Where Are They Now: Michael Mayes

Baritone Michael Mayes is YTA’s 2002 Gold Medalist in Voice. He recently shared an update on his career with us.

How would you say your experience with YTA has impacted you and your music career?

At that point in my career, I was in grad school, which ain’t cheap. I had a lot of scholarships at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM), but they didn’t pay for everything. I was just like every musician — you have to hold 15 jobs while you’re trying to make things happen. When you’re a young person like that, it makes it hard to study something that’s so intense, that requires so much of your time. And I was from Cut and Shoot (Texas); I didn’t really understand what opera was until I got to college. So I was always sort of behind. Having an opportunity to maybe not have to take that extra job because I had a little help here and there, that makes a big difference for a young person at that time. I know none of the awards are enormous, but when you have nothing, every little thing matters.

And there’s something about coming back to my hometown and singing for my people (during the finalists competition) that really was really affirming for me as a young artist. And we did it at the Crighton Theatre. I had made my stage debut at the Crighton Theatre when I was in fourth grade with Bob McGrath and “Sesame Street Live!” It was a really nice, full-circle moment for me there.

What have you been up to since then? It’s been a long time, but is there anything you’d like to highlight?

I went from being an undergrad at University of North Texas to CCM for my graduate school. Fortunately, right there, I got into the Santa Fe Opera program, got my agent there, and entered the professional world. And for me, I call it jokingly — I mean, that’s not to disparage any of the companies that I’ve worked for with — the “all-star tour.” You’re changing in janitors’ closets and putting your makeup on yourself badly and performing in all these out-of-the-way places. I was with smaller companies singing lead roles, and that’s really where I’ve built my craft. I learned to be an opera singer in communities all over this country that were similar to the one I grew up in.

Then I got a break here and a break there, and I discovered what I call “opera with a conscience.” I started discovering these other kind of operas that were new and that dealt with very current subjects. My signature, sort of breakout role was Joseph De Rocher in “Dead Man Walking.” This opera is the most performed modern American opera of the 21st century. It focuses on Sister Helen Prejean’s job as a spiritual advisor to this man — and this is a true story — who raped and murdered some teenagers in Louisiana. It was sort of her experience of pulling back the curtain on the death penalty and what we’re doing and what it’s about.

When you talk to people after a (traditional opera) show, they’re very happy, and they want you to know it was so beautiful and so well-acted. But there is a difference when I do opera with a conscience like “Dead Man Walking” or “Soldier Songs” or “Out of Darkness” that deal with all of these different issues like combat-induced PTSD in our veteran community, persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, things like this, and you speak to people afterward. For example, I had a woman send me a message on Facebook about “Dead Man Walking.” She said the usual things that you hear, that the opera was beautifully sung and acted. Then she said, “I drove seven hours to come see this show. My daughter was murdered years ago, and you changed the way that I think about the man who murdered my daughter.” Wow. So that’s a different way of engaging an audience.

“What I would like to see happen is that opera continues this new trend of using the most epic and powerful art form that exists to address the big cultural and social issues that we face.”

When I did “Soldier Songs,” which is the true story of the longest-held POW in American history (Floyd James Thompson), I got to meet the family. His wife had actually moved his daughters and his newborn son in with another man (while Thompson was still a POW) and had this other man raise the kids as their father. She basically erased him (Thompson) from existence. He’s over in Vietnam for nine years in a prison camp with a broken back. The only thing that was keeping him going was this idea of his family that he had in his head. So this opera sort of takes you through that and his return to civilian life, and how this man who had been through so much and got PTSD before we knew what PTSD was, he suffered his entire life. It was such a devastating thing for him to come home and realize that everyone had just forgotten about him.

So being able to do that show for his family… Laura Thompson, she’s Colonel Thompson’s daughter, she came up to me afterward and said, “Daddy and I were estranged.” He didn’t want any of his kids to come to his funeral, so they never got to say goodbye. And Laura said, “You know, I never got to say goodbye to my daddy. I loved him so much, but he was just so angry. And so I never got that closure. But tonight, you were so much like him. It was like I was watching my dad up there, and I finally got to say goodbye to my dad.”

And she said the thing he was proudest of was his sobriety, when he got sober. She told me, “About 30 years ago, I was going through a hard time myself, so he gave me this and said it had always given him strength. It was his one-year chip from Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve been holding on to this for 30 years, and I’m going to pass this on to you.”

That kind of connection, it’s a different reason for doing opera. That changed my art, and it changed my trajectory. I went from working in small markets in America to making my Kennedy Center debut to being at the Royal Opera House in Spain. Seeing the BBC Symphony Orchestra doing a piece called “Everest” about that fateful climb in ’96 that killed 16 people. One of the main characters is Beck Weathers, so I got to play him. Singing at the Staatsoper in Stuttgart. Singing in the Washington National Opera. Just being able to take this kind of opera, and in so doing, I was able to spread that message throughout the entire world. So when I found myself in Israel, over Christmas, doing “Dead Man Walking” for an Israeli audience, I thought, Man, I’m really doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

What are your goals are from here?

What I would like to see happen is that opera continues this new trend of using the most epic and powerful art form that exists to address the big cultural and social
issues that we face. What we do when we enter into that space, can we address these issues in a safe place, everybody in the audience and everybody on stage gets to have a group catharsis together.

It’s hard to talk to somebody who’s of a completely different religious, cultural, social, political persuasion, and try to bring them over to your side of point of view or vice versa.

But using music, even if people don’t agree with each other, just for a second, they can see the world through somebody else’s perspectives. I would love for the art form to continue this.

Please tell us what you enjoy doing for fun or to relax.

My wife and I love to garden. When COVID struck we had just bought a house in South Carolina. We were able to like really connect to our neighborhood. The first thing we did is plant a garden, a big garden. We’ve been doing that, and we’ve been sitting around and talking to our neighbors.

I grew up playing bluegrass and country music. I’ve never stopped playing guitar. I played guitar and sang in church at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Cut and Shoot. When I’m traveling on the road, I’m flying 11 months out of the year, it’s kind of hard to carry a guitar around with me, so I didn’t play as much as I wanted to. But now, my wife, Megan, and I sit on our front porch every night, and we play country music.

And we’ve got some neighbors down the corner that come down, and we sit in a socially distanced manner and just pick and play music together. It’s been absolutely wonderful.

Is there anything you’d like to add about your musical tastes and how they’ve changed over the years?

I still play country music everywhere I go. I still listen to country music all the time and never get tired of it, usually stuff before 1990. The irony is that with opera I have to be revolutionary. I have to go out there and do edgy stuff and do the newest thing. When it comes to country music I love the classics.

But I’ll tell you what changed in my performing was I couldn’t stand atonal music, right? Atonal music is music that is totally divorced from the major, minor leading tones recognized as music. If you heard this, it sounds like a cacophony. But, of course, this is an art form. So, I was doing atonal music this past summer. It was one of the most fulfilling, amazing experiences. Because I was older, I have a deeper understanding of it not connected to the material. What I discovered is that, I like a whole lot of different kinds of music.

Do you have any advice for young artists who are just getting started in their careers?

Don’t wait for the gatekeepers to give you or do anything for you. I feel like there’s a generation in my business that were sold a bill of goods: that if you do A, then you can get to B. If you just did your what you were told, then they would reward you and you would climb and climb. The problem is in my industry, especially as far as singers and the opera industry, there is a glut of talent out there and not too many jobs.

And so, what I would say to young folks is if you know if you think you can climb the ladder, let me tell you, there is no ladder. And if there ever was a ladder, COVID came in and kicked that sucker in the ocean. So, the only way you’re going to get up that cliff is by your own steam. No one is going to give you a break; you have to make your breaks. I would say learn how to do stuff digitally. And learn how to collaborate and work with people from other disciplines. You can make your own opportunities. This has to do with COVID right now, but I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

If you are 18 to 30 years old, when you were competing pre-COVID, you were competing with people who are 50-60 years old for the same role. You might have been competing for a role in “Romeo and Juliet,” someone who’s supposed to be 16 years old, and you’ve got this 50-year-old man that is going to sing the hell out of it. Well, the competition is not as close now that there’s no more 30-foot-distance between you and the first person in the audience. The cameras are coming out, and one thing that the camera doesn’t do is lie.

Now that that we’re moving out of the Opera House, into the digital space, there’s going to be a tremendous opportunity for young people to establish themselves. Producing agencies are going to need young people to play young people’s roles.

So if I were a young person today looking at the landscape before me, I’d say, I need to learn how to act for the camera, which is a different practice than acting from the stage. Your schools have incredible RTF departments — radio, television, and film. There’s a ton of students in your school right now studying to do this thing. They’re going to have access to all of that equipment, and they all have to do projects. So you can be one of their projects, and you will learn how to do that stuff better. And you’ll also make lifelong connections with people that you maybe work with for the rest of your life. And you’ll benefit from the doing of it and the learning of it. That would be my advice, get out there and forget this nonsense of I’m just X. If you’re an opera singer, you just need to be a singer-slash teacher, a singer-slash director, singer-slash producer, a singer-slash something.

And if you’re making something for the digital space, you can’t just take what you normally do and shove it on the internet. You need to look at digital material that’s out there. Look at TikTok, look at Instagram, look at Facebook Live, look at Netflix, Hulu, all those things, study that, and see what that stage actually looks like. And then create work that fits into that.

I guess one thing I would add: When I look back over my life, I’ve always had support from my family, and that means so much. If you’ve got a young kid out in Cut and Shoot, in Katy or Porter, and they have an expressive personality, don’t discourage them. Encourage.

I think there is a pathway for anybody into the arts, whether they be classical arts, or musical theater, or playing music. It’s not a waste. If you look at what everybody’s doing right now, during COVID, they’re watching television, they’re watching documentaries, they’re watching theater. Artists have gotten us through this crisis.

Every time you create art, every time you share it with somebody else, you’re helping the world. If there are people in your life who don’t understand that, you don’t have to listen to them. But you can listen to the guy that has been there and done it and see how art heals people and helps people. If that is not a worthwhile pursuit, I don’t know what is.

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