The talented young American tenor Michael Spyres caused quite a sensation at Covent Garden last year when he appeared as Rodrigo in La donna del lago, stepping in to replace an ailing Colin Lee at short notice and delivering a stunning performance opposite Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez.  Specialising in bel canto and the French repertoire, this exciting artist boasts an impressive CV at some of the leading European and American opera houses, including Barcelona’s Liceu, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, La Monnaie in Brussels and Lyric Opera of Chicago.  Tomorrow, London audiences will once again have the chance to hear him as he takes the lead role in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in English National Opera‘s hotly anticipated new production directed by Terry Gilliam 

Ahead of the premiere, we asked Michael Spyres to tell us about his career to date, future plans and views on the opera world in general:

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OB: Who are your vocal role models?

MS: I have too many role models to name but the two most influential singers for me would have to be Mario Lanza and  Nicolai Gedda. These artists do something completely different for me but both have been extremely essential to my becoming the singer that I am today. I have virtually every recording and bootleg of both of these singers throughout their respective performing careers.

OB: Did you always want to be an opera singer?  If not, how did this come about?

MS: I had always grown up with the idea that maybe someday I would be an opera singer since I was named after my uncle Michael who tragically died of a rare form of throat cancer in his mid 30s and never got to achieve his dream of being an opera singer. I grew up in one of the most musical families on the planet. We have all performed together since we were able to phonate. As a family we have performed in four operas together and my brother and I have recorded Rossini’ s Otello and toured in Europe and Japan. My sister is a Broadway singer and actress in the New England area and both of my parents are retired teachers of music, drama, and band so as you can see I had the perfect upbringing in this very musical family to go into the Arts.

OB: What repertory do you see yourself singing in 5-10 years time?

MS: In general, I would love to be doing a lot of the roles that I am performing now. I will always want to keep the precedent that I have been fortunate to set and be allowed to perform technically and dramatically challenging roles with some of the most complex characters in the operatic repertoire. Going along with what I have said, I think the best roles for vocal development is French Grand Opera for these types of roles as well as much of the Verdi and choice Wagner repertoire but only time will dictate how my voice will evolve so I’ll try to stay flexible with my desires.

OB: How do you go about learning a new role? 

MS: It is quite a process that I have had to developed over the years to learn and memorise so much repertoire because I have been constantly learning new roles back to back for quite a few years now. In fact, the most extreme example of this was when I had to learn 8 new operas in one year! Usually I start familiarising myself with the music around a year before and then I put it away in order to concentrate on the next opera. Around 6 months before the show I listen and reacquaint myself with the music. Around a month and a half before I start with memorization of words and phrasing and work intensely before the rehearsals begin. This ensures that I know my music quite well in order to free up my mind for the acting aspect of the role.

OB: Is there a particular role that you have your heart set on?

MS: Honestly, I have performed all of my dream roles at this point except for Tom Rakewell and Verdi’s Otello.  I have always loved complex characters and I believe this spawns from my first operatic roles when I was 19 to 21 years old as a character tenor where you have to create an entire background story for a role that only has a few lines but is essential to the plot. The greatest roles in opera for me are the characters that are a challenge both in acting the role as well as the sheer difficulty of singing, such as Hoffmann, Masaniello,  Faust, Cellini and Otello.

OB: Which roles would you prefer to avoid?

MS: One-dimensional characters in which there is not much room for you to create a character for yourself. I believe that opera should be a collaboration between the artist and the composer and you should be able to have your own ideas when portraying a character and for me when a composer does too much of the work it stifles a performer. Honestly, much of verismo opera does not appeal to me because to me it is incredibly composed but within that I feel confined to the composer’s wishes without the ability to put something of myself in the role. This of course is my perspective and understandably as a spectator in the audience one doesn’t have the same thought process that I do as a performer.

OB: What is it like working with Terry Gilliam on Benvenuto Cellini?

MS: It has truly been a roller-coaster working with Terry again on this mammoth piece. Throughout the rehearsal process it has become quite clear to me why this opera has not been performed very often in history. The technical difficulties as well as the vocal and physical demands of this opera are astounding. I have never witnessed any opera as dramatic and bizarre as this score. Berlioz was truly a mad genius and above all created controversy with his radical ideas in both music and drama in his quest for true art. Terry is a perfect match for Berlioz and if you are lucky enough to come see our production it will definitely be one of those experiences that you will talk about for your entire life. It has been a dream come true to get to work with Terry on this project because I have been very influenced by his movies and involvement with Monty Python throughout my childhood. In fact I wanted to become a comedian because of Python but then decided on a career in opera instead. I know that I will never have this kind of experience making an opera again and I feel so honoured and lucky to have been given this opportunity to portray one of the greatest roles in all operatic repertoire.

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OB: Given the choice, do you prefer traditional stagings or modern updatings of the classics?

MS: I find this is kind of a loaded question because most traditional stagings that one talks about are just nostalgic people pining for something that has become glorified in their mind over the years. I find that modern direction of opera can be much truer to the original intentions of a composer and very rarely do operas have such a need for a stylized and historical setting. With this being said, I abhor direction in operas that are staged without any thought to why a composer chose to write a particular setting or story. Instead of doing the hard work of bringing the opera to life in a thoughtful staging they use an easy way out by choosing blatant controversy or shock value while using a well known composer’s piece as a vehicle to promote their own careers.

OB: You’ve performed all over the world – which is your favourite opera house and why?

MS: I honestly do not have a favourite opera house. My career has been all over the place, big and small and I have sung now in almost every country in Europe and each opera house has its charm but all have their downfalls as well. One of my favourite places though is the Opéra Comique in Paris because I have a nostalgic connection with all of the great French repertoire that was premiered and performed over the last 200 years there. I feel a theatre the size of the Opéra Comique is where the audience and the performers can have a true connection to the piece and everyone can vibrate in unison and share a very special experience together which larger house just cannot offer.

OB: In this age of HD cinema broadcasts, do you feel that too much importance is placed on a singer’s physical appearance?

MS: No, not really because they are reflecting the current needs of a market. I think this issue needs a lot of discussing and I could debate for ages about this topic.  We are a very visual culture and everyone has from the beginning of time been obsessed with physical appearance so why should HD cinema be held to a different moral standard? I do understand the controversy with which many people are concerned but I would encourage everyone to try to think critically about this topic and see all sides of this controversial issue. I have personally been discriminated against and still am to this day because of my stocky body type but I don’t blame other people for this because I understand how a business works. After a few years of auditioning I realised I was not what mainstream opera houses wanted in a leading tenor and so I shifted the focus in my career to operatic repertoire that no one else sang which became my “in” to the opera world. I decided that if I wanted to make a career in this business then I would have to find an alternative way and this is what I would suggest to anyone who isn’t making the career they think they should be having. My career didn’t flourish until I studied quite hard. I honed my craft by working intensely on my language skills while improving my acting and solidifying my vocal technique. Only after I did this people started to notice me and consequently began to look past my less than movie star appearance. I have many other friends who have been discriminated against in opera for their race but they have also had to find an alternative to those houses or venues that discriminate against them and most of them found their way whether it was through exceptional vocal technique, acting ability, incredible language skills, or exceptional networking abilities. The truth is that people take notice when you stand out from the crowd and exceptional beauty is still exceptional and it should not garner ill will from the public if someone is genetically predisposed to be more pleasing to the eye. If you have something special and profitable this makes you more attractive in the eyes of a business and they promote a product in order to make profits. If a business so chooses, they will hire singers that look beautiful but might not be able to sing as well as others but I have yet to see an instance where a singer was cast solely on looks because even more so with HD they still have to be able to sing and portray a character believably.

OB: Do you have any funny stories or horror stories to relate about productions you’ve worked on in the past?

MS: I’ve been quite fortunate in my career to not have had many horror stories but my debut with Deutsche Oper Berlin was a personal nightmare/victory as I only had 8 hours of rehearsal to learn a production of my first Magic Flute in which I met the conductor and the Queen of the Night when I walked on stage! Fortunately I did not mess up very much and was able to keep it together with such little rehearsal time. Some of my fondest memories are actually the amazing experience I had with almost my entire family. I sang Rodolfo, my wife sang Mimi,  my brother Benôit/ Alcindoro and my mother, father, sister-in-law, niece and nephew were all in the chorus. During one scene in particular, my brother (who is amazingly comfortable on stage) kept trying to make us crack up by hilariously shoving an entire cake in his mouth in between his singing lines at cafe Momus!

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Benvenuto Cellini opens at ENO on 5 June for 8 performances.  The 17 June show will be broadcast live to cinemas across the country as part of the ENO Screen project

Tickets can be booked via http://www.eno.org/cellini

(Photos : Darcey Borghardt & A.Bofill)

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