Last week, Kentucky Opera previewed the upcoming double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci on WUOL's Lunch and Listen program . Among other things, I learned that baritone Michael Mayes , who will be playing Silvio, “the other man” in Pagliacci, is from the small town of Conroe, Texas. So naturally, my first question when I got the chance to interview him about his dramatic role was about...football.
Is it possible for a strapping young Texan NOT to play football – even a future opera star? Apparently not. “I played football for several years as a linebacker.” In fact, Mayes said that playing football led pretty directly to his singing career. When he broke his fingers playing in highschool, he had to drop his typing class, and his two options for replacing the credit were drama and choir. He chose choir, he said, because “the drama kids were kind of weird.” Fast-forward to attending the University of North Texas on a music scholarship and taking his first formal voice lesson at the age of 18, where he realized he was good enough to make the music thing work and – revenge of the drama weirdos! – began to pursue that perfect marriage of theater and music – opera.
For Mayes, acting and singing are integrally intertwined, not two separate disciplines. “It's all part of the same package, you're just expressing. I never go into the studio or a performance, thinking 'I'm really going to act it this time.' What I try to do more than anything is just exist in that time and place on the stage as much as possible – just be in the moment.”
I asked Mayes about his opera heroes and he mentioned the great American baritones of the past: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, and John Charles Thomas, as well as more contemporary singers like Bryn Terfel and bass Samuel Ramey. More surprisingly, he draws inspiration from iconic performers in quite other styles of music.
“When I was a kid I loved Elvis Presley and I loved Frank Sinatra. Just watching those guys totally inhabit a space and be able to go out and just grab people by the throat with their talent. Those are the guys [I look at] and I want to have that power.”
About playing the ill-fated Silvio in I Pagliacci, Mayes says it's really easy to get caught up in the cliché of being the Other Man, but he tries to portray a more rounded Silvio who is young and idealistic, falling in love with Canio's unhappy wife, Nedda. “He really believes he can save this woman – come in and be her knight in shining armor.” (The video embedded below features Mayes and Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda singing their duet.) To see the fun-loving Mayes doing a little preparation for Silvio, check out this video he made to document his escapade .
Mayes' other passion is classic country and western. In fact, he grew up with a guy who now plays regularly in Nashville: “It's kind of ironic, now he plays at the Grand Ole Opry...and I'm Grand Old Opera!” Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams – they're all right up there in his singing pantheon, and when you think about it, classic country and opera have a lot in common. Cheatin', drinkin', losin', and cryin'...yep, that's opera, and if there's an instance in Verdi where somebody's dog dies, Mayes can probably tell you all about it over a beer. He seems like that kind of guy.
After his stop in Louisville, Mayes will play the title role in Don Giovanni in Shreveport, LA, followed by performances in Jacques Brel (Santa Fe), La Boheme (Eugene, OR), and Tosca (Birmingham, AL).
Singing as Silvio and Nedda at WUOL:
There are two performances of the Cav/Pag bill at the Brown Theater, 315W. Broadway: Friday, September 24 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, September 26at 2:00 p.m. Buy tickets online  or by calling 502.584.7777.For summaries and notes of both Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, visit the Kentucky Opera website .