I am wary of rags-to-riches stories about people who rose from tough childhoods to be opera singers. In my experience, it’s a narrative that the (largely white) establishment is all too eager to push onto black artists. So when I heard about the challenging background of Ryan Speedo Green, a rising young bass-baritone I first heard at Wolf Trap in 2013 who’s now sung at the Met and the Vienna State Opera, I didn’t focus on it too much.
“Sing for Your Life,” by Daniel Bergner, proves how wrong I was. Bergner, who writes for the New York Times Magazine, has expanded an earlier article into this book about Green’s life that is head and shoulders above most books written about living classical music performers.
Green really did come from an unbelievably challenging background, ending up in a juvenile detention center at the age of 12 as a nearly lost cause. “He was one of the ten or so most troubled children I’ve had in my forty-two-year career,” his elementary school principal is quoted as saying. “I recall his teacher actually taking all the other children out of the room in order to protect them.”
But that unsparing depiction of the singer’s past, written with filmlike immediacy, is only part of the reason this book is so good. Another part is Bergner’s honest attempt to show how the opera world works, struggles and all, without the kind of romanticizing that so often figures in outsiders’ portraits of this quirky art form. He makes a few sweeping statements that will draw quibbles from aficionados — the Met’s HD broadcasts are “full of amplified sound,” “Europe’s grand houses were flourishing, but not without government support” — but his interviews with a range of musicians, including Brian Zeger, Ken Noda and Eric Owens, make up for it.
And the key element — highlighted by the book’s subtitle, “A Story of Race, Music, and Family” — is Bergner’s tackling of issues of race. With sensitivity and candor, he shows the subtle and not-so-subtle challenges the opera world poses to singers of color: the way blackness is discouraged, the tendency to lump black singers together, the way the Met unwittingly reinforces itself as a bastion of white elitism.
Bergner’s original article was about the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions, of which Green was one of five winners. He evidently had unlimited access, and his pithy observations provide the book’s core and a framework for its first 117 pages, filled with vignettes such as a black soprano being talked out of wearing a tight dress to the final, even though the soprano felt it emphasized her curves and fit her character. “The element of race stirred a subtle yet palpable uneasiness in the white room,” Bergner writes. Another chapter, in which Green has a coaching session with conductor Patrick Summers, masterfully juxtaposes the conductor’s growing impatience at Green’s poor Italian diction with Green’s increasing desperation. After Green sings an aria by Carlisle Floyd, Summers asks him, “Do you even like this aria?”
“Ryan did — he loved it,” Bergner writes. “ ‘Not really,’ he said. He couldn’t bear to acknowledge his attachment to the piece and hear Summers tell him every way that he’d ruined it.”
The book has some odd lacunae. Given the care with which the author researched Green’s childhood, drawing telling portraits of Green’s complex, smart, frustrating parents and the mentors who were able to reach him, the omission of virtually all details about his college and graduate school experiences is striking. (He attended the Hartt School in Hartford, Conn., and Florida State University, both respectable music conservatories.) In light of the documented challenges that many low-income black kids have had transitioning to college, and in light of the fact that Green’s lack of musical preparation, despite his credentials, is a major theme in the book, this feels like a missing piece of the puzzle.
Also, Green’s self-willed transformation from a semiliterate, uncontrollable kid into an honor roll high school student is so abrupt and seamless that it’s hard to fathom, although this may simply be an illustration of the hoary adage about truth being stranger than fiction. “To see where you are today,” says one of the staffers at his former detention center, “it’s only what one can dream of.”
It’s quite something to have your life on display at such a young age: Green is only 30. While reading, I was sometimes concerned about what repercussions this kind of exposure might have on his future, and wondered if there was something exploitative in a white author taking such a no-holds-barred approach to the subject of a black singer’s life. My fears were largely put to rest by the end of the book, not least because Green was clearly a full participant. When Green visits the detention center and desperately tries to create some connection with the kids (with Bergner, a tireless documentarian, trailing along), he says, tellingly, “The people who said I was worth something . . . that’s so rare in this world. I would give anything to be that person for someone.” Maybe, with this book, he will be.
Bergner doesn’t oversell, even at the end of the book when Green is in the first years of a contract at the Vienna State Opera. “This story is unfinished,” he writes, “just as all of our stories are.” He doesn’t get too invested in his subject’s potential for stardom, even though many people who have heard Green feel it’s there. I, indeed, am one of those people: Bergner quotes a line from my 2013 review from Wolf Trap, in which I wrote that Green “seems fully ready for a big career.” He returns to that review a few pages later: “After the euphoria of reading the critic’s words had worn off,” Bergner writes, Green “understood that her standards that night weren’t the highest.” I am in a unique position to fact-check that line, and I’m afraid it must be counted as one of the few inaccuracies in this vital, compelling and highly recommended book.
Anne Midgette is the classical music critic of The Washington Post.
He was an angry and troubled child — then he discovered opera
By Daniel Bergner
Lee Boudreaux. 320 pp. $28