NEW YORK -- He opened the season as kindly Uncle Paul in the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Next night he was the vagabond monk Varlaam, stopping the show in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.”
Now he’s back as the fisherman Jake in the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” — and for good measure making three appearances as the philosopher Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
It’s been quite a season for Ryan Speedo Green, whose resounding bass-baritone voice and charismatic stage presence unfailingly impress critics and audiences, even in the supporting roles he’s so far been assigned.
Typical is the appraisal by Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times: “Ryan Speedo Green, the best singer in “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” has equally rich, unforced power as the drunken monk Varlaam.”
Now, after a decade of apprenticeship, Green is entering a new phase of an improbable career that has already taken him from poverty, violence and juvenile detention to a place at America’s leading opera house.
“I feel that I’m on the brink of something bigger,” Green said in an interview after a rehearsal for “Porgy.” “It’s an amazing feeling to see it bear fruit in this way, after all the work I put in, to be recognized by people in this business who hire and fire.”
One of those people is Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.
“To see Speedo blossom from a trainee in our young singers program into a major artist on our stage has been thrilling,” Gelb told The Associated Press. “Met audiences will be hearing him in many starring roles in the seasons to come.”
Green (everyone in the opera world calls him Speedo, a middle name bestowed by his father after his favorite swimsuit) came into the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program back in 2011 as anything but a finished product.
“I struggled a lot,” he said, “I never had a problem with volume or stage presence, but I needed to be honed, learn where to point my voice, what roles to sing, knowing the languages.”
Ken Noda, musical adviser to the Lindemann program, recalls when he first heard Green.
“The voice was a volcano. It had incredible fire and personality, and it was very inseparable from who he was and his life,” he said. “He had not the most sophisticated training. It was a tall order, because he was like a race horse who was already on a winning streak, but he had so much remedial work to do.”
“He not only survived it, he just devoured it,” Noda said. “The appetite was just off the charts. Within a year and a half he had made so much progress it was like 200%. I’d never seen anything like that.”
Green did so well that the Vienna State Opera offered him a coveted slot in its ensemble. He spent four seasons there, singing by his count “42 roles and over 250 performances” — including one stretch where he took on six different parts in three weeks, something not even the Met would ask him to do.
“If you can survive four years of that gauntlet, you can survive anything,” he said.
During his time in Vienna, he took such a liking to the city that he now lives there with his wife Irene and two young children when he’s not performing elsewhere.
Given his talent, some might wonder why it’s taken him to age 35 to make the leap from featured player to star. It has much to do with his type of voice, which as Green said is only now “pretty set in stone.”
“People don’t always realize these deep male voices with stature and vocal weight take longer to ferment and blossom later,” said Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera who has followed Green’s career closely. “That’s why they can often keep singing into their 60s.”
Zambello has cast him as the toreador Escamillo in WNO’s production of Bizet’s “Carmen” set for this spring. It’s a part especially suited to a singer like Green who can easily handle the higher notes of a baritone’s range while also comfortably descending deep into bass territory.
“Carmen” is a work dear to his heart, since, as recounted in Daniel Bergner’s 2016 book “Sing for Your Life,” Green first aspired to a career in opera when as a teenager he was taken to hear mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves in the title role at the Met and realized that Black people could be opera singers.
A series of mentors and coaches recognized his potential and nurtured him to the point where in 2011 he was a winner of the Met’s national competition for young singers. The invitation to the Lindemann program followed.
Once at the Met, the hard work of transforming raw talent into polished performance held no terrors for him.
“My life I lived before I became an opera singer was in a way so much tougher that no problem I could have on the stage could ever match that,” Green said. “So when I’m on stage and I’m allowed to tell a story, it’s therapeutic to me.”
Besides Escamillo, his schedule this season includes a concert performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Rocco in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and one more supporting stint: a return to the Met as Truffaldino, part of a commedia dell’arte troupe in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
Ask him to name roles he’s currently studying and he rattles off a dizzying list: Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust,” Figaro in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Procida in Verdi’s “The Sicilian Vespers,” Orest in Strauss’s “Elektra.” and some Wagner: Kurwenal in “Tristan und Isolde” and Gunther in “Götterdämmerung.”
“There are others where I’m waiting five to 10 years,” Green said. “I want my career to be a slow burn, not an explosion that peters out.”
Whatever the future holds, Green’s ability to have overcome his troubled past gives him a unique perspective on his current success and the opportunities before him.
“When I was younger, the first thing in my mind other than not to go back to jail was to be an opera singer,” he said. “To be able to achieve something like that, I know it’s a one-in-a-million opportunity, and I don’t take it for granted.”