As a youngster, Michael Mayes would sometimes accompany his father to his job as an electronics technician working on pipelines stretching from Amarillo to South Texas. Along the way, they'd sing bluegrass and country music. "My dad taught me how to sing harmony," Mayes says.
On Saturday, May 8, baritone Mayes will join other opera singers — courtesy of Houston Grand Opera — to perform My Favorite Things: Songs from The Sound of Music outdoors at the University of Houston TDECU Stadium. Thanks to COVID-19 hijacking the performing arts for the last year, HGO's plan to present this as a fully staged musical theater option last spring didn't happen.
But there is one saving grace about moving it from the Wortham Center to an open air stadium.
"You can sing along," Mayes says. In fact, they want the audience to do just that as selections from the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein II musical are performed by Mayes as Captain von Trapp and Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique as Maria. The HGO Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by HGO Chorus Master Richard Bado, will accompany the pair. And Megan Marino, Mayes' wife, will perform as Elsa Schraeder and a co-host.
Musical theater isn't anything new for Mayes, who was last seen here in the title role of HGO's 2019 production of Rigoletto. He grew up in Cut and Shoot, Texas. "I grew up wanting to be Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson. Not Pavarotti." His mother had VHS tapes of The Sound of Music and Music Man on speed dial. "Sound of Music is very close to my heart. My parents are going to get to come down from Tom Bean (near Sherman)."
As far as singing went, he sang in church and eventually the Conroe High School choir. He says he wanted to be a football player but he broke his fingers, was ejected from typing class and got moved into school choir. "That's when I discovered western classical music." Once there he did well enough to make all state in choir and ended up getting a college scholarship "to sing."
His original plan was to get a business degree but as he discovered, "when you study music at North Texas you study — and it's singing — you study opera. For me it was sort of like the NFL of singing. There's no microphone and it's kind of an athletic endeavor. Plus it's got the artistic side and being the good old boy from the South storytelling has always been something that's close to my heart. So it put a lot of things together that I really enjoyed. So by the time I left college I figured that was going to be my path." (Although to this day he and his wife sing and play in a blue grass band.)
During the last several months of the pandemic, Mayes says he's been able to perform in some outdoor settings with the Atlanta Opera. In fact, two days before the first day of rehearsal with HGO, he and his wife drove to Houston from their home in South Carolina with their two dogs (Buster Scruggs, a Jack Russell terrier, and Peak "a big ole puppy") right after finishing a performance of Carmen.
Asked why people should come to this performance, Mayes says he knows from his experience in Atlanta what it means to people to be in an audience and take in live music. "It's that group catharsis that we all get. We've all been missing that.
"Something like Sound of Music which everybody knows and everybody has an emotional connection to is a great way for all of us to get together and build a little empathy," he says.
"I can tell you for me having seen it as a child, it became part of my childhood. When I hear that music it takes me back to sitting on the couch with my mother and watching the shows together and going through the journey that Maria goes on and the kids go on. There is this sort of sense of someone who comes from austerity, being lifted from that and in so doing gives insight into the human condition. I think those are narratives that we as Americans really enjoy."
The outdoor performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8 at the TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston main campus. Gates open at 6 p.m. with before-show performances. For ticket information, visit uh.evenue.net. $10 adults, $7.50 youth 16 and under. Plus fees.
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