Sydney Opera House

Ryan shines in acclaimed Of Mice and Men

Ryan reprises George in acclaimed Of Mice & Men

Baritone Barry Ryan (featured above and pictured right) may prefer traditional repertoire – Sharpless is his favourite role – but he has been instrumental in the success of two of Opera Australia’s most highly praised contemporary productions of recent times: Brett Dean’s Bliss and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, which opens at the Arts Centre, Melbourne this month.

In the lead-up to the Melbourne rehearsal period, Allerta! meets Ryan for a chat in his studio (filled with a large black grand piano) at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Here, when they’re not performing, Ryan and his wife, soprano Anke Höppner, teach singing.  

Having sung the role of George in the celebrated Sydney run of Of Mice and Men this winter, Ryan says that the opera’s Australian première has been a joy. “Of Mice and Men is a lyrical piece filled with accessible music – audiences and critics just loved it.”

The Sydney cast was able to work with composer Carlisle Floyd, who travelled to Australia to attend rehearsals. “It was the biggest buzz,” Ryan says. “Imagine being able to rehearse with Mozart. You felt that you were part of something really special; something historic.”

Working with tenor Anthony Dean Griffey (featured above and to the right with Ryan), Lennie in both the Sydney and Melbourne runs of the production, was as enriching an experience. “Tony is a very quiet and shy man, but we got on really well.”

Griffey, who is famous for his interpretation of the role, grew up with a schizophrenic father and brother, a circumstance of which he has often spoken publicly. His personal experiences add to the poignancy of his performance of the mentally disabled Lennie. Ryan says: “Tony had a difficult childhood, and as an adult he spent years working with children and adults with special needs. All of that – all that he’d witnessed and experienced – he brought to his realisation of the role of Lennie. His performance felt very real. The first couple of times we rehearsed the end, I just lost it. It’s such an emotional scene, and with powerful music added to the drama, it was too much to bear.”

Vocally, the role of George has its challenges. “It’s written for a bass-baritone with a really fantastic top,” Ryan says. “I’m a high baritone so the top notes weren’t a problem, but there’s quite a lot of very low dialogue that is heavily orchestrated, so that you have to be careful not to over-blow the sound.”

Of Mice and Men benefited from the filmic approach of one of Australia’s top film directors, Bruce Beresford. Ryan says, with a smile: “In Sydney I not only made my role debut as George, I made my film debut too. I’m hoping that Bruce will give me a job in Hollywood now…”

For the cast, shooting the opera’s film scene was an eye-opener. “We got a bus to Lane Cove National Park and Bruce set up a railway track on one of the paths, to mount one of the cameras. It swept up and down, filming us as we were running through the bush. We started shooting at 9.30am and finished at 4.30pm. I now understand why so many Hollywood stars use drugs – you’re bored out of your tree, sitting around waiting for your next take!”

Back in the rehearsal studio, working with Beresford, “an energy ball who gets on with absolutely everyone”, was a joy. “The best directors are completely clear about what they want, and from the outset, Bruce knew exactly what he had in mind.” 

Ryan does not foresee big changes to his interpretation of his role for the Melbourne run. “You’ve basically got the opera sewn up by opening night, but you only really know it by about the sixth performance. Which is the number of performances we had in Sydney. We have four more in Melbourne.  I love the show, the music and the cast so much, I wish it were 40!”

Ryan foresees that Of Mice and Men will become part of the opera canon. “It could well end up occupying a place similar to that of Peter Grimes in the repertoire. The music is full of beautiful lyricism – as Bruce says, it’s not the type of modern music that sounds as if someone is dropping pots and pans in the kitchen. I’ve recommended it to a number of people who’ve never been to the opera before, and they’ve all loved it.”