The following interview was conducted in the offices of the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is greatly appreciated.
Wm: You grew up in greater Los Angeles in a family that played classical guitar. What were your earliest experiences in vocal music?
RM: I sang in choir in elementary school in fourth or fifth grade. When I was older my parents took me to staged musicals – Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” and Schonberg’s”Les Miserables”.
However, choral music was my main introduction to music performance . I spent all my high school years (La Canada High School in Los Angeles County) in choir. My choir director, Donald Brinegar, became my voice teacher.
Wm: You have related the advice given to you by a Pasadena City College professor that you should pursue a career as a singer. When did you first become interested in opera as the focus of your vocal career?
RM: I first took opera seriously in my first year at City College. I had heard a few opera arias, but I began to a concentrated effort to learn all about opera.
I went to performances of the Los Angeles Opera and of Orange County’s Opera Pacific. I regularly went to the classical music section of the Glendale Library and listened to everything. The first baritone that I listened to extensively was Leonard Warren.
I spent three years at Pasadena City College and then went to Cal State Northridge. I felt like I wasn’t pushing as far as I could go. I wanted to move to New York City.
Wm: You were accepted into the Juilliard School of Music. When you applied there, had you already decided on an operatic career? How did the experiences there impact your life and career?
RM: I applied to all three New York City music schools – to Juilliard, to the Manhattan School of Music and to Mannes. I feel lucky about the way the Juilliard experience worked for me. Before I went there, I had been at a less pressured place first.
When I got to Juilliard, even though I wasn’t that good of a singer, I was considered a good musician. I had prepared a lot of other things such as language skills. Also important, I knew how to show up on time and to work hard, which you don’t always know to do at 18 and 19.
[Below: The Herald (Ryan McKinny, center) secures the oaths of Telramund (Richard Paul Fink, left) and Lohengrin (Simon O’Neill, right) before they engage in a trial by combat in a 2009 Houston Grand Opera presentation of the Daniel Slater production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Wm: Building on your Juilliard training, you entered and achieved success in several prestigious national and international competitions, including competitions associated with the names of Placido Domingo, Birgit Nilsson and George London. What have these “wins” meant to you personally and to your career?
RM: To have any award attached to any of these legends is a serious honor. Just meeting the people in all those competitions was very exciting.
That was the big start in getting to know who are the people that help opera exist. At Placido Domingo’s Operalia, all the people are amazing. And, of course, at a time in your career when you don’t have big roles that pay well, it’s nice to have extra money from competitions.
Receiving several Wagner awards was important to my career. I knew from early on that I wanted to perform Wagner. The opera managements casting Wagner operas don’t want to injure young singers voices. Achieving recognition in the competitions let managements know that I was ready.
Wm: You were one of the 11 contestants featured in Susan Froemke’s documentary “The Audition”. As edited by Froemke, some contestants – specifically, Michael Fabiano – seemed more intense and some more laid back than others, but is it not your experience that all singers who make it in world operatic stage work very hard and could be characterized as driven?
RM: Yes, you have to be disciplined and driven (and lucky) to have a successful career as an opera singer. I like Michael Fabiano very much and I agree that the film seemed to cast him as the villain, but the majority of opera singers work very hard, just as he does.
In truth, all the contestants in that film were there for just that moment. A prize competition is one thing. Getting cast in a principal role is another.
The competitive atmosphere you saw among the 11 of us was only for that contest, because not one of the 11 contestants is competing against any other one for roles. For example, there is no one else in that group who would sing the lead role in Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman”, as I’m doing here at the Glimmerglass Festival.
Wm: You have been quoted as saying that you believe it ultimately was to your advantage to join the Houston Grand Opera Studio rather than the Met’s young artists program. Are you an example of the proposition that you need not spend your early career in New York City to become an international opera singer?
RM: Yes, definitely. It’s more of a testament that everyone’s path is different than that one way is better than another. In my case it was helpful to give me the time I needed time to figure out what my body was ready to do vocally.
I was safe in Houston. Houston Grand Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers has been a huge mentor to me. So was Kathleen Kelly, who since has left HGO for the Vienna Staatsoper. They encouraged all of the HGO Studio Artists to try what we wanted to do. We were a good group.
I can imagine other situations where it might be better to be at the Met, but I’m grateful it turned out the way it did for me.
Wm: I have observed your performances in Houston and elsewhere in the comprimario basso roles such as Pietro in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” and Samuele in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera” and smaller roles in Britten and Handel operas. Then you seemed to be settling in on a lyric basso repertory, with Don Basilio in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Tiridate in Handel’s “”Radamisto”.
But now that you are taking on the major roles, such as Wagner’s Dutchman, Amfortas in “Parsifal” and Kurwenal in “Tristan und Isolde” and Verdi’s Rigoletto, you seem to be settling in on the dramatic baritone repertory, Is this where your voice is settling?
[Below: Radamisto (Lawrence Zazzo, left) kneels before Tiridate (Ryan McKinny, right); edited image, based on a Clive Barda photograph for the English National Opera.]
RM: All of those other things you saw were placeholders in my career. I know I am a dramatic baritone. Yes, I do have some low notes and can sing some of the basso parts, but there are a lot of people who do them better than I do.
A few of those roles I continue to sing, simply to keep myself from tiring too much. But, certainly, I will end up as a dramatic baritone, not a basso.
Wm: Besides your experiences in Houston, you have recently become associated with German theaters and, in particular, with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and its Music Director, Donald Runnicles. Do you see yourself becoming particularly associated with the German repertory?
RM: I moved to Germany with the idea that I wanted to work on my German and to learn more about the German repertory. Eight years ago in Houston, I sang the Dutchman’s monologue and started working on the roles of Amfortas and Kurwenal.
That will be the main focus of my career, but you don’t want to do those roles back to back at age 32.
At what point would you consider adding, say, the “Rheingold” Wotan?
RM: I don’t have the “Rheingold” Wotan officially on my future schedule, but Wotan’s role in “Rheingold” is not more difficult than the Dutchman, and I think it’s certainly a possibility in the not so distant future.
Wm: Assuming the title role in a new production of “Flying Dutchman” created by Francesca Zambello for the Wagner year at her Glimmerglass Festival seems to be an important career move for you. What is it like working on this project with her? Are there new insights into this opera that this experience has given you?
RM: I have many new insights into the role. It’s been an incredible experience.
Zambello is a fantastic director. She begins with a general idea, but she wants the singers to come up with their own ideas and create their own path to the character.
We talk through the whole libretto in German and in English. I speak German, but I don’t always write it perfectly. I would use my colloquialisms to say each phrase, even when some of the phrases are long and convoluted.
We had developed our ideas about what everyone believes about their characters. The Dutchman becomes a human person and you realize the pain he is in. In a lot of a productions he just stands there as some sort of apparition.
I also like the idea that Senta and the Dutchman have a real belief that their love will succeed. The Senta, Melody Moore, is so physical, as well as being a great actress and singer. Both physically and musically it’s an ecstatic duet between us. There is nothing dry about the Glimmerglass Festival “Dutchman”.
Wm: I think a lot of the audience members’ most vivid memories of your Dutchman will include the tattoo on your chest.
[Below: Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman in Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s “”The Flying Dutchman”‘; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival]
RM: That was the costume designer, Eric Teague, who made a sketch of the costume and how the tattoo would look on my bare chest. Originally they thought they would use a flesh colored shirt, but it didn’t look quite right. Thye have a great ink that can added and afterwards removed for each performance.
Wm: You will be performing the title role of “Rigoletto” in Houston. Are there differences in the way that you prepare for a dramatic Wagner role from a dramatic Verdi role?
RM: Vocally, there are some differences. Rigoletto’s music sits higher in my voice than some of the Wagnerian roles.
Otherwise, I try to approach Wagner and Verdi similarly. I like to sing long lines of legato, which is a core of Verdi’s music for dramatic baritones. In the German repertory my approach is Italian. It’s a challenging thing to take on.
One of the reasons why I’m tackling these dramatic baritones at this age, is that I feel like there is a window of time between ages 40 and 55 when you are vocally at your peak. With these complex roles, such as the Dutchman and Rigoletto, you need several years to prepare them mentally and to let them percolate.
My hope is that by the time I get to that point I will have them in my head and that my interpretation will match up with my voice.
I’m not particularly interested in becoming famous, but I do want to communicate with people and hopefully move them emotionally. Perhaps that makes me an idealist.
Wm: What is your favorite opera and favorite role.
RM: My favorite opera is Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. It’s an amazing piece.
Of all the roles I’ve sung so far, I love singing the Dutchman the most. It’s hard work but its very rewarding.
Of the other non-Wagnerian operas, I love Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”. I also enjoy singing baroque operas and also, of course, Britten.
[Below: Ryan McKinny as Collatinus in Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia”; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Wm: How do you balance career and family?
RM: So many singer families have trouble, because the artist is away so much of the year. But my wife and I have an awesome setup for our family. My wife decided she wasn’t going to work anymore, and, instead, we travel everywhere together. We home-school our oldest daughter.
So far, my family loves it. They have tons of friends all over the world and are exposed to different languages and cultures.
Yes, there are downsides. My children aren’t being raised in a single community, but we do have a home base in Houston. Our church is there and we keep in touch with people on the road.
Wm: Thank you, Ryan.
RM: Thank you as well.
For my reviews of previous Ryan McKinny performance, see: Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013, and also,
London, Handel, and David Alden: ENO’s “Radamisto” – October 13, 2010.