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High Stakes

BRIAN KELLOW catches up with New Orleans-born tenor Bryan Hymel, who is making a splash by scaling the heroic heights of the French lyric repertoire. 

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York on location at the 530 Park Avenue Condominium Residences at 61st Street, www.530parkcondo.com
Cartier Tank MC watch / Clothes styled by Brandy Kraft; Grooming by Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2015
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Pinkerton in the Met’s Madama Butterfly, 2014
© Beth Bergman 2015
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Rodolfo in La Bohème at the Met, 2014
© Johan Elbers 2015

Énée in Berlioz’s Troyens is one of the trickiest roles in the tenor repertory. The tricks begin with his entrance, when he rushes in to report that the priest Laocoön has urged the crowd to set fire to the Trojan horse and as a result has been swallowed up by two sea serpents. Berlioz wrote so much excitement into this stretch of music that when Bryan Hymel was making his unexpected Met debut as Énée in Francesca Zambello’s Met production in December 2012, he nearly ran out of breath. It was an international HD transmission, and there were more swift currents ahead — a span of heroic singing when Énée tells Didon that destiny has brought him to Carthage to defend her, and after a long section in which Énée watches the ballet in Didon’s gardens, a pair of ensembles prior to the rapturous duet with Didon, “Nuit d’ivresse.” 

Hymel says the role of Énée is “made up of a number of sprints. Énée comes in, sings the big chorus, then you go into Act II with the Ghost of Hector, and after that there’s a thirty-minute intermission and another thirty minutes. So you’re looking at about ninety minutes between the end of your part in the first half and the point when the role properly gets going.” During the lengthy ballet, while he was pining for a sip of water, his Didon, Susan Graham, leaned over and whispered, “Have another grape. Trust me on this one.” By the time he had sung the Act V aria “Inutiles regrets!” and had the decisive confrontation with the Trojan ghosts, Hymel says, “I was relieved to have made it through the last four hours. Your voice is warm by then, and it kind of rolls out.”

Hymel’s Met performances as Énée made for one of the most exciting last-minute switches in years — the sort of dramatic debut that doesn’t happen often. He filled in for Marcello Giordani, who sang the first three performances of the run and then retired the role from his repertory. It was the second time in six months that Hymel had rescued Les Troyens. Early that summer, he had been called to substitute for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann in Covent Garden’s production of the opera, just a month before opening night. He was singing Robert le Diable in Salerno and had no score for the Berlioz in hand, but he said yes. His London performances were a success, helping to earn him an Olivier Award and paving the way for the next nail-biter. When the call to replace Giordani came from the Met’s artistic administrator Jonathan Friend, Hymel recalls, “Jonathan said, ‘You cannot tell your voice teacher. You cannot tell your mother. You cannot tell anybody. If this gets out, and we have a problem, we can’t take you.’ My teacher, Bill Schuman, was calling me six times a day, and I had to say, ‘Bill — I love you. But I can’t talk to you right now.’ I was up against the wall.”

This month, Hymel, thirty-five, sings Énée at San Francisco Opera in David McVicar’s production, once again opposite Graham as Didon, with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Daveda Karanas alternating as Cassandre. Donald Runnicles conducts. (These performances come on the heels of the release of Hymel’s debut solo CD, Héroïque, featuring his interpretations of high-flying arias by Meyerbeer, Massenet, Gounod, Rossini and Berlioz.) Then he returns to Santa Fe Opera, in July and August, as the Duke in Lee Blakeley’s new production of Rigoletto, with Quinn Kelsey and Georgia Jarman.

It’s January, and I am speaking with Hymel while he’s in New Orleans, where he lives with his wife, soprano Irini Kyriakidou, and their two daughters. He’s enjoying a welcome break following a run of performances as Percy in Anna Bolena at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was born and raised in New Orleans, and ten years after Hurricane Katrina, his heart is still here. “You drive through certain parts of the city,” he says, “and you see the remnants of parts that should not have been built on in the first place. At one point I didn’t know if it would ever be the same. It took two or three years, and another hurricane season to come and go without incident, for people to invest themselves in rebuilding. But there’s a helluva spirit here in New Orleans.”

 When Hymel speaks, his voice vibrates with an ebullience that seems on the verge of erupting into full-out laughter. He admits that he’s put on a few pounds, but he looks healthy and confident: with his big face and broad shoulders, Hymel carries a little extra weight well, and his recently grown facial hair gives him a certain resemblance to the Welsh actor John Rhys-Davies. 

There is an aspect of inevitability about Hymel’s Héroïque CD: when he was a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, he was asked to cover the role of Werther and quickly immersed himself in historical recordings of Georges Thill and César Vezzani. “When I heard Vezzani’s version of the Guillaume Tell aria, I was — whoa! He was probably in his late forties, but it seemed like a Del Monaco style of singing, and he popped up there in a way that was so different. Adolphe Nourrit was the primary tenor of the time, and he did do the premiere of Guillaume Tell. He was steeped in the French tradition of voix mixte,and he was probably starting to mix a C-natural. The way he did all of those high Cs.... There was Gilbert Duprez [who sang the Italian premiere of Tell], who was French but had studied in Italy and took that Italian technique, part of it, back to France and was able to tackle roles like [Arnold in] Guillaume Tell with this more Italianate technique. That’s certainly the tradition that I identify with. I think I’ve found a good color for the dolce in the soft sections of Les Troyens and La Damnation de Faust. But if I come off of my voice too much, it loses its ring and ultimately its stamina. Once I heard Thill and Vezzani, with bigger, fuller instruments, it gave me permission to do this music in the way that my body and throat have to do it. Before that, I would think Nicolai Gedda was the one you want to emulate in French repertoire. He’s a wonderful singer, but my voice doesn’t work in the way his does, and I have to sing it with the voice I have.” 

Hymel’s tenor is thrillingly free and masculine-sounding — it has sometimes been mischaracterized as “dark” — and it has none of the fussiness and constriction sometimes exhibited by singers of the classic nineteenth-century French repertoire. When he hits the climactic Cs and D-flats and Ds, his voice has an exciting ring reminiscent of the young Richard Leech. The tessitura of these parts generally sits higher than comparable roles in the bel canto repertoire, many of which move roughly from A to A. This became clear to him at his performances of Anna Bolena in Chicago. “Both of his ariosos don’t go above an A-natural,” he says. “I could put some high notes in there, but as far as the score goes, they are on the low side, and then they would end their cabalettas with these big high Cs. In a way, it’s almost easier for me to sing up there and stay up there, like you would in Guillaume Tell, as opposed to singing in the middle and then popping up at the end.” In order to remain balanced, he tries to keep a certain amount of lower rep in the voice. (Last fall, he sang some performances of Rodolfo in La Bohème at the Met, and while he proved musically and dramatically astute and sounded wonderful, he doesn’t yet put his stamp on Rodolfo quite so distinctively as he does some of the French roles.) “A lot of tenors sang high rep all the time,” says Hymel, “and they didn’t last all that long.” 

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As Énée in Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, 2013
© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2015

Hymel’s father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker and professional typesetter. Initially, he was interested in becoming a Broadway conductor, and he did his share of music-directing in community theater around New Orleans. He seldom sang show music. “My voice doesn’t lend itself so much to that,” he says. “Even when I was in high school, they would say, ‘Can you sound less operatic?’” In 1997, he entered Loyola University. During his undergraduate years, he performed in competitions, “but there weren’t a lot of people there who would give me a run for my money. I didn’t work as hard as I would have if there had been someone in the room next to me pushing me to be the best I can be.”

In 2000, he made it all the way to the National Council Finals at the Met, which he claims served only to give him an unrealistic view of how the opera world functioned. What followed were six to seven years of intense struggle. In his early twenties, he sang Tamino and the Duke of Mantua in Grand Rapids, where, he recalls, the reviews indicated that he wasn’t out of the oven yet. “It took the wind out of my sails,” he says. “Everybody was saying, ‘Bryan, come on — you’re probably going to have a long career.’ After that, he put in three months at San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program and toured with Western Opera Theater, which he calls “my first look at real life as a singer. I watched personal relationships become strained from the distance apart. One singer’s wife was going through chemotherapy, but she had insisted that he do this job. Keep in mind that all of this was happening in September and October of 2001. Many of the singers lived in New York City, and some of them were directly affected. I remember the bus driving alongside Manhattan and seeing the void in the skyline and smoke still coming from Ground Zero.” 

He began studies with Steve Smith at the Juilliard School, but there were difficult times ahead, from about 2003 to 2005. He was making a small fee per performance, and he was in steep credit-card debt, sharing a studio apartment on West Fourteenth Street in New York with his best friend from high school. At one point, Hymel was about to give up. Then Gayletha Nichols, executive director of the Met’s National Council Auditions, pulled him aside and said, “What made you unique before is gone from your sound. You need to find that again — that’s what got people excited.” She helped him get money for lessons with tenor guru Bill Schuman, who worked on restoring the ping and squillo that Hymel once had, and on helping the tenor energize the top of his voice without pushing. After a few months, Hymel was accepted as Schuman’s student at the Academy of Vocal Arts. “For the first six months, Bill just let me sing,” Hymel remembers. “He just allowed me to get out of my head and back to my instrument. He gave me ‘Ah, mes amis,’ from La Fille du Régiment, and ‘A te, o cara,’ from Puritani, and Guillaume Tell.” 

“Bryan had been singing a lot of Mozart,” Schuman recalls. “Mozart is very bad for the tenor voice. It closes them down, and it’s low. It never lets them open up the upper register. It’s instrumentally based music, and the Italianate tenor sings with balls and heart. He needs bel canto.”

In the late summer of 2005, Hymel sang a recital in New Orleans, and a week later Hurricane Katrina turned the city inside out, leaving more than 1,800 dead. When Hymel speaks of the disaster, it seems to assume significance in his development as an artist — an event so devastating that it made his career frustrations seem petty and feeble. “It’s at that point that I became a fighter,” he says. “It’s at that point that I chose to be a singer.” At the Academy of Vocal Arts, he learned the meaning of healthy competition. “I knew the top was always reliable, but I didn’t know how to make the rest of the voice match that. There’s something to be said for wiping the table clean and starting over.” It was a heady time: Hymel was a year behind Michael Fabiano and Angela Meade, and Stephen Costello, Ailyn Pérez, Ellie Dehn, Latonia Moore and James Valenti were slightly further ahead. “It was a really rich time to be there at AVA,” he says. “There was a standard that you wanted to be a part of, and you could only do that by proving yourself and getting better.”

In the fall of 2007, Hymel’s international career got a boost when David Agler, artistic director of Wexford Festival Opera, engaged him to sing the Prince in Rusalka. Hymel’s reviews were excellent, and he was reengaged at Wexford in 2008 for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snow Maiden. That October, he got a sense of the pressures ahead. On a Friday, he flew to New York to accept a $10,000 prize from the Licia Albanese­–Puccini Foundation. He arrived in New York at 4 p.m., rehearsed with a pianist, got up the next morning, went to the Puccini Gala, performed in the concert and flew back to Dublin on the 9:40 flight that night. Back in Ireland, he developed tonsillitis and was hospitalized for four days. “I won’t do that again,” he says. “But it was $10,000 — and that was crucial to me back then.” 

Ten years later, after building his career slowly at theaters around the world, making debuts at the major houses in good, prudent time and winning top prizes from the Gerda Lissner, Guilio Gari and Loren L. Zachary Foundations, Hymel seems the same open, guileless man he was back then. But it’s also easy to detect the calming effect success has had on him. Once, his speaking voice had a trace of the air-raid siren about it; that quality has receded, and he has an easy confidence while retaining his old modesty and enthusiasm. “In Rusalka,” says Agler, “Bryan sang the high notes like a young man — an athlete. But now there is something instinctive that makes his understanding of music all the more interesting as time goes on. He’s uncomplicated in the best sense. He doesn’t carry the psychological baggage that a lot of singers do — ‘Am I worthy? Am I good enough?’”

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When Hymel was younger, his father taught him to play pool. The tenor says, “It’s probably where my appreciation of ‘technique,’ and not relying solely on talent and luck, began.”
© Dario Acosta 2015

On a warm evening in September 2014, I sit with Hymel at the Manhattan theater-district nightclub 54 Below, as Broadway’s Christine Ebersole launches into her act, “Big Noise from Winnetka.” The waiter keeps bringing plates of food that Hymel hasn’t ordered. He has never been to 54 Below, and he claps loud and long for Ebersole. When she sings “Darktown Strutter’s Ball,” Hymel whispers, “That’s so high for a Broadway belter!” She then sings “Alfie” in a beautiful vocal mix. “It’s amazing that she can switch between the styles — from the more belty cabaret to the head voice,” he says. “Her range is extraordinary, and she still keeps the words flowing through. She’s miked, but it’s still supported singing. And the storytelling — it’s not just pretty music. That’s the biggest difference from what we do. We are always dealing in colors, but always more or less within the style of one opera.” Hymel doesn’t display an ounce of opera-versus-Broadway star judgment; he surrenders to Ebersole’s electricity like any fan.

The conversation turns to the swift pace of his own career. “The old guys used to say don’t do more than one or two new roles per year. Percy will be the eleventh new role I have done in three seasons,” he says. “That’s crazy.” He admits that he’s on a professional joyride; one hopes that he will be able to resist pressure to be pushed into heavier roles. So far, he doesn’t feel he’s gotten himself in trouble, “though I very easily could have,” he says with a laugh. “But you have to remember that you cannot make instant opera.”

In the April issue of opera news, Patricia Petibon said, “Today, everything is controlled, nothing must go over the top. I take up my pick-ax and go for it. Art is meant to be excessive.” When I quote her to Hymel, he responds, “I agree with her 100 percent. When I got to Europe, they would say, ‘Bryan, this is really great, but for us, it’s too academic. We know what you are saying. You don’t have to show us that you know they’re double consonants. Just do it.’ My European colleagues do not feel that the theater is a place to tread with caution. I’m on the cautious side, and after hearing the way some of my European colleagues sing, I’ve learned now that I can take a full breath and give forth with everything I have. You heard that in Corelli and Simionato and Callas, who were incredibly disciplined but not afraid to take the risk to make a statement. I think that’s what everybody goes crazy for. We want them to tear up the programs and throw them up in the air and clap for ten minutes.” spacer 

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