Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.
Sound Bites: Michael Spyres
Photographed by James Salzano in New York
Grooming by Ralph Castelli
© James Salzano 2013
Michael Spyres, speaking by telephone from his home near Springfield, Missouri, sounds a little hoarse, like Jerry Orbach's overworked Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. "I don't sound much like a tenor today," he laughs. Spyres has just returned from performing Leicester in Washington Concert Opera's Maria Stuarda. "Right in the break the entire time you're on," he says. "A throat-killer! Luckily, technique can get you through it." Some tenors view playing one of the male roles in Donizetti's "Three Queens" operas as a thankless chore, but Spyres says, "I just did the Verdi Requiem for the first time, and La Muette de Portici and Les Contes d'Hoffmann, so it was nice to focus on beauty of line and sound and being a bit more vapid, so the other characters would have the strong dynamic. You have to fit into a hole, sometimes."
Spyres grew up in Missouri; his parents are both retired music teachers. Initially, he studied as a baritone with Robert Mirshak, currently an artist manager in New York. "I was doing that faux-baritone sound that young singers do," Spyres recalls, "and Robert said, 'Let's try to find your actual sound.' It took me six years before I was comfortable saying I was a tenor. I was around twenty-eight. Everyone I've talked to who made that transition says they initially want to go back to being a baritone. It's easier to raise the throat, and you're able to feel you're in control of the voice, because the resonant place where the baritone rings out are the places you can really feel in your throat. A tenor has to lock it into place — it's a weird sensation." He's pleased that many of his current roles, such as Masaniello in La Muette de Portici and Rodrigo in La Donna del Lago, were written for voices like his. "The modern baritone didn't come around until about 1800," he says. "Most people were a little of both. Monteverdi's Orfeo was written for a baritenore — no extreme lows or highs, as was later the case. Mazzoni wrote a lot of stuff for castrati, but he was one of the only ones who used this voice type, singing a high D/D-flat down to low G and F in the baritone range. After Rossini, this voice type fizzled because of orchestrations getting bigger. But there were always people with voices like mine."
This summer, Spyres performs Arnold in Guillaume Tell at the Bad Wildbad Rossini Festival and Rodrigo in La Donna del Lago at Pesaro's Rossini Festival. This area of the repertoire still feels right — far more so than the role of Rodolfo in La Bohème, in which he made his stage debut at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2002. "A lot of Puccini doesn't resonate with me," he admits. "I like so many of the operas up until the mid-1800s, because it left a lot of room for making your own decisions. Puccini, a lot of it, is almost paint by number. 'The audience is going to cry at this moment.' Not a lot of room for interpretation."
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