Operagasm Exclusive Interview: Michael Mayes
by Christie Connolley
This month Operagasm is celebrating Opera in Film! We love movies, we love opera, if only we could add donuts in that mix somehow the dream would be complete.
One of the most touching and beautiful movies to have been made into an opera is Dead Man Walking (I know right this moment some tight-jean-wearing bespectacled hipster is saying, “Well, technically it’s the book that was made into an opera.” To which I say… this ain’t book month fool…)
Operagasm had the chance to sit down with baritone, Michael Mayes who is portraying Joseph in Central City Opera‘s production, which is playing now through July 25. Dish on Michael Mayes….. dish on…
Operagasm: How did you prepare for this role?
Mayes: The book was integral. [Okay, this goes to support the hipster's opinion above .... geez!] There’s tons of literature about it, a plethora of documentaries about the effect of the death penalty and the families of the perpetrators of the crime. All the people that it touches. The heart of the show, take the death penalty out of it and it would still be an incredible story about disenfranchisement, redemption, and poverty. Growing up where I did, in Texas, poor and in a trailer, I grew up with Joseph’s. My next-door neighbor, he isn’t a criminal, but the rage, the inability to express, the lack of education. That is what drives these really dark guys to act out. I grew up in that world, but I had the benefit of a college education, so I experienced the same emotions and drives, but because of my family who steered me to education, academic achievement and I gained the ability to express myself. When I first saw this in CVG twelve years ago, if I hadn’t seen it then I probably wouldn’t be a singer today. I didn’t get off on Barber and Count, opera, as I knew it then was cliché; it felt like a trade instead of an art form. I didn’t realize until grad school that modern opera was happening, with stories I could relate to existed. When I realized I could tell modern American stories, it did something to me. I realized that’s what I want to do. I have been preparing this role my entire life.
Operagasm: Do you consider yourself an actor who sings or a singer who acts?
Mayes: An actor who sings. I never think about singing that’s not connected to the stage, the text.
Operagasm: Did you see the movie before undertaking the role?
Mayes: Yes, I saw it when it first came out and of course read the book in school [enough with the book already, save it for book month]. It didn’t have the impact that the opera had because the opera is three-dimensional and is written different than the movie. The movie focuses a lot on whether Joseph was guilty, in the opera you see the crime in the first scene, there is no doubt he did it. It becomes about him admitting his guilt and releasing him and the families giving them closure.
Operagasm: Did the movie inform your opinion on crime and the death penalty?
Mayes: When I first saw it I was conservative, but I have been in the midst in a worldview change and have changed my philosophy. My shift in more liberal thinking began before being cast in this. After reading all the material in preparing for the role, to me, there is no question that the death penalty should be abolished. The arguments she (Sister Helen Prejean) makes are so irrefutable. The way the story is written it doesn’t take a position on the death penalty, it shows both sides.
Operagasm: Physically what did you do to prepare for the role?
Mayes: When I was cast in the role I was about sixty pounds overweight. Well, actually I was probably about forty pounds overweight but then I ate everything I wanted to eat and drank everything I wanted to drink before I knew I had to get in shape, and it was about sixty pounds. I was never one of these guys who really fit. When I got the contract I knew what I had to do, started doing the Spartacus workout six days a week, watched what I ate and slowly lost weight. Nothing in the world will motivate you more then knowing you are going to be buck-naked on stage in front of hundreds of people.
Operagasm: What about the tats?
Mayes: Tulsa Opera developed a stamp system that washes off. I recommend it to each company I do the role with. Preparation takes about 45 minutes to an hour and will be reapplied before each show.
Operagasm: What is your favorite movie?
Mayes: Tough one. Right now, probably, There Will be Blood with Daniel Day Lewis. He is one of my favorite actors. I learn a lot by watching him. That movie is a tour de force; he is such a visceral character.
Operagasm: What other movies should be made into an opera?
Mayes: There Will be Blood, that one. Also, a Star Trek opera, there would be people scalping tickets to get into that one. A Child of God…. Blood Meridian….
Operagasm: What Hollywood actress would you want to play your on-stage love interest?
Mayes: Total silence (It should be noted his lady was in… the… room… smart move).
Operagasm: Team Jennifer Aniston or Team Angelina Jolie?
Mayes: Team Angelina Jolie. She’s so much more interesting, you would never be bored.
Operagasm: What is your favorite film genre?
Mayes: Indie films. I am not an aficionado, but if I am going to spend the money I want to experience and feel something. The same reason I go the opera.
Operagasm: Are there movies you have no interest in watching?
Mayes: Adam Sandler movies, stuff like that…I may have liked them when I was 18.
Operagasm: What didn’t you learn about the business in school?
Mayes: Managing money. It is such a unique way of making a living, there’s paying taxes, paying people, preparing for the periods of time between jobs. If I could have told my 26 year old self one thing I would have said learn how to budget money. If you aren’t independently wealthy, if you don’t have donors, if you didn’t do one of the big three programs… then you got to pay for it. This business is so tough; it is so hard to make it. I have arrived to a gig with only $200 to my name… not in savings… or the bank account…. like that was it; and this wasn’t all that long ago. That is the reality of it. You can be a singer in that place and think I need to start doing something else. And the next thing you know you can line up ten gigs, this kind of career can turn on a dime.
The thing about this business that I observed is it is about who can last the longest. You are going to learn skills just by doing. If you have a 26-year-old talented guy who can sing Rigoletto, but you have an experienced 40-year-old guy who has sung the role he is going to bring something to the role the 26 year old can’t.
Operagasm: But what about opera’s obsession with youth and looks.
Mayes: The reality of the business. The recent episodes of fat shaming are wrong. You shouldn’t talk about people’s weight, but if you are a lyric baritone and weigh 300 pounds you aren’t going to work. If you are a Wagnerian, you will because there are only eight other people singing that rep. Whatever you can do take the questions marks away from the people you are auditioning for, do it. I am an example of someone who lost the weight, got serious about it. Now when I am hired they know I can do anything physically, because the body is just a tool. If you’ve struggled with weight it feels like an insurmountable hurdle. It’s hard, if you can get mastery over that you can be free. It opened up the door for me.
Operagasm: What kind of sacrifices have you made for this life?
Mayes: I don’t have kids. I am divorced. Not that those things were caused by opera. But holidays, Christmas…. all that stuff is out the door. You miss a lot of those kinds of things. Sometime your family gets it and sometimes they don’t. I’m lucky, my family gets it. You give up a lot of things you never thought you would. When I started to see the things I could do, the effects I could have on other people it makes it worth it. That’s power, that is really doing something.
Operagasm: What quality has been the most effective in your career?
Mayes: Tenacity. For me, not for everyone, I stopped with the suits and the ties, and stopped trying to look like what I thought I was supposed to. I thought – I am never going to be in that club; they are going to find me out. I am just a good old boy from East Texas who got lucky with this magical thing in my throat. I decided to just be me and if that meant the end of my career I could do something else. But it allowed me to be a more authentic performer.
Operagasm: Who do you get star-struck over?
Mayes: Yes! Bob for one, as a young kid watching him in Dead Man Walking was astounding. In Great Scott, it will be Joyce Didonato. It will take a minute, and then let’s get down to work.
Operagasm: Was there a pivotal experience in your career?
Mayes: This role changed my life. This is always the kind of thing I wanted to do. All the things that I think make me a unique performer are on show in Dead Man Walking. If I could do modern opera for 80% of my career I would do that. That is the future, the heart and soul of our business. I’m not a composer, so I am not going to go down in the history books unless I create a role and that role is in an opera that is performed for hundreds of years, then I would be part of history. That’s exciting to be part of something innovative and fresh. We aren’t going to grow our audience with Rigoletto, but we can hook new audiences with Dead Man Walking, Dog Days, and Glory Denied, with these kinds of stories.
Operagasm: Your best piece of advice for young singers?
Mayes: You have to find a reason for doing this that is bigger than yourself. A woman wrote on my fan page, “Great performance,” and then, “I drove here from Kansas. My daughter was murdered and you changed the way I think about the man that murdered my daughter.” I never thought at 22, 24, or 26 that I would ever have that effect on anybody. Moments like that, when you realize you have personally impacted someone’s life make it worth it. If you want to make money, or be comfortable, go do something else. This business isn’t for comfortable people, it isn’t for happy people. Happy people are boring. We’ve been given a charge to tell stories and suffer in order to tell those stories. We have to feel pain in order to tell the story of pain. I am not doing this for praise, or money, those things are meaningless. Initially, I was just doing what I went to school to do. It was neat, I got attention for it, but I didn’t get it then. Find a reason that is meaningful, a reason that makes all your sacrifice worth it.