A Talk with Michael Spyres about SRO's "Don Pasquale," and His Career Path

Mar 10, 2017

Springfield Regional Opera presents Donizetti's comedy "Don Pasquale" this weekend at the Gillioz Theatre.
Credit (Poster design courtesy Springfield Regional Opera)

March 11th and 12th Springfield Regional Opera presents an opera you can’t refuse! It’s an updated version of Donizetti’s comic masterpiece “Don Pasquale.” “The Don” is a wealthy older man who decides to teach his lecherous nephew a lesson, but is then tricked by his friend into unwittingly agreeing to marry Norina, who is also the love of his nephew’s life AND the sister of Pasquale's friend. Hijinks ensue as the sham marriage is embraced and everyone turns “The Don’s” Italian restaurant, and life, upside down to teach him a lesson. “Don Pasquale” will be in sung in Italian with English supertitles, starring bass-baritone Ben Wager (pictured in the poster accompanying this story), tenor John Irvin, soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres, and bass-baritone Richard Todd Payne, with musical direction by Christopher Koch and stage direction by Sean Spyres. Performances are Saturday march 11 at 7:30pm and Sunday the 12th at 2:30pm at the Gillioz Theatre, 325 Park Central East.  Tickets range from $25-$45.  For information call the Gillioz box office at 863-9491 or visit www.sropera.org.

But that’s just one of SRO’s current big news items.  The other is that SRO’s Artistic Director, internationally celebrated tenor Michael Spyres, sang with the legendary Placido Domingo at Lyric Opera of Chicago Thursday night March 9.  It was a gala concert “Celebrating Domingo”, and Spyres was chosen by Domingo and Chicago Lyric to sing the tenor lead of Alfredo in a fully-staged performance of Act 2 of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”  Domingo—now 75 and, having given up the lead tenor roles that defined his 50-year career—sang the baritone role of Giorgio Germont.  Joining them as Violetta was one of today’s leading lyric sopranos, Ailyn Perez.   Spyres flew back to Springfield today in order to be able to present  the pre-performance talks before this weekend's "Don Pasquale" performances.

Says Michael Spyres, “I met Domingo a couple of years ago at an after-party” following a performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. Spyres was there to sing the ridiculously high and difficult title role (a recurring theme in Spyre’s career, as you’ll see) in Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini,” while Domingo was performing the baritone role of Jacopo Foscari in Verdi’s “I Due Foscari.” Chatting with Domingo, Spyres told him he’d always looked up to him, and that like him, Spyres began singing as a baritone.  Domingo replied, “I’ve heard good things about you!”  Spyres reacted with surprise, but Domingo said, “Yes, of course! Anybody who sings Cellini, I want to know who it is, because it’s the only (tenor) role I didn’t get to sing that I wanted to!” That led eventually to Domingo suggesting Spyres as Alfredo for this gala concert in Chicago.

“It’s really an honor—and, especially, a dream—because I never actually got to hear Domingo sing live... until I’m standing next to him and singing with him in a rehearsal the other day!  It was surreal, because 20 years ago I started with the Springfield Regional Opera in the chorus.  And I watched the big ‘Three Tenors Concert’ that became so famous, and I thought, ‘Someday I want to meet those guys, and I want to sing with Domingo!’  And, well, 20 years later, here I am!”

Michael Spyres is a Springfield Regional Opera product, and a native of the Ozarks. When his extraordinary upper range and agility were discovered, Spyres began to specialize in what he jokingly calls “my weird, obscure repertoire—Rossini, Mozart and things.” Unfortunately for him, at the time most of the major American opera companies basically told him, “Uh, yeah, that’s not gonna work here in the States.” So Spyres decided he needed to work on his foreign languages “and really get good at this ‘weird’ stuff, so I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and haven’t looked back.”

Over the past 10 to 15 years Michael Spyres has established an enviable reputation throughout Europe performing some of the most daunting 18th- and 19th-century tenor roles in the major opera houses there.  And in fact, his concert appearance with Placido Domingo is his third major production at Lyric Opera of Chicago. In the past four years he has sung there in two popular operettas: Johann Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus,” and Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” the latter opposite superstar soprano Renee Fleming.

Still, the Big Bertha of American opera companies, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, has yet to come calling on Michael Spyres.  As he explains, “A lot of people don’t realize singers are not really that much in control of our own destinies. We do what we do, and hopefully people like us. But every opera house is different—they’re basically small governments.  And if certain ‘governments’ don’t like you, then you’re out of luck.  You’ve got to find work somewhere else—which is initially why I moved to Europe so many years ago.”

Actually, that turned out to be an excellent career choice, as Spyres has sung lead roles not only at Chicago Lyric and Covent Garden in London, but at La Scala in Milan, the Liceu in Barcelona, and the Paris Opera, establishing himself as an expert in the “bel canto” repertoire (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti), Mozart, and mid-19th century French Grand Opera.

Spyres still spends up to eight months every year performing in Europe; the rest of the time he’s here administering Springfield Regional Opera and spending time with wife Tara and their children. “I’m starting to break into the U.S. scene, but a lot of people don’t realize that it’s very much two opera worlds (the U.S. and Europe), and there are very few people that have their foot in both.  So it’s taking a little while to come back here, because there’s the old adage, ‘you’re not “exotic” enough if you come from a place!’  So you have to go away, make it, and come back. So that’s the stage of career that I’m in. I was able to make quite a bit of headway in Europe, and now pretty much every country in Europe I’ve sung in, and will be in the next couple of years as well.”  But he wants to sing in the United States more often, “because I love the opera scene in the States, and the audiences are, quite frankly, much more hungry for this type of theater, because the opportunities are few and far between.”

As for the MET, Michael Spyres’s attitude is “never say never.” “A lot of my colleagues and my good friends from Europe are starting to create a new Renaissance with this type of music—especially the Rossini singers: Joyce di Donato, Lawrence Brownlee, John Osborn.  They’re starting to become more in the mainstream everywhere.  And you’re even seeing more ‘bel canto’, Donizetti and so on, at the MET. I really hope this is the emergence of another ‘bel canto’ era... because that will get me a lot of work!” he says, laughing.

The discussion about the “bel canto” period relates directly to Springfield Regional Opera’s current production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale.”  It is a product of the bel canto period—but, says Spyres, “The interesting thing about it is, many historians have said that it’s the last ‘Opera buffa,’ the last in the long line of the tradition of operas that take their precedence from ‘commedia dell’ arte’ and the old stories of stock characters that tell common-people stories rather than stories about gods or kings. People will readily recognize who’s the ‘dumb’ one, who are the lovers, and who’s the ‘schemer.’”  He considers “opera buffa” to be “a much heightened version” of vaudeville, in a way.

This production of “Don Pasquale” is a true family affair—“talk about nepotism!” Spyres jokes. In addition to his wife, soprano Tara Stafford-Spyres singing the role of Norina, the stage director is Spyres’s brother Sean Spyres, who is himself a classically-trained tenor and voice teacher, in addition to serving as SRO’s Development Coordinator.  Not only that, their mother did the costumes, and their father helped with the sets, in addition to playing small parts onstage.  (A very musical and theatrical family, this!) “Life is a stage, and that’s exactly how my whole family has treated everything. We’ve been doing it together since the day I was born.” And that includes his sister, Boston-based singer-actress-violinist Erica Spyres, who is currently on tour singing the music of Gershwin with the Boston Pops.  “I tried to get tickets in Kansas City,” says Michael Spyres, “and I couldn’t even get them—they were totally sold out!  She’s doing pretty well for herself.”

And so is Michael Spyres.  His itinerary over the next several months makes the head spin.  In three weeks he’ll be involved in a major recording (and live performances) of Berlioz’s gigantic grand opera “Les Troyens” (The Trojans).  Spyres will sing the lead tenor role of Aeneas (a role Domingo sang at the MET, by the way), along with mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato as Dido.  It’s for the Warner Classics label and is scheduled for summer release. Then he’ll embark on a series of operatic title roles: first his debut in Zurich in the title role of Haydn’s “Orlando Palladino,” then back to Covent Garden to sing Mozart’s “Mitridate,” followed by Hoffmann in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at the Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper) in Munich. Oh, then there’s a BBC Proms concert with conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner in yet another Berlioz work, “The Damnation of Faust.”  (Yes, Michael will sing Faust.) “So, not bad,” Spyres muses. “I can’t complain!”