In January 2020, tenor Michael Spyres flew in from New York City as a last minute, matinee performance substitute for the ailing superstar Lawrence Brownlee. In what became legend, Spyres sang the role of Fernand in La favorite standing on one side of the stage while the assistant director for the Houston Grand Opera production walked the role.
It was an impressive debut at HGO for Spyres, who returns this month as one of the title characters in Romeo and Juliet and described his return engagement as "much more calm to be honest. It’s quite a wonderful experience to spend more than 24 hours in Houston."
HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers approached Spyres about doing this opera about 2-1/2 years ago, the tenor said. It has been 12 years since Spyres first performed this opera in Dublin. "This opera is one of the most grand is not the grand opera to do other than [librettist Charles] Gounod's Faust. Everyone knows of Shakespeare and Gounod does such an amazing job of capturing Shakespeare's words, The entire libretto is remarkable. This opera is the pinnacle of beauty and love in the operatic world."
So with all these accolades, why isn't it done more often?
"The reason it’s not done so often is it’s a warhorse," Spyres said. "Towards the end of the opera there’s this kind of almost mad scene for the tenor because it's a long soliloquy that's in such a high tessitura after you’ve already sung four difficult acts and feats of vocal heights. I would say the hardest thing is keeping your cool during the fight scenes while you're singing. You have to convey this anger and and virility but also be calm, cool and collected within to not rip your chords apart."
"The same thing in Act V toward the end is where most of these tenors crash and burn. The first time I did it I was successful about half the time I was on stage." he said, laughing.
" I would say the hardest thing is keeping your cool during the fight scenes while you're singing. You have to convey this anger and and virility but also be calm, cool and collected within to not rip your chords apart."
In the tomb scene in Act V, Juliet (Adriana Gonzalez) has already taken the potion and is dead. "Romeo comes to the tomb and says his final goodbyes and takes the poison but then they have this euphoria and it kind of basically goes back over the highlights of the opera. You have to go back over the challenging melodies that popped up over the opera. It's a beast of a sing," Spyres said.
Spyres said he grew up singing country and folk and still to this day he'll play his guitar and sing that music. But he considers opera the pinnacle of music. "It's an almost unattainable form of beauty."
Romeo and Juliet requires the two leads to project innocence and beauty "but also the strength to go through this gauntlet of vocal singing," Spyres said. "That's why French grand opera to me was the pinnacle of operatic writing. Nothing has really gone beyond this for what the voice can do."
"This particular production, it's everything you want opera to be. By that I mean there are going to be truly amazing costumes; some of the most beautiful costumes I’ve seen. Yet the essence and the purity of how Tomer [Zvulun] the director has conceived this opera — playing with everyone's remembrances of Shakespeare. Within the opera he has chosen to make the Montagues, we are a troupe of actors within the opera. That's why we're the lower class. We're the ones who are dancing around and playing for Juliet's quinceañera, her ball. And we fall in love through that. We are putting on the play of Midsummer Night's Dream at the beginning of the opera in Romeo and Juliet. There are so many ideas but it's kind of in that ether of people knowing Shakespeare and who Shakespeare was. It's set within the Globe Theatre."
Asked why the story of Romeo and Juliet continues to resonate, Spyres said:
"I think it’s because we have this feeling inside of ourselves of the profundity of love and sacrifice within ourselves and some people even if we’re not religious we do have morals and things that drive us and two of the strongest factors in humanity are love or lack thereof and giving up something for that love."
Performances are scheduled for April 29 through May 11 at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Wednesday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $20-$210.