The biography of an emerging African-American opera singer who overcame a tough Southern childhood.
New York Times Magazine contributor Bergner (What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, 2013, etc.) details the life of Ryan Speedo Green, who rose to performance prominence after a harrowing childhood in southeastern Virginia. Described as a physically imposing figure at 6 feet 5 inches and over 300 pounds, Green grew up with little adolescent ambition, raised by a largely absent part-Seminole bodybuilder father and an Air Force veteran mother who grew as abusive and violent to her children as her own romantic partners were to her. Life in their low-income housing project became troublesome for the young, increasingly uncontrollable Green, who, at age 12, pulled a knife on his brother and his mother and was sent to a juvenile detention facility. During his high school years, the family lived in similar squalor, but as Green was steered toward chorus classes to obtain easy high school credits, he ended up uncovering his truest voice. Bergner captures the essence of his subject’s desperate childhood even though Green terminated many interviews due to the still-palpable pain and misery of his past. Running alongside Green’s childhood is the story of his more recent ascent up the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions competition; the author spotlights both the struggles and the triumphs associated with Green’s exhaustive vocal training. The interweaving of both eras of Green’s life doesn’t always cohere, causing a meandering narrative. Bergner works hard to establish momentum during Green’s tumultuous childhood—and finds some success—but when coupled with the details of his opera aspirations, the effect is jarring. Still, as Green’s past and present finally meet in conclusion, his prideful performance at the Met (with his father in joyful attendance) seemingly trumps a good portion of childhood trauma.
A disjointed structure occasionally hobbles this swiftly written life story of music, forgiveness, and resilience.