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Tenor Hymel soars to highs in both voice and career

By AFP - Mar 28,2015 - Last updated at Mar 28,2015

NEW YORK — With a voice that soars to startling highs and an ease in taking new roles, tenor Bryan Hymel has quickly found himself in the league of top opera stars — and is pushing full speed ahead.

The 35-year-old New Orleans native recently released a first solo album titled “Heroique”, in which he devotes his robust yet expressive voice to valiant arias from the French opera tradition.

Hymel demonstrates the power of his instrument on “Heroique” with his mastery of high Cs — the prized note at the top of a tenor’s range, which was famously associated with the late Luciano Pavarotti.

Over a 73-minute album, Hymel hits no fewer than 19 high Cs — and goes even further with two high C-sharps and, on Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”, a high D.

The album, released by Warner Classics, marks a bold prediction that Hymel can prove to be a hit outside the doors of opera houses as few opera singers — and even fewer of them Americans — achieve commercial success through CD sales.

Hymel has kept a hectic schedule. Switching to Italian, he is performing “La Boheme” this month at the Dallas Opera and will take a short break in April when he expects his second child with his wife, Greek soprano Irini Kyriakidou.

“Every direction in my life right now is going 100 kilometres an hour,” Hymel told AFP with a hearty laugh.


Dramatic Met debut


Hymel, a jovial man who sports a tidy beard, achieved the sort of heroics he usually portrays on stage when, in late 2012, he made his professional debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with literally a moment’s notice.

He had just finished a production at London’s Royal Opera House when the Met offered him the starring role of Aeneas in Berlioz’s epic “Les Troyens” — and booked him on a flight the following morning.

Hymel — who had previously played the role, known for its challenging range, in London — rehearsed just once with the New York cast on Christmas Eve before going live and winning a lengthy ovation.

“It was a hell of a way to make a Met debut,” Hymel said.

The opera, based on Virgil’s epic poem about the Trojan hero, has become Hymel’s defining work. He sings from it on his album and will perform “Les Troyens” again on stage in June at the San Francisco Opera.

“This time I’ve had months to know it’s coming,” Hymel said.


Singing, not speaking, French


Raised in the birthplace of jazz, Hymel didn’t grow up with opera and started as a musician with the trumpet. But teachers encouraged him to sing — at first, because braces made playing brass instruments difficult.

Instructors at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia turned him on to French arias, which he discovered “fit me in a real specific way” as compared with Italian opera.

Hymel recorded “Heroique” with the Prague Philharmonic under French conductor Emmanuel Villaume. The album revolves around the theme of heroism and combines both classics — Verdi, Rossini, Berlioz — with works of comparatively obscure composers such as Alfred Bruneau.

“I think you have to split the difference between what is marketable and what is also equally artistic,” he said.

Despite his growing reputation as a master of French opera, Hymel said that he only speaks basic French. Hymel said that his French singing coach had actually discouraged him.

“He thinks that if I get too used to the way people say it, if that bleeds into my singing, it will no longer be as free and as clear as it was, because I would then be cognizant of the fact that people don’t really speak it that way,” Hymel said.

“I don’t know if I agree or disagree with him, but I have to take his word for it,” he said.

Hymel will make his debut at the Paris Opera in December with Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”.

Hymel said he was beyond the point in his career of experiencing stage fright — and he has performed before other French audiences, including at the new Philharmonie de Paris. But he is still extra cautious in France.

“As an American, a non-native speaker, I know that my French has to be as good as humanly possible,” he said. “But mostly, I see this as an honour.”

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