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Our calendar listing for "An Afternoon with Bass-Baritone Ryan McKinny" was conventional enough, and the presenting organization, Triangle Wagner Society, made it fairly obvious what we would hear at this online event. Entering the Zoom portal some 20 minutes early, just to make sure any technical problems were solved before the Wagner program began, I was surprised to find a three-way Zoom conversation already in progress onscreen. Society president Marjorie Satinsky, McKinny, and WCPE (The Classical Station) radio host Bob Chapman – all casually dressed in front of their far-flung webcams – were all making their preparations for the program that was slated to begin at the top of the hour.
Clearly, something quite different was in the works. The terminology and personalities I found myself encountering reminded me of a now-defunct New York Times Forum, where I mostly lurked a couple of decades ago, sometimes offering provocative opinions and topical reflections, sometimes mediating disputes, and sometimes fanning the flames. One outspoken contributor who went by the name of Fafner often held forth on the special qualities of Heldentenors and the special instincts of true Wagnerian conductors, while Queen of the Night and Operalover disputed various Fachs – the first time I'd been exposed to either of these terms. Decades later, I found myself in similar company, fanatics who made my parents' opera fanaticism seem comparatively mild.
At the top of the hour, as Satinsky took control, what broke out was less of a concert than a Society meeting. Before introducing Chapman and McKinny, Satinsky called on three guest presidents of Wagner Societies – representing Boston, New York, and the Upper Midwest – to tell us all about their chapters and their activities. All of these guests seemed even more homespun and casual, not a Viking helmet in sight. Better yet, the ladies from the cities and the gentlemen from Minneapolis did not outstay their welcomes. Based on what I had heard and seen so far, I was resigning myself to an extended interview with the amiable McKinny, a 40-year-old Asheville resident, devoid of any singing.
Fortunately, more surprises were in store. Mixed in with Chapman's deft interviewing and McKinny's cheerful candor were five pre-recorded musical selections taken from operas that the bass-baritone is still building his reputation on. Three of these were Wagner roles, Amfortas from Parsifal, Wolfram from Tannhaüser, and Wotan from Das Rheingold; and two were quintessential Mozart, the title roles in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Perhaps the least satisfying of these was recorded under the most august circumstances, when McKinny sang Amfortas in 2016 on the fabled Bayreuth stage. Yet his magnificent "Lasst ihn unenthüllt," rendering the sufferings of an ancient king who feels too afflicted and unworthy to perform a Holy Communion, lacked the sonic clarity and immediacy of the Zoom session in progress, and the recording was seven minutes of audio-only.
Pared down to simple piano accompaniment and seemingly filmed at his home, the videos that followed sounded more like a McKinny concert recital, interspersed with further interchanges between Chapman and the performer. Musically, the performances weren't duets as we usually define them, for McKinny filmed them with the sound of pianist Kevin Miller's accompaniment playing wirelessly through an earpiece. Two cameras were deployed for each of the slickly cut videos, giving different angles, one of them close-up. The improvement in sound quality was as notable as the addition of video, quickly apparent when McKinny sang another prayerful song, Wolfram's "Song to the Evening Star" ("O du mein holder Abendstern"). Here the warmth and rich texture of his voice came through far more vividly than the Bayreuth recording.
The comedy interlude stole the show as McKinny sang the familiar "Non più andrai" from Le Nozze. Adding to the hilarity, this Figaro recruited the singer's son, Louis McKinny, to suffer Cherubino's torments. They began incongruously enough as Dad pried away his son's headset and then confiscated his cell phone. The indignities that followed were more in line with the action of the opera, where Figaro terrorizes the effeminate Cherubino with the prospects of heading into battle and achieving military glory. A glass mixing bowl became a soldier's helmet and then a broom seemed to serve as a rifle – until our suffering Cherubino was commandeered for KP. "You missed a spot," Dad barked as Miller played the final notes.
After that hilarious turn, it was heartening to learn that McKinny will be playing his Figaro to a nationwide audience next January when he performs his first title role for the Metropolitan Opera next season. McKinny outlined the course a Wagnerian singer takes, moving from one role to another as his voice ages and matures, subtly changing in color, weight, and range – or from one Fach to another. Most penetrating, however, was his appreciation of the challenges in Don Giovanni, where the title role demands three kinds of singing over the course of a single evening. McKinny has sung both Leporello and the Don during his career – demonstrating a special merit in Mozart's design, for Leporello is forced to impersonate his master in order to abet one of his seductions. The same voice should be able to sing both roles!
We saw the tender side of the Don as McKinny sang "Deh vieni alla finestra," the serenade that Giovanni sings to Elvira's maid – dressed as Leporello. This lyrical bauble, a trinket even within Giovanni, made for nice lead-up to the summit of Wotan's "Abendlich Strahlt der Sonne Auge." It's a rich concluding aria in Das Rheingold, just before he and the lesser gods set forth for their palace in the sky, which he has named Valhalla – and just after he has triggered the curse of the Ring. The effect was stunning somehow, despite its diminishment and possibly because of it. Wagner's grand orchestration was reduced to a single piano, his cosmic staging confined to a cozy Asheville parlor, and the king of the gods lost all his royal trappings and his legendary spear. McKinny's gray-streaked beard and black shirt had to suffice. Yet in this sensitively filmed short, much of the moment's majesty still shone through, because McKinny contained it all. Winner of a 2020 Grammy Award, he's an artist you'll want to keep your eye open for, definitely ready for his close-up.