Ryan Speedo Green is a man with a story. Many opera fans first learned his name through Daniel Bergner’s 2016 book Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family. The New York Times journalist met the young singer while Green was competing in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and was so impressed by Green’s astonishing journey that he wrote first an article and then a biography of the man who is now one of the busiest bass-baritones in the business. (As Washington National Opera Director Timothy O’Leary noted when introducing Green, he has sung both Aida and La Bohème at the Met this week, and is slated to sing both again on Saturday!)
That journey—from a broken and violent home in southern Virginia, to solitary confinement in juvenile detention, to opera and concert stages all over the world—brought Green on Thursday night to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, where he gave a vocal recital as the recipient of the 2018 Marian Anderson Vocal Award. As he told the audience, Green deliberately selected the songs for the recital to reflect that arduous lifelong journey, resulting in a deeply moving evening of music.
Green began each half of the concert with an operatic showpiece—from Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Verdi’s Il Trovatore, respectively—that allowed him to emerge fully in character and take instant command of the stage, displaying an impressive range of vocal and physical expression. But for much of the evening, he gravitated to art songs that, whether through emotional connection or direct reflection of his African-American heritage, signified something special to and about him. The theme that threaded throughout the evening was a love and longing for home and family, speaking volumes about how far Green has traveled spiritually and mentally as well as vocally.
A highlight of the first half of the recital was a tender performance of Gustav Mahler’s “Urlicht,” which Green has been singing for years in honor of his late father. A mentor had helped him choose the piece, with its lyrics about heaven (“The loving God will grant me a little light,/Which will light me into that eternal blissful life!”), to memorialize his father and picture him in the afterlife. Another piece full of meaning for Green was “Lord God of Abraham” from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, which, despite its very different sound, put him in mind of the same “spirit” he had heard in African-American spirituals.
He closed the program with passionate renditions of four African-American art songs (three of which had lyrics by Langston Hughes), full of pathos and exuberance by turns. The last one, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (set to music by Howard Swanson), heavy with the pain of a noble and intelligent man who has lost his freedom, was for Green so full of force and drama as to be a kind of “spiritual Wagner,” and he powerfully conveyed that interpretation in his singing. For his encores, he sang “This Nearly Was Mine” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific and (a cappella) the spiritual “Deep River.”
The most instantly noticeable aspects of Green’s singing are the sheer volume, depth, and richness of his voice, which would effortlessly fill a much larger space than the Terrace Theater. But also on prominent display were his exquisite phrasing and dynamic control, lending nuance and poignancy to pieces like Franz Liszt’s “Die Vätergruft,” about a knight who is ready to die and be with his beloved ancestors. Green’s diction was also consistently superb, whether singing in German, Italian, or English. His accompanist, pianist Adam Nielsen, played with great sensitivity, expression, and delicacy of touch (and also showed a laudable ability to do full justice to one of Wagner’s especially bombastic pieces, armed with only a piano!)
Green is a man with a story, but he’s much more than that. He is a highly gifted and innovative artist who weaves together various aspects of the very different worlds in which he exists, to bring new dimensions and fresh beauty to both.
Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.
2018 Marian Anderson Vocal Award Winner: Ryan Speedo Green in Concert, was presented October 4, 2018, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater—2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566. For information on future events, follow the Kennedy Center calendar online.