Making It Real: Bryan Hymel and Carmen [The Royal Opera’s Carmen, 5-26 June 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the American tenor appearing as Don José in the latest revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of Bizet’s opera at Covent Garden…

Bryan Hymel. ©2010 Neil Funkhouser Artists Management

New Orleans undoubtedly has a place in the history of music but its prime link is with jazz so it seems apt enough that when the tenor Bryan Hymel was growing up there classical music as such hardly featured. “It was just not something that my parents were exposed to; although the fact that my mother’s family was Italian meant that there was a love of music and singing. At that time I would through my grandfather hear the name of Caruso but, for my parents, country-and-western music was just about the extent of it, plus on my mum’s side a little bit of Mario Lanza together with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. But in New Orleans I attended a Catholic school that had a church and a choir, and that’s kind of how I got started: at the age of nine I started to play the piano and joined the school band on trumpet as well as singing in the choir.”

Bryan did sing a couple of solos when a boy soprano in that choir but after his voice broke singing faded out for a while. “During my time at high school I started to play the organ in church and would accompany the church choir at the piano and would direct them. I played church music at weddings, funerals and masses and that became my part-time job all the way through college. I did start singing again in musicals at the high school, but mainly in the chorus because even then there was something about my voice which made it too classical-sounding for that high school stuff.” Alongside regular school work, Bryan attended what he describes as “a wonderful place”: it was the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. “One of the founders was the father of the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and it was just great for New Orleans to have a public school like that for a whole range of arts: drama, dance, visual arts and music including both jazz and classical.”

When Bryan went there it was principally for piano studies but he did some singing too – yet neither was central to this teenager’s dreams. “I wanted to be a Broadway conductor actually, because I liked the theatre and loved those old-time shows like Anything Goes.” University now beckoned, but rather than choosing between his varied musical interests Bryan’s attitude was to leave it to fate. “I kind of figured ‘let’s wait and see’. After high school I auditioned for universities both for piano and for singing and, to cut a long story short, all the money that was given to me by way of scholarship money was for singing and everybody seemed convinced that I should study singing. So I decided to give it a good shot but I was ready nevertheless to go back to the other stuff if within a year I found that I didn’t really love it or that it just wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.”

Bryan Hymel. ©2010 Neil Funkhouser Artists Management

In fact destiny did take a hand – by bringing into Bryan’s life a teacher who was ideal for him and who would be responsible for bringing about his participation in the Verdi Aria Competition of 1998 at the Aspen Musical Festival. “His name is Philip Frohnmayer and he was a decisive figure for me – I’m still in contact with him and see him whenever I go to New Orleans. We worked together for six years and he taught me so much about singing. During that formative period he would give me three or four lessons a week free of charge just because of his love of educating and being an educator. Going to Aspen that first summer when I was eighteen was what really sealed the deal. I went to this music camp because he was going there for the first time as a teacher and so it was an opportunity for me to continue my lessons over the summer and also to meet other singers from around the country. For the competition I decided to learn ‘La donna è mobile’ but I was very surprised to be a winner because I was so young. After the competition there was a concert and by then I had just made nineteen and the whole thing was great, the first time I got to sing with an orchestra.”

On paper the singing career that developed sounds like a straightforward success story. Within two years of his win at Aspen he was auditioning for the Met in its competition which, progressing from district and regional rounds to semi-finals and finals in New York, covers a period of months. “I’m a realist: I’m very practical, and I know how things go. Despite the win at Aspen I was aware how little study I had done compared with those at Juilliard. Phil, my teacher, encouraged me to do the district round for the Met, but neither he nor I thought that I would get very far. The point of doing it was just to be out there singing and learning how to deal with the pressure of doing that and being nervous. I never thought I’d get past the regionals, but in fact I did and ultimately I found myself going to New York by myself – I was leaving the very comfortable insulated environment of the university where in their college of music there were just thirty singers and I was one of two tenors. So I was going from that into the frying pan of the Met! I remember the first day I went to the Met: I was twenty minutes late because I couldn’t even find the stage door having walked three times round the building looking for it because nobody had told me that it was underground in the garage! That’s how naive I was when I went there.”

Bryan Hymel as Don José & Christine Rice as Carmen (Carmen, Royal Opera, June 2010). Photograph: Mike Hoban

Being a finalist in the Met competition created a splash and the fact that the final rounds bring you to the attention not only of the judging panel but of an invited audience from the industry helps to get you known. Bryan completed his university studies and received help from the Met to study in Italy where he was a winner again, this time in a competition in Perugia in 2002. But after that his good fortune ended – and this is something that he is keen to talk about because the problems and their eventual solution provide an example that could be an encouragement to others. “When I came back from Italy, I moved to New York and the three years I spent there from 2002 to 2005 were tough. I switched voice teachers so as to be able to study with somebody up there, but his approach was very different form Phil’s and things didn’t go well. By then people were voicing their concern that I wasn’t making as much progress as had been hoped and I ended up in a lot of debt from living in New York City. Everybody says that the opportunities are such that you have to be there, but as a place to live it’s so expensive. Ultimately, it got to the point where I was ready to give up. However, I was lucky enough to talk to Gayletha Nichols, now the Director of National Auditions at the Met although not so at the time when I was competing. She had heard me back in Aspen in 1998 and believed in me but had heard that I was not singing as well as we had all hoped. What she said to me was this: ‘Listen: before you pack up your bags and throw in the towel let’s see if we can’t switch teachers one more time’. And it was through her efforts that I got to the man who was responsible for the re-birth of my voice and who is still my teacher, Bill Schuman. That also resulted in my going back to school to a place in Philadelphia called the Academy of Vocal Arts where Bill is on the faculty. Now I can say that going through all of that has made what I’ve done recently all the more enjoyable and the fact is that at the time of the Met competition my nerves got to me because I knew in my head that I just wasn’t ready, whereas now I can get up on stage and sing knowing that I’m ready to go.”

Competitions have not ceased to be part of Bryan’s life – in 2008 he took part in three – but, more significantly he has established himself of late in opera houses in many countries moving on from a range of venues in America to two appearances with the Greek National Opera, Les Troyens for Netherlands Opera, Cavaradossi in Bordeaux and, in the United Kingdom, performances at the Wexford Festival and in London at English National Opera in a revival of the late Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly. When we meet at Covent Garden he is there for his house debut as Don José in Carmen having taken the same role earlier this year for Canadian Opera Company. His career is on a roll, and not only in opera – last November he did a recital in St John’s, Smith Square (London) having earlier made his Carnegie Hall debut in a gala concert with Renée Fleming and others as well as doing a New York recital under the auspices of the George London Foundation with Michelle DeYoung. I ask him about the circumstances that led to his appearing at the Royal Opera House. “The casting director Peter Katona heard me sing an audition in Berlin and then he heard me in I puritani in Athens. So when I came to London to do Butterfly I came to sing for Tony Pappano and that led to us trying to set something up.”

That “something” is a further revival of Francesca Zambello’s popular production of Carmen but there are some special extras attached this time around. The performance on 8 June will be relayed to eleven venues around the country as part of the BP Summer Big Screens programme. London’s screen will be in Trafalgar Square with a sing-along to precede the performance. Bryan is all in favour of this kind of outreach. “It reminds people that opera doesn’t have to be this stuffy thing that’s only for the elite. I’ve attended similar events in Lincoln Center Plaza and it’s really exciting – and all the more so because people may be attracted who might not know the opera and are just passing without even being aware of the screening.” This revival is being filmed in 3D for cinema screenings, this marking the first time that the Royal Opera has embarked on such a challenging venture. “The 3D cameras have to be very, very close and I think it’s going to be a whole new experience.”

Francesca Zambello’s production is noted for its spectacular staging and for the presence of animals including a horse and a donkey. “It may have some of those showier aspects but I don’t think that that makes it any less real and, although I’ve never worked with Francesca, I have seen a couple of her productions and find them very physical – and that’s good because it makes them more believable. In Toronto we had three different Carmens but here Christine Rice plays Carmen at all performances. She and I worked together last summer when she was Suzuki in Butterfly so we know each other and she’s a wonderful artist. It’s proving a very intense rehearsal period because we’ve so much to do. For me, it’s not so different from Toronto, partly because Justin Way was the stage director there and he’s the assistant handling this revival here. The approach is very much one of going far beyond just hitting your marks. We are trying to make it all organic and to think about the characters in depth. That’s crucial because what makes an opera interesting and compelling is not just the music and the singing but what results from making those aspects feed into the drama which has to be given room to grow and to become its own thing – otherwise you may just as well be sitting there watching a concert.”

Finally we talk about Bryan’s task as Don José and the ultimate interplay he has with Carmen at the opera’s close. Act Two features the famous ‘Flower Song’ but, in contrast, the first Act finds the tenor having to convey through acting the unexpected enslavement of the corporal Don José by the seductive Carmen. This happens despite his apparent commitment to the orphan girl Micaëla with whom he has a duet. But there’s no big aria for him here to help establish either the character or his changing feelings and this has to be done more indirectly which presents its own kind of challenge to the singer. Bryan has consequently thought much about Don José and about what has made him the man he is – this is a process that has led him back to Prosper Mérimée’s original novella and to details found there but not in the opera itself. Bryan is also aware that the final confrontation may not to be viewed by everybody in the same way. Don José’s rejection by Carmen leads to him killing her which may make us see him as a tragic figure, a man in love who is betrayed. But it’s also possible to take a more modern view and to admire Carmen for her honesty and for being adult enough to accept that the affair is over. So will a present-day audience be divided as to which of these views they take? “Certainly José is obsessive and angry – we might say today that he has an anger management problem! But I’m happy for the audience to take either view. We haven’t rehearsed the whole opera yet, but we are certainly trying to play both characters with equal strength – and that strength for her comes, I think, from the way in which she views herself. But that’s what I mean about the importance of the drama in opera and here we have a team who recognise that, both those on stage and those working with us. We are all on the same page and we all want to make it as real and as true as possible because that’s what makes for really great opera.”

  • Six performances at 7.00 p.m. from Saturday 5 June to Saturday 26 June 2010
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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