Hero at Large

In recent seasons, Bryan Hymel has stepped into several high-profile assignments at the last minute — and triumphed. WILLIAM R. BRAUN catches up with the New Orleans-born tenor.

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As Énée in Les Troyens in Francesca Zambello's staging at the Metropolitan Opera
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2013
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In David McVicar's Troyens production at Covent Garden
© Bill Cooper 2013
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As Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable in London, 2012
© Bill Cooper 2013

In the world of opera performance, very few things are as difficult as singing the leading tenor roles in Berlioz's Troyens and Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. Perhaps the only thing more difficult, in fact, is singing them on short notice when another tenor has withdrawn from the role. In his annus mirabilis of 2012, New Orleans-born Bryan Hymel was preparing for performances of Robert le Diable at Covent Garden, an assignment he drew when Juan Diego Flórez, giving a fair amount of notice, decided that the role of Robert was not a good fit. Suddenly, Hymel found himself warming up for the Meyerbeer by filling in for Jonas Kaufmann as Énée in Les Troyens at Covent Garden. Then, during the run of Robert, Hymel got a last-minute offer to take over for Marcello Giordani as Énée at the Met when Giordani decided that the role was not congenial. Significantly upping the ante, the two productions of Les Troyens also involved movie-theater transmissions. The London performances helped win Hymel an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. 

Last April, as Hymel recounted those tumultuous months, the most striking observation was the way he volunteered that a tenor can never truly know that he is ready to sing these roles for the public. Asked if he knew that he was ready for his only previous outing as Énée, in Amsterdam, his reply was quick. "That is a resounding no," he said, and he laughed in a warm, deep way that was surprising from someone who sings so high. "The biggest thing I had to address in Amsterdam was the pacing, not just vocally but energy-wise. It was learning how to keep streamlined through the first three acts and through Act IV, so that I still had enough energy to really be able to perform Act V the way it needs to be — not just the vocal intensity, but with the dramatic intensity, to show Énée being torn between serving and following the gods and what his fate and destiny is, and knowing that it is going to break the heart of Dido. And I was just wiped out."

Nonetheless, it was only the experience of singing the role in Amsterdam that made Hymel feel comfortable accepting Énée at Covent Garden. Moreover, the London assignment originally seemed to be more manageable, because he would simply be covering the role in rehearsals. "I was singing a concert performance of Robert le Diable in Salerno, kind of a chance for me and Daniel Oren, who would conduct the production at Covent Garden, to work together and just kind of survey the piece with orchestra. And the casting director of Covent Garden called me. And I had a feeling what it was about, because whenever Les Troyens is done, if you're on the Berlioz radar at all, you know what is going on. That was in May, and they were already about ten days into rehearsal. And Jonas was sick, and he was not going to be ready for another two weeks. So I said, 'Yes, I'll come to help out with rehearsals and then leave.' And the chance to work it with Tony Pappano, the conductor, and to be there — I took that opportunity. 

"I arrived in London about three days after that phone call and started rehearsing. And about two days after that, they said that Jonas was taking longer than expected to recover, and he had decided he was not going to be healthy for this and was going to withdraw. So they offered it to me, and I accepted. Then I had almost three weeks of rehearsal until opening night. We had plenty of rehearsal, especially juxtaposed with the Met, where I had three hours combined of rehearsal. The Met Troyens was definitely a shotgun type of situation."

Early in December 2012, Hymel had moved on to Robert le Diable at Covent Garden. During the run, there were discreet feelers about his schedule. "They said, 'If you were needed by an opera company to sing some performances of Les Troyens right after Robert, would you be willing to do that, and would you be able to do that, because it would come after the last performance of Robert with only a two-day break?' And that's a lot of singing, because it's a really high, demanding, long role. So they wanted to know before they went down that road that I was indeed going to be on board with it. So I said sure, absolutely, knowing that the Met was going to be the only place doing Les Troyens at the time."

Hymel was coming into the middle of the run of Les Troyens at the Met; the director had moved on, the role was difficult, and the engagement would constitute his Met debut. But he felt that the chance for success was good. "Fortunately, coming off of Robert le Diable, I was in the best vocal shape I'd ever been in, and I knew the part. I knew that as long as I could rest, and if my nerves wouldn't stop me from sleeping, that I would be okay. And Susan Graham and I had just, by chance, sung the duet from Les Troyens [in concert] in Santa Fe, and I knew she would be there as Dido, and she was going to be with me, being a cheerleader, being a helper, saying — if I looked at her with a wide-eyed look, not knowing where to go — 'Let's go over there,' or 'We're going to go here now.' But I would say I just didn't have the time to let the weight of the situation sit on my shoulders and weigh me down. I just had to go. I really had no idea how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to do it."

Asked what went through his mind just before his debut performance began, Hymel says, "I remember leading up to it, and when I was backstage before my first entrance, I was thinking, 'What am I doing, how did I get here, how did this happen so quickly?' But once I had the chance to get out onstage and just take a breath, it was like going down a water slide or jumping out of an airplane. There's no time to worry, you just have to make the decision and then you go, and what happens happens. There was no reason I couldn't go out and just show what I could do. I was healthy, and I had the support of the house and the conductor and the music staff and my colleagues. So in a way, it was the best possible debut situation I could hope for." 

The pressure did not dissipate. Hymel sang his second and third performances with Graham's understudy, and then his fourth performance was a worldwide Live in HD transmission. "The director, Francesca Zambello, told me that there were something like 5,000 individual camera shots and cues over the course of the five and a half hours. So that's really massive, and there were specific beats in the music where we had to be looking at each other or toward a certain location. Because there was going to be a camera person waiting to capture that moment, and if we weren't there it would jeopardize the shot." Post-telecast, Hymel found himself in a small fraternity of heroic French tenors. Before he first sang Énée, he thought about contacting some of the people who had done it, but in the end he was too shy. Then last January, after the HD transmission, he went backstage after hearing Gregory Kunde sing Arrigo in I Vespri Siciliani in Athens and was pleased that Kunde recognized him. Now, he says, he would be more likely to send a Facebook message to a colleague. Few other people understand the stakes in this repertoire. When he was offered Robert, he notes, "Covent Garden told me, 'If you're not going to do this, we're just going to scrap the project. If you're not on for this, we have the rest of the cast, but we can find some other opera for them to do.' Because we're essentially singing at the edge of what's possible. And you can't learn how to sing Robert by singing La Bohème or Rigoletto. And it's not as if we have the luxury of saying, 'Oh, I'll warm up three notes higher than I have to sing onstage tonight,' because when you're singing these high roles, it's not possible to go three notes higher in chest voice."

The idea that today's singers don't use pure head voice — a lighter, more pleasing, less stentorian sound — for high notes is sad. Berlioz, Rossini, Meyerbeer and Donizetti all expected the sound. Asked if today's opera audiences simply will not accept anything other than gigantic high notes sung in chest voice, Hymel says that to a certain extent this is true. "But also, the orchestral pitch has gone up a half-step since these roles were written. And the volume that each individual instrument puts out is greater, and therefore the orchestra is louder, too." Yet there is also a stigma about such perfectly legitimate strategies as singing Énée's aria transposed downward (as Plácido Domingo did in the four Met performance he sang of the role before abandoning it in 1983), or declining the optional high C (as Ben Heppner did at the Met in 2003). "People didn't really accept it when they did these things. I didn't speak to Plácido about this specifically, but I know that part of him just not wanting to do the rest of the run was that he did such a wonderful performance, but some people still wanted to say, 'Oh, he took this down.' But for me, higher is going to be better, at least for now. And I'm coming out of the Nicolai Gedda version of Énée, rather than the Jon Vickers or the Ben Heppner, because those guys have bigger voices that sit lower than mine. So people might be more forgiving about that in their voices, since they pumped out more sound over the orchestra than I do."

Firmly in the French heroic club, Hymel is adding Arnold in Guillaume Tell and Henri in Les Vêpres Siciliennes to his repertoire. He won't have to do them at the last minute, but when asked what advice he would give to young singers about managing a last-minute opportunity, he offers a list. "Stay as rested as possible and as healthy as possible. And do your personal work and practice every day, because you cannot cram for an HD or for these great big opportunities in the way you can cram for a test. My manager put it best. He said, 'You took advantage of an opportunity that fell in your lap, because you had done all the work leading up to it. And that's something that is hard to plan, and you usually only get one chance to do it, if that.' So, diligence and discipline in your own work. And if you get the call, start praying. And get some rest." spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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