The Washington National Opera’s season will soon commence with a new production of Verdi’s enduring favorite La traviata, but a “soft opening” to the capital’s opera season now comes annually in the form of the WNO-sponsored Marian Anderson Vocal Award recital. Celebrating the famed African-American singer who broke classical music’s color barrier in the 1950s, the award honors contemporary African-American singers of rising renown. In the bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, however, it honors not only an accomplished African-American performer, but also an artist who stands easily among the top five young singers of any race working in opera in North America today. Barely over thirty, Green has already won a number of leading competitions and developed a noteworthy career on both sides of the Atlantic. His Marian Anderson recital came in the middle of his Metropolitan Opera performances as the King of Egypt in a season-opening run of Verdi’s Aida. This role radiates command, and the entire recital resounded with a booming, noble sonority that bears closer comparison to Paul Robeson than anyone singing since him.
Green’s personal story only deepens his voice’s impressive dramatic effect. Raised in poverty by a single mother, he fell afoul of the law and did a stint in juvenile detention before dedicated teachers and lifelong mentors (some of whom were in the audience) honed his musical potential into a world-class voice. His tale of redemption through music—already the subject of a biography dramatically titled Sing for Your Life, by Daniel Bergner—has mesmerized the cultural world.
Green’s personal story only deepens his voice’s impressive dramatic effect.
Unsurprisingly, this recital was a deeply personal one. Accompanied by the fine pianist Adam Nielsen, Green introduced most selections with short and endearing explanations of how they fit into his intertwined life and career paths. Hugo Wolf’s three “Michelangelo Lieder” broached the topic most directly, with each focusing on a transformative stage in a man’s life. “Wohl denk ich oft an mein vergangnes Leben” contemplates an almost incredulous acceptance of fame and notoriety, drawn in sharp comparison to an earlier existence before love’s transformative magic. “Alles endet, was entstehet” offers a sober consideration of mortality and the inevitability of death. By the time we reach “Fühlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht,” the throes of passion place the narrator firmly in the grip of a beloved amour, a “mistress,” as Green cheekily called her. Gustav Mahler’s “Urlicht,” a hopeful dirge on death and acceptance into heaven which (the program does not note) forms the fourth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, evoked Green’s father, whom he only knew toward the end of his life and who died just as Green’s musical career was blossoming. Franz Liszt’s “Die Vätergruft,” an old knight’s hymn to ancestors as he dies among their graves, also probed the same sensitivity.
In a reflection on the African-American experience, Green included a number of selections that spoke of slavery and liberation from it. “Elijah Lord God of Abraham,” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, resounded with the divine righteousness of unshakable faith. It proved a fine departure into three art songs set to poems by Langston Hughes. Margaret Bonds’s “I, Too, Sing America” added indignation to Mendelssohn’s righteousness, while Florence Price’s “Song to the Dark Virgin” reminded us, pace much of the classical repertory, that not all beauties are fair. Howard Swanson’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” affectingly follows a slave’s journey down the Mississippi into the harsher conditions of the deep South. An a cappella rendition of the spiritual “Deep River,” the concert’s second and final encore, reinforced the theme with the evening’s most affecting singing.
Both halves of the concert were introduced by virtuoso performances from the bass repertoire. Green opened with an excerpt from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first installment of the four-part Ring of the Nibelung. But rather than choose one of the monologues of its central characters Wotan and Alberich, both of whose parts recommend themselves for inclusion in Green’s future repertoire, he instead selected the hapless giant Fasolt’s lines from a conversation with Wotan. Cheated by the goddess Freia, whose apples supply the gods with eternal youth, Fasolt sonorously laments his mistreatment in an appealing mixture of enchantment and resentment. There is much room for good vocal exposition, which Green admirably delivered, but without a Wotan there to respond, the dramatic effect sounded like overhearing someone talking on a cell phone. More satisfying was Ferrando’s aria from Verdi’s Il trovatore, a spooky retelling of the story of the gypsy Azucena and her gruesome infanticide, which sets in motion the plot of the opera. Green’s bass modulated from the piece’s paternal storytelling to familiar sensitivity to pure terror. Along with “Deep River,” the encores ventured auspiciously into Broadway with a moving rendering of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. For pure musicianship, however, it was all his.