On Dec. 26, 2012, tenor Bryan Hymel made an unexpected Metropolitan Opera debut replacing Marcello Giordani in the grueling, heroic role of Aeneas in Berlioz's epic opera, "Les Troyens" (The Trojans). He was an instant sensation. The performance was streamed for broadcast and a subsequent performance was simulcast in the Met's Live in HD series.
The five hour, 15-minute opera is a test for any tenor. The 33-year-old New Orleans native describes the role as "unbelievably difficult; a sprint the whole time," but he was very well prepared. He had performed the role previously at Amsterdam's Netherlands Opera and London's Royal Opera House, both times filling in on short notice for an older, more established tenor.
This weekend, Mr. Hymel will sing locally in more familiar territory, as the caddish Lt. B. F. Pinkerton in Pittsburgh Opera's Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."
The singer says, "Going back and forth between light and heavy repertory keeps my voice fresh, adjusting the voice from the flowing bright Italian vowels to the narrower, less-open French sound."
High notes present no problems for him. "My voice is set high," he explains. "Most tenors start with a strong middle range, and have to work note by note to get their high notes. Mine was originally all top. I had to work to build up the middle voice. I vocalize every day up to Es or Fs above high C! What separates the tenor repertory [from baritones and basses] is that you sing at the extreme of your vocal range most of the time.
"When you're a singer, you always have to be at the top of your game," he said. "It's hard to do the big rep if you're eating salads all day. Sometimes you need the meat. On stage, your body and acting are as important as the singing."
Pinkerton is often considered an ungrateful role. The leading male character is an antihero who appears in the first act, sits out the second and comes back to be the "baddie" at the end, when the heroine elicits tears and ends up with most of the applause. "It's not gratifying if you look at it from a selfish point of view," Mr. Hymel says, "but Pinkerton has a lot to sing, especially in the long melodic lines of the love duet that closes Act 1. I get to sing some of the most beautiful phrases." He will perform the role at the Met in 2013-14.
Mr. Hymel says his favorite part of "Madama Butterfly" is when Pinkerton sings "America forever" -- "not just for reasons of patriotism but because it's such a great soaring phrase, capped by a ringing high B-flat" -- which he likes to hold and relish. He adds that "[Pittsburgh's stage director] Crystal Manich, tries to make Pinkerton more sympathetic than usual in this production."
Success came to the tenor at a young age. While still an undergraduate at Loyola University, he competed "on a lark" in the Met's National Council auditions, and to his own surprise was named a finalist at 20. "I was exposed earlier than I was ready," he says. "I got some regional jobs, and everyone said I had to go to New York, where the agents and auditions are. Within a year and a half I'd used up all my competition money. I was working at the Virgin Record Store to pay my bills. My parents took a second mortgage on their house.
"Since I'd been a Met auditions winner, the head of the Met National Council found me some educational funds and sent me to Philadelphia to study with Bill Schuman. Eventually I studied with him at [Philadelphia's] tuition-free Academy of Vocal Arts."
The singer credits his Academy of Vocal Arts training for "learning to leave no stone unturned. Two eighth notes are not the same as a dotted eighth followed by a 16th. Details like this make it more rewarding as an artist."
Like many young American singers, Mr. Hymel honed his art in Europe, where he met Greek soprano Irini Kyriakidou. They married in May 2011, and now travel together whenever possible. "We're trying to start a family," he says, "and you have to be together for that." They enjoy singing together but have had few opportunities so far. They will, however, perform together this summer in an exclusive private concert on the isle of Mauritius.
Ms. Kyriakidou, who sat in on our interview at Pittsburgh Opera headquarters, compared her husband's singing with that of her countrywoman, the late great Maria Callas:
"The voice has height but also the strong middle. He's a very good technician. I'm fascinated with the ability of his voice, and how loyal he is to the music, but also with his own originality."
"I'm lucky to have my wife for my ears," Mr. Hymel says. "We singers tend to think of our voices as something outside ourselves. You don't hear yourself the way others do. There is something everyone else knows about our voice that is unknown to us."
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor and former classical music critic.