Arts / Performing Arts

When a Last-Minute Substitute Turns Into an Opera Star — Michael Spyres’ La Favorite Moment

The Show Must Go On in Houston

BY // 02.01.20

A last-minute potential disaster turned into an all-out coup after Houston Grand Opera contacted talented tenor Michael Spyres to substitute for ailing Lawrence Brownlee in a performance of Donizetti’s La Favorite last Sunday.

On short notice, Spyres rose to the occasion by flying to Houston from New York, where he was preparing to appear in the title role of the Metropolitan Opera’s last two presentations February 1 and 8 of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust in its concert version.

Just as the curtain was due to rise for Sunday’s 2 pm matinee, HGO chief advancement officer Greg Robertson appeared in front of the stage curtain and announced what initially sounded like bad news. Brownlee, a world-renowned, lush tenor long familiar to HGO audiences from multiple past performances, was ailing and would not be able to appear as scheduled in the lead role of Fernand in that day’s performance.

Instead Robertson explained how Michael Spyres had flown in from New York to substitute for Brownlee and would sing the role from stage left (which equates to the right of the stage from the audience perspective), while Katrina Bachus (the production’s assistant director) would walk the role of Fernand in the production.

This would be Spyres’ HGO debut. So if Sunday’s audience hadn’t seen Spyres in an opera or concert anywhere else or heard one of his recordings, he was a new and unknown quantity, as was the presentation of the opera itself, not to mention that day’s unusual blocking format.

“The show must go on,” Robertson philosophically summed up as he left the stage, and the audience gamely responded without so much as an audible sigh. After all, the thinking probably went on the part of a number of Sunday afternoon’s opera lovers, the show is going on with smashingly talented Jamie Barton, an HGO alumna who has been internationally and repeatedly lauded for her marvelous mezzo voice, performing the demanding title role of La Favorite as Leonar de Guzman, the king’s mistress, as originally scheduled.

As the curtains opened and the production began, Spyres, a tall, handsome man impeccably attired in white tie, appeared at the house far right side of the stage and began to sing the part of Fernand, reading from the vocal score on a music stand, similar to a formal concert presentation. At the same time, Spyres had to face the dual challenge of coordinating his singing with Bachus as she walked through his part (clad in plain black shirt and pants, like a shadow) in the opera, as well as respond to the direction of Maestro Patrick Summers, HGO artistic and music director, across the orchestra pit below.

With astonishing ease and without any hesitation, Spyres, a bel canto specialist, admirably overcame all these challenges. He promptly proved his mettle with his silky, wide-ranging, confident tenor voice in Fernand’s opening aria, which the audience welcomed with resounding applause. His command of fluent French was evident, adding to the sumptuous quality of his voice.

At the end of the opera, the appreciative audience rose as one to give the HGO newcomer, as well as Bachus, a standing ovation, which had been a foregone conclusion for the fabulous-as-ever Jamie Barton. As expected, Barton was a huge success in the role of the king’s conflicted mistress, who is secretly in love with another man, Fernand. The performance of the cast as a whole was excellent and well received.

La Favorite proved to be a powerhouse Houston Grand Opera production. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Hearty applause further ensued for Maestro Summers, the mastermind conducting the orchestra members as they performed in the pit below in coordination with the singers onstage as well as Spyres in his outstanding presentation on the far (house) right. Speaking for this audience member, it was a huge treat to watch Summers as he calmly orchestrated all these entities, tying the elements into a cohesive whole while inducing beautiful sounds from the Houston Grand Opera orchestra.

After the show, “Wonderful!” was the prevailing descriptive adjective used by audience members who were asked at random to comment on the surprise substitute’s performance.

HGO spokeswoman tells us that Spyres had been contacted by its artistic team “as a preemptive action” last weekend. Brownlee had been reported to be ailing and having trouble with his voice during the opera’s opening performance on the prior Friday. Spyres had sung the role of Fernand when “La Favorite” was performed under Summers’ direction in Barcelona in July 2018.

Spyres has been lavishly praised by reviewers of both his opera and recording performances. The Guardian gushed: “Michael Spyres is almost superhumanly good in this live performance of Berlioz’s legende dramatique” in its five-star review of Erato’s new recording of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust featuring the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg under the direction of John Nelson.

“You’re unlikely to hear this role sung better,” Guardian reviewer Erica Jeal wrote of Spyres, inspiring pleasant thoughts of checking out this declaration in the artist’s impending Met performance.

Brownlee is expected to return to the role of Fernand in the HGO performance of La Favorite at the Wortham as scheduled this Saturday, February 1.

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