But life for Green didn’t start out that way. The African-American singer was born to poor parents, endured a violent childhood and was placed in juvenile detention before he reached his teens. And then, he turned his life around in ways he — and those around him — could scarcely have imagined.
His story is chronicled by journalist Daniel Bergner (@bergnerdaniel) in the newly released “Sing for Your Life.” Here & Now‘s Robin Young discussed Green’s past, and his burgeoning operatic career, with Green and Bergner at the Met, on a recent visit.
Here’s Green during a Met performance of “La Bohème”:
Book Excerpt: ‘Sing For Your Life’
By Daniel Bergner
Ryan Speedo Green did not belong here. He didn’t belong in the hotel room they had booked for him, where the headboard was high and plush and the light was faintly gold. There was more gold in the lobby, lots of it: the shimmering antique frame of the huge mirror beside the elevators; the austere silk curtains that rose three stories toward the vaulted ceiling; the velvet of the deeply curved couches; the abstract sculpture at the turn of the stairs.
Each time he left the lobby, passing under the hotel’s marquee and facing Lincoln Center, in the middle of New York City, he felt even less at home. He climbed the broad steps to the Lincoln Center plaza and was surrounded by towering white stone columns that made him think of ancient stadiums—Olympians competing for Zeus’s pleasure and gladiators battling one another for survival. At the far side of the square stood the opera hall. This was the home of the Met, the greatest opera company in the country. The building looked as grand and remote as the White House.
As he started to traverse the plaza, the fountain ahead of him was almost inaudible. But as he neared the circular pool, the countless silvery plumes of shooting water created not a loud trickle or a concentrated splash: the heavy plumes produced a crescendo of sound that compounded the anxiety or thrill he felt on any given crossing of the square. It was a crossing he made repeatedly during those few days — in the early spring of 2011 — leading up to the semifinals of the contest.
Behind him, the clamor of the fountain hushed swiftly. In front of him were the giant poster stands, the posters announcing the season’s productions, lead singers photographed in dramatic shadow, and the opera house — the series of archways, the excess of glass, the vast murals with their airborne goddesses, their harp, cello, violins, horns. Beyond the windows hung an array of chandeliers with their pinpoints of pale gold light, and beyond the chandeliers was an aura of darker gold.
Backstage, awaiting his turn to sing, Ryan definitely did not belong, but there he was on the Sunday of the semis. This was the most revered competition in America for would-be opera stars. Twenty-two singers had made it this far after the district and regional rounds. Ryan was slotted eighteenth of the twenty-two for his minutes in front of the judges. He listened to the others; he couldn’t escape their voices as he sat in the common area outside the dressing rooms, where their performances were piped in. But it wasn’t only the voices themselves that confirmed how misplaced he was. It was the backgrounds of the other semifinalists. One had begun vocal training at seven, another at eight. His rivals brandished the invisible badges of having studied at the country’s most prestigious conservatories, at Curtis or the Academy of Vocal Arts or Juilliard. They not only belonged—for years they had been destined for this moment here at the Met.
Ryan’s home, in southeastern Virginia, was as much a shack as a house, with bullet holes above his mother’s bedroom window. Before that, he’d grown up in a trailer park; before that, in low-income housing. Along the way, he spent time locked up in Virginia’s institution of last resort for juveniles judged to be a threat to themselves or to everyone around them.
And Ryan was black. There was one other African American among the selected twenty-two, but she’d had a much different upbringing. A part of him — a driven, half-conscious part — sang to make race disappear.
Excerpted from the book SING FOR YOUR LIFE: A Story of Race, Music and Family. Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Bergner. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.