BWW Interview: Bryan Hymel Talks French Opera, Physiology, and Stamina
Praised by NPR as the "new king of the high C's", touted by the French media as the "new hero of French opera...without equal", tenor Bryan Hymel's rapid rise is being followed by opera mavens worldwide. French conductor Emmanuel Villaume describes Hymel's voice as having the qualities of "great agility, brilliant top...full-bodied...like no other these days." Winner of the 2013 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for his performances in Les Troyens, Robert le diable, and Rusalka at London's Royal Opera House, and also the Metropolitan Opera's Beverly Sills Artist Award for his Troyens debut there, the New Orleans native brings his youthful passion and remarkable fort ténor to the opera stage worldwide.
EM: I'm so impressed with what I've been reading and hearing about you. Your upcoming schedule is mind-boggling.
BH: Yes, it's a little crazy but I've survived. I have a month or so to recharge the batteries. Right now I'm kicking back. It's 82 degrees in New Orleans.
EM: Your newly released first solo album for Warner Classics, Héroïque (http://www.amazon.com/Héroïque-French-Opera-Bryan-Hymel/dp/B00P97SHNQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421077330&sr=8-1&keywords=bryan+hymel+heroique&tag=smarturl-20), received five stars on Amazon. Congratulations! When did the album release?
BH: A few weeks ago. It was a great experience. As I'm sure you know, trying to get a major label behind you and take a chance was a huge hurdle in and of itself before we even recorded anything, let alone a program like this - it's all rib-eye steaks or big entrées. [Laughs] You have to take into consideration not just how the record will play from beginning to end but how individually the tracks might be interesting to people on things like Spotify, Pandora, Google Radio and iTunes.
EM: It's a whole different experience to record now with all the various media that have cropped up. Being an artist is not what it used to be.
BH: It's more complicated. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the artist, especially your first CD, to put something out that is impressive, representative and also beautiful - its own little work of art. It was right before the baby was born when they had agreed and we started talking about what the project was going to be, and she's now 16 months. [Laughs] It started off mainly being a CD of Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Rossini, but they decided they wanted more composers for a CD of 65 minutes, so we found a lot of other options.
EM: Any plans for another recording?
BH: It's a 3-recording deal, so If everything keeps going well hopefully will have three total. We're trying to decide if we will stay with this French heroic one or do Donizetti or some of the other Verdi. I want to do something in Italian, where there's a niche I will be able to step into.
EM: I'm certainly looking forward to that. I saw the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41NTaw4sMFE) where you're recording an aria from Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Pardon me for asking, but exactly how many high C's do you sing in that aria?
BH: That's a tricky one. There's ten between the aria and cabaletta, if you do both verses You have to do both to get the one more High C than the nine in La Fille du Regiment.
EM: And you make it sound so easy!
BH: Oh, thank you. We were trying to decide if we were going to do two verses because it's the same music and every second has to count. In the end we decided it was just more fun to do it the way it was presented. The trend right now is to do things more the way they were written and be as faithful to that as we can. In a recording you might sacrifice some of the excitement of the opera house. In arias like the one from Les Troyens I sang it literally the way I would have in the show, but really true to the French style. For instance at the end of the aria when I sing, [Sings] I hold that last note as long as I can and then take a breath. Emmanuel (Villaume, the conductor) was like, "This is not very French." [Laughs]
EM: Do you consider Guillaume Tell, written in French by Rossini, French or Italian repertoire? Do you feel more comfortable in one or the other?
BH: Rossini, being Italian but writing for the French, obviously knew that style. What may be a bit tricky is the setting of the French words. Italian is more straightforward. Of the Rossini and Verdi I've sung, they're probably one foot in French, one foot in Italian. When you hire a Rossini or a Verdi to come over and write you a French opera, they are writing in a different style. When you ask a Michelangelo to come back later and paint something impressionistic, it would still be him as the artist, but pointing in a certain direction. Opera being a multinational and multi-linguistic art form, once you develop your own perspective of different kinds of music, then you can have a real opinion about whether it's Italian or French.
EM: It sounds like you feel equally comfortable in both.
BH: Absolutely. There are different challenges. What makes French more difficult than Italian are vowels. The closed "u" and "e" are very tricky to get your throat around. I think people say, "It sounds so easy in your voice," because I figured out a way to keep it open in my throat and closed in my mouth in the pronunciation. It's tricky to separate those two things because you think the voice and throat are all one. That's true from a strictly organic point of view, but your tongue and your jaw are the articulators that make the vowels and consonants specific and clear. If you let that creep down in your throat you end up getting a very tight "e." It's taken me a lot of time to figure out how to do that. With Italian the throat is always open and even on an "e" vowel the composer would write it differently. (Gilbert) Duprez, who did his vocal studies in Italy, knew how to approach that, and I think this is what led to His full-chested high C that made it different and exciting, singing the way the audiences in Paris had not experienced before, certainly in their own language.
EM: You received high praise from Paris Soir as having the potential to become "the greatest fort ténor since Georges Thill. Would the phrase "French heldentenor" accurately describe your voice?
BH: [Laughs] I think it's funny, the way people term themselves. Georges Thill, probably the most famous French tenor of recent history aside from Alagna, also trained in Italy, but people don't realize it - they just say, "He's French." In Italy Thill studied bel canto style. To be the reigning tenor of the French repertoire, as in Robert le diable, he had to be a marvelous singer. But it's a different kind of voice, a different kind of throat, the way it's constructed. Whatever it is about the Italian sound that makes a singer sound Italian there's something physiological there. I think Georges Thill's voice was a little lower than mine from the recordings of his I've heard. But I don't think the French have a heldentenor. It's such a German word, and those Wagnerian roles are a good step or step and a half lower than the French ones. A lot of French people don't even like Berlioz because they think he's too bombastic and kind of crazy and out there. For me I love it. Berlioz has been so good to me because what he wrote fits my throat.
EM: The role of Enée in Les Troyens is infamously difficult to sing. As a Met Opera violinist I heard many tenors struggle with it. Could you describe your experience in your debut at the Met with this role?
BH: It was amazing. It was still fresh in my mind as I had done eight performances and one concert performance for the Proms in London. So I spent a lot of time with that role which I already had known because I did it in Amsterdam. It's not marathon-long but it's really difficult. We had seven weeks of rehearsal in Amsterdam - two months to work on Troyens in a low-pressure situation. It's also a role where I can identify with the character and vocally. From a singer's point of view I could treat it like a comfortable shoe or a glove that you just put on. There's not one moment I stress over the night before when I'm lying in bed thinking, "Oh man, I hope this part goes well tomorrow." [Laughs]
EM: It must take a lot of stamina because of the heaviness of the orchestration and the amount of sustaining that you have to do. In these longer and heavier roles, is stamina important?
BH: Although Troyens stretches over 5 ½ hours, my role itself is not that long, probably about the same amount of time as in the Duke in Rigoletto, though you probably have more high notes. [Laughs] I timed it out in London. If you pace it right, like an athlete would, you're warmed up, you give what you need to give, and then you turn it off. You can't keep your energy up for that hour and a half between leaving the stage in the first part and coming back for the second part. Once you go on in the second part then it's like starting a real opera. You're on stage almost the whole time including the ballet and ensembles. That's the trickiest part, because you're onstage for a good 45 minutes even when you're not singing. Through eight performances in London I learned a lot about the role and myself.
EM: Sounds like you were really primed by the time you got to the Met.
BH: In London after seven performances of Robert le diable right before I went to the Met, I had been so disciplined about rest. When I arrived at the Met I couldn't have asked to be in better shape. Or a better place.
EM: Is there any special challenge in learning and performing such infrequently done roles as Robert le diable, Edgar and L'Africaine?
BH: Robert was really difficult and tricky. When Covent Garden came to me they said to take six months and learn it and make a decision to do it or not. With a major house like that it was a luxury. I took it to my teacher and he said, "You can do this, but I'm afraid you might get pigeonholed in the 'freak' tenor repertoire, and that would be a shame because there are other things you can do." I decided to just go for it. What makes it difficult is you have to get three or four really top-notch singers, two different kinds of sopranos, and a bass with a two-octave range, and adequate rehearsal time. That's the biggest reason why it doesn't get done. L'Africaine is probably a little bit easier. It's not as long as Robert le diable and probably doesn't require the same amount of voices. People gripe about Meyerbeer and say it's very stylized. That may be true in some ways but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. There was a time when Rossini was not being done so much at the big theaters.
EM: Is there any German repertoire in your future?
BH: I'm probably going to do a Meistersinger in about three years. Of the German roles this one is high, but the character of Walter is a young guy. My voice won't be ready for the heavy Wagnerian repertoire at that point, but I can sing the prize song with a youthful, beautiful romantic sound as opposed to just being loud.
EM: And you don't have a Ring orchestra to sing over.
BH: Exactly. The other Wagner's are equally high but brutal. If I get there, fine. If not... It's hard to say what your voice is going to do 10 years from now. It's hard enough to say what your voice is going to do five years from now. Plus there's all the Italian repertoire, which lies a bit higher. For me right now the higher I go the more comfortable it is, and I think the more success it has. As you were saying, in the CD it sounds easy. My manager told me, "Sometimes you just need to look like you're trying a little bit harder. That's what makes it exciting from the audience standpoint. The crowd wants to see you sweat a little bit sometimes." [Laughs]
Photo Credit: Dario Acosta
Courtesy of Warner Music Group