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Ryan McKinny is “The Celebrant” in Bernstein’s Mass

When Leonard Bernstein’s Mass had its world premiere in 1971, the world was, to put in bluntly, a mess. The war in Southeast Asia was still going strong, political assassinations had shocked the world, popular culture was shifting radically and civil rights were becoming more and more important. In other words, it was a time not unlike our own.

Critics didn’t know what to make of Bernstein’s Mass. Because this year marks the celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100’s birthday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has taken the bold step of putting on four performances of this over 90-minute work beginning on Thursday.

I recently spoke to Bass-Baritone Ryan McKinny about his role as “The Celebrant” in these productions. LA Opera audiences may remember him as Stanley Kowalski in Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire or as Nixon in the LA Philharmonic’s concert version of John Adams’ Nixon in China.

For those unfamiliar with Bernstein’s Mass, what is the role of “The Celebrant” in the piece?

In the way we are looking at it, “The Celebrant” is the person who on the one hand is very religious, he’s Christian. But he’s also open to other ideas and he has brought in these hippies who are outside his church to get a new perspective and to share his message with them. He struggles with doubt and with how much the trappings of the church are the whole story and how much is more than that. Essentially it is a person who goes through the journey of a spiritual crisis and the rest of the company reflects his journey.

Mass is considered by many to be a glorious mess.  Do you share that view and is that mess part of what makes the composition great?

It’s definitely glorious and it is definitely a mess in some ways and purposely. People say that it’s not a great piece or complain about it; they don’t put themselves in Bernstein’s place and what he tried to do. The narrative tracks really well and the musical style tracks very well. I think the biggest problem, listening to recordings, is finding people who can do it together. Is it an opera? An oratorio? Musical theatre piece? Is there a story? Having done Candide and Trouble in Tahiti, I think it holds up with all these things. I love it for the fact it’s a mess.

What has conductor Gustavo Dudamel done in rehearsals to give shape to the piece that you think is most revelatory?

He makes it feel easy. Working with singers who aren’t classical singers –  some are jazz, some are musical theatre – he was working on getting the feeling of what the piece is about. It’s not about counting everything and the technicalities. Once you learn it really well, he’s going for the groove, a rhythm and when you feel it the right way, it’s there.

For The Celebrant, the piece comes to a climax in “Things Get Broken.” Many people know “A Simple Song” from Mass. This feels like the flip side of the same coin in the work.

That’s totally right. “A Simple Song” is very minimal. As the celebrant I’m first in jeans and t-shirt. It’s being present with what’s there. Through the course of the piece we add lots of different musicians, a marching band and I get more stuff. The communion and the altar and all this ritual – that all gets destroyed. Then it’s all broken down to this simple place. Baritones almost never get mad scenes. It’s fun to get a Lucia mad scene. [Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor is beloved because the title character goes positively crazy at the end of the opera.]

At the time of its debut in 1971, the Nixon Administration believed that Bernstein’s Mass might embarrass the President. It seems that just as we are celebrating Bernstein for his life and work we are repeating history. How does that make the timing of his centennial appropriate, ironic or both?

I think with the centennial, the arts in general, but particularly as we are doing a lot of Leonard Bernstein’s work and he was so socially conscious, among my colleagues there feels like a relevance that hasn’t been there before. We feel like our job isn’t just to make pretty music but to wake people up. I know Lenny felt that was his job in life – to shake people up and out of their musical and social stagnation. We’re just in such a parallel world right now and I think Bernstein’s music is a great vehicle for that to happen. So many of my singer colleagues and theatre colleagues feel this is like a calling to try to reach people in a way we maybe haven’t found as important before.

Cultural Attaché