TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A juvenile detention facility is not typically a stop along the way to an opera career, but nothing in my guest Ryan Speedo Green's early life would have suggested he would sing at the Metropolitan Opera. He grew up in a trailer park and in a home with bullet holes. Because of his violent temper, he was placed in a special class for problem kids and did time in juvie.
But then he discovered he could sing. And although he knew nothing about opera, he was placed in an opera program in a performing arts high school, devoting himself to it in spite of friends who couldn't comprehend why a black person would be interested in opera. In 2011, he won the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions. Now he's in the ensemble of the Vienna State Opera, and he's about to sing the role of Colline in the Met's production of "La Boheme." Although he's only 30, there's a new biography of Green called "Sing For Your Life."
Let's start with his aria from "La Boheme," which he recorded for us at a rehearsal yesterday. This comes toward the end of the opera when Mimi is dying and Green's character, Colline, prepares to pawn his coat to get money for her medicine. He sings goodbye to the coat that has kept him warm and represents many memories.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RYAN SPEEDO GREEN: (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: That's my guest Ryan Speedo Green, singing the code aria in "La Boheme." And that's a rehearsal recording, but he's about to open in the opera at the Met.
Ryan Speedo Green, welcome to FRESH AIR. When was the first time you realized that you had this, like, deep, rich singing voice that you could get these, like, beautiful, rich, deep tones? I mean, my impression is that you not only weren't exposed to opera as a child, you had no idea that you could sing.
GREEN: Well, yes. You mentioned the sound of my voice, the tone of my voice. But it wasn't always this way. When I first started singing, I was singing as a tenor...
GROSS: No, wow.
GREEN: ...In high school, yeah.
GREEN: So it was - it wasn't until puberty kicked in that I realized that I probably wasn't a tenor. You know, opera was not something that was put in front of me. It was something just I happened to stumble upon by chance. And since I stumbled upon it, it has been my passion and my focus.
GROSS: So you're a bass-baritone. What does that mean?
GREEN: It means that I am sort of a hybrid voice type in between baritone, which is the middle voice of the male, and bass, which is the lowest voice of the male and kind of gives me the opportunity to sing both if need be because I have a higher range, but I also have a low note that's close to a bass.
GROSS: Is the bass-baritone typically like the villain or the king or the despot?
GREEN: You have it correct. You know, it's not very often that a low voice in general gets the girl, if you know what I mean. And as a bass baritone or a bass, you tend to be characters that are older or characters of high stature or priestly characters or bad guys.
And there are very few occasions in opera where you are the good guy. For instance, "Le Nozze Di Figaro." This is one of the few opportunities that the low voice has the - becomes the hero and is the hero. But a majority of the time, you're playing a supporting cast to the tenor or the baritone.
GROSS: When you started to make your way through opera, did you feel like you're background was something you should cover up because people might think that you were not emotionally prepared for it or that, you know, you weren't educated enough for it?
GREEN: Well, it was even before I got into opera that I decided to push my past deep inside me because I wanted - I wanted to only think about my future and moving forward and leaving my past mistakes in the past and worrying about how I was going to better my future. And this happened before I even started singing opera.
GROSS: So I hope you don't mind talking about your past (laughter)...
GREEN: Of course not.
GROSS: ...In this interview. When you think back to your childhood and try to understand why you were so angry and often violent, what do you think about - what do you think were, like, the causes of that kind of upheaval in your life?
GREEN: You know, it's hard to imagine that the person was me. And honestly, it's sometimes scary to know that person is inside of me. But, you know, I try to use those experiences to add to the depth of my characters in the performances I have. You know, my past is my past. And it doesn't define me. It only gives me fuel for my future.
GROSS: When you were in juvie, describe what your day-to-day life was like. And how old were you?
GREEN: I was - I think I was around 11, 12. I remember going there, and I was, you know, driven in a police car all the way across the state of Virginia in cuffs and shackles.
And I can remember being in, you know, my cell with - it was a small window with - that was barred up and a medical mattress. And I remember being put in solitary from, you know, when I would lash out against the staff and other kids and they put me in this solitary confinement room. And I remember the cold cement walls and not wanting to touch them and, you know, screaming so loud that I lost my - had no voice afterwards and feeling so alone.
You're put in a small unit and away from - most of your days spent alone in your cell. Yeah, and it's - and, I mean, it was a very difficult time then and it's even more difficult, you know, reading about - you know, they kept logs, 15-minute logs of - during my period there. And it was tough reading, you know, the 15-minute logs of me and the things I did and said. And...
GROSS: You went back and read that for the book?
GREEN: I read a lot of it. But I left a lot of the reading to Daniel. It was a very large, large file. I was there for a while.
GROSS: This is Daniel Bergner who actually...
GREEN: Daniel Bergner, yes, the writer.
GROSS: ...Wrote the book because it's a biography of you. So when you were in juvie, what did you think your future was going to be?
GREEN: Pretty much in the beginning when I was there, I thought my future was very bleak. And I didn't really think I had a future. But eventually the longer I was there, the more that I wanted to have a future.
I remember, you know, maybe one of the first moments of me being involved with music, you know, when I had good behavior there, they would give me a radio, a small radio to listen to. And I would sit in my room, and I would listen to the top 40 hits of 1998 and sing along to it in my room. And that was my getting away from where I was moment, you know, escaping in the music that I was listening to. And maybe that was also the beginning of my love for music.
GROSS: What were the hits that you were singing along to?
GREEN: Oh, gosh (laughter) I remember Backstreet Boys and Usher were on the radio then. And obviously my voice is not one of Usher or the Backstreet Boys. But at the time, I loved singing to it.
GROSS: I think one of the great things about your book is that it's a beautiful tribute to the power of good teachers who recognized the goodness in troubled kids and find the talent within them and nurture it because your book has several of those people in it. And you are very grateful. You express a lot of gratitude toward them. So let's start with Mrs. Hughes, who helped you in the class that you were in for kids who acted up all the time, for kids who were trouble. First, talk about the class and what it felt like to be singled out and put in a special class like that.
GREEN: Well, you know, I was in a class of six or seven of the most uncontrollable elementary schoolers in the entire district. And, you know, again, I was - at that point, I was a very angry kid. And I remember the first day I was in Mrs. Hughes' class - you know, this tiny woman with blond curls. And the first day I was in her class I threw my desk at her.
GROSS: Oh, my gosh (laughter).
GREEN: And instead of sending me away to the office to go home like most teachers would have done, she took my chair and said, you can learn from the floor because that's where your desk is. And when you're ready to learn from your desk, you can have your chair and your desk back. And she was one of the first people in my life to not give up on me and not just see an angry kid and send him - and not want to deal with him. She made sure to try and give me lessons - life lessons.
You know, she's - one of the first things she did was teach me the "I Have A Dream" speech by Martin Luther King and tried to, you know, at a young age, instill this mantra in me that I shouldn't just be a stereotype or I'm not just a color that, you know - that I can just be judged by the content of my character. And this was something that, you know - it was instilled in me at a young age. Unfortunately, I didn't use it immediately. The change took a long time. But it - she stayed in my life, and that mantra stayed in my life. And she'll be there for opening night of "La Boheme."
GROSS: Oh, great. So did you have a dream at that time?
GREEN: I didn't. I - there's many things that were going on in my personal life and family life that I hadn't yet overcome. And - so, yes, I was - I wasn't thinking about my future at all at that point.
GROSS: Why did you throw your desk at her? What were you trying to say?
GREEN: I think, you know, honestly, the Ryan Speedo Green of fourth grade and the Ryan Speedo Green of now (laughter) are so far apart that I can't really go into my mental idea - my mentality back then of why I did it. But I'm sure it was something lashing out of at the - any person who showed any compassion for me.
GROSS: It's hard to understand...
GREEN: Maybe trying to push her away, maybe.
GROSS: You know, it's hard to understand when somebody's being nice to you that that's what you would do.
GREEN: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, a lot of children with anger problems - you know, it's usually something that's going on in their personal life that's affecting them. And it's hard to - it's hard to accept compassion from someone when you hate yourself.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is opera singer Ryan Speedo Green. Now there's a new book about him called "Sing For Your Life: A Story Of Race, Music, And Family." He opens at the Met at the end of the month in a production of "La Boheme." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Speedo Green. And there's a new book about him called "Sing For Your Life." And he's an opera singer who's about to open at the Met in "La Boheme."
So you're in this class for troubled kids. The teacher takes a special interest in you, but still you end up in juvenile detention center for - how long?
GREEN: For about two months.
GROSS: OK. And then you end up going to a high school for the arts. How...
GROSS: ...Did you get in? I mean, you - had you shown any previous interest in the arts?
GREEN: I had joined a choir and - as sort of, like, an easy elective because I was interested in playing football. And I - you know, I thought I had to audition for the - go to the school for the arts to get a passing grade in the class. And so this is a magnet school for the arts in Virginia, sort of like the school Fame. And it had - you know, had a opera program, a dance program, musical theater, theater, instrumental. And so I auditioned and, honestly, didn't expect to get in.
But with - I guess the - how worlds connect - my - as we mentioned before, my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Hughes, her husband was the principal of this magnet school for the arts. And so when I auditioned, I believe I could carry a tune (laughter), not a very good tune, but I could carry a tune. And I believe they were trying to maybe get some kids from my district because I was in, like, a district where there weren't many Governor School kids going there. It was one of the poor districts in the area. And Mr. Hughes was also the principal. So I think he maybe strongly suggested that they should give me a chance, and they did.
GROSS: So for the - correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the one where for the audition you sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" because you (laughter) couldn't think of what to sing.
GREEN: (Laughter) Well, my teacher had - my course teacher at the time had prepared me with "The Star-Spangled Banner" because it was something that a majority of children knew. And it was an easy tune to remember because you hear it all the time.
GROSS: But it's a hard one to sing. It's got that kind of...
GREEN: It is a hard one to sing. And I'm not going to say that I sang it beautifully back then. But (laughter) - and then another - I had another piece prepared that I had memorized from a CD of Italian art songs called "Caro Mio Ben (ph)." And I had memorized it and was ready to sing it acapella. But when I came into my audition, they told me that I had to sing it with piano. And I had never practiced it with singing with a piano before. So I had no idea how to do it (laughter).
And they were - and they looked at me very confused and were like, OK, well, Mr. Brown, who was the - playing the piano at the time, and Mr. Fischer, who was doing the taping of the audition, had me go to the piano. And he was like, OK, do you know where to start? And I was like, I have no idea.
GREEN: And he was like, OK, well, when I say go, you start singing. So he started playing, and he said go. And then I just kind of sang in hope that I was with him (laughter). And that was my audition. And I kind of left there thinking, oh, God, there's no way that they're going to take me in this program. And they took me. So...
GROSS: So this was an opera program, and they needed more boys for it, too, right?
GREEN: For sure, yes.
GROSS: So did you think like, oh, I hate this music when you got into it?
GREEN: Well, I had never really listened to it before. This is another thing - I auditioned for the program...
GROSS: You didn't even have any preconceptions.
GREEN: No. (laughter)
GREEN: Well, I mean, I had preconceptions in the sense that I thought opera was something, you know, what I saw in "Looney Tunes." I thought it was, like, some, you know, a big, fat Viking lady...
GROSS: Yes. Yes. (laughter).
GREEN: ...You know, with Norse helmet, breaking windows and glasses. And this is what I thought opera was. And, obviously, my preconception changed once I saw my first opera.
GROSS: So once you saw - what was your first opera?
GREEN: Well, my first opera was - and I happened to be very, very lucky and blessed that my first opera was at the Metropolitan Opera. My school, Governor's School for the Arts in Norfolk, Va., they took a trip to New York every other year. And my - when I was about 15, they went to New York City to see an opera at the Met. And my fourth grade elementary school teacher, Mrs. Hughes, who I mentioned earlier, actually paid for my trip because I couldn't pay for it myself. And my first opera at the Met was "Carmen." And, you know, the Met itself is, you know, a magical place.
And the night that I saw "Carmen" at the Met was so pivotal in my life because not only did it break my preconception of what opera was, but it broke my preconception of who could sing opera. And the lead singer in "Carmen," Carmen herself, was an African-American mezzo-soprano by the name of Denyce Graves. And it changed my life.
You know, when I was watching her, you know, I felt every emotion on the spectrum - you know, anger, sadness, joy. You know, she had comic moments. She was also incredibly seductive on stage. And afterwards, I got to meet her because of Mr. Brown who became my voice teacher. I got to meet her backstage, and she treated me like I was, you know, her best friend's son or her nephew and, you know, hugged me and called me her beau and took pictures with me, and it made opera something tangible. It made it something real, not something that was a fantasy that I couldn't approach.
And so when I left the Met that night, I told Mr. Brown outside of the Met, you know, I'm going to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. I told him this, and he looked at me and he said, OK, OK, OK, Speedo, maybe one day when you can learn to read music, when you can get onstage and remember your lines, when you can sing in a foreign language, when you can go to college, when you could, you know, sing in a young artist program and actually sing some professional roles, maybe someday you'll be able to audition for the Met. And then kind of in my mind, I think, I took it all down and made a list. And nine years later, I sang at the Met.
GROSS: OK. Mr. Brown - you mentioned Mr. Brown...
GROSS: ...He's another one of the teachers who really changed your life and helped make you the artist that you've become. What are some of the things he saw in you that he helped you find in yourself?
GREEN: Well, you know, when I think of Mr. Brown, you know, he's this African-American male, very tall. And, you know, he had this sonorous voice, even more sonorous than mine, I think. And, you know, he would come in and, hello, my name is Robert Brown. And he would say things like, the quarter note is not the center of the universe. And he was just - he was so inspiring. Like, he - when we'd have classes he would, you know, dance and sing and do imitations of some of his favorite divas in opera. And he inspired us, but he also was sort of like a boot camp drill sergeant, and he always put all of the boys and girls in shape and made sure that they were learning their music correctly.
And he was more than that to me. He was a father figure to me at the time and, you know, he was an intermediary between me and my mother when we had problems. And he also - you know, when we'd have rehearsals late at night, I had to stay after and, you know, I couldn't afford dinner, so he would buy me food. And he even taught me how to drive. And I remember one moment, you know, I needed a winter coat, and so he bought me a winter coat, but not just any winter coat, he bought it from Nordstrom. And he said, you know, I want you to have a coat that I would wear, you know? And he was that kind of man. And he always pushed me to, you know, pursue my dream in opera.
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Speedo Green. The new book about him is called "Sing for Your Life." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll listen back to an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, who died Friday. He's best known for his play, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf", which was adapted into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ryan Speedo Green. The new biography "Sing for Your Life" tells the story of how he went from being a troubled, violent kid who did time in a juvenile detention center to singing at the Metropolitan Opera. Next week, he co-stars in "La Boheme" at the Met. He knew nothing about opera when he was placed in an opera program at a performing arts high school. His personal history and his lack of music knowledge put him at a disadvantage when he started out.
As you progressed and started to get, you know, auditions and be able to, like, sing with professional companies, you had trouble with some of your pronunciations. You hadn't learned foreign languages, and you hadn't heard a lot of opera sung when you were young. So what are some of the examples of things that you had to learn in order to sing opera just in terms of pronunciation?
GREEN: You know, I - when I was pursuing opera, I had a lot of artistic challenges I had to face. And I can remember, you know, even when I got into - when I was chosen to be in the Met young artist program, I still had trouble with languages. And they wanted me to fine tune some of the pronunciation things. You know, I'm thinking specifically maybe something, you know, in Italian, they worked with me on my legato, which is, you know, singing with flowing line in the Italian language. And one of my teachers in the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists Program, Italian coach by the name of Hemdi Kfir, I worked with her a piece, you know, I think maybe a couple of measures for a very long time. And she told me, you know, that Italian should feel as smooth as a bicycle going up and down gentle hills that - you know, that Italian is a language of lovers. And, you know, session after session I couldn't get it right. And I remember I - you know, I got kind of maybe a little bit stressed out, and I told her, you know, maybe my mouth is more of a fighter than a lover.
GREEN: But - you know, but now I'm much better. And, you know, I sing in almost every major operatic language, including Russian.
GROSS: Can you understand those languages, or is it just phonetic?
GREEN: Now that I live in Europe - I've been living in Europe for the past couple of years...
GROSS: Oh, I didn't realize that, OK.
GREEN: Yeah, it's becoming more spoken than just phonetic. But I understand the language to the idea that I can translate word for word myself and get my interpretation from my translations.
GROSS: Are you living in Europe because you're an ensemble member of the - here's my pronunciation, it's going to be really bad - of the Wiener Staatsoper - you say it...
GREEN: Yeah, so...
GROSS: You say it. I don't even know it.
GREEN: It's the Wiener Staatsoper and Vienna State Opera in English. And, yes, I've been an ensemble member there for the last two years and while coming back to the Met. And I live there with my wife, who is German. And, yeah, it's great.
GROSS: That sounds great. So when you started singing opera and becoming passionate about it, you had friends, you even had an aunt who criticized you for pursuing a white thing. It's like opera, that's a white thing, isn't it? You were called an Oreo. So how did you - how did you deal with that?
GREEN: You know, I think about the African-American opera singers who came before me, from Marian Anderson, who, you know, was one of the - the first African-American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, to Leontyne Price, who redefined what it means to be a diva and one of the greatest sopranos in the history of opera, and even now to one of my mentors and people I look up to, Eric Owens, who is not only a phenomenal opera singer but a great instrumentalist and speaker. And, you know, I think about what they had to go through to pursue their dream of being an opera singer and it pales in comparison to what I went through. And so in my mind, I think if they could do it, what excuse do I have?
GROSS: Are you ever at a disadvantage in casting because you're African-American, or do you feel that casting has become colorblind?
GREEN: You know, even though opera tends to be a politically liberal world, some people may not realize that they have preconceptions and, you know, they may judge African-American singers with critical assumptions. Like, you know, when they see a large, you know, African-American male walk into an audition, they immediately think, OK, his languages are probably going to be bad or he's probably going to have a gospel sound. It's subtle, but it may have a profound effect on casting.
GROSS: So when you describe yourself as a large man, what's large about you?
GREEN: I mean, I'd like to think it's my smile that's large.
GREEN: But, you know, I'm about 6'5, 300 pounds. And whenever I walk into a room I tend to be noticed, sometimes when I don't want to be noticed. But it's a fact of the matter. But, you know, I use it to my advantage when I'm on stage and when I'm performing.
And it helps when you're portraying certain characters, like a king or a bad guy or, you know, a father or you know - or even a hero because having a - filling up the stage not only with your voice but with your body - and not in a negative way - it's a good feeling.
GROSS: So you've mentioned how when you walk into an audition, sometimes people assume that you would have a gospel sound. And in other places, an assumption was, oh, he should sing "Ol' Man River" and they would insist that you sing "Ol' Man River." And this isn't at auditions so much as, like, parties where you were performing. And "Ol' Man River's," you know, one of the showpiece songs from the, you know, current Hammerstein musical "Show Boat." And, you know, Paul Robeson is famous for it, William Warfield, Sinatra recorded it. You really have a bad relationship with this song. Why do you find being asked to sing it so troubling?
GREEN: You know, I remember one of the first times I sang at the Governor's School for the Arts, after I hit puberty of course, and I sang a piece, a classical music piece. I think it was maybe an Italian art song or something like this. And I walked off stage and an older white person came up to me and asked me if I knew who Paul Robeson was. And at the time, I was - I said no. And they described "Ol' Man River" and you should sing this piece from the musical "Show Boat." And I was like OK, and that was the first of what would be every performance I've done since then pretty much. There was always an older person - white, of course - who would come up to me and ask me if I knew who William Warfield was or knew who Paul Robeson and I should sing "Ol' Man River." And it didn't matter that I was singing an opera piece or I was singing a leader piece or an Italian art song piece. This would be the first thing that would come out of their mouth. And, you know, it's a wonderful piece of music from an era of musical theater, classic movie theater. But that's not what I'm training for. And, you know, the racial preconceptions, they get in the way of what people hear when they hear a black singer. And, you know, "Ol' Man River" is sung by a black character who's basically a servant in the Jim Crow South, who's resigned to his fate, who longed for death, the freedom of death. And I can guarantee you that black people don't want to hear a black singer perform this again and again. And actually I wondered a lot why, you know, white people want to hear this song so much which talks about the hardships of being black during that period, and it bothers me.
GROSS: My guest is opera singer Ryan Speedo Green. The new biography of him is called "Sing For Your Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with opera singer Ryan Speedo Green. The new biography "Sing For Your Life" is about how he went from being a troubled, violent kid who did time in juvie to singing at the Metropolitan Opera.
So when you started singing dramatic roles in opera - roles that required the expression of jealousy, revenge, rage - did you draw on the anger that you had when you were a child, or if you felt like you put that behind you, did you have to find a safe way of tapping into really powerful emotions for your art?
GREEN: I'm not a fan of using anger on stage. And I feel like that's not a proper emotion to use when you're on stage performing. I think - you know, you mentioned jealousy - like that. Like, anger can stem from jealousy. But maybe jealousy can - the jealousy can stem from love, like loving someone so much that if they don't love you back or if they love someone else that you get jealous. And I think a lot of - the root of my emotions that I use are from those sort of feelings. And I try not to just get into - once you get into anger, it becomes a bit uncontrollable. And the anger that I had as a child is not the kind of emotions that I, you know, express today in my life. And so, no, I don't have to pull from anger to perform on stage. I pull from other experiences and emotions in my past.
GROSS: I'm going to read the opening line of the new biography of you. So the opening line is, Ryan Speedo Green did not belong here. (Laughter) This is the chapter about the Met audition, about you being at a really nice hotel and how out of place you felt at that time in this world. So when you were in the Met National Council auditions, which you ended up winning, did you feel really out of place, that you didn't belong there? Like, what made you feel that way?
GREEN: Well, it was a bit daunting to me, you know, being around the best singers in the United States, young singers who were coming from some of the best schools and conservatories in the United States - Juilliard, AVA, Curtis, Bachus Conservatory, Indiana Conservatory, all of these great schools. And, you know, I'm coming from a, you know, university that's not necessarily known for its opera program. And they're talking about, oh, what professional gigs they had later and what summer programs they were going to and, you know, what young artist programs they were a part of. And I just felt overwhelmed, like, I mean, I'm nobody. Why am I here? And I was so in disbelief that I was there that I didn't even bring a tuxedo with me because I didn't think that I would even make it to the finals. But as I went through the week, working with the coaches, I became more confident. And when I made it to the finals, it was even more exciting for me because then I was - I knew that I'd be able to see my father because my father had promised that if I made it to the finals, he would fly to New York and see me sing because he had never heard me sing opera.
GROSS: So you mentioned your father. You had seen your father, I think, like, four times before he'd come to see you perform in the opera because he and your mother separated when you were very young. And he moved to another state, so you didn't have much of a relationship. What was it like to hook up with him when he actually did come see you and you got to know each other better?
GREEN: You know, I barely saw my father growing up. But he promised to come to the Met finals if I made it there. And I remember after my first aria in the Met finals, I could hear my dad in the audience going hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo.
GREEN: And I think that was probably the first time people at the Met had heard appreciation calls like this. And that's the kind of guy he was. And, you know, he was funny and charismatic. And I remember later on I got to see him in Colorado for Father's Day. And I was picking him up at the airport, and he walked out in these, like, tamale pants - tamale, MC Hammer pants.
GREEN: And we went to a dinner - went straight to dinner from the airport. And he started talking to all the waitresses and the bartenders and bragging about me, you know, about his son who was an opera singer singing at the Met. And, you know, his charisma - he was the kind of person - you know, he was about 5-foot-7. He was a very short man compared to me. But when he'd walk into a room, everybody knew - would gravitate towards him and his charisma. And I try and use his charisma and, you know, sometimes his comic talent on stage when I'm performing.
GROSS: So your middle name Speedo, Ryan Speedo Green, comes from your father. It was his middle name. He gave you the middle name of Speedo. How did he get the name?
GREEN: My father was apparently a very fast birth. And he gave me the name for not only that it was his middle name, but for - my father was a semi-professional body builder. And I was born on April Fool's Day so, you know, as a joke for April Fool's Day, he gave me that name Speedo as well. So that's why he got the name passed on to me.
GROSS: Does it have anything to do with speedos, with...
GREEN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...With the brief, yeah?
GREEN: Because that was my dad's favorite underwear that he liked to wear when he was lifting, so, yes.
GROSS: So you're probably the only person in opera who has a middle name like Speedo.
GREEN: You know, there are...
GROSS: A lot of nicknames, yeah.
GREEN: They're lucky. Luckily, there are a lot of very interesting names in opera. Mine happens to be one of them. But I think it's an easy name to remember. And, you know, if Maestro Levine calls me Speedo, then I guess I can be OK with being called Speedo.
GROSS: Does he?
GREEN: He does, yes. I remember my audition with him, and he read my name out loud. And he's like, Speedo, I like that name.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's great.
GREEN: And so since then, I was like, OK, if anybody says they can't call me Speedo, I'll just have to call Maestro James Levine and have them put them in their place.
GROSS: So you're 30 now. Is your voice still changing?
GREEN: Yeah. I want to - actually, there's something, you know, I want to talk about is that it's so thrilling to be singing a role like Colline at the Met. But it's - you know, in a lot of ways, I'm just starting to develop my voice. You know, even five years from now, when I'm 35, I'll be young for my voice type. You know, singers like me don't know our true potential till we're in our 40s. And right now, I've only sung a small fraction of the repertoire that I'll perform in the future. So, you know, I have so much to look forward to.
GROSS: Why is it that deep voices like yours take longer to fully develop?
GREEN: That's a question that maybe I am not the best to answer because ask me in, like, 35 years and I'll tell you. But, you know, if you notice, you see a lot of basses singing into their late 60s, even sometimes 70s. And it's extremely rare for high voices to make it that long. But it's also extremely rare to see a 30-year-old bass singing, you know, lead roles all over the world while it's more common to see a 30-year-old soprano or tenor to sing lead roles. So, you know, there's - in one end, you know, I have to - you know, I marinate a little bit longer. But on the other end, my career goes later into my life if I sing correctly and do the right roles and have a steady path.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And I'm not sure what the superstitions are in the opera world. I'm probably not supposed to say good luck. So instead I'll say whatever it is I'm supposed to say to send you my best wishes in "La Boheme" - consider me having said that (laughter).
GREEN: I wanted to mention, you know, I went back to visit a facility that I had stayed in...
GROSS: The juvie facility?
GREEN: And I had - I spoke and I sang with the kids who were there. And I will be returning to the detention facility in December to sing and speak to the kids who are there now. And I think, you know, it's something that's incredibly important to me to give back and to, you know, hopefully connect with the kids and show them that there's a future after you get out of here, that they don't have to think that you're just going to end up in jail after this, that you can pursue a dream.
GROSS: I think it's great that you're doing that. And you describe some of that in the book. You describe the first time you went there.
GROSS: And you also describe how some of the kids seemed kind of indifferent to opera (laughter).
GROSS: So it was a kind of tough sell.
GREEN: It was a very, very tough sell. But, you know, I sing to them and I - you know, I talk with some of them one on one. You know, some of the kids, you know, acted super tough and didn't want to, you know, spend any time with me. And they were hard to reach emotionally. Even - some of them even walked out on me. There was, you know, a girl from an Arab country who taught me how to say hello in Arabic and she sang to me, actually, in her native tongue. And I'll never forget that. I came there not expecting to maybe have a deep conversation with someone. But to have someone sing to me, I mean, it brought me to tears, and that was such a special moment.
GROSS: It's been wonderful to talk with you. Thank you so much.
GREEN: Thank you, Ms. Gross. It's been a pleasure and an honor to be on here.
GROSS: Oh, thanks. Please call me Terry.
GREEN: OK, Terry.
GROSS: Ryan Speedo Green will sing the role of Colline in "La Boheme" next week at the Metropolitan Opera. The new book about him is called "Sing For Your Life." After a break, we'll listen back to an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, who died last week. His most famous play is "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee. He died Friday at the age of 88. In his New York Times obituary, Bruce Weber wrote Albee was considered the foremost American playwright of his generation. His psychologically astute and piercing dramas explored the contentiousness of intimacy, the gap between self-delusion and truth and the roiling desperation beneath the facade of contemporary life.
Albee's plays include "The Zoo Story," "The Death Of Bessie Smith" and "Tiny Alice." His best-known play, "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was also his first to open on Broadway. It won the Tony Award for best play in 1963, but the play offended some audiences and critics. Albee said, I don't care if they like it or hate it as long as they're not indifferent.
"Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was adapted into a 1966 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were married at the time and played an erotic bickering couple. When I spoke with Albee in 1984, he told me the title came from graffiti.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
EDWARD ALBEE: I remember once I was in a saloon on 10th Street, Greenwich Village. And it was a downstairs bar and people wrote things in chalk on the bar walls and wrote things in soap on the mirror behind the bar. And one night I was in there, and I saw a sign behind the bar in soap that it said Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Now, this was 10 years before I started writing plays. But it stuck in my head.
GROSS: Why did it stick? What...
ALBEE: Just good fortune, I guess.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why...
ALBEE: I like puns, I suppose.
GROSS: Why did that work as the title for the play?
ALBEE: Well, I originally called the play "The Exorcism" or "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" And then I got wise to myself, decided that "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" was a far better character. And I justified it just by saying that "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" means who's afraid of the big bad wolf - and the big bad wolf being living life without false illusions. So I justified it that way.
GROSS: Can I ask for a capsule?
ALBEE: It concerns a faculty couple, George and Martha, and their late-night visitors after a faculty party, another couple, Nick and Honey. While a great deal goes on in the course of the play, a great deal of yelling and screaming and carrying on, the play concerns itself basically with the exorcism of a nonexistent child that Martha and George have created to do battle with themselves with. And the play concerns the exorcism of that child on the eve of its 21st birthday.
GROSS: There is a lot of neurotic arguing within that relationship of...
ALBEE: I think it's pretty healthy. I do think they're neurotic people at all. Neurotic people are people - strike me as people who cannot vent their spleen. And these people get it off their chest quite nicely. And my goodness, they've had a relationship of 22, 23 years, and they do love each other very much. It's just that there's an awful lot of extraneous baggage that's got to be gotten rid of. So I've never found them particularly neurotic.
GROSS: But they don't really get it off their chests in that no matter how much they vent it, it still remains on their chest and...
ALBEE: I think by the end of the play, they've come to considerable understanding of each other. So it's a far more optimistic than pessimistic play.
GROSS: Did you see at that time a lot of relationships around you that reminded you of the one you created?
ALBEE: I would start going to universities and do readings or lectures. And the first four or five years after the play came out, every university I went to, some member of the faculty would take me aside and say, oh, you've been here before - haven't you? - because it's obvious you know professor so-and-so and his wife after whom you modeled. And of course, since I had spent no time at Trinity College when I was there and didn't know anything about faculty people, obviously it was another case of life imitating art.
GROSS: What did you think of the film adaptation with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton?
ALBEE: Well, since I had been promised Bette Davis and James Mason, I wasn't too happy.
GROSS: Is that true?
ALBEE: Yeah. Why I would I say it?
GROSS: I don't know (laughter). Let's see, I'd been promised Pluto and Donald Duck, that's not true.
ALBEE: What is true is I'd been promised Bette Davis and James Mason. And so that would have been nice.
GROSS: So you were disappointed.
ALBEE: Sure. Elizabeth Taylor was - what? - at least 20 years too young for the role. And I didn't think it was as good a movie as it could have been. It was odd that Mike Nichols, who'd directed it, who'd made his career as a standup comic, managed to take a very funny play and make a humorless movie out of it. I guess this was to prove that he was a serious director.
GROSS: Do happy relationships interest you for plays?
ALBEE: Personally, yes.
GROSS: For plays, though as a writer?
ALBEE: Plays - good plays are not made up of people getting along particularly well. There has to be conflict, people in conflict either with each other, themselves, society, whatever.
GROSS: Do you find that people assume that you must know a lot of unhappy relationships since you write about them...
ALBEE: They seem to assume that, yes. I'm merely fairly observant, and I can make things up as well as the next man.
GROSS: Do you go to theater a lot?
ALBEE: Oh, sure, far more than I want to.
GROSS: Well (laughter) then why do you go?
ALBEE: Because I'm always - I'm probably the most enthusiastic member of any theater audience. I go there expecting enlightenment and a miracle. And every once in a while it happens, and it's wonderful when it does.
GROSS: Do you ever read plays, and do you feel that you can really judge your life from reading it?
ALBEE: Oh, yes, goodness. A play is literature. Whenever I am - I judge number of - or am a judge on a number of play contests every year, and I'm very specific. I don't want to judge the contest unless I have either seen and read all of the plays or merely read all of the plays. I would not judge any play merely having seen it.
GROSS: Because it might be a bad production?
ALBEE: That's right or distorting production, a worse production. I think I can usually see the play through the production. But a play is literature, and it exists on the page. A good play is not proved - is not rather improved on the stage. It's proved. And I'd rather read them because I can see a production of a play in my head and in my ear when I read it. And I know exactly the way the play truly is on stage.
GROSS: It's really been great to have you here. I want to thank you a whole lot for doing it.
ALBEE: You've made it fun. You've made it nice.
GROSS: Edward Albee, recorded in 1984. He died Friday at the age of 88. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN")
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Sam Chisolm) You tell Bo if he wants his town, come see me.
GROSS: That's Denzel Washington in the new remake of the 1960 Western "The Magnificent Seven." We'll talk with the new film's director Antoine Fuqua, who also directed Washington in the film "Training Day." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.