Talk about a Cinderella story! In the fall of 2016, Ryan Speedo Green, then a 30-year-old bass-baritone who was raised in a trailer park in Suffolk, Virginia, woke up to find the account of his personal and artistic journey on the New York Times bestseller list. Daniel Bergner’s powerful and moving biography, Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family, grew out of a 2011 Times article by Bergner, with Green’s life and story having been featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, CBS This Morning, and a range of newspapers, including the Washington Post.
As a young Black man, Green suffered severe beatings at the hand of his mother — and turned violent himself — and spent time in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention facility. He has gone on to become a Grammy Award-winning artist, and he recently made his leading role debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Terence Blanchard’s critically acclaimed Champion.
Green’s unlikely trajectory came about by dint of his ferocious will, the help of dedicated teachers, and his innate and enormous talent. That talent will be on display at the Hollywood Bowl on July 11, when Green, along with soprano Angel Blue, mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb and tenor Mario Chang, sings in Giuseppe Verdi’s monumental Requiem with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale, under the baton of music director Gustavo Dudamel.
This won’t be Green’s first appearance with Dudamel; the two musicians have collaborated in performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – also at the Bowl – and in opera, when Green sang Rocco in a semi-staged production of Beethoven’s Fidelio in 2022. The singer also performed the role of Kurwenal with the LA Philharmonic in last season’s Tristan und Isolde, and in his house debut at Opéra national de Paris.
SFCV caught up with the energetic bass-baritone on the phone from his home in Vienna, Austria, where he’s been living since 2014.
To say that your life story is inspirational is an understatement, but, in a nutshell, how did you manage to go from the cycle of poverty and violence to the pinnacle of musical success?
It cannot be done over a 20-minute phone call, but my story is a story of how great educators can be when they go to the next level. I’m a true story of “It takes a village.” There was no music in my family, I was not a prodigy, [but] I loved opera before I ever became good at it. I loved and wanted to be a part of it. Educators outside of music and inside music gave the extra mile, [and] saw a child who loved this art form in a way I didn’t have access to.
I didn’t have the monetary means, because being a classical musician is a very expensive endeavor. The more advanced you get — all the extracurricular things you have to be involved in — these cost money. But I had amazing educators from the beginning — when I was 14 or 15 — who gave me free voice lessons. And when my mother couldn’t pick me up, my teacher would drive me back to my trailer, so I could spend an extra hour, because he knew I needed the help. He also knew if I couldn’t get that help to move forward in the music system, that I would end up back in the streets. But that’s my childhood.
Winning the Met’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 2011 is also a huge part of your story, one Bergner chronicled and which became the basis of his bestselling book.
I didn’t think my life was book-worthy. I thought I was living what every other singer was living. I didn’t question my past or what I was putting into it. But Daniel called it writer’s intuition. He had a feeling [while] writing his article that I was someone he should probably pay attention to, even though at the time, I was competing against 22 of the best and brightest in the Met competition. In my year, I was probably the least qualified to be there, [but] I ended up being one of five grand final winners and was the only one chosen from the Met finals to go into the Met Lindemann [Young Artist Development] Program.
Since then, you’ve made numerous appearances at the Met, including during the 2021–22 season, reprising your Grammy Award-winning role of Jake in Porgy and Bess, Colline in La bohème, and also Truffaldino in Ariadne auf Naxos. And now, you’ll be singing Verdi’s Requiem at the Bowl with Dudamel. What are your thoughts on working with him?
In these kinds of Bowl rehearsal periods, they expect singers to come in knowing the music. But the amount of creativity that Dudamel has — it’s a given that he works with the orchestra, they’re a team, an entity, and he gets to work with them so much — it’s the perfect fit. He’s a singer’s conductor, not only an orchestra conductor. The moment I started singing, he was breathing with me. This is something I notice.
A singer is not just a bow or a string; our instrument is the body itself. It’s more than just a note that comes out of our mouth; it’s the breath we take; it creates overtones you hear. A next-level conductor sees the singer take a breath and knows he can complete the phrase. It’s an intricate dance, and not all conductors are created equally.
You’ve sung Verdi’s Requiem before, including at Tanglewood in 2017 with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. What keeps you coming back to it?
It’s impactful, and for me, it has become many things over the years. Life experiences help a classical musician so much, and the way I sang Verdi before my father passed away, it means more to me now. I understand why people sing it in moments of remembrance and honoring loss; singing the Requiem [to commemorate] 9/11, I understand what it means now.
I’ve sung in the chorus of the Requiem as a teen and young adult, but now when I hear those combined voices in declaration, exclamation, and remembrance, I have to keep myself not too focused [on that] because it’ll make me get emotional. And having to sing one of the big ensemble numbers after you shed a tear, getting emotional is intense. You have to find a happy medium between giving too much when you’re singing and not.
In March of this year, you sang in Courtney Bryan’s “Gathering Song,” a New York Philharmonic commission written for you. Then, in April, you were the lead at the Metropolitan Opera in Terence Blanchard’s Champion. What is your attraction to contemporary music?
I find modern music as a way to showcase what opera needs to be moving forward. Not only can we satiate those lovers of the classical opera repertory, but opera has always been about advancement, testing the boundaries, being relevant for the times. When Mozart wrote his operas, they were questioned, they weren’t beloved. Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, John Adams: I think of these composers and when their music came out — I wasn’t alive yet — but I heard they weren’t immediate successes, but they built followings. When rock came out, this was the devil’s music. Being in modern operas, I am lucky enough with social media I can interact with fans. I’ve gained 1,000 followers on social media because of Champion. They [were] not opera fans, but people hearing about it came to see it multiple times.
Speaking of Champion, it’s the agonizing true story of the closeted, world welterweight champion Emile Griffith, and it’s told in flashbacks. Since you’re nearly 6’5” and weighed some 300 pounds when you were cast, how did you prepare for the role?
When I got the role to portray a boxer on the grandest stage in the world, I didn’t take it lightly. I told [Met General Manager] Peter Gelb, Blanchard, and Jim Robinson, the director, that not only would I sing Terence’s music to the highest standard I could sing it at — but that I would put my body and my mind to portray Emile. Even at my smallest, you’d have to cut half my body to be a welterweight, but [I knew] I would put in the work to portray a boxer.
The day after that, I went to my gym. They had a 6 a.m. beginners’ boxing class, and it was basically about six or seven women and me. I’d never thrown a punch in a ring — but obviously in juvie — and barely made it through five minutes of a 60-minute session. But it was some of the greatest beginning weeks of my training life, and the trainer ended up being my personal trainer. He trained me three to four times a week and gave me regimens to do while I was traveling.
I trained for another two months, four to five times a week, doing shadowboxing, jump rope routines, running, and I lost 100 pounds. I also had help from Blanchard, who put me in contact with Michael Bentt, a former heavyweight champion of the world. It taught me a life lesson about what I could do physically, not only vocally.
What have you learned from the art form that you can pass on to aspiring opera singers?
Classical music, as much as video games, reading a book, or playing a sport, can be therapeutic to help you discover what makes you happy. Opera can make you feel that [with] its varied styles and voice types. If you can be in that room for an hour — if you can sing in front of your peers, it’s harder than an audience — you can lead a meeting of high executives at a bank or a board meeting.
Studying classical music helps build team skills; it builds self-confidence, but not everybody’s meant to be a star or in the NFL. The life skills you get from pursuing classical music seriously will prepare you in a way that football won’t — and you’ll still have your knees. For me, it was never about being the best or the greatest, it was about the journey. I was so happy to be a part of this field.
The prestige, the grandeur, the 400 plus years of history: To be a part of that, to be in the chorus, second soldier, the unnamed guy to the left — to be a part of that was success already. Being a lead wasn’t what I thought [I would be] five years ago. But it’s becoming a reality. There’s no such thing as a small role in opera — every line matters.