Looking for Adventure
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Looking for Adventure

Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny sings J. Robert Oppenheimer in Santa Fe’s new Doctor Atomic.
By Fred Cohn
Photographed in Santa Fe by Dario Acosta

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Photographed by Dario Acosta at Santa Fe Opera
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Clarence in Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera, 2017
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
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Photographed by Dario Acosta at Santa Fe Opera

“SINGING IS MOST POWERFUL TO ME WHEN I'S DEEPLY connected to our whole lives,” says Ryan McKinny. These are telling words from a singer who has forged his career not as a series of stops on the opera circuit but as a process of exploration—and whose reputation stands as much on his thoughtful approach to his work as on the intrinsic appeal of his mellow bass-baritone. “I have a nice voice, but it’s not the driving thing in my career,” he says. “As a bass-baritone, I don’t have a high C. I’ll never be someone like Michael Fabiano or Jamie Barton, where they open their mouth and everyone loses their mind. And I’m okay with that.”

The dominant motif of McKinny’s career is its experimental bent, encompassing assignments as diverse as the world premiere of Shostakovich’s unfinished Orango and Billy Bigelow in Carousel. “I’m a curious person,” he says. “I enjoy doing a lot of different types of things. When I’m looking at a new project, the question isn’t ‘Is this a role I’ll be able to do a lot?’ but ‘Are these people I can work with to do something really cool?’” 

This month, McKinny takes on J. Robert Oppenheimer in the Santa Fe Opera premiere of John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, directed by Peter Sellars. The McKinny–Sellars collaboration dates back to 2009, when McKinny played the triple role of Creon, Tiresias and the Messenger in Sellars’s staging of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “He nailed it,” Sellars says. “Before something was out of my mouth, he’d already done it better than I’d ever imagined. The guy has this incredible radar—it goes right in. It’s rare to have that intelligence moving inside a role. It doesn’t hurt that he’s spectacular-looking and turns all heads. But inside that is somebody who’s feeling everything so deeply.” 

McKinny credits Sellars with helping strengthen his own commitment to social justice. He and his family take part in protest demonstrations; he’s planning a recital about race; and he’s now collaborating with Search for Common Ground, a peace-oriented international nonprofit organization, exploring the potential of classical music in conflict resolution. “Peter tries to connect his art to ideas in the pipeline,” he says. “I’d like to find more ways that art can play a role in changing things.”

Considering the essentially lyric cast of his instrument, even McKinny’s Wagner projects represent a kind of adventure. “I subscribe to a style of Wagner singing that’s text-based and line-based,” he says. “I’m not going to shout at the top of my lungs all night long, which is what I’d be doing in a big American house.” McKinny’s first Dutchman in Der Fliegende Holländer was at Glimmerglass in 2013, directed by Francesca Zambello; he has since sung Amfortas at Bayreuth and Teatro Colón. McKinny’s Bayreuth experience confirmed his commitment to the composer. “It’s wonderful—the best place to sing,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was a Wagner singer until I sang Wagner there—then it all made sense to me. And I can’t think of any place you can go where the audience knows the music so well, and cares so much.” 

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As Jochanaan to Alex Penda’s Salome at Santa Fe, 2015
© Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

Even more than the quest for stimulating projects, the lodestar of McKinny’s profession is his family—his wife, Tonya, and their children, Emma, twelve, and Lewis, eight. The family travels as a unit, accompanying him on every one of his gigs, and the couple homeschools their kids. By keeping his children close, McKinny is able to give them a kind of security he never had as a kid. His father, a Vietnam vet, suffered from PTSD, and his mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They divorced when he was young. “I felt loved and encouraged to do anything I wanted to do, but still I didn’t have much support,” he says. “As a teenager, I had some pretty hard moments, even suicidal ones.” He found a lifeline by joining his high-school chorus, and a compassionate mentor in the choral director, John Kelsey. 

Although he continued to pursue singing in college, a solo career still seemed like a chimera. “They told me that, best case scenario, I could get a professional choir job, or small roles with regional companies,” he says. Even after he entered Juilliard, a future in opera seemed iffy, at best. He failed to get into the Juilliard Opera Center on his first two auditions. (“They were right—I wasn’t that good.”) But when, as an undergraduate, he was allowed to audition for a graduate production of Der Kaiser von Atlantis, he impressed the conductor, James Conlon. “That turned into me working with him later,” McKinny says. “It’s a good example of how my career has been formed.”

Now thirty-seven, McKinny has earned a reputation as a calm, steady colleague. “Everybody in the business knows me from after I had kids,” McKinny says. “I’ve worked on my temperament to be a better father, and it has made me a better singer, too, because I’m able to take risks. If we make something amazing, okay. There will be days when I don’t sing that well, or productions that don’t hit the mark, or roles that aren’t a good fit, and that’s okay, too. I have my family, I’ve worked through some dark stuff, and opera is just opera.” spacer 

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