Beware of Tenors Bearing High Notes: Bryan Hymel in Les Troyens

Lisa Houston on May 26, 2015
Bryan Hymel (Photo: Dario Acosta)
Bryan Hymel (Photo: Dario Acosta)

French grand opera makes great demands on singers, with performances clocking in at times that rival Wagner and orchestras crowding the pit. New Orleans native, Bryan Hymel (pronounced ee-mel) will continue to embrace that repertoire in performances of epic works like Les Troyens in San Francisco next month and La Damnation de Faust in Paris this coming December. In between, he’ll sing the roles of the Duke in Rigoletto and Don Jose in Carmen at Santa Fe and Washington National Opera respectively. His bow as Rodolfo at the Met last year earned him continued praise from the New York press, which had welcomed his triumph on short notice in 2012, stepping in for a save-the-day kind of performance in Les Troyens appropriate for someone whose voice type is most often described as heroic.

His list of awards is long, and illustrious, and includes the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award and first prize in the Loren L. Zachary Vocal Competition. His debut recording, Héroïque, which includes a selection from Les Troyens, has earned rave reviews.

Hymel is no stranger to San Francisco, having participated in San Francisco Opera’s Merola program in 2001, but his Aeneas next month — which he sings opposite Susan Graham’s Dido —  will mark his house debut. He has been in town for two weeks of rehearsal for the six performances, which take place from June 7 to July 1. I asked him how it’s going.


It’s going great. It’s wonderful to come back to this production. The first thing I saw was the horse, which is always great. But when I went to my costume fitting and saw my costume, it brought back so much from that exciting time in London. I get goosebumps now just talking about it. It’s a lovely team here. A lot of familiar faces on the production staff from London and great to see Susie (Susan Graham) here. Actually, a lot of my buddies that I kind of came up with are in this show, those formative years of summer programs and that kind of stuff, so it’s really great for me to kind of come full circle. In London it was great, but it was definitely kind of me on my own. I guess I knew Eva-Marie (Westbroek) but it was a whole new crew. This one is more like a homecoming.

Is there anything you learned in the London production that’s causing you to approach it differently this time?  
They were both so fast. I spent the whole London production getting it back in my voice because it had been two years since I’d done it and the Met one was so fast because I didn’t have any rehearsal. What’s been nice about this one is that I’ve had time to prepare and look at everything. The biggest difference is that my voice continues to change and mature, so things that sat in a certain way I have to readdress. It’s nice that my middle voice has filled out so parts I used to stress out about, like [sings] “Reine, je suis Énée!” My voice kind of bottomed out there as I’m saying my name. OK, not ideal, but you grow into this. I guess at 32 that was a valiant effort, but now I’m 35, soon to be 36. It’s nice to be able to not have to worry about that moment.

I would say the pacing of it. When you start learning, you’re so much on the inside of it, you’re working each vowel, each phrase, each act. Now that I’ve spent so much time with it, especially in performance -- I think I did eight in Amsterdam, nine in London, five at the Met; I’ve had 20 performances and when I’ve had six here it’ll be 26 -- you start to see it in more the whole course of the evening. Now I know exactly how much effort I need or how much effort I’m going to use for this first part. The first part is pretty much two scenes back-to-back, and then he has an hour and a half off and that’s great and also tricky. You want to keep the voice up, but you want to do it in such a way that you don’t spend too much because there’s a lot left to sing. In London and the Met I just had to go and hope I had enough. Now that I’m a little bit older and I have the time and opportunity, I want to try and make it a bit less stressful on myself. "You want to keep the voice up, but you want to do it in such a way that you don’t spend too much because there’s a lot left to sing."

Do you approach this kind of character, a mythic character, differently than you approach someone more mortal, like Don José?
The situations that the composers put those two characters in, [Bizet was] trying to show José’s humanity and flawed-ness, quite frankly, and I think Énée, because he’s only half God, I think [Berlioz is] trying to show both sides of that. For all the “let’s lead ‘em into victory” kind of thing, that’s very, like you say, God-like, less mortal. But when he falls in love, Berlioz really wants to show the human side, how tender and caring he is toward Dido’s feelings. The fact that she’s remembering her husband who’s deceased. He wants to do it tenderly, like “come on, banish these sad thoughts, let’s enjoy what we have now,” and the kind of success and peace that they enjoy after they’ve beaten the army there. I think it’s in the characterization that the composer and librettist write, especially in these masterpieces.

How do you get yourself ready to race on and talk about someone being devoured by a serpent?
It’s kind of like the horses right out of the gate. There’s no time for anything else. The music gets you ready for it. But now my body, when I hear the music leading up to when Andromache does her little pantomime, the music is so calm, I already know that I have to come on and be the bomb and the firework. I’m ready to go. It’s the first thing I ever learned for this role back when I had to do the audition for Amsterdam and so it definitely has that kind of excitement. I didn’t know anything but that at that point. And telling the story is awesome.

This production we have to run all the way backstage. Not quite as bad as in London. I had to just book it and hope I would get there, and so I was literally out of breath. It doesn’t seem quite as far here, but that helps, too. "[W]hen I hear the music leading up to when Andromache does her little pantomime, the music is so calm, I already know that I have to come on and be the bomb and the firework."

You’re often complimented for your easy high register. Are high notes easy for you?
Yeah. That’s always been part of what I would say is the gift of what I have. Voices have their individual characteristics. The high notes have always been there. That’s the part that we could say “they’re easy.” What’s not always easy is making them beautiful. My body just does that. Something about that register where it just clicks in and sounds like I’m set. But at the same time, as you get older, you gain certain things with maturity of your voice but you have to be more disciplined in other ways. But there’s no way I could sing things like Guillaume Tell if the high notes weren’t easy because otherwise you would just die. It wouldn’t be worth it, the stress.

Can you give us a realistic picture of the day before and the day after a show like this. How much rest do you need, or is there such a thing as too much rest for the voice?
There’s probably such a thing as too much rest for the voice. If you let it down for a couple of days, say after three days, it kind of goes into a hibernating mode.  I think much like athletes do, if you take off more than a couple of days it kind of drops and there’s rebuilding that’s going on of the tissue at a very deep level. If you sing and go to sleep and wake up a little rested, it’s not the same thing. I won’t stay completely quiet. I’ll do five maybe 10 minutes of exercises the day before. I won’t go very high. Maybe 5-10 minutes in the afternoon. You want to keep the blood flowing there but not really give it a workout. The day of the performance I’ll do the same, five maybe 10 minutes in the morning, more in the afternoon. This one, because the show is at 1:00 p.m., I’ll probably get up at 7:00 or 6:30.

What advice do you have for modern audiences who aren’t used to sitting through something as long as a French grand opera?
I think you need to prepare yourself, knowing it’s going to be long. I think it’s always good to read the libretto or the synopsis even. The more time you have to devote to reading something, the more you will enjoy and get out of that performance. There are so many things you can appreciate in the moment there, besides just pretty music, pretty costumes, “oh there’s a story, oh I’m trying to follow the subtitles.” If you already know what’s going on, it’s so much nicer not to keep breaking the concentration with the subtitles, and not even the concentration, but the picture. When you’re looking down to see what they’re saying, you’re going to miss an expression, or you won’t be paying as much attention to it, and especially with a scene that has a lot going on. "I think you need to prepare yourself, knowing it’s going to be long. I think it’s always good to read the libretto or the synopsis even. The more time you have to devote to reading something, the more you will enjoy and get out of that performance."

    Make sure you’re not hungry when you get there, (laughs) but don’t eat too much because then you’ll fall asleep, because it is very beautiful music and especially in the first part there’s a lot of soothing music. And then when it gets crazy with the war, it wakes up. But you’ve got 45 minutes before you get there.

After Les Troyens, will a summer in Santa Fe singing the Duke in Rigoletto be like a vacation? Or is there always a big challenge?
Well, unfortunately I have to travel between performances of Les Troyens to rehearse in Santa Fe so that’s going to be the biggest challenge. Managing my energy and my efforts and stuff like that, because obviously airplane travel, it’s not like going from here to Europe, but I’m not drinking any alcohol right now just to play it safe. I don’t want to be overly dried out. I’m being really mindful of what I’m eating, and drinking enough water and resting as much as possible. As much as my friends are on this job, we’ve gone out and caught up, but I can’t make this a social thing because I’ll never make it. The last show here is July 1, the first show in Santa Fe is July 4. So when I’ve done my last show here I go there and do the dress rehearsal and then I have a day off and then I do the opening. I have to do what I have to do.

    We have a plan. They’re obviously going to take it easy on me in Santa Fe. They’re not going to drive me into the ground. The trick to singing something like the Duke, I sang it first when I was 21 or 22, so I definitely know it. It’s definitely in there, but I’ve gone through three different voice teachers and learned it on those techniques, so I’m trying to make sure that old muscle memory doesn’t slip in there and if it does, that it doesn’t get me too far off track. Troyens has some high notes but for the most part it lies pretty low, certainly lower than the Duke. And the altitude is always a factor. I’ve been to Santa Fe twice and Aspen four times so I’ve spent a lot of time singing at altitude. But it always takes an adjustment. And my adjustment is gonna be crazy because I’ll go there, get adjusted, come back. Go there, get adjusted, come back. So I’ve got my fingers crossed and covers in both places.

You’re married to a soprano (Irini Kyriakidou). Are you giving your baby singing lessons yet? Or is she giving you lessons?
We have two now, we just had another one about six weeks ago.

Congratulations. Boy or girl?
Thank you. Another girl. She’s doing great. Mom’s doing great, though she’s got her hands full while I’m away. We’ve got some help in mornings, and my parents are there and my sister, but she’s not really sleeping through the night. But Irini will come out for the opening of this, and then we’ll be all together in Santa Fe, which will be nice. Actually, I just have to do the first three shows in Santa Fe, and then we have a two-week break while they get all the rest of the season together, so if I can make it through July 14, I’ll be great! If I can just persevere for six weeks, I’ll be in a good spot.  

You’re most often categorized as a “heroic” tenor. What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done in real life?
About 20 years ago, when I was just starting high school, my family, and my father’s brother’s family went to a water park and my little cousin, who was about 10 years younger than me, we wanted to go on the tandem water slide together. The guy put the inner tube on the thing and Adam gets in, sitting on the front, I was at the back, and I don’t know what happened, if the guy didn’t have a good hold on it or what, but he went down. He just started down. It wasn’t one of those straight down ones, it was one of those curlicue ones. So I didn’t know what to do. I looked at the guy and he looked at me like “I don’t know what to do,” so I just dove down the water slide because I couldn’t let Adam go by himself. He was like five years old. I was a little banged up and bruised down at the bottom, but I got him and he was safe.

His mom brought that story up when they came over to see the baby and she was like, “you know, I passed that water park the other day.” It was a long time ago, but I’m glad you asked that.

Great story. And you managed to work in a water safety tip at the beginning of the summer.