Interview with Michael Spyres

Missouri-born Michael Spyres is recognized as a highly stylish and exciting tenor. Trained in the USA and in Vienna, recent assignments include Benvenuto Cellini at English National Opera, Hoffmann at the Liceu, Rodrigo in la Donna del lago at the Royal Opera House, Aureliano in Palmira in Pesaro and Arnold in Guillaume Tell at De Munt. His first solo recital disc ‘A Fool for Love’ was released on Delos in 2011.  I caught up with Mr Spyres as he was preparing for his debut at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms. 


Photo: Darcey Borghardt
Photo: Darcey Borghardt

Mr Spyres, you are recognized as one of the most exciting tenors with a wide repertoire encompassing florid Rossini roles to more lyrical French repertoire. You trained both in the US and in Europe, what inspired you to become a singer?

I come from an extremely musical family and have sung together with them since I could speak. Both of my parents are retired music educators as is my brother. I grew up singing in choirs that my father conducted and we have performed numerous plays and musicals as a family that my mother wrote for us. My brother is also a fantastic tenor and has toured Japan and Europe with me and we recorded Rossini’s Otello together. My sister is an accomplished actress, violinist, and singer and she is currently on a Broadway tour. So as you can see music is a way of life for me and my family and it is so integrated as far as technique and mental preparedness that I rarely have to think of it. It’s just a way of life for me and always has been.

London audiences most recently saw you as Benvenuto Cellini at English National Opera. What struck me was how, after a very long evening, singing an extremely taxing role, you were able to find great reserves of power for your final aria. How do you pace a role such as this?

This role was definitely one the most difficult in all of opera in terms of pacing and vocal demands. I’ve had the fortune to have sung many of these insane roles such as Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Raoul in Les Huguenots as well as Hoffmann in their entirety and it is definitely a challenge to pace these evenings. Above all you must have boundless energy and non stop concentration for 5 hours. Honestly this is the real ‘trick’ because the voice can keep going for much longer than any opera actually demands but the hard part truly is the concentration bit.

It was of course performed in English, when learning it did you learn only the English text or both the English and the French?

I always learn the original first and then the translation because the music is constantly giving you clues for characterization when set to the original text. The hard part with this production was that we were constantly changing musical cuts and text up until a week before we opened, so memorization was a nightmare because we as soloists had around 6 versions in our head of the same opera. We also had to change some major concepts and staging, even on our final dress rehearsal because of the grandiose nature of Terry’s concept and our lack of room to fit it all in on stage. This of course is the most incredible and exhilarating experience to collaboratively work on a piece of art and when you are a part of this process you end up forgetting all of the difficulties involved and realize how special this profession truly is.

You are back in London to make your Proms debut with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.  What are the differences, if any, for you when working with period instruments and modern orchestras?

There is a bit of difference working with period instruments but it is for me one of the greatest joys to have the opportunity to work with Maestro Gardiner. This is actually my 4th time working with Sir John and it is incredibly exciting to work with a living legend such as him. We performed two tours of this piece as well as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in a tour of Europe and then again in Carnegie Hall and LA. To answer your question I actually prefer period instruments because it is so much more rounded and delicate sound, while also having the added advantage of the authentic timbre and colour of the music when you perform as the composer intended. Not many people in the world know Beethoven like he does and I am thrilled to make my Royal Albert Hall debut with him and this masterpiece of Missa Solemnis.

You recently gave a concert in Germany of repertoire associated with the legendary Adolphe Nourrit. Tell us a little more this project and the recording that will be associated with it

I could not be more thrilled about the opportunity to show modern audiences the greatness of Adolphe Nourrit’s artistry. Most people know very little about him and his impact on the operatic world. Many know that he was the first Arnold in William Tell and then supposedly killed himself after he could not change his technique to sing a high C in chest voice. Very few people understand just how many extraordinary pieces were written for him by all the greatest composers of the early 1800s. The repertoire was so varied that it is hard to believe all of it was composed for one person. We have tried to give people a true homage to the works composed for him by giving people the opportunity to hear the well known pieces such as Eléazar’s (La Juive), Arnold (Guillaume Tell), Raoul (les Huguenots) as well as some pieces never before recorded like Niedermeyer’s Stradella, Cherubini’s Ali Baba, and Auber’s Le Philtre. Because of the nature of this concert and the vocal difficulties at first there were lots of worries whether or not it would even be possible since no one has ever attempted this type of recording. The true difficulty was the concert aspect and then hoping to produce a live recording taken from the two concerts of the most difficult vocal writing in all of the operatic repertoire. For this type of project the conductor was absolutely crucial and fortunately I was in the incredibly capable hands of David Parry who knows this French grand opera better than just about any one alive. He has recorded numerous obscure operas and was a great help in preparing and executing this mammoth project of 11 extremely contrasted arias of which many are unknown. I believe in the end we pulled it off and hopefully people will come away realizing just how special Nourrit was in his contribution the opera world. We had a wonderful time making music together and I am so thrilled to have this opportunity to bring this project to life and I am sure that the listener will find some never before heard operatic gems.

You have already made a number of notable debuts.  What exciting future plans can we expect from you?

Exciting is definitely the correct word for this next season as I will get the unique chance to sing in 9 countries on 3 continents in one year. Directly after the Proms I’ll be making my debut as Berlioz’s Faust in the composer’s hometown festival of La Côte Saint André and then it is off to Italy where I’ll be singing one of my signature roles as Rossini’s Arnold in Bologna. In November I return to London to record and perform with Sir Mark Elder and Opera Rara. It will be quite an historical performance for opera goers as it has never in history been heard within the UK as we debut Donizetti’s Les Martyrs which written for the same tenor, Duprez, as the Cellini that London audiences last heard me in. In January of 2015 I have my debut in Amsterdam with Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims followed by my return to the Opéra Comique in Paris with the Opera Le pré aux clercs which we will also take to Lisbon directly after Paris in April. In May and June I’ll make my debut in both the La Coruña festival in Spain in Rossini’s Ermione, then in Warsaw as Berlioz’ Faust. To round out the end of the season I return to the Caramoor festival of New York as Rossini’s Otello. Also in July I am very excited to make my debut in Korea with a series of concerts of French grand opera in The Great Mountains Musical Festival of Pyeongchang, South Korea.


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