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Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny brings a vocal elegance to HGO

Houston Grand Opera’s audiences will soon be hearing a lot from bass-baritone Ryan McKinny.

He plays one of the most powerful roles in Italian opera, the tormented jester at the center of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” beginning Friday. The company will bring him back in April for double duty, as the charismatic toreador Escamillo in Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and as Donner, the god of thunder, in Richard Wagner’s “Das Rheingold.”

Those roles are a far cry from the relatively light ones – such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s buoyant Figaro – that introduced McKinny to Houston after he joined the company’s training program in 2005. After studying here and performing in German opera houses, McKinny, 33, is reaping the rewards of the long, diligent work he began as a teenager, when it was far from clear that he was cut out for opera.

“People sometimes say, ‘I heard this person when they were 20 years old, and I knew they were going to be a star.’ That was just not the case with me,” McKinny says.

“I was not a good enough singer that you could hear that I had a voice. Nobody crowned me the new prince of opera. But I just liked it. … And I went from there.”

Fell in love with opera

McKinny, who grew up near Pasadena, Calif., was a community-college student with no clear career goal when his choir director suggested he look into opera. McKinny listened to every recording he could.

“I felt opera sounded like their whole soul was coming out of them at once,” McKinny says. Though he had been in choirs since elementary school, he had found a new love.

“I had been taking some voice lessons … and I had sung, like, one aria,” McKinny says. “I could just feel in my body that I liked to sing.”

McKinny’s first performance of an entire role was in a classic assignment for young basses: the philosopher Colline in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” who sings a short, poignant goodbye to his overcoat before pawning it. The opportunity came from a semi-professional opera company that was in a bind.

“They needed a Colline, and I had like five days – and I didn’t know the role,” McKinny says. “I think I had sung the aria. I just sort of crashed through the whole thing and learned it. And it was really successful and fun.”

McKinny hunted for chances to perform wherever he could, even when he moved to California State University-Northridge, which has a noted opera program, and then to New York’s Juilliard School. He had to look widely for opportunities, he says, because he was never the star student.

“At every step of the way, I wasn’t singled out as something special,” McKinny says.

“At Juilliard, there were a lot of great singers, and they were all getting roles. And I wasn’t a very good singer yet. I was ambitious, and I worked really hard. That was about all I had.”

But he gained experience. At Colorado’s Aspen Music School, McKinny played Dr. Miracle, one of the villains in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” attracting Houston Grand Opera Studio’s notice. When the company offered him a spot in the training program, McKinny and his wife, Tonya McKinny, had reservations.

“Tonya and I weren’t really convinced about coming here,” McKinny says. “We liked New York, and we thought, ‘Uhhhh, Houston – it’s in the middle of nowhere.’ ”

But the opportunity was too good to pass up. During their first year here, the couple had the first of their two children: Emma, now 8. And McKinny, along with his voice coaches, began to think he wasn’t really a bass.

A voice comes of age

High notes were more comfortable for him than for typical basses, McKinny says. He experimented with music for bass-baritone – a voice type that has the deep colors of a bass, but reaches up into baritone range.

The bass-baritone voice was a favorite of Wagner, who employed it in such heroic-scaled roles as the love-starved title character of “The Flying Dutchman.” When McKinny tried singing Wagner, it felt right to him, he says. It also sounded right to Patrick Summers, Houston Grand Opera’s artistic director. In the timbre of McKinny’s voice, Summers heard hints of powerful tones to come.

“If I’m walking by the coaching studios and I hear one phrase, I know what it is,” Summers says. “It’s like a fingerprint, except it’s sonic.”

Voices of this type are slow to mature. They only take shape, Summer says, when their owners reach their late 20s to early 30s. McKinny had to be patient.

“Ryan, when he was in the studio, had this extraordinary vocal elegance,” Summers says. “He never overdid his voice. … And he always had this extraordinary musical curiosity. With all that combined, I believed in him a great deal at the time. And he has certainly gone on to fulfill that.”

After two-and-a-half years in Houston, McKinny and his family moved to Germany, where he performed in different cities, soaked up the language and studied Wagner’s music with musicians who were immersed in it. In Dusseldorf, McKinny performed his first big Wagner role: Amfortas, one of the knights of the Holy Grail in “Parsifal.”

By 2012, Summers had offered McKinny the jester role in “Rigoletto.” With U.S. engagements accumulating, McKinny and his family decided to move back – and to make Houston home. The couple’s original doubts about leaving New York for Texas had been conquered by Houston’s artistic richness and cultural diversity, McKinny says.

“We have a huge community of friends and colleagues,” McKinny says. “It’s a great place for us.”

Looking to the future

When McKinny performed the role of Kurwenal in “Tristan and Isolde” in Houston last year, his sonorous, noble tones demonstrated his comfort on Wagnerian turf. His burgeoning career, Summers says, exemplifies how the studio aims to contribute to the opera world.

“He’s now emerging into the stage where he’s being noticed and sought after,” Summers says.

McKinny earned acclaim in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” during the 2013 Glimmerglass Festival in New York. In 2016, he’ll perform Amfortas for his debut at the Bayreuth Festival, the Wagner center founded by the composer. McKinny also has performed in Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Next season brings more Met performances.

McKinny hopes to go further into meaty Verdi and Wagner roles. But first he wants to flesh out who he is as an artist and what he wants to say.

“I hope it comes down to developing empathy among people,” McKinny says. “I think we all have had the experience of going to hear a piece of music – an opera – and hearing somebody sing it in a way that makes you understand what the character is going through, even though the character might be somebody you have nothing in common with.

“That experience of understanding someone who isn’t like you can change people. I hope that can make a little difference in human beings and the way we interact.”

Houston Chronicle