Bryan Hymel - Héroïque (Warner Classics)
"The first time I went to an opera, I guess I was 18, and let's just say I wasn't bowled over by it."
That's tenor Bryan Hymel, who was born and raised in New Orleans. "Music in New Orleans is everywhere," he continues. "When I was younger, I was in church choir and playing piano and playing trumpet. I still play for fun. When I switched over in high school, I concentrated on piano. But I couldn't be in a practice room by myself and practice eight hours a day, I was too social."
So Bryan Hymel got involved in theater and eventually went on to study at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.
Then, like so many rising opera stars, he got the call to step in on short notice, at London's Covent Garden, to sing one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire. He played Aeneas in Les Troyens by Berlioz. "But it was one of those things where I got the call. I knew it was a big break and I knew it was risk, but I felt like it was a calculated risk," Hymel recalls. "I knew the opera house, the audience, the conductor. So that's just the kind of chance you have to take in this business."
Bryan Hymel has found his niche in the heroic tenor roles of French opera, which require agility, stamina, lyricism and stellar high notes. For his first recital disc, Héroïque, he soars through 11 of these demanding arias. "The French composers were writing in a very particular way, different from the Italian composers," Hymel explains. "I think the French style of singing is a mix between chest voice and head voice. The notes are higher, the tessitura, so the majority of the notes in the pieces and in the roles, sit higher than they would be in their Italian counterparts. So I think that's what makes it particularly challenging."
And not just how high the notes are, but the number of high notes: the difference between singing three high C's and singing ten. And that's what we have in this first track here from Guillaume Tell, which was written by an Italian but in French, originally.
"Also, there is the length," Hymel says. "Guillaume Tell has two ballets, Troyens has one proper ballet and then these extended orchestral pieces which tell the story, but end up making for a very long evening in the theater. All those things together make it a huge undertaking."
Add in the emotional investment required of each character, and you have the perfect recipe for a riveting evening of drama and passion, like that heard in a little-known opera called Sigurd, by Ernest Reyer. "If you think of something like Sigurd, where he's in the forest and the orchestration creates such an atmosphere you almost see the haze and you feel the presence of these massive trees in a forest you'd find in Germany I have to capture that in my voice, his kind of hesitancy and struggles with himself: Am I going to be able to do this, what is going to happen? He decides, 'Even if I face death, I'm going to face it with courage and with a full heart in my mission'."
Bryan Hymel's heart is in New Orleans most of the time, where he and his wife, Greek soprano Irini Kyriakidou, and their two daughters live right next door to Bryan's grandmother. And if you're lucky, you might run into Bryan at his favorite supermarket, Central Grocery in New Orleans, where he may transform the produce section into an impromptu stage for Massenet's Herodiade, or Henri Rabaud's Rolande et le Mauvais Garçon, which closes out this recording.
"I love that Herodiade, and the exchange between the cello and the voice. The character goes through such a journey," Bryan explains. "He's so strong on his faith, he's ready to be martyred and to be ridiculed for this and then you hear it in the cello: How he goes into his thoughts, how he's struggling with his attraction to Salome and here he is. He asks God, 'If I'm your child, how can I be faced with this?' And that struggle is the human experience.
"And the Rabaud as well it's so beautiful. Alain says you have to hear the smile, you have to hear the sun come out on the aria, and so that's why we were happy to end with that one."