Rhinegold Photo credit: Marco Borrelli
American 'baritenor' Michael Spyres

Francis Muzzu

The high-living hillbilly

1:38, 26th September 2019

In the cover feature of this October’s issue of Opera Now, Michael Spyres explains how he found his true ‘baritenor’ voice, his passionate belief in the importance of live opera, and why Bugs Bunny changed his life. The following is an extract from Francis Muzzu’s interview…

‘We were the hillbilly von Trapps,’ Michael Spyres laughs, explaining that he grew up in a family that thrived on music and theatre. The singer comes from Mansfield, Missouri, a small town in the deeply rural Ozarks, a place that he describes as ‘full of eccentric and dynamic people’ and best known as the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame. His mother, Terry Lee Spyres, wrote the words for a musical based on the book that is still being performed 30 years later.

‘We were the odd family – my grandfather was a fiddle player and my parents both music educators. My mother wrote plays and melodramas and my father was the band and choir director, and later a counsellor.’ His older brother Sean is a musical character singer and his sister Erica has performed on Broadway. ‘We always had opera at home. My uncle Michael wanted to be an opera singer and had masses of Caruso and Lanza records. He died of cancer at 36 when I was one year old, and my mother had already decided to give me his name while she was pregnant.’

Surrounded by musicians and actors, it’s no surprise that Spyres first started considering singing as a career when he was in his teens. ‘I was in the chorus at Springfield, the nearest city, and at the local university for two years, but I had no idea what to do with my life. So I started to teach myself [opera] singing when I was 21, and I’ve not had a teacher since. I was a radio DJ and did commercials to make money but realised that I needed to take opera seriously. I listened to old recordings, up to about 1960, and it became a real passion. I imitated their technique and built my own…a bit of Corelli’s passion, the power of Del Monaco, the sweetness of Björling. I listened to old tenors like Miguel Fleta and studied García and Vaccai [early 19th-century pedagogues].’

At 19, Spyres joined the World Youth Choir which took him outside the US for the first time. ‘I came to know that I had to learn languages to progress, and through a World Youth Choir contact I came to Vienna, where I joined the Arthur Schoenberg Choir at 23.’ It was at this point that Spyres had a pivotal moment of self-awareness: ‘I realised that I wasn’t a true tenor yet…’

To read the full interview, subscribe to Opera Now: magsubscriptions.com/music-opera-now

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