For Ryan Speedo Green, music was the answer

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Ryan Speedo Green will speak Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium.
Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

Who: Eric Speedo Green

What: Salon Signature Event, presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School

When: Sunday, July 9, 6 p.m.

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

How much: $75; Free for Salon members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box office;

Ryan Speedo Green, the subject of Daniel Bergner’s 2016 biography “Sing For Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family,” will speak this evening in Paepcke Auditorium about how music changed his life dramatically.

The bass-baritone has been turning heads in character bass-baritone roles at A-list opera houses, including Colline in “La Bohème” and Osmin in “Abduction from the Seraglio” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Timur in “Turandot” at the Vienna State Opera. At the age of 31, Green is on a track typical of basses and baritones who work their way into bigger and bigger roles. Important critics have said so in print. Few other singers, though, have started off behind bigger roadblocks.

It’s not just that he’s African-American. Although it wasn’t always so, opera in the past 50 years has celebrated quite a few African-American singers. Among them is Denyce Graves, the mezzo-soprano who happened to be singing the title role in “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera when a 14-year-old Green, trying to right his life after a harrowing brush with the juvenile criminal system, attended with a school group.

At that moment he decided he wanted to be an opera singer. Now he is one. He also has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music, and lives in Europe with his wife, Irene.

At the Aspen Music Festival and School’s Salon Signature event he’ll outline how he got there, and talk about music’s profound effect on young and impressionable youth. The event, with Margo Drakos, CEO and founder of ArtistYear, and Eric Motley, an Aspen Institute executive vice president, is free to members of the Salon and Society of Fellows. Tickets also are available for the public.

Green and pianist Adam Nielsen will also perform selections from Green’s recent debut recital program at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, which included German lieder, a Handel aria and art songs by African-American composers. “Not spirituals,” he is quick to point out.

At the end of the evening, Green hopes the audience will go away appreciating the power of music in someone’s life.

“My circumstances were a lot more dramatic than most,” he admitted, “but when I found a way to express myself in opera it gave me a purpose. That saved my life. It gave me a way to be part of something bigger than myself, to learn about the history of the world, and as an African-American to learn about an amazing group of singers who pursued this art form in an era when they couldn’t even be in the same restaurant or use the same bathrooms as others.”

Specifically he mentioned several legendary singers, including Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Martina Arroyo, and today Lawrence Brownlee and Eric Owens (who was a conducting student at the Aspen Music Festival in 2010).

For Green, the day he encountered Graves in “Carmen” changed everything: “I thought opera was something only white people could do, their voices breaking windows. Seeing the title role being played by an African-American, so beautiful, seductive and confident, made it tangible for me.”

When the group met the singer backstage after the performance, he recalled, “She treated me like I was her best friend’s nephew. That humanized her and it humanized the art form. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 23 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times on Tuesdays and Saturdays.