‘Sing for Your Life’ delivers arresting anthem of an opera singer


‘Sing for your Life’

by Daniel Bergner

Lee Boudreaux Books

320 pages, $28

In 1955, the same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., Marian Anderson, who garnered fame for her 1939 solo at the Lincoln Memorial Center, assumed the role of Ulrica in “Un Ballo in Maschera” at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

She was the first African-American to appear at the Met.

Though a handful of black opera singers followed, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Robert McFerrin, one of the world’s most elite art forms has yet to embrace racial diversity.

Enter 24-year-old Ryan Speedo Green, winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions and the subject of Daniel Bergner’s intriguing book, “Sing For Your Life: A Story of Race, Music and Family.”

In less skilled hands, “Sing for Your Life” might mimic a clichéd rags-to-riches fable tracing Green’s childhood in an abusive home in Norfolk, Va., to his harrowing episodes of solitary confinement at age 12 at a juvenile center, to his Met competition win, and later, his procurement of a highly sought after position with the Vienna State Opera, one of the most prestigious companies in the world.

Instead, Bergner presents a far more nuanced and rigorous examination of the institutional forces that shape Green’s life, such as segregation, the civil rights movement and low-income housing, as well as the aesthetics and politics of an evolving art form that has increasingly emphasized a singer’s physical appearance (especially body size) in an era of live broadcasts, and which, until 2015, utilized black face makeup for the title role in Verdi’s “Othello.”

Bergner richly weaves Green’s rising stardom with scenes from a daunting childhood. He extensively interviews individuals who either helped or hindered Green’s quest for success: his abrasive mother Valerie, who rejects him when he’s at his most vulnerable; his artistic brother, Adrian, whose devotion to illustration inspires Green’s own creativity; and Mrs. Hughes, an elementary school teacher who finds a way to quell Green’s physical classroom outbursts while nurturing his love of science, library research and poetry.

Two mentors who enthusiastically support Green prove to be important allies. Robert Brown, a “dapperly dressed” African American classical vocal instructor at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, offers Green free after-school tutoring sessions, assists him in securing a scholarship to the University of Hartford’s conservatory and serves as a go-between for Green and his mother when their relationship hits rough patches.

Ken Noda, a Japanese vocal coach at the Met, helps Green home in on his sound, and in between exercises, confesses the realities of being a person of color in opera. “Because of my face, because of my Japanese features, people looked at me at first with an expression that was like, Do you know anything about this art form? Can you possibly know anything? Even now, after all these years here, I feel like I have to be ready to fight that look.”

The biggest obstacles Green faces as he advances through the rounds of the Met audition are his lack of linguistic skill, particularly his pronunciation of words in non-English languages like Italian and German, and his rudimentary understanding of the musical score. Many budding operatic stars, like those who Green finds himself competing against, receive this kind of training in spades in their youth. But Green did not, and Bergner’s descriptions of his vocal exercises are both exhausting and exhaustive.

“Pristine Italian vowels, the note-by-note repositioning of invisible anatomy, the capacity for subliminal listening – the necessity of uncountable elusive skills was preying on Ryan.”

Despite these weaknesses, Green develops an expansive vocal range with “twice as many notes as an average person’s.”

Two of the most poignant passages in “Sing for Your Life” recount requests Green receives to sing “Ol’ Man River,” the iconic musical number from Kern and Hammerstein’s 1927 Broadway musical, “Show Boat.” They are requests that reduce Green’s mastery of Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, to the racial stereotype of an oppressed black man.

Green feels the impact of these moments deeply, and Bergner provides him ample bandwidth to express his frustration — not with the linking of his voice to historic black voices (for which Green takes great pride) — but for the immediate association of his polished operatic skills to a role in musical theater.

“It’s a smack in the face if I’ve just sung in a recital, sung Liszt, and someone comes up and says they imagine me as Joe, they see me as Joe. Not that they’d like to hear me sing something in the genre I’ve chosen. They want to hear me sing something not even in the same stratosphere. It’s like being kicked to the ground … I don’t know what Kern and Hammerstein, the two white guys who wrote it, I don’t know what their intention was. But Joe was pleasing to the white man in the 1920s. He was pleasing to white people who had separate toilets and sinks for black people … ‘Ol’ Man River’ is pleasing white people to this day.”

This tension between art and oppression, between Green’s unshakable pursuit of excellence and his blatant rejection of how society judges him, is a central theme in “Sing for Your Life.”

“There is nothing prouder to me than being African American,” says Green. “There is no race more special in the United States. We persevered. Being African American is the greatest gift God could have given me.”

It’s Green’s sense of pride, of his connection to his history, to his heritage, that Bergner so delicately captures in this melodious narrative for which we, the readers, hang on every word.