The singer's modern take on the art form kicks off the new season for Opera Columbus.
Most performing arts organizations plot out their seasons far in advance, so when Opera Columbus booked bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green to open its 2020–21 slate, the world was a very different place.
Yet, in scheduling the singer to perform for its virtual season opener Jan. 15, the opera company proved itself unusually forward-looking in an art form typically locked into tradition. Not only is Green’s eponymous, autobiographical show sufficiently small-scale to be presented virtually, but its Black star will speak about issues seemingly tailored to the times, including race and the criminal justice system.
Recently departed general director and CEO Peggy Kriha Dye had wanted to book Green in one of the company’s full-length productions for years. In February, his agent suggested Green’s own show. Then COVID hit and racial justice protests erupted, and his show became the season’s most important, says Kriha Dye, who left Opera Columbus for the Virginia Opera in October.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
“She had the vision beforehand to bring in somebody like Speedo and do this program—it wasn’t just a knee-jerk reaction,” says Greg Bryan, Opera Columbus’ interim managing director.
Green, originally from Suffolk, Virginia, has a remarkable tale to tell: He was only 12 when his troubled childhood culminated in an incident in which he threatened family members with a knife. Juvenile detention followed. Then, resolved to remake his life, he discovered opera, setting his sights on performing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2011, at age 24, he was among five young singers who won a coveted competition at the Met.
During a show Bryan describes as “half concert, half conversation,” Green will discuss his life with journalist Daniel Bergner, author of a book about the bass-baritone, “Sing for Your Life.” To illustrate the narrative, Green will sing selections from the operatic repertoire and other musical traditions.
“Every piece that I perform is literally inspired [by] my journey to get to the stage of the Met,” Green says.
Bergner met Green while covering the Met’s competition for The New York Times Magazine. Before being interviewed by Bergner, Green had not considered his journey to be particularly noteworthy. “I didn’t know that the life that I lived to get me to that point was anything special,” he says. “I really discovered myself that what I did wasn’t normal, and that I should probably be giving myself credit for leaving my past in the past and changing my life for the better.”
Shining a spotlight on Green is in keeping with the course Dye charted for Opera Columbus: to increase representation in a field not known for its diversity. “Opera, in itself, is not populated heavily with African Americans,” says Bryan, who also points to the company’s commitment to diversity in hiring behind-the-scenes personnel.
The concert was planned to be Opera Columbus’ live return to the Lincoln Theatre, but when coronavirus cases spiked in Central Ohio in mid-November, leaders decided to opt for a virtual presentation on the website, operacolumbus.org. Although Green and Bergner won’t make a trip to Columbus, they still want their message to reach the community.
“African American members of our audience and society have been hurting,” Kriha Dye says. “To be able to communicate about that, as a Black man and as an opera singer … the impact is beyond what I could have hoped for.”