressive or really angry music, does it affect how you approach it vocally? Do you have to be careful in how you approach it vocally?
I'm really aware if I'm getting close to something thats vocally unsafe. I try to use text a lot if I get something that's angry. I find that's more successful than a barky, angry sound. The barky sound usually reduces any interest in the text and you just hear somebody who is yelling.

With somebody like Stanley, there are things happening to him that make him aggressive, but each moment is specific. You can't just be mad for the whole scene. There are different moments of frustration, annoyance, you know. And there are ways to express that that aren't just yelling. So that when those moments do come, like when you scream “Stella!” Yes, it's very intense, and there are a lot of ways you can play it. We made it a cry of desperation more than anger. So there are a lot of choices you can make, not just for vocal reasons, but for storytelling purposes, so you can create a character with nuance that you want to follow, and you're not like, “Oh, I get it—that's the bad guy.” Which can happen with something like Streetcar. It can happen with Billy, too. If you're not careful, you can create someone who is not really sympathetic, and the audience doesn't want to follow along if they hate the guy.

Photo: Simon Pauly Photography
The scream, “Stella!”-- that's really yelling?
That's real screaming. I still do it in a way that is very calculated, so that I'm not in vocal danger. It still comes out of how I'm feeling as the character and what I'm doing. I didn't want the “Stella!” scream to have any kind of operatic posturing. It needed to feel sort of raw.

I had done some stage screaming before. I had done a new opera in Basel, Switzerland, a couple of years ago, that had that sort of thing in it. I took the time to figure out how to do that. How to work around it to make it effective and also something I could repeat without losing my voice.

You compared Stanley to Billy and said that they're both sort of speaky. Billy is very different from Dutchman!
Oh yeah! Miles away! Billy might sound higher because of the color that I'm using for that character. Billy's voice is bright to me. He's from Brooklyn, come up from Coney Island. He's really kind of brassy, and the music is written for him to be brassy. In terms of actual tessitura there are some high moments, but there are also some things in Dutchman that sit very high. To me the color of the Dutchman's voice needs to have that kind of richer, darker quality. I feel lucky that I can do the color changes that are necessary for those two roles. They're not that far apart in terms of actual notes, but the sound that is expected is quite different.

Anything else about those characters you'd want to mention?
I think Billy is really interesting. We have a hard time in our modern society forgiving anyone for anything. We don't like that in our stories. We don't like to have to forgive someone for something bad. We do that in our real lives all the time. People do terrible things to each other and still love each other. I like about this piece that it takes a really heavy subject—the domestic abuse thing.  This man hits his wife, and that really does happen, and she really does forgive him. He really learns about himself--what is wrong and how he could have done it differently. But it asks a lot of the audience to be able to go along with that. I think people are afraid of that. I think it's cool that the piece deals with it. Poverty is another thing. Billy might kill this rich guy and take his money, and we understand why. We follow along and know why he makes these poor decisions, and that gives the piece some interest.

Both of your kids are on stage this summer, and they're pretty good little actors, too!
I had no idea what to expect with that. Neither of my children are stage kids. Emma had been in a children's chorus piece a few months ago, but Louis hadn't been in anything. When Francesca asked me if Louis would want to play Trouble in Butterfly, I wasn't sure. He's four. He might just get all the way to the performance and decide he didn't want to do it after all. But he's having a good time and has an incredible amount of focus, which I don't always see in the rest of his life.

They are both really wonderful kids. They interact with grownups a lot, so they enjoy talking to grownups. They're having a good time this summer. That was a big factor in my coming back this year—we had such a good time here last summer.

You travel with your wife and kids all the time. That must be wonderful.
Very challenging but very rewarding. We home school them. We're always setting them up with activities and groups and sports teams and things everywhere we go. They get lots of time with other kids. Even here--Emma is at Girl Scout camp here this week. They've both been going to a day camp in the afternoons. They're always doing something. They're not starved for social interaction.

Do you envision doing that as they get older?
We did some handwringing over this, thinking about what the plan should be. Now the plan is to keep doing it as long as it works, and to be flexible. There's no way of knowing what kind of kids they're going to be when they're teenagers. I know another home-schooling family of opera singers who just put their kids back in school because the oldest one was feeling like he was missing something, not being in school. It is really important to me that we spend a lot of time together. I know a lot of singers who aren't near their families very much, who are unhappy a lot of the time. That's really tough. People don't always have the luxury that I do—I'm very lucky that my wife is willing to do this crazy thing and my kids have really taken to it. For now it works really well.

What do you have coming up?
I'll be singing the Speaker in The Magic Flute at the Met. It's a short role, but it's really cool. I'm doing my first Count in Nozze. I do both Figaro and the Count. I'm covering Figaro at the Met, and I've done Figaro a lot. It's one of those right in-between roles.I hover between baritone and bass-baritone. Billy isn't really a bass-baritone role. I think both the Count and Figaro are interesting to me and I can do them both. I also do both Don Giovanni and Leporello. They're not that different in where they sit in the voice. The only difference is the F-sharp at the end of the Count's aria.

You did your first Rigoletto in Houston. Was that a big challenge—Rigoletto's postural issues?
I had to come up with my own take on it, and not mimic anyone else's Rigoletto. We had a big discussion—he has not just the hump, but he has an assortment of physical problems.  On one side of his body the nerves aren't working right, and his walk would be affected, and he would be in constant pain. So it's no surprise he lashes out from a place of pain. Instead of playing what I thought it would look like, I tried to play what a person would feel under those circumstances, and I think that was ultimately more successful than if I'd tried to go for the “expected look” for a hunchback. Verdi, like all really good composers, is writing about the emotional story anyway. It's not about realism.

That's yet another fach—the Verdi dramatic baritone roles.
I think dramatic baritone is the most accurate description, but writing dramatic baritone on a bio doesn't make sense, and baritone doesn't tell the whole story, so we still say bass-baritone. I honestly don't think about that too much—whether a role fits the name that I have for my voice. I never say yes to a project without singing through it. I try to learn a role before saying yes. For example, Rigoletto was way out of line with what I'd been doing. Patrick Summers (of Houston Grand Opera) asked me about it, and I said, "Give me a week." I knew the opera pretty well, so learning it took no time. I sang through the whole show several times that week. I was able to get a feel for it.

What is your process for learning a new role?
I'm lucky that I'm a pretty quick study. I had good training in college. The first thing I do is look at the score. I'll see how long the role is, where it sits. I'll read the libretto and think about the character. I'll listen to the recordings. I'll sit down at the piano and start singing it. I tend to find the most nuanced moments by actually singing it, as opposed thinking about it.

I do a lot of character discussion. My wife is a former actress and is a really good acting coach. She's been my acting coach for ten years. We are always talking about shows and character and choices. She's always there to bounce ideas off of, or to tell me if an idea isn't reading clearly.

When I consider a new role, I don't only ask if this is something I can do, but also is it something I'd have something to say about as an artist, and would it be worth people's time to hear it? That's more the decision-making process—not so much how does this work for my career, or does this fit in my little box. Obviously my little box is not clear anyway, and that did cause confusion early on, but nowadays people just shrug their shoulders and say, "Oh, Ryan's doing that thing again where he does whatever he wants!"

Although I could have chatted with Ryan all day, we both had places to be, so we shook hands and parted.

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