You don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy Sing for Your Life, but if you are, prepare for a feast. Daniel Bergner seats you in the front row of the Metropolitan Opera, and his larger-than life subject, African-American singer Ryan Speedo Green, keeps you there. A study in discipline and artistry, musical agility, opera itself and the role that race has played in all of it, this would be an enlightening read even without Green. His story makes it unforgettable.
Bergner tracks Green’s rise from an impoverished, shattered family to a career as a globally acclaimed bass-baritone, alternating past and present dramas with scenes of the daunting work going on backstage at one of the world’s iconic opera houses. Green’s mother is a constant, mostly malevolent force. His father leaves, his brother goes to prison and 12-year-old Green falls apart at a juvenile detention facility.
How Green grows from there is as captivating as any opera. There’s the teacher who saves his sanity and the facility staffer who gives him a radio; the football coach who makes his players take a music class; the principal who gives Green a chance at his school for the arts, even if he can’t sing; and YouTube, where Green mimics opera stars singing in Italian and German, though he doesn’t understand a word.
Always backlit by racial prejudice—its hazy history in opera and the shadow it continues to cast—the story has moments that bristle, as when Green is expected to sing “Ol’ Man River” at a party hosted by Met benefactors. He feels “reduced, confined, simplified, compressed, concealed” by the expectation the he will “sing woefully about the oppression of black people while taking care not to make white people uncomfortable.” Yet finally, recalling Paul Robeson, who “insisted on adding dignity” by changing some of the words, he sings “with almost enough beauty to crack the wall in front of him and make it disintegrate.” You can almost hear it happen.