Sing for Your Life by Daniel Bergner, review by Bruce Jacobs

A six-foot-five, 300-pound African American man with size-17 shoes may be an unlikely sight on the stage of New York's Metropolitan Opera, but Ryan Speedo Green commands that position like he was born to it. Sing for Your Life is Ryan Green's story, a tribute to opera and the power of the arts to pull a young man out of a violent broken home in southeastern Virginia and into Lincoln Center. Through extensive interviews with Green and his family, teachers, directors and voice coaches, journalist Daniel Bergner pieces together this remarkable life with the same storytelling knack he brought to subjects as varied as child soldiers in Sierra Leone (In the Land of Magic Soldiers), the Angola prison rodeo (God of the Rodeo) and women's sexuality (What Do Women Want?).

With an absent father (a bodybuilder and prankster who chose his son's distinctive middle name after his favorite competition garb) and a mother plagued by violent men, menial jobs and ramshackle low-rent housing, Green grew up angry, poorly schooled and on his way to prison (like his brother) or death. After a teacher took him under wing and made him learn King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and after a football coach put him in the school chorus to get some easy credits, he discovered that his roughhewn bass-baritone voice might be his ticket out. Through frustrating and demanding coaching, he learned to read Italian and German scores, to control the wide range of his vocal gift (one coach comments: "He was born with a trombone. He has to work on making his trombone a little more of a trumpet."), and to use his emotions and imposing physique to translate lyrics and music into drama. As Bergner shows, opera is not for wimps (a Met director tells him, "To train to be an opera singer takes as much time as to train to be a physician"); you don't get to the Super Bowl just because you're a big guy who likes to sack the quarterback. As a black man in a very white world, Green also had to overcome the assumption that his place on stage belonged in the role of Porgy in Porgy and Bess or as Joe singing "Ol' Man River."

Green's long journey out of poverty and juvenile therapy to professional success took tenacity, luck, dedicated teachers and an extraordinary vocal gift. Sing for Your Life may be a feel-good story in the end, but in the case of Ryan Speedo Green, its title quite literally says it all.

Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.

Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316300674
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Lee Boudreaux Books - September 27th, 2016