08 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 17: Talking with Michael Mayes

Michael Mayes as Older Thompson in Glory Denied.
Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

Especially with the severe military crew-cut he got to sing the lead in Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied with Fort Worth Opera this season, Michael Mayes looks like the kind of guy who used to beat me up for liking opera. A native of Cut and Shoot, Texas (yes, there is such a place), he wears cowboy boots, listens to country music, and played high-school football. He’s still a big bruiser, and yet he’s not a bully but a baritone, one more of the people in Fort Worth who have changed my understanding of the possibilities — and the realities — of a community centered around the very music that used to isolate me in this state.

Mike is currently singing the role of the Older Jim Thompson Glory Denied, the story of an American P.O.W. in Vietnam and the devastating effects of the war on his marriage, his body, and his soul. The score calls on him to roar in rage and frustration — he’s terrifying — and yet he also delivers arias of celebration and forgiveness with some of the most tenderly lyrical singing I’ve heard. All the while, he’s wincing from the blows of his captors, or staggering in drunkenness, or halting in the aftermath of a stroke.

Though he’s sung plenty of standard-rep roles, such as Don Giovanni and Escamillo, with companies throughout the United States, Glory Denied is hardly Mike’s first foray into contemporary opera: he lists among his credits Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; in Fort Worth last season, he sang Kinesias in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata.

While we’ve gotten to know each other only in the past month, Mike’s reputation preceded him. He’s a born raconteur — at full throttle, he dials his Texas accent up to 11, at least — and he inspires a cult-like following in the companies where he sings, not least for whatever workout regimen he’s pursuing at the moment.

On the morning that George Jones’ death was announced, Mike met me for coffee and talked a bit about Glory Denied and the power of opera to affect all kinds of communities.

Michael Mayes, Baritone from Texas.

Michael Mayes: I actually got the contract [for Glory Denied] before my contract here last year [for Lysistrata]. Darren had offered me Lysistrata right after Dead Man Walking, when I did the Motorcycle Cop and Moralès in Carmen [in 2011].

I was trying to sing for Darren forever, because the company is important to me and this area is important to me. I have a lot of family in the area. I kept trying to sing for him, but my allergies would be bad, or I would be sick. The first time I got to sing for him was here, when I moved to the suburbs of North Dallas with my ex-wife. He said, “I love you but I’ve already cast this season, except for these small roles” in Dead Man Walking and Carmen. It was a great introduction; the small roles weren’t high pressure.

At the time they were shooting a pilot for a reality show. They gave me a camera and I got a lot of good footage. It sort of embedded me in the culture of Fort Worth Opera.

[For the 2013 festival] Darren had me originally in a different production, and he said, “I’ve got this new project that’s come across my desk, and just from where you’re going with your career, I think this would be much better for you.” He told me about the project, and I said, “Yeah, that’s about right.” Just from him telling me the story, I knew, no matter what the score looked like, I would be interested. It would be meaningful.

I’m into opera that’s meaningful and has a purpose, beyond pretty music. I think opera is a great agent for cultural change. That’s the way it used to be viewed: revolutionary, exciting, new, dangerous. I like it that way; it’s much more fun.

Q: Darren says that when he’s looking at a score, it isn’t enough for it simply to be new. He wants a new opera to provoke conversations within the community.

MM: That’s exactly what this does. We’ve seen a lot of movies and books on the Vietnam War, but not too many operas based on it. Opera has taken on the subject of war but used it as a plot device, or like Daughter of the Regiment, a comic thing. But there hasn’t been an unflinching look at this problem we have. We have these boys who come back riddled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and say, “All right boys, get back to work.” Especially at the time this took place, no one even know what PTSD was.

The older Thompson recalls his younger self (David Blalock) in captivity, of which the younger Alyce (Sydney Mancasola) was unaware.
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

I knew this piece would speak to so many people, and would be an effective tool for restoration and healing for people of a particular generation. At every single one of these talkbacks [following each performance of Glory Denied], that’s who stays and talks. It’s like they haven’t talked about it in a long time, they’ve relegated it to memory, this forgotten time that seems so long ago — but it’s really not. People were really affected by this time, and they get tears in their eyes, saying it’s wonderful to see that people are still talking about it and still care about it.

When I do projects like this, it makes what I do seem important, as opposed to doing it for myself to get a bunch of praise or entertain a bunch of rich people. This piece will reach anybody, anywhere. I don’t care whether they’ve ever seen an opera before.

I think that’s what we all want. More and more people are going into this business now not because they want to be big stars and sing pretty music. People are fired up. Just like in Glory Denied, the piece took place in an era of huge cultural change, and we’re going through another cultural change since 2001: this country, you almost don’t recognize it. Being a part of something that makes you feel like you’re part of the Zeitgeist or the landscape of cultural change — that’s exciting.

With Kirstin Chavez in Dead Man Walking.
Tulsa Opera.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

After I did Dead Man Walking in Tulsa, a woman posted on Facebook, “That was so beautiful, you sang so well, and you’re a really good actor.” I’m not arrogant, but you hear those things a lot. And you say, “Oh, thank you so much.” Then she got to the next paragraph and said, “My daughter was murdered eight years ago, and your performance of Joseph Desrochers changed the way I think about the way I think about the man who murdered my daughter.”

I don’t care how many Giovannis you do, or Iago or Rigoletto, you’re going to affect people, but when you take a piece like this or like Dead Man Walking, you get people and yank ’em by the throat, shake ’em up and say, “Hey, this stuff ain’t dead. It’s living and it can affect people.” I think it’s one of the most effective ways to reach out and move people emotionally.

People think I’m crazy. I’ll say without any apology, they ask me about doing new work and how do you like it as opposed to standard opera? Hey, I love that stuff, it’s great. I’m doing Rigoletto this year at Boston Lyric, that’s my dream. I’m actually turning down a smaller role in a modern opera, because it’s my dream role to do Rigoletto. I still love these pieces. But I understand that during the time that a lot of these classical pieces were being written, they were the revolutionary new things that were going on the scene. People were still performing the classics, but I think we forgot about that. There are so many good stories in this country. We can reach whole new audiences, theater audiences.

Q: I’ve noticed that new work often attracts more theater-going audiences. Do you feel any special compunction to act better?

MM: Oh, yeah. For so long the opera professional was treated as some sort of freak, you know. It was enough to have them stand up and put on their little dog and pony show, and that was enough. I mean, “Wow, that’s an amazing voice, it’s loud and it’s doing all these melismas, and using the language I’m not familiar with, it’s all so amazing, that’s great.” At some point the people that have an appreciation for that are all going to die, and we’re going to be stuck out here trying to figure out how to engage all these 45-year-old people that we ignored when they were 20 and 30 and 35, and turned off by all that stuff. It’s kind of this outlaw opera, revolutionary thing. We can reach out there and appeal to young hipsters, and that sort or 25-to-35 age group. A lot of those people are just bored. They’ve seen everything. They always want to be the first ones to see it, but it’s hard to impress those guys. We have a rally unique tool in our belt, these voices we carry around, that are able to express in a completely different emotional context some of these ideas that theater has been dealing with for a long time, it gives a fresh perspective.

People are shocked when opera singers can act and tell a story. I’ve gotten into furious online debates about the purpose of opera. People say, “The purpose of opera is good singing. The purpose of opera is making good music.” And I say, “Why the hell don’t we just have concerts if the purpose is just amazing music and incredible voices?” It’s not an opera if there’s not a story to tell. That’s the purpose of opera: to tell a story. If it was just good music, we wouldn’t need costumes, we wouldn’t need all this stuff.

We talked a bit about the increasing prominence of “Barihunks” — Mike is officially certified as such by no lesser authority than the Barihunks blog.

MM: You hear a lot of complaints about the way that this movement about “having sexy people do opera, aw, it’s ruining it!” [The complaints are coming from] a lot of people in the older generation that have served opera really well, and they’re irritated. It shouldn’t be at the expense of singing.

I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. You don’t have to be either a good singer or in shape. You can do both. Actors are expected to do it all the time. They play to type; they are expected to look a certain way. I played Joseph Desrochers a few weeks ago: I was pumped up, looking as mean and lean as I could for this character.

Mean and Lean: As Joseph Desrochers.
Tulsa Opera, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

And then I had to shift gears to play Jim Thompson. I realized that the bulk of my story is reflection. He’s an older man, his body mask isn’t a 29-year-old convict, it was a 59-year-old, broken-down, former P.OW. I eased up on my diet, got a little bit lower center of gravity. It feels different, better. My center of gravity is lower. It’s easier to make this body mask to play this guy. You take pictures of me in Dead Man Walking and me in this, you wouldn’t think it was the same person.

But that’s what our job is. In theater, they would just find some guy who was old looking. There’s plenty of guys who look old, but there’s not many that can sing like this and look old, too.

Q: And you do look old, especially once you put on that cardigan!

MM: It’s so hard to put on, which makes it even better. One of the coolest things for me is the transition — he has so many transitions, playing so many characters, interrogators and officials [as well as Thompson]. Once you press start, this piece moves. Making these transitions smooth is difficult.

One of my favorites is right after the slide show, with all these nice happy family memories, and all of a sudden the Vietnam pictures and the prison camps and the guys in their striped pajamas. It’s too much for him to handle. Suddenly you see him go from middle-aged Thompson to the guy who died angry and unfulfilled and bewildered by what happened to his life. I get that sweater and pull it on, over that stroked-out arm. Wheezing because he’s a lifetime smoker. His back was broken so the injury was really showing — for me as an actor, it’s great.

I observed that it takes guts to do all that while singing simultaneously.

MM: The word “no” doesn’t often cross my lips. I don’t know how to use it. I probably should be better at it, but I’m not afraid of anything any more.

Q: Were you ever?

MM: The first time I went to the Met to cover, I went to that building, and I wasn’t me. I didn’t know how to really act in that place. When I was younger, I was afraid to be who I was. Afraid to be this kind of good ol’ boy from East Texas that does opera. I realized that I could fake being fancy-pants generic American intellectual. I could do that pretty well, but it wasn’t true. I went through some pretty radical life changes in the past five years or so, I’ve been divorced and broke off an engagement. I didn’t lose everything, but you kind of feel like you do. You feel like everything’s gone and what have you been doing this for. After a while you feel like fuck it, I’m just gonna do it. I’m gonna do stories my way and tell them the way I want. If this business doesn’t like it, they can stop hiring me. Thus far they haven’t done it. There’ve been some lean years, but I’m stickin’ with it until they decide that’s enough.

George Jones, with his sometime wife, Tammy Wynette.
The country singer’s death was announced
the morning that Mike and I got together;
we began our conversation with a coffee-mug toast to him.

Q: What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?

MM: Country, bluegrass, and gospel. Almost exclusively. A little bit of funk and blues thrown in there because my dad had an incredible vinyl collection. I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was until I got to college. The Beatles, I had no idea.

My grandfather was a preacher; I grew up Missionary Baptist. They started me off young. I was third grade, second grade, playing guitar, playing in church during the music service. Brother Green, my mentor as a young kid, would bring me up there. He had a Gibson Hollow Body, and I’d get up there and mangle hymns, and nobody ever told me I was terrible. They instilled me with confidence.

The Bible doesn’t say make a beautiful noise, it says make a joyful noise unto the Lord. That’s what I do.

I’d sing that music. My buddy Randy Lindley showed me a few things on the guitar. He’s now the lead guitar player for Amber Digby and Midnight Flyer, a country-and-western band. She’s a big deal, sings at the Opry and some duets with Vince Gill. Every now and then they come to Fort Worth and let me sit in. It’s like that career I never had. Every opera singer has that alternative career they wish they’d had, me it’s a roadhouse country singer, retro, nothing after 1980. Once or twice a year I get the chance to relive that fantasy.

I think that’s the one thing we miss as opera singers, and what’s great about Glory Denied, so often the audience is 30 feet away from us at the closest. It’s 2000 seats and so distant, but with Glory Denied, they’re right there, really close. You miss that as opera singers. Most singers didn’t sing opera as little kids, they did something else that had that immediacy. I think among a lot of singers there’s a longing for that. Glory Denied has that immediate response. At Pearl’s, the lights are up and you can see the audience in the eyes; they’re right there with you.

Thompson and the recollection of his younger self (David Blalock).
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

Q: How did you find opera, or did opera find you?

MM: I was playing football in high school, and I ended up breaking some fingers in one of my hands. After practice, I walked into the counselor’s office. My hand was wrapped up, and I said, “What do I do about typing class?” It was my freshman year. She said, “There’s only two things you can do mid-semester: choir or drama. Pick one.”

Those drama kids were super weird — I didn’t want to be one of those — which is funny because that’s totally what I am now. I ended up joining the choir because I knew I could sing already, I figured that would be an easy A. I’d sung in choirs, but when football started I gave it up. Mike Ware was the choir director; he said, “You’ve got something there.” He encouraged me to stay, and the next year Angela Rivera came in as choir director, she was also my choir director in fifth grade.

She encouraged me to join competitions. I ended up making it into the all-state choir of Texas. That year, it’s funny, that year of all-state, Ava Pine was in that choir, and so was Jesus Garcia. We were all in there together, 1994. I actually pulled out [the program] — all those names are on there.

When you make all-state in Texas, a lot of schools give you scholarship money, and I wasn’t going to get a scholarship any other way. I figured I’d just take the money and get a business major. But they sucked me right in. The all-state piqued my interest in Classical music. I’d never done that before, pieces like the Mozart Requiem. I’d never heard music like this, much less sung it.

I got my first role in college, actually a summer program at Stephen F. Austin, I did Frank Maurrant in [Kurt Weill’s] Street Scene. It’s a little low for me, but I’d love to do that again. That’s what got me, I think: this really compelling story. I got to play this total bastard; in the way he thought and the way he viewed the world, he reminded me so much of all the men in my family. My grandpa could stop a room with a look, silence every movement with one look, he was terrifying. I’d just use that face he would make and that manner he always had, and terrorize people. That made me see how I could affect people in that way. It seduced me, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

I did all the little roles you do in college, little-known Rossini operas, the stuff you do to cut your teeth. It felt like a contest or athletic event: who can sing the best G or who has the most coloratura? It didn’t feel meaningful to me. Then I got to CCCM and did John Procter in [Robert Ward’s] The Crucible. That just — bang, I can tell this story, I know this guy. Then I got to work on Margaret Garner, same thing.

I could start to see that was going to be my niche. But I didn’t have the connections; I didn’t know how to break into that world. I’d hear all these guys my age doing these new works, and I’d say, “How the hell, who are they talking to, to get these parts?”

I came to Fort Worth right when they started doing this [contemporary] stuff. It was a marriage made in heaven. I was able to express these thoughts with freedom and confidence. It was like coming home, so much so that I moved here for two or three years.

This company really took me in. I was going though a difficult time in my life. Brett Starr and I, Roger Honeywell and I, Jeff Jones and Joseph Lesley, Darren and Steven [Bryant, Darren’s husband], Thomas [Rhodes], Nathan DePoint, these guys lifted me up, took care of me, and became some of my closest friends in the world. I thought, “I could go to New York, but all of my best friends are here in Fort Worth. Why would I leave?”

That’s one of the things we miss. You get lonely out there on that road. You make fast friends, we all do that, quick relationships and all that. But long-term serious, meaningful relationships that you come back to over and over again? Man, that’s the best.

As Don Giovanni.
Des Moines Metro Opera 2012.
Photo courtesy of Barihunks Blog.

Q: To what extent does being Texan define you?

MM: When you choose to brand yourself like I’ve done — I didn’t create this thing, I just decided to tell my truth and to be myself — but it’s a big risk, because people have certain preconceived notions about an accent. They think you’re stupid or you’re not taken seriously. I’ve probably lost jobs or missed opportunities because of that, but I think it’s more important to be this guy and tell this story.

I know that any day of the week, they can find guys to tell the Figaro story or the Almaviva story. But there are stories that are just mine, and those are the stories I want to tell. I’ve got to be myself to tell the truth. I think that it’s a longer road this way. Often it takes people two or three times meeting you to know who you are. It’s a process. If you’re playing a generic guy, in a suit, with a clean haircut — I could be a businessman or an accountant.

You meet those board members on their turf. I know that we’re always gonna have the professional crowd. We’re always gonna have them. I don’t think we’re at a real risk of losing buttoned-up professionals. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. But we are missing an opportunity tor each out to people who don’t look like that. When I go to a town where they’re liberal with their comps, I go to a neighborhood like this, and I find the most tattooed-up, earringed people, and I give them these tickets. I say, “These tickets are expensive and hard to get. I won’t ask anything of you, I just want you to come.” And they will show up.

For me it’s the most wonderful thing in the world to see a guy with purple hair and a Mohawk standing next to some multimillionaire enjoying the same thing. That’s the point of art, to create commonality among us all. That’s the reason why the cavemen started gesturing with their hands and making cave paintings so they could remove the barriers and have common knowledge. That’s what art is. It’s our Rosetta Stone.

So often we get these groups, they don’t speak each other’s language. But you put that bartender next to a CEO in [the audience for] Glory Denied, and they’re going to have a similar experience that they can talk about in a way that they can’t talk about other things.

I know I come across like an evangelist. I gave a couple of readings from The Book of Darren. If he ever writes an autobiography, that should be the name of it. Him and guys like him are what’s saving this business. It is kind of funny that during the greatest contraction we ever had in this business — it’s been rough, fees are in the toilet, people are financing their futures just to hang on for long enough — but there’s never been more new work and more exciting things happening than ever before. It’s because of guys like Darren.

The soldier and his bride: Thompson and Alyce (Caroline Worra),
with the figures of their younger selves
(David Blalock, Sydney Mancasola).
Glory Denied, Fort Worth Opera Festival 2013.
Photo courtesy of Ellen Appel.

You understand that there’s something that got a hold of you. You came from the same places these people came from, it can get a hold of them, too. Growing up in a double-wide trailer in Cut and Shoot, Texas. Thirty family members and friends are coming to this show, most of them have never been to an opera. They have no idea what they’re going to see. They’re thinking about stereotypes. They have no clue what they’re going to see on Saturday afternoon.

A friend came in to watch it, just to get his reaction. He had no idea. He didn’t even know what opera was. He came up to me afterward and said, “I started crying at the catalogue aria [“Welcome home”] and I didn’t stop crying until after the end of the show. I can’t even talk right now.” He’s younger than me and he doesn’t know anything about opera. It almost ceases to be opera. It’s an experience.

We have our own club here. You walk into any restaurant with Darren, and they’ve got that cocktail ready for him. You can hear it shaking. He’s the prince of this town. He’s made opera cool. Everybody’s talking about it. I bump into people, you have a conversation in a bar, “Oh, you’re one of those opera people!” We’re like the cool kids in this town.

It’s Fort Worth, for fuck’s sake. This town is moving in a direction, they call it Funky Town, it’s like Austin in 1954, you can feel it coming. How crazy is it that the company that’s doing all the new exciting work is Fort Worth? It’s crazy. It’s not Austin, it’s not Dallas, it’s not Houston. Fort Worth, it’s exciting. I love all of those towns, but man, you can’t get more of a Texas town than Fort Worth, and that’s where everything’s happening.

Glory Denied continues at Fort Worth Opera, with performances tonight (if you hurry!) and May 11 at the McDavid Studio at Bass Hall. Also starring Caroline Worra, Sydney Mancasola, and David Blalock in a production staged by Dean Anthony and conducted by Tyson Deaton. For more information and tickets, click here.

Cool Kids of Funky Town: Fort Worth Opera barihunks
at a lunch in their honor, hosted by a certain blog.
Left to right: Aaron Sorensen, Michael Adams, Steven Eddy, Wes Mason, Michael Mayes, John Boehr, and Anthony Reed.


jumpingintomylife said...

Wow! Just wow! Thank you, Michael Mayes!

Anne said...

Wonderful interview! Thank you!

Joe G. said...

Awesome! What a great interview! Really wish I could make it down to Texas this summer!

Opera Music Broadcast said...

Mike is one of a kind and has one hell of a ride ahead of him.

Thanks for this.