Baritone Michael Mayes on ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ and his love of country music

Atlanta Opera singer will perform Oct. 7-9 in Kennesaw

Michael Mayes might be the least pretentious opera singer on the face of the planet.

A self-described “good ol’ boy,” Mayes discovered his formidable baritone voice singing in school choirs and bluegrass bands while growing up in his hometown of Cut and Shoot, Texas. He studied voice at the University of North Texas and has subsequently gone from strength to strength performing leading roles throughout America and overseas, initially in lyric baritone assignments such as Mozart’s Count and Don Giovanni.

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More recently he has moved into heavier repertory with Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” the evil Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” and a superb account of the beleaguered title role in Alban Berg’s seminal 12-tone masterpiece “Wozzeck.” Wagner’s “Alberich” looms on the horizon.

Mayes has won his greatest acclaim, however, in contemporary American opera. He virtually owns the role of Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” having sung the piece in innumerable productions all over the world, and enjoyed great success in Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied” and Joby Talbot’s “Everest.”

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For The Atlanta Opera, Mayes has become a familiar face and voice. He’s played the title role in “Sweeny Todd,” performed in “Dead Man Walking,” “The ThreePenny Carmen” and in the title role of “The Kaiser of Atlantis.”

Atlanta audiences will hear him again Oct. 7-9 Mayes in Béla Bartók’s Expressionistic masterwork “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in the wildly applauded production from Britian’s Theatre of Sound by director Daisy Evans and conductor Stephen Higgins. The production will be at the Bobbie Bailey & Family Performance Center on the campus of Kennesaw State University.

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ArtsATL sat down with Mayes to discuss his eclectic career trajectory and the Atlanta Opera’s “Bluebeard.”

Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard

Credit: Courtesy of Ken Howard

Q: So how did a boy from Cut and Shoot, Texas become an internationally celebrated opera singer?

A: The 10-cent answer is that I played football. I grew up singing in church, a good missionary Baptist boy. I played bluegrass and Southern gospel music. My freshman year of high school I ended up breaking some fingers playing football and had to take a different elective. I had two choices: choir or drama. I thought choir would be easier and those theater kids were weirdos, which is the irony of my life, because that is what I became!

By my senior year I was onstage and got scholarships because I was able to sing. I didn’t know anything about classical music or opera until I got to college. I started out there in choirs; but my voice teacher said, ‘I think you need to look at this,’ and I sang my first role there, Frank Maurrant in Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” which was rather prophetic. That’s what really made me make sense of opera. Before that I was like, I don’t know what this is, people singing in foreign languages and moving really slow. But with “Street Scene,” I got it. Doing modern opera helped me understand the art form, because it was something I could relate to.

Q: How have you carved out such a strong identity as a contemporary American opera specialist?

A: That’s the identity I want. Until I discovered contemporary opera, I didn’t really understand the emotional context of what I was singing. I was so focused on saying the words correctly and trying to understand style. That sounds crazy, but it wasn’t until I started singing in my own language and doing operas about subjects that weren’t so removed from my experience — what I like to call ‘contemporary verismo opera’ — that I really began to grasp the power of the art form.

When I did ‘Dead Man’ in Tulsa, a woman said to me, ‘My daughter was murdered seven years ago. You changed the way I think about the man who murdered my daughter.’ That just took my legs out from underneath me. That’s the point of doing this.

Don’t get me wrong. I love ‘Rigoletto,’ I love singing Scarpia. I have an Alberich coming up and I can’t wait to do it. But I am happiest as an artist when I am doing opera in the contemporary American verismo vein. When I do pieces like ‘Dead Man Walking’ or ‘Glory Denied”' or ‘Everest,’ I am speaking to people that I came up with as a good ol’ boy from Cut and Shoot. People I grew up with come, and are floored and say, ‘I didn’t know opera could be like this.’

Contemporary opera is more of a storytelling medium. I spent four years working as a house manager at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. I got to watch Joan Allen and Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in their process. I thought, ‘I want opera to be like this!’ Storytelling is something I’m good at. My wife and I play in a bluegrass band called Midnight Cricket Club. My specialty is sad, country story-songs. If you’re doing ‘Don Giovanni,’ of course you can make it relevant to modern audiences, that’s not even a question. But the bridge with contemporary opera is shorter. It’s less exhausting for the audience to suspend their disbelief and have an immediate understanding.

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Q: I have heard some closed-minded people say they will not listen to contemporary opera because they have to pay attention to the story.

A: That’s like watching NASCAR just for the crashes. You’re missing the point, there is a race going on.

Q: Are there technical differences in singing contemporary works as opposed to traditional rep?

A: There are. Standard rep requires a little more refinement, and attention to singing beautifully. In contemporary things you are given more license to make sounds that aren’t necessarily considered beautiful. You can get close to a natural expression. My experience in contemporary American opera has informed my work in the classics. Once I understood what it was to have an emotional intensity and hold an audience in my hand, then I understood how to give them that same feeling of connection in something that is not in their own language. I mean, how can you do that in another language if you can’t do it in your own?

Q: You did a show in Atlanta called ‘From Opera to Opry: Liquor, Love, and the Lord.’ How did that come about?

A: Country and opera are about the same stuff. It’s heartbreak, it’s the devil and God, the same stories. Country just does it in three-and-a-half minutes, where opera does it in three-and-a-half hours. I found other artists who were brought up doing country music, like Jon Burton and Leah Partridge. I thought our first half we’d be in tuxedos and the second half we’d be in our alter egos of Cletus McHatfield and the McHatfield Family Singers. For each piece from the standard repertoire there was a corresponding country music piece. It was huge hit, but it has been hard to remount because one of us is always off making opera money. Maybe one of these days.

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Q: After all that genre-hopping you are now going back to one of the seminal examples of musical Expressionism, ‘Bluebeard’s Castle.’ This production got ecstatic reviews when you did it in London.

A: We turn the story on its head. It’s an allegory about dementia. A couple comes home from the hospital to the flat they have lived in their whole lives. Judith has dementia, and asks what is behind all these doors. But instead of the usual horror show, behind each door is a memory. It is something they have gone through many times to try to bring her back. And of course, he can’t, because dementia never gets better.

When she opens the doors — metaphorically — a version of herself comes out and we re-enact these important memories of our life and marriage. At the end, her face lights up and she recognizes her husband. They are just about to kiss — and then it just goes away. She turns and looks into the distance. It is so powerful because everybody gets touched by dementia in some way. The British are stiff upper-lipped, but at the end of that show there was 30 seconds of dead silence, then you heard the sobbing. The chamber reduction of the score is fantastic. Stephen Higgins is a genius.

Q: Is there anything in particular you would like Atlanta audiences to know about you?

A: Right now, this piece we are about to do is more important than me. It’s an important story, as is the fact that we have been able to import Daisy Evans and Stephen Higgins and Susan Bullock from the UK. This is an amazing collaboration. Bluebeard is the title character, but it’s really about Judith; and to have an artist like Sue to tell this story with — well, this is something I wouldn’t want to miss. It’s a unique experience you’re not going to get anywhere else.

PREVIEW

ArtsKSU and Atlanta Opera present ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

8 p.m. Oct. 7-8, 3 p.m. Oct. 9. $20-$50. Bailey Performance Center at Kennesaw State University, 488 Prillaman Way, Kennesaw. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org/performances.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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