by Harold C. Ford
In 1994 at the age of 12, Ryan Speedo Green was taken forcibly to Virginia’s infamous DeJarnette Center after he threatened to kill his mother and his brother. The lowest point for Green at DeJarnette may have been when his downward spiraling behavior landed him in solitary confinement, as related by Daniel Bergner in the 2016 book Sing for Your Life, A Story of Race, Music and Family:
“He stood at the door pounding, pounding. ‘I’m going to put my foot up your ass!’ he shrieked at the girl who haunted him. ‘I’m going to kill you, white bitch!’ he told a nurse. ‘Racists!’ he accused. ‘Hawaiian bitch! I am perfectly fucking calm! I want the fuck out! I promise I will kill each and every one of you!’”
Flash-forward twenty years later to 2014 in Vienna, Austria:
“The early scorn of the critics faded away. Now, and as Ryan performed through the rest of the season, they called his singing ‘impeccable’ and his voice ‘voluminous and filled with beautiful colors’ and his talent ‘a true win for the Vienna State Opera’. As the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, Ryan sang to restore order to the world. He sang as the embodiment of morality in Mozart’s battle between the forces of impulse and the forces of the spirit, between the forces of dissolution and the forces of transcendence, between the agents of harm and those of healing. He sang the climactic scene in the opera that Flaubert had rated as one of ‘the three finest things God ever made’…sang over and over to Giovanni, ‘Answer me, you must answer me.’ Ryan sang with an untiring, unswayable, urgent need to wring repentance from chaos itself, to control and quell harm itself, sang so that ‘answer me’ seemed to replace the very oxygen in the theater.”
Daniel Bergner’s breathtaking true life tale of Ryan Speedo Green’s metamorphosis from a childhood mired in poverty, violence, and instability to an operatic bass-baritone sought after by the finest concert halls in the world is at once improbable and soaring.
Bergner lurches forward and backward in Green’s life throughout the book’s 311 pages in a pattern the reader may find mildly discomfiting. On the other hand, the back-and-forth narrative style appropriately serves to remind from whence Green came no matter the heights he achieves.
Unexpected rays of light begin to illuminate a path that allows Green to escape the destitution of his early years:
While locked in the juvie at DeJarnette, he is rewarded with the use a small radio for good behavior. “And I would sit in my room, and I would listen to the top 40 hits of 1998 and sing along to it in my room,” he told NPR’s Terri Gross in September 2016. “And that was my getting-away-from-where-I-was moment, you know, escaping in the music that I was listening to. And maybe that was also the beginning of my love for music.”
As a ten-year-old elementary student, he was assigned to a special class for the six or seven most troubled students. The room was run by a teacher named Mrs. Hughes.
“On his first day in the classroom, Ryan seized his desk and hurled it, sending his books flying and the desk crashing. ‘I’m not learning from no white woman,’ he said…The teacher glanced at Ryan’s desk and books scattered on the carpet. In all of her career, she’d never sent a student out of her room. ‘Never, never, never,’ she told (Bergner).”
Mrs. Hughes “suggested to Ryan that, if he wished, he could learn from the floor, since his desk and books were down there.” Hughes provided Green with creative lessons that would endure, including a love for the “content of character” principle in Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.
Hughes leads to Mr. Hughes, a voice teacher, who pulls strings that pave the way for Green’s enrollment in Virginia’s prestigious Governor’s School for the Arts.
At Governor’s, Green is mentored by Robert Brown Jr. “When I think of Mr. Brown…he’s this African American male, very tall,” Green told NPR. “And he inspired us, but he also was sort of like a boot camp drill sergeant, and he always put all of the boys and girls in shape and made sure that they were learning their music correctly. And he was more than that to me. He was a father figure to me at the time…I couldn’t afford dinner, so he would buy me food. And he even taught me how to drive. And I remember one moment, you know, I needed a winter coat, and so he bought me a winter coat…And he always pushed me to pursue my dream in opera.”
During his sophomore year at Governor’s, Brown led the school’s classical singers on a trip to New York, to the Metropolitan Opera and a performance of Carmen. It would change Green’s life. Bergner writes: “That night, the mezzo playing Carmen was an African American, Denyce Graves. Her voice dipped seductively, elevated coyly, turned every man onstage into a supplicant. Mr. Brown was acquainted with Graves somehow, and after the performance he took the kids backstage….But he (Green) was stunned when Graves, saying hello to the students, singled him out for a hug.”
That evening Green told Brown, “I’m going to sing at the Met.”
Bergner’s masterful tale should remind us that there are thousands of kids like Ryan Green in our own communities waiting for a radio, a Mrs. Hughes, a Mr. Brown, or a Denyce Graves. Sing For Your Life encourages introspection and begs the question: “What could I do to help turn around a kid’s life?”
For example, at this moment, in Michigan, there are more than 3,000 foster children waiting for a “forever family” according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
And right in Flint, Whaley’s Children’s Center houses dozens of needy children, many of whom are the victims of neglect and abuse; volunteer opportunities at Whaley are diverse and plentiful.
Motherly Intercession matches caring adults with dozens of school-age children, whose parents are incarcerated, for mentoring and tutoring experiences.
Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Flint and Genesee County helps children reach their potential by creating one-to-one relationships.
And frankly, speaking as an educator of 40-plus years myself, I am certain that nearly any school would welcome adult mentors and tutors who have passed the appropriate background checks.
Sing For Your Life will help readers understand the destructive social forces that create desperately needy kids in our society and provides rationale for the attendant organizations that try to rescue them. And Green’s story will also take you inside the ultra-competitive and demanding world of those who aspire to perform at the highest levels in the world of opera.
But at some point in the story of an accomplished person such as Green, he must convert the mentoring, teaching, and coaching into a successful performance. Eventually a youngster must peddle the bicycle on his own without training wheels or the guiding hand of an adult if he is to become a cyclist. In his ascendancy to a career in opera, that moment probably arrived for Green when, against many odds, he became one of five winners of the very competitive Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in March 2011.
Ken Noda, one of the Met’s most revered coaches, suggests to author Bergman why Green may have won the competition over so many others with perceived advantages. “There’s something about his emission of personal energy,” recollected Noda. “You could tell. He was singing to live.”
(Note: Plentiful offerings of Ryan Speedo Green’s operatic performances are available on the internet.)
EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford, a longtime educator in the Beecher School District, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.