Tenor to Make His Local Debut Singing ‘Erik’ in Upcoming “The Flying Dutchman” Performances
Tenor Bryan Register, who will sing the role of Erik in Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Der fliegende Holländer, beginning this Saturday evening, November 11, took the time recently to give an exclusive interview regarding the production and his career – a career which began with the late Birgit Nilsson funding his education. Chris Cox, Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera, provided the interview, as follows:
Chris Cox: “Thanks for joining me today, Bryan. I’ll start by asking, how did you first get interested in opera?”
Bryan Register: “The first time that I was exposed to opera was when I was in third grade. A troupe from Opera Carolina came to my elementary school. They did scenes from the opera that they were doing. And they did a mock opera with some of the students. We dressed in costumes that we brought from home. They did a fake stage, and staged a couple of scenes where they told us what the story was, and we were supposed to act out the scenes. The local newspaper was there taking pictures and put an article in the paper. I’ve got that picture of me from third grade doing the opera scene. That’s my operatic debut if you want to call it that.
“I can still remember how excited I was, and the feeling that I got when I heard the singers singing. It was so new, and there was something magical about it. And it was something that really attracted me. I didn’t know at that time that I really wanted to be an opera singer per se, because I was studying piano. But it was an aspect of music that I had not been exposed to before that I thought was fascinating.
“It reinforces how important outreach is, because you never know when you’re going to affect somebody’s life. That doesn’t mean that they have to end up being an opera singer, but it could spark something in their imagination that would take them off into some other creative field, or they would want to be involved with the opera in some administrative capacity.”
CC: “When did you start training as an opera singer?”
BR: “My undergrad was at Morehead State University in Kentucky. My parents wanted me to get an education degree. I wanted to go for a performance degree. I had studied piano all my life, and I wanted to go into piano performance. And that’s what I thought I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to concertize as a pianist and do chamber music. That was a dream for me. If I could just travel around the world playing chamber music and giving recitals, that would be a dream job.
“My dad did not want me to be a music major. He thought it was too risky, and that I would not have a firm financial net if that didn’t work out. So after many, many nights of discussions, he finally convinced me that I should be a music education major. And he said, ‘We’ll find the right teacher who’s going to challenge you with your piano, and you’ll get the best of both worlds.’ So I agreed. Morehead had a really good reputation for music education, and I went there.
“All the music majors had to appear one week before class started so that we could take placement exams for music reading, music history, sight-singing, etc. I appeared for my sight-reading exam. I walked into a studio. There was one of the voice teachers, and she had a music stand up. On the music stand was a handwritten melody on manuscript paper. She said, ‘Would you please sing this for me? I’ll give you the first pitch.’ So she did, and I sang something which I can only imagine was a mess.
“She said, ‘Okay. Can you sing that again, and conduct yourself while you’re doing it?’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ We did it again. And she was looking at me funny, and she said, ‘Okay. I’m going to play the piano. Do you know the national anthem?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘I want you to sing the national anthem, and I’m going to play the piano.’ So here we go. We got about halfway through the national anthem, and she stopped and she was looking at me really funny. And she said, ‘You’re a piano major?’ When I said yes, she said ‘Hold on.’
“She got on the phone and called her husband. He was the chair of the voice department. And she said, ‘Jim, can you come up and listen to this?’ So he came up. She said, ‘Bryan, sing this again. I’m going to play the national anthem. You sing.’ I started singing the national anthem, got about halfway through, and he stopped me. He said, ‘Young man, you need to change your major.’ And I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You should be a voice major. You have a professional instrument, and you should be a voice major. I’m going to speak to your piano teacher,’ who was also my academic advisor.
“I thought he was crazy. I said, ‘Mr. Beane, I really appreciate the vote of confidence. I’m flattered, but I’ve studied piano my entire life, and I am not comfortable with just throwing that all out the window just because you like the way I sing the national anthem. I can’t even wrap my head around that.’ And I left.
“The next day, my piano teacher called me into her studio, and she said, ‘Bryan, I’ve worked with James Beane for the last 35 years, and I have never seen him behave like this.’ She said. ‘He came into my room, flushed red in the face, told me that he had just heard a tenor that has a major professional instrument, and he says he’s a piano major but he should be studying voice. And he’s insisting that you change to a voice major.’
“I stood there in complete shock. She said, ‘I want to be very clear. I’m not saying that you have to change your major. I’m very happy for you to be a piano major. I know how you play. We can do great work. That’s not what I’m talking about.’ She said, ‘I’m just relaying to you what I experienced.’ And she said, ‘I have to tell you what he said.’ ‘Well, he basically told me the same thing yesterday, and I was really surprised by it. And I told him no. I wanted to be a piano major.’ And she said, ‘Well, fine. I can say that we’ve had a meeting. I will tell him your decision, and we’ll consider it done.”
“The next day, I got another call. I went back to her studio. She said, ‘I told him what you said, and he doesn’t accept that answer. He said that he insists that you take voice lessons, and we have to find out a way to do it.’ And then Mrs. Stetler, my piano teacher, she said, ‘I actually have a suggestion that might work.’ She said, ‘Since I am your academic advisor, you have two-hour credits for electives every year.’ She said, ‘I’ve already spoken to him, and a two-hour credit would not cover the private lessons.’ But she said, ‘He said that he would be willing to accept it, and he would give you lessons on his day off because his studio is full.'”
“I said, ‘Really? He’s going to teach me for cheap, and on his day off?’ She said, ‘Yes. I think you should do it, Bryan, because pianists learn from singers. You’re going to learn so much about phrasing and musicality and breath, which you still need as a good pianist.’ And she said, ‘You’re also going to learn the literature.’ She said, ‘If you’re going to be a pianist and you are interested in chamber music, there will come a time in your life when you’re going to be playing for singers, and you need to have experience doing that. I suggest you take voice lessons as an elective, and you volunteer to play for his voice students in his studio for private lessons. Then I’ll sign off on your electives, and you can eliminate a math or science class, and you’ll be doing this instead.’
“I said, ‘Fine. I’m there. Let’s do it.’ So after about two years of that, I realized, ‘Oh my God, I think he might be right,’ because my voice started growing, and I could sense a change. I could tell that the technique was starting to work. I could hear and feel a change. And it was also really fun. It was an immediate connection with the expression that I didn’t have with my piano playing. And it also included foreign languages. I love foreign languages. I loved acting. I loved the drama side of things. It almost pulled everything into one piece that was really attractive to me.
“So by the time I graduated, I was faced with a dilemma. Do I continue with piano, or do I go for voice? And I decided that I was going to get my master’s in vocal performance. I got a full ride at Manhattan School of Music. When I got to New York, at the end of my time there, the dean called me to his office, told me that Birgit Nilsson had paid for my school, and I had to write her a thank-you note. And I almost had a heart attack. I could not believe it.
“And he told me the story about how that happened, that she came for a masterclass on the day of the auditions. They videotaped all of the auditions. And the faculty was reviewing the videotapes to recommend if the person should have scholarship or not, and everybody was arguing. There was actually an argument in the faculty about what is my voice, because it was unusual, and people didn’t know exactly what to do and what to think. And so they called Birgit Nilsson in to listen, and they wanted to know her opinion. And she said, “Oh, well, he’s a heldentenor. That’s a baby heldentenor. And I think he’s going to be quite a good one, if my instincts are right.” And that’s when she said, “I want to pay for his education.” She paid for everything. So I consider Birgit Nilsson to be my fairy godmother.”
CC: “Did you ever get a chance to meet her in person afterwards?”
BR: “No, I never got a chance to meet her. I wrote her a letter. She wrote me back. But by that time, she had retired. She died before I had a major gig in Europe that she could come to.”
CC: “That’s an absolutely amazing story.”
BR: “It still shocks me when I tell the story, when I think about it. It still absolutely shocks me.”
CC: “You sing much more in Europe than you do in the United States. How did that come about? How often do you get back to the United States?”
BR: “I definitely sing more in Europe than I do in the States. The last time I sang in the States was 2010, 2012, something like that. It’s been a long time.”
CC: “This is your first time singing in the United States in a decade?”
BR: “Yes. And here I am at Pittsburgh.”
CC: “Welcome back.”
BR: “Thank you. I was accepted into the Wagner Society of Washington, DC, which had a training program. It was run by Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart. After doing two years of that, I did some auditions in Germany that was part of the training program. They paid for our German lessons at Deutsches Haus in New York. They paid for our coachings. They flew us over to Germany to do auditions. It was really a fantastic program.
“I won second place in the Liederkranz Vocal Competition in New York, Wagner Division. And the prize for that was $10,000 in cash and an audition at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen and at Covent Garden. So I had flown over to Copenhagen to audition, and then I flew over to London to audition. At my audition in London was the head of the vocal division for Intermusica, a big agency in London, and a casting director for English National Opera. I walked out of there with European management and two contracts at ENO.
CC: “That’s a productive trip.”
BR: “Yeah. That’s really how it started. Since my management was based in London, most of my work started in Europe. And work begets work, and people hear what you’re doing, and they see you in performance, and all of that sort of thing. So that’s basically how my career stayed over there. Not to mention that there are so many more opera houses over there, and they more regularly do my repertory, rep of Wagner, Strauss, Berlioz, the big Verdi roles. That’s done a lot in Europe, whereas in America, because of budgets, it’s a very special thing and it’s not done as often. So I’m very happy to be back in Pittsburgh, and that Pittsburgh is doing some Wagner. It’s very exciting.”
CC: “We’re excited for it, too. It’s our first Wagner in 20 years.”
BR: “This opera in particular is a really good Wagner opera for people who are not used to Wagner. It’s one of his earlier pieces, and it’s in the Wagner Italianate style. You can hear some flashes of Verdi. You can hear some flashes of Donizetti. The storyline is really interesting. The music is beautiful. It’s not too long.”
CC: “What does the audience have to look forward to in this show?
BR: “The audience can look forward to an interesting story that has some contemporary applications. This story is so popular because it speaks to people. They’re able to relate it in some way to their lives. That is what propels the longevity and the popularity of the story. That’s number one. They can also look forward to beautiful music; they can look forward to really lush orchestration that they might not hear otherwise. It’s also something that you have to specifically be there live for. It’s not even the same when you listen to a recording. When I listen to a recording of Wagner, you can hear that it’s big. You can hear that it’s lush. You can tell that that’s what it is, but there’s no substitute for actually being there live. You can feel it. It’s visceral, it’s physical. And one of my old teachers, who studied and sang at Bayreuth, used to tell me, ‘It’s a psychological and emotional event. Every time you go to a Wagner opera, you’re being worked over, but you don’t realize it until you’re halfway through.’ And she is exactly right.
“Wagner was a genius at relaying emotion. He does it so much with the psychology and the emotion of the music and the text, that it affects you without it being spoken. I am very, very happy to be here. It’s a fantastic cast. The cast is very strong. It’s going to be a really good show.”
Special thanks to Chris Cox and Pittsburgh Opera.The Flying Dutchman opens this Saturday night. Tickets can be purchased at the box-office or online at the Pittsburgh Opera website.