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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Michael Mayes

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Michael Mayes
Michael Mayes. Photo by Michael Yeshion.

Today's subject Michael Mayes is living his theatre life playing a murderer on death row in the Washington National Opera production of Dead Man Walking. Michael has performed the role of Joseph De Rocher in multiple productions -including one at Central City Opera in Denver, Colorado - and now local arts aficionados can see him play it at the Kennedy Center's Opera House through March 11th. Dead Man Walking merges the worlds of theatre and opera together, and features a libretto by Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally and score by esteemed composer Jake Heggie.

This talented and versatile Baritone is known for his portrayals of iconic characters in the operatic repertoire. Originally from Cut and Shoot, Texas, Michael has performed with many opera companies across the United States, including Cincinnati Opera, Palm Beach Opera, Kentucky Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, Arizona Opera, Central City Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, and Fort Worth Opera.

Sometimes talent emerges in the most unlikely of places. As you will read, Michael is a guy who had no intention of going into opera. He is now constantly working and shows no signs of stopping.

To play a mass murderer, you need a strong presence in your performer. Michael has been quoted as having a "powerful" voice and an "arresting stage presence." I think that fits the bill for this character, don't you?

Check out Dead Man Walking for one of the most thought-provoking operatic experiences you are most likely to find. With Michael Mayes in the leading role, it will be that much better.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in classical music as opposed to another genre? Where did you receive your training?

I didn't. It chose me. I grew up singing bluegrass music in Cut and Shoot Texas near Houston. Opera was the farthest thing from my mind. A football injury led me to choir. I went to college on a scholarship. I was going for business, but ended up getting a Bachelor's degree from the University of North Texas in vocal performance. Opera is such a challenging way of singing and it became a part of my life. I also attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Michael Mayes
Michael Mayes in the Washington National Opera production of Dead Man Walking. Photo by Scott Suchman.

For those that might not be familiar with the story of Dead Man Walking, can you please give us a brief overview?

It's a story of a convicted rapist and murderer sent to death row. He reaches out to a nun named Sister Helen Prejean and asks her to become a spiritual adviser. The whole idea of the piece is getting Joseph to 'fess up and find redemption. It's not just about the death penalty. It asks a question, and allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. It was devastating to the community in which he lived, as well as his own family.

Can you please tell us something about your character?

Joseph is very well educated. He's from the south and is based on several people. He represents the poor guy that can't express himself and is angry at the world. The first thing we see in the opera are the crimes. There is no doubt he did what he did. We strip away the dehumanizing element and see that Joseph is a real person. The opera not only gives the audience insight into Sister Helen's journey to become the woman who would eventually make this her entire life's work, but it depicts in Technicolor, the enormous pain and loss that Joseph has inflicted not only on the lives of his victims, but his family as well. Joseph's capacity for rage far exceeds his own capacity to express that rage healthily due to a myriad of economic and social factors.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Michael Mayes
Michael Mayes as Older Thompson in the Fort Worth Opera Festival production of Glory Denied. Photo by Ellen Appel.

Non-traditional casting is big in musical theatre. Is it the same in opera?

I like to say I'm not a real opera singer. Most of my work is with new material, but with a heavy shift to Puccini and such. The trappings of type aren't as prevalent in opera as they are in musical theatre. If you have the right voice, they'll make sure you look the part. Joseph is in his late 20s and I'm 41.

What is the best piece of advice you can give to a singer just beginning an opera career?

Number one thing is don't forget how to person. I'm an actor first. If I experience an emotion then it will manifest in the lyrics. Maintain an open throat and let the emotions come naturally. I worked at Steppenwolf for five years and saw the actors morph into their roles. There is nothing better than singing in America in the vernacular and bringing it to the audience like I saw Gary Sinise and others do at Steppenwolf.

What does the rest of 2017 look like for you work-wise?

I go to Pensacola, Florida for another production of Dead Man Walking. I also have a concert of Everest at Dallas Opera and then a hits concert at Fort Worth Opera. I'm singing Escamillo in Carmen at Central City Opera this summer. This fall brings a Bess Morrison project. I will play Lucifer in Rev. 24. At the end of the year, there's Dead Man Walking in Spain. I love playing this role. I debuted in it five years ago, and my career and life has changed because of it.

Special thanks to Christina Kucan for her assistance in coordinating this interview. Additional assistance was provided by Kennedy Center's opera publicist Michael Solomon.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.

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