Profile: Baritone Michael Mayes

Michael Mayes has been making a big name for himself in the past few years, giving passionate and memorable performances in such works as Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking and Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied.
01/20/2016 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Michael Mayes has been making a big name for himself in the past few years, giving passionate and memorable performances in such works as Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking and Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied. I myself wrote of his performance, "The word powerful can not be overused in discussing Mr. Mayes as Joseph De Rocher." I was fortunate to meet him just after opening night of Great Scott, another Jake Heggie opera in which he had a featured role. We talked at great length about a great many subjects, and what follows is a portion of what we covered.

Michael Mayes
Courtesy ADA Artist Management
Great Scott is your second Jake Heggie show, isn't it?

No, the third. I've done this, Three Decembers and Dead Man Walking. I'm also doing For a Look or a Touch in the spring. That's a piece that he did with Gene Scheer. And I'm getting to do it with one of my mentors and heroes, Bob Orth. We play a gay couple who were together during the Holocaust. They had to make a choice whether to flee together or separately, or stay with their families. One partner decides to stay and one decides to leave. The one who stays dies in a concentration camp. The opera actually happens about 50 years later when the man who survived is at the end of his life and he's reflecting on what's known. The ghost of his lover appears, and they have this sort of conversation. It's only about 25 minutes long, but there's a whole conversation between these two. To be able to do something that intimate with one of my mentors and heroes is just one of the coolest things ever.

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Dead Man Walking
Photo courtesy Tulsa Opera
Heggie is very important to you.

Jake Heggie is my homeboy. I could never overstate how much I appreciate Jake Heggie. Since I first did Dead Man Walking in Tulsa, everywhere he goes he's said my name and fought for me, especially in places where I wasn't known.

I've always been a scrapper. I never did the big programs and I don't work in places like the Chicago Lyric or San Francisco, and people don't always wanna take a risk on a guy like me. They want somebody who is safe or famous. There have been times Jake insisted on me, and it's always paid off. He's given me the career I have today, because of my work in Dead Man Walking.

That has led to all of these other opportunities. Rigoletto and Scarpia and things like that. I got into opera because I heard things like this and Tosca and Rigoletto. These are the operas and the roles that made me say, that's what I want to do. What I love about playing a villain is that, if you do it well, you can feel the audience energy. You have to make them hate you but kind of love you too. When you get that, it's just awesome.

How many roles are still on your list to add? How many do you want to do that you haven't done yet?

I tell you, the roles that I want to add to my list have not been written yet. That's the truth, because my true passion is modern American opera. There's nothing that lands with an audience like their native tongue. As opera singers and as artists, we are basically translators, but we're not translating language, we're translating emotion into sound. Those two things work really well because you can't see an emotion. You see what an emotion does to somebody, but you can't see it really. As translators of emotion, we're trying to remove the hedge between us and the people we're trying to communicate with. That's what makes American opera so great in America because I'm singing in our language, and when I say something and when I make a joke or I have a really important amount of text, they get it just like that. So you can touch 'em, bam!, just like that.

The physical act of singing is not what I'm here for. The thing that makes me go crazy is telling a story. For me that's what opera is. You hear people talking about it's all about the singing, it's all about the singing. Why do we have all of these costumes then? Why do we have our sets if it's just about singing? These things are all necessary because it's about storytelling. We could just do a concert and listen to pretty music and then that'd be great, but it's not opera.

I love that so many operas I do are new, fresh, and have a social agenda or a conscience. Opera with a conscience is what I love. Three Decembers was great, you know. It said something about the effect AIDS on a family over three decades. Dead Man Walking and the death penalty. Glory Denied (by Tom Cipullo), which I did in Fort Worth, was about the longest-held POW in American history. I've been shouting from the rooftops recently, when is somebody going to have enough balls to do an opera about gun violence in this country? Opera would be absolutely the perfect medium to tell that story.

Because it's operatic.

It's an enormous issue and it's got so many angles to cover. From a purely selfish standpoint as artists, it's such a cornucopia of artistic material. There's such a rich tapestry of ideas to draw from. Let's do a story with black kids and white cops where all the characters have dimensions and you understand about their flaws. You understand the cop doesn't even realize he's racist. The kids act in the only way they know how to act. Everyone is a human being.

These are the people I come from. I come from a very conservative background, very fundamentalist Christian. It took a big personal upheaval to make me begin questioning all the things I thought were true about life, everything I'd been taught. I learned about viewpoints that were new to me. I learned compassion. It took time. But there are still people in my life, very important people to me, with those uneducated, racist attitudes. They're not one-dimensional bundles of hate. Nothing in life is as simple as that. So you can see why I'm so invested in encouraging this kind of a project.

Before I started questioning things, I was this really incomplete sort of confused person, and now I'm much happier, happier with who I am. And once I got rid of that stuff, it got out of the way of my art, I have so much more artistic freedom, so much more license and confidence to take risks, and knowing when I was taking a risk, not taking a risk.

Opera is easy. Life is hard. The day-to-day functioning as a human being in the world is really hard. It's unpredictable. You never know what's gonna happen and everything could just change in a heartbeat. But from the second I walk on stage, I know what's going to happen and I know how it's going to end. I know when it's over it's over.

It's so much easier to be another person. And that's what was challenging about Great Scott--I was in a way typecast, and one of the things Jack (director Jack O'Brien) kept telling me was, you don't have to do anything. Just be yourself. Just be yourself and play yourself. And I was like what? I don't know who that is.

The whole time I was doing it I constantly wondered, "Is that what we do?" "Do I really do that?" "Am I the cliché or am I playing the cliché and should I be playing a cliché?" Well, the answer is always no, of course no. That's great about what Jack did with us because everything is real. There's no like goofy double takes or over the top gags, physical gags. It's just you just have to just tell the story simply and as cleanly as possible, and that gave us a lot of help but it was tiring. Not so much for me, because my character is not that huge, but for the other folks it must have been draining.

What is the next challenge for Mike Mayes? You mentioned that you're very strongly identified with American opera. Is there a Mike Mayes that starts to become the Italian baritone, the German baritone, the French baritone? 

For me it'd be Italian baritone. I mean, that's what, that's what I really singing. Italian stuff just fits. And right now I'm making the transition out of the more "Bobby baritone" things and more into the dramatic Verdi baritone things.

I think it's important to be who you are, and I think it's important for people to understand that opera singers are real people just like everybody else on the street. They're regular people. Opera is glamorous, but opera singers, not really. Not the ones I know. They're just people, and did not come from an enormous amount of money because this thing you can't buy. And that's what makes opera singers so awesome. Opera singers can come from any socioeconomic level and succeed. You don't have to be rich to be good. 

The talent happens, and that's what's so fantastic about our business. When you go into a rehearsal room, you encounter people from across the racial and economic spectrum. All those people in that rehearsal occupy every level in society.

We perform for a very narrow stratum, but I think that's what makes us interesting to those people, and I don't think we should be afraid to be who we are and we shouldn't be hiding the people we are. Those things are interesting, they're dynamic, and it contributes to a very healthy arsenal because if we were all one thing we wouldn't be able to tell interesting stories. We're not telling stories of the 1 percent, we're telling the stories of everybody. That's the point of opera and, you know, American opera today is very much a reasonable art form. And so we're telling these real stories, so we have to be real people, and don't be afraid. Some people advise, "Don't say that," or "Don't be like that," or "Don't be too casual," or whatever. Man, **** that. Just be yourself.

You're really passionate and really eloquent.

Well, you know, it helps when you believe. You gotta believe. I'm an atheist, and the closest thing I have to faith is that I believe in art, and maybe that's where God is for me. Or maybe I'm an agnostic. If there's anything in this world that approaches the supernatural, it's art. It's the closest thing we have, and that's why it's so compelling and that's why we have this on our hands all the time, because this gives us that connection. Jake Heggie does this stuff so well in this and all his shows, he sends out these love letters or these Cupid's arrows to people like that get you right in the heart. People come to the theater looking not for escape but for connection. And that's, for me, that's, that's what drives us. That's what keeps us going. That's what brings us on to the stage and that's what brings the people.

No matter the show, I do it like it's serious serious business, and not everyone is so serious. I get so upset because this is my religion. I'm a fundamental artist, fundamental extremist artist, you know, because to me, this is my religion, and it's very serious to me. Even though I'm fun and I joke around and have a good time, it's really serious. It's life or death to me. And that's why I get so passionate and that's why I take risks and I weigh my own stuff on the line all the time because this is my entire life. You know, and it's true without opera I'm nothing.