A Heroic Tenor: Bryan Hymel

Bryan Hymel will be the first to tell you that 11 new roles in two years is “five roles too many”—but the offers and opportunities have poured in for the New Orleans native, and time and again he has shown himself more than up to the challenge. Trained as an undergraduate at Loyola University and then at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, Hymel (pronounced EE-mel) has made a name for himself in some of opera’s most beloved roles, such as Don José and Cavaradossi. But he has also tackled lesser done and perhaps more demanding roles in Guillaume Tell, Robert le diable, Les vêpres siciliennes, and Rusalka. His Met debut as Enée in Les troyens in 2012 was nothing short of a triumph and came fresh on the heels of jumping in for an ailing Jonas Kaufmann in the role at Covent Garden. He will reprise the role in June 2015 with San Francisco Opera and also has his first Wagner, a Meistersinger, on the books.

Making lists such as opera’s “Forty under Forty,” Hymel has won a long list of competitions and has just completed his first solo album, a collection of French arias for Warner Classics which will debut next year. The tenor is married to Greek soprano, Irini Kyriakidou, and the couple has an almost-one-year-old son. Given his schedule, it seemed appropriate to begin our conversation by asking for his thoughts on the topic of stamina.

With such a busy schedule, how do keep your voice fresh, in shape, and working well?

Where I went to school at AVA in Philadelphia, the overall philosophy was that you should train yourself as an athlete trains himself. Can you imagine a sprinter or a long-distance runner and they said, “Well, don’t ever run as fast as you can.” How do you know how fast you can run if you’ve never done that? You have to be smart and you have to be with teachers and coaches who can monitor you on that.

A lot of the training that I received was very overly cautious, and that kind of got me into a box. When I was in school, I studied a lot of Italian—“La donna è mobile,” “Recondita armonia,” “Una furtiva lagrima.” But they didn’t always fit my voice like a glove. Where my voice turns over and where certain things shift, it was about a half step or sometimes a whole step higher.

When I started with my present teacher, Bill Schuman, he gave me Guillaume Tell just to play with to see how my voice would react. As he pointed out to me, these arias were written with some specific voice in mind, so if you can find roles that were written for a voice like yours, then you’re already halfway there. At AVA they were not afraid of this repertoire.

You said that at AVA you developed both your voice and your “performer’s temperament.” How would you define a performer’s temperament? Is that also why you’ve had great success with competitions, which can be so stressful?

My relationship with competitions has translated into my relationship to performing in stressful situations. My last year at AVA, I think I did 45 auditions, so those competitions were just another audition. I did so many of them that I became so confident but, even more, comfortable. Sometimes you go out and you sing great and you can see from the response of the panel, who can sometimes be cold, you get a smile or a bravo. But even in those situations, sometimes I wasn’t passed on or I got an encouragement award but I didn’t place. I thought I sounded good, friends outside the door said I sounded good, but I didn’t get it, and that’s just the way that it goes sometimes. You didn’t hear who else sang.

The competition scene is a tricky one to navigate. There are certain arias that are just guaranteed to bring the house down. The judges are looking for something with no smudges. They didn’t do a lot of men’s prize or women’s prize when I was doing it. That came later. So if a soprano was going to come in and sing the Queen of the Night and I was going to sing “La donna è mobile,” well I’ve got one chance to really nail it. If I have a great last note or if they really like my voice
. . . . But if a soprano comes out and sings “Sempre libera” for eight minutes and just nails it . . . and baritones have these arias that just melt everybody.

You’ve said that the top has always been there for you. So what, technically, has been the thing that you’ve needed to work on most?

When I was a senior in high school, I went to my choir director and said, “I have this other way to sing—I just want to try it for you. It feels like I might be screaming a bit, but here it is.” And I sang from middle C to a high C completely full voice, 17 years old. My teacher was kind of dumbfounded. So the top was always there. One of the biggest things I try to do aesthetically is to match the rest of my voice to the top. It’s not only about hitting the notes. The top sits in such a full, round way, you have to figure out how to bring that warmth and ring down in the middle of your voice. In every performance I think about that.

I sang as a boy soprano. I don’t know if that has any bearing, but I’ve figured out a way to make it work, and it’s trying to be declamatory without pushing the air. Once you push the air, you lock up, and it cuts off the sound. I think it’s endlessly interesting. You listen to Tucker, Corelli, Del Monaco—these guys sing obviously with different timbres and different voices, but also a different approach. I try not to get too crazy with “he’s open on this F” or “that F# is covered.” Bill and I talked about this last week. There’s always one that feels good in my throat and one that doesn’t feel good, and I’m always going to do the one that feels good. It might be an oversimplification, but that’s how it is.

When I came to Bill, we spent a good two months just singing, not talking technique, so I could get back to my instinct. I had lost a lot of my joy of singing because I was technique obsessed. I got too much in my head. I couldn’t emote. I had so much anxiety because everybody was always judging me. They were not judging me in order to make me feel bad—they were sincerely trying to help me out. It’s not their fault; it’s not my fault. I’m very fortunate I got to Bill and that he understood me and that I could understand him. That saved my career.

I was ready to give up. I was 27 at the time. I had success very early in competitions, and when I got out of undergrad people said, “You should go to New York.” But I straight up didn’t have the money to go to New York. So I was working singing in regional companies in New Orleans, Grand Rapids, Birmingham. I saved that money and [then] moved up here [to New York City].

I lived with my best friend from high school in a studio apartment. I was just here between gigs. I started studying with a teacher who at the time was teaching at Juilliard, a good teacher. Unfortunately I wasn’t singing my best when I was with him, though I still credit a lot of the way that I think about singing to that teacher. I put everything on my credit card except rent and the voice lessons because I had to pay cash for those. At the end of those two years I had about $18,000 or $19,000 in credit card debt. I was working at the Virgin Megastore selling CDs. I was playing organ when I could, but the church music scene is notoriously difficult to break into in New York. I would pick up a couple of substitute weddings and church gigs, but it was tough.

It was right at that point when I spoke with [the Met’s director of National Council Auditions] Gayletha Nichols. She had heard me in Aspen when I was 18 or 19 and had helped me to switch to the teacher I was with [at the time] and she said, “I’m sorry this hasn’t worked out and I want to try to help you out since it was me who suggested this teacher. Let me call Bill Schuman. If he can get you into AVA, it’s tuition-free and you can start paying back some of this debt and get to a happier place.” And God bless her because without her, I would not be here. I would be back playing church music. Which is fine—it’s just a different path.

She found someone to pay for the voice lessons with Bill, which is about 500 bucks a week. I had three a week for six weeks. They did this and they got me ready, and I was accepted to AVA. Not unanimously. I was kind of forced on them. Bill was like, “You don’t understand, this voice is really special!” He was able to convince them, and then things started to turn around for me.

Explain your remark that when something is going wrong, a singer needs to know “how to fix it yourself.”

It gets back to listening to your instincts. There are times when I have felt I went out and gave too much. For instance, I was singing Tosca in Bordeaux. I was not ready to sing Tosca, but Bordeaux is a “safe” place. They get a lot of promising American talent through there and they’re very nurturing. It’s kind of a good situation for everybody. I was second cast. I only did maybe three or four shows.

Cavaradossi, that’s an intense role. I had given a little bit too much. I wasn’t in trouble, I just felt tired. I was excited because I love that role. The Sitzprobe had gone really well, and the conductor was saying, “I’m so proud to be conducting you in your first one of these.” I was riding high. And then by the time [the general rehearsal] was over, I was like, “I gave too much.” My colleagues were all 10, 15 years older than me. Their voices were more mature, more resilient. I called Bill and he said, “You know your voice, you know what you have to do. You’re very giving, and people respond to that—but you have to take care of yourself.”

We got to the opening night, and it was probably what I would consider one of my careful performances. But there are times when you have to give what I would call a safe performance. You’re not going to knock it out of the park, but you’re on that fence. It was just about learning how to self-regulate as opposed to emoting all the time. Then I got to the problem of looking a little bit like this [moves his hand in front of his face without blinking] —I was trying to be too careful. These are the kinds of things you can only learn by doing them.

Another advantage of what AVA gave me—I got to sing a lot of principal roles in full performances, many performances. The AVA theater is small—it seats 200 people—but you still get to sing the whole night. Other programs, you sing smaller supporting roles, which is great, but you can kind of scream your way through a supporting role. My first role was Don Ottavio, which isn’t exactly my voice, which challenged me. I would rather be challenged at school.

You don’t want your first couple of jobs to be stretches, because people are going to say it’s not quite right. You might not get hired. You might get passed over for somebody who is less interesting but is safer, because opera companies these days do not want to find somebody at the last minute because you got sick. Especially the regional companies in the U.S.

You’ve said that you think it was easier for European houses to “take a chance” on you. Would you advise singers to get started in Europe these days?

It’s certainly an avenue that should be explored. Before I did that, I had great success with the NYIOP auditions, which were in New York. I think that is probably a very good place to start. Because if you do an NYIOP audition and you get positive results—even if you don’t get a job—and you get interest and you get people excited about you, it’s at that point you should consider going over. A lot of the NYIOP guys hear you at a recital hall in New York and they want to hear you in their house. In general, opera houses in Europe are smaller, but that doesn’t always translate into better acoustics. NYIOPs are great. I know it’s an expense, but it’s a lot less than even the plane ticket to get over to Germany.

There are more jobs there, and they know that American singers [are] trained so well. Most of the German houses that I’ve worked in (Munich and Dresden—I haven’t been to Berlin but I’m going there soon), a good 60 to 70 percent of their Fest singers are American. We have a good work ethic. Our languages are equally good in all of them, which some of the European [singers] are not always so great in. So they appreciate that.

An audition tour is a huge expense. If it were me and somebody said, “Scrape together $5,000 and go over there and spend two weeks singing for different houses . . .”? It’s tough. I also think without a manager to oversee that, specifically a manager who has contacts in Europe, you’re just throwing that money away. Most singers I know are not sitting around with buckets of money. Fortunately there are some places that come over to New York. Wexford came to New York. Bordeaux came to New York. Even English National Opera, I sang for them in New York. You don’t have to go over there.

I had a lot more confidence coming back to sing in the U.S after singing there. I think they have a bit of a broader listening palate. There they said, “That’s interesting.” Here I got, “Wow, I don’t know what to do with that.” And “it’s impressive.” I got “impressive” a lot [in Europe].

What is your grandest aspiration? Do you want to spearhead a revival of this grand French repertoire that you’re becoming known for?

Having done a number of French grand opera productions, the forces needed to do them are immense. The numbers of people, the money needed. I would say, as much as I love this music, it is not the responsible financial time to try and spearhead a huge renewal of French grand opera.

I am not opposed to this music being done in concert, like Opera Orchestra of New York would do. It is a greater discredit to that music or disservice that it not be played, because that’s what’s happened. Once it became out of fashion or people became tired of it, they just dropped it completely.

I had not heard any of this music, because nobody was singing it. The last big-named singer who was singing this kind of music was Gedda, and even still it was only in certain special situations. I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot saying this.

The financial situation of companies is affecting repertoire choice.

All I can say is I hope so. If I’m going to invest in something—some of these people give $50,000—wouldn’t you want to know that the company was going to be a good steward of what you’re giving to them? I guess it’s because I’m the son of an accountant, but we have to understand that there are ebbs and flows of things, and things are going to get better. I really, in my being, do not think that opera is going to die. What an audience gets, hearing a voice without amplification, it is a unique experience in an overly digital crazy world and existence. If anything, coming back to those acoustic, real, organic-in-the-truest-sense experiences—we need to remind people so they can experience it. Sometimes I look and see they’ve spent $2 million on a production, not a particular one, but I think, “Oh my.” Because I don’t think that is a sustainable business model. I make a good living, but I can’t just spend money any way I want to. We have to live in the real world, and our art has to be reflective of the world we’re in.

I got into this because I had a voice, but then I realized that wasn’t enough and I could be an artist. It’s really about having the artistic mindset of thinking and reflecting upon things instead of just doing. That’s one of the most interesting and valuable things that we as artists can give. I hope that an audience comes and thinks, “Nice voice”—but that when they see me enjoying and reminiscing with Mimì, that that reminds them, “Don’t let your life slip through your fingers. You are going to lose loved ones. Cherish the moments that you have.”

Bryan Hymel on His Hometown of New Orleans
New Orleans is such a local place that even if you don’t know everybody, you know somebody who knows everybody. I was reading the other day that New Orleans no longer has any weekends left for festivals. That’s ridiculous. It’s that kind of place—they celebrate life. And music has a lot to do with that. My wife and I are singing there next week in Carmen with the New Orleans Opera. It’s the first time we’re singing in an opera together. I get back there as often as I can. It’s a great chance for my grandmother to see me. She’s going to be 90 next month.

I went to Loyola, and it’s kind of the big music school. All the patrons who support the opera company support the Met auditions and they support Loyola as well. When I went back after I did Les troyens, I gave a recital, and it was packed. I could feel how proud they were of me.
Back when I just finished Loyola, I knew I had to go to Italy for my languages and I gave a recital and I raised not a ton of money, but enough. I sent e-mails to everybody letting them know where I was going. There was just this communal sense of being a native son of theirs, and that’s just the way New Orleans is. There was another singer from New Orleans, a wonderful tenor, Kirk Redmann. He is no longer singing, but he is from here. When he made his Met debut, 120 people flew from New Orleans—and he was singing a supporting role! But this is how people are down there.

Since we get to travel and spend a lot of our time in New York, London, and Paris, when we have time and we want to decompress, New Orleans is a great place to go. When I was singing Pinkerton with New Orleans Opera two seasons ago, we were staying at my grandma’s house because she had more room than my parents did. I came home one day, and the girl next door came over and said, “Mom’s having a baby. We’re moving.” We were trying to buy a house in Philadelphia without much luck, and my grandfather had built this house. He built my grandmother’s house and the one next to it. Why should we buy a cookie-cutter house in Philadelphia when we’re not going to be there, when we could buy a place that my grandfather built? It’s the way it was meant to be.

I’ve been in places where you feel like, “This is not right; I’ve gotta make a change.” Fortunately, I can say right now, “Thank God, things are falling in the order I hoped they would.”

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.