That bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green avoided a life of downward mobility was an accomplishment in itself. That the bass-baritone, who will appear July 26 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, managed to go on and build an international opera career is nothing short of astounding.
Living in low-income housing and raised by an abusive mother, Green was so angry and violent as a youth that he was thrown into juvenile detention. At one point, he tossed a desk at a fourth-grade teacher. But that teacher would go on to be one of his biggest supporters, along with a caseworker he met during his confinement.
So amazing is the 33-year-old singer’s life story that it was chronicled in a 2016 biography, Sing for Your Life, that made the New York Times best-seller list and was named a book of the year by Publishers Weekly. In addition, Green was featured on the TV magazine “60 Minutes” in December. But he hasn’t gotten ahead just because of his compelling tale of redemption. He also possesses an extraordinary voice and the vocal skills to match. In 2018, he received the prestigious Marian Anderson Vocal Award, previously given to such distinguished artists as Denyce Graves and Eric Owens.
“The first dream I ever envisioned or wanted or desired when I saw my first opera was to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in any form, whether it was in the chorus or onstage,” he said. “So when that happened to me nine years later, I’d already reached the pinnacle of what I thought I was capable of. Little did I know that there was so much more ahead of me. So every year of my career that I’m blessed with feels like icing on the cake.”
He has appeared twice at Ravinia: first for a recital in 2017 and again last summer in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. This year, he returns as a soloist with conductor Marin Alsop and the Chicago Symphony and Chorus in Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, which carries the nickname of Symphony of a Thousand, because of the massive forces it requires. “It’s my first Mahler Eighth, so it’s big deal for me,” Green said. “It makes me wish every time that I hear these arias that Mahler would have written an opera. He would have given Wagner a run for his money.”
While Green has not performed this work before, one of his two favorite art songs is Mahler’s Urlicht. “It’s a very important piece to me, not only because it’s some of the best vocal writing for German lieder, but it’s a piece I sang in my memory of my father when he passed away,” he said. “Since I worked on that piece, I’ve been listening to Mahler, and I’m excited to sing more Mahler in the future.”
The July 26 performance also will feature the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus and the Chicago Children’s Choir, as well as sopranos Angela Meade, Leah Crocetto and Jeanine De Bique; mezzo-sopranos Michelle DeYoung and Kelley O’Connor; tenor Clay Hilley and baritone Paulo Szot. The concert is part of Ravinia’s continuing celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was a Mahler champion.
After Green’s time in juvenile detention, his mother moved the family to Windsor, Va., about 80 minutes away from their previous home. “We moved into a trailer park, which was equally as bad as living in low-income housing in Grafton, but it was a new start for me,” he said. “It was a way for me to not have my past be right there in front of me as a child.”
He became involved in school activities, including the chorus, where he excelled. His talent earned him a spot at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. Green had never given much if any thought to opera until he grudgingly went to the Metropolitan Opera when he was 15 as part of a field trip to New York City. He was first swept up in the grandeur of the Metropolitan Opera House and then he was bowled over by seeing Graves in the title role of Carmen. “It was the perfect storm,” he said. He immediately realized that it what he wanted to do for a living.
Green went on to earn degrees from the Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Conn., and Florida State University in Tallahassee. In 2011, he was chosen as one of the five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which have been an important stepping stone for many prominent singers. He was a member of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and sang at the Met several times.
In September, Green will return to the Met in the role of Jake as the company opens its 2019-20 season with a new production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess — its first in nearly 30 years. “I will be getting to sing with Denyce Graves and Eric Owens, two of my biggest heroes,” he said.
Given that there was so much turmoil in Green’s early years, it might be surprising that he has so openly spoken about his beginnings, starting with a prominent article in the New York Times Magazine. “I really didn’t think I had anything to say, but at the same time, I’ve never been ashamed of my past, because everything that happened to me in my past created the person I am today — to be in this field and be successful in this field.
“The lowest part of my life was when I was in juvenile detention at 12 years old. Everything after that was a step up. Most people don’t reach the bottom of their life that early, and I hit rock bottom at 12 years old. I’m thankful for it, because if that wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t have had the desire to better myself. And if I didn’t pick myself up that point, I don’t think I would have had the ability to pick myself during the many trials and tribulations that I would go through to be an opera singer.”