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Chris Byars: Studying Unsung Heroes

By Published: September 30, 2009

AAJ: How many performances did you do when you were a child opera artist?

CB: I'm not sure exactly how many performances I sang in my childhood. It's somewhere between 500 and 1,000. When I was five, I was an understudy for the boys part in Madame Butterfly, a non-singing role titled Trouble. I was glad I was never called upon to perform it. I was too young to have really paid attention in rehearsals, and would have wandered onstage at the wrong time.

As a youngster, I was obsessed with Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele, a telling of the story of Faust. I learned the Italian choral parts, a furious offstage outburst from a chorus of angels, who are commenting on an onstage battle between the lead characters. I found the whole thing fascinating! Samuel Ramey played the title role, a towering, frightful person to encounter on the elevator, dressed as the devil. But Carmen came up first in the schedule that year, so that was my first performance. It was spring 1977; I was six years old.

Chris Byars Quartet Chris Byars Quartet (l:r): Ari Roland, Chris Byars, Stefan Schatz, John Mosca

For the next two years, I continued performing chorus roles in Carmen, La Boheme, Tosca, Hansel and Gretel, and other operas that required lots of kids. Some were sung, others only acted. In February 1980, I played Marie's Child in Alban Berg's Wozzeck At The Met, a production that featured opera stars Anja Silja and Jose Van Dam. Berg's 12-tone orchestra was an interesting background to my life as a nine year old. With this experience, and four years of dance training at the School of American Ballet, I was the logical choice to play the title role of The Spellbound Child, a Ravel operetta turned into a public television special by George Balanchine for a series that was called Dance In America. After months of rehearsals, I was flown into Nashville for two weeks, working alongside New York City Ballet dancers and Sesame Street Workshop puppeteers. Years later, tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart met me shortly after watching the video, and exclaimed "You're Chris Byars?! You're the Spellbound Child!"

As I entered the second half of my singing career, I began to audition for solo roles, landing notable parts in The Magic Flute (Mozart), Tosca (Puccini), and my favorite part, The Frog in Cunning Little Vixen (Janacek) in 1983, with new costumes designed by the author/illustrator Maurice Sendak. I created the City Opera version of this role and enjoyed putting my original stamp on the process. Sadly, the costumes were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 1985. I still have dreams of the 30-minute makeup sessions that would precede the performances. Large dark blue circles were painted around my eyes, requiring me to hold still and look a certain direction without moving. I can still feel the cold, wet paintbrush on my face. There was a large amount of domestic touring that I did with both New York companies, visiting Los Angeles, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Toronto (Okay, that's in Canada), Minneapolis, and Chicago. I was called upon to be mature, but my sense of being a kid endured. I enjoyed playing lots of video games, Dungeons & Dragons, and various pranks.

The end of my run came in Toronto. As you can imagine, the warning signs of a boy soprano career's doom are seen on his chin and upper lip. I had one more stop on The Met's version of Tosca, which starred Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto. Shortly before I began the Shepherd Boy's offstage solo to the Third Act, I felt strange. Not helped by the sudden musical tension that occurs frequently in Puccini, I became nervous in a new way—nauseous, dizzy. When I started to sing, it was noticeably bad: off pitch by drastically large intervals, dropping out, cracking. Clearly, this was the end. I was completely frustrated by my newfound musical incompetence, but I'll never forget Mildred Hohner's response (as a veteran children's chorus-mistress, she had seen this before). Seeing me crestfallen, she remarked obliquely on the performance of the orchestra: "You know, they play those shepherd's bells so loudly, I can hardly hear the vocal." I was excused for the second show and all remaining shows on my schedule. That was the end of my opera days.

I directed my focus to my new obsessions: the alto saxophone, two Charlie Parker records, and a stack of sheet music. I couldn't let the music end backstage in Toronto.

AAJ: You then went on to garner both more formal education and learning from the streets...

Chris ByarsCB: Both have pitfalls. You need formal education to help you become aware of what you can do, but you also need to live it and find out "why." I earned a Bachelor's and Master's of Music from the Manhattan School of Music. As a young, yet veteran musician, I was burdened by a cynical and uncooperative student's approach, but the information I learned there helps me to this day. I owe a great deal to the teachings of Dave Berger (arranging), David Noon (history), Ed Greene (aesthetics), Ludmilla Ulehla (composition), and Lewis Porter (Jazz styles and analysis).

For jazz, it seems perilous to remove the music from its naturally occurring environment. Perhaps it's in the lighting: when you substitute the soft, candlelit atmosphere of a jazz club for the fluorescent glare of the classroom, something happens to the space. Or perhaps it's because there is no recognized authority; even the bandleader must bow to the whim of the club owner, the freelance world, and the music itself. But when a teacher or administrator walks into the classroom, everyone starts thinking about their grade or salary, and thus descends the level of music in the institutional setting.

I'm glad to have pursued formal education, but feel relieved that it's over. Of course, I often find myself in the teaching role these days. Very much aware of my experiences as a student, I try my best not to recreate the unpleasant scenes by teaching too strictly. My most inspiring model as a teacher was the late, great author Frank McCourt, with whom I studied in high school. He would re-invent his curriculum every day, based on what he saw happening in front of him; his main mission was "to move his students away from fear."

In terms of learning music from the streets, the "real world," it's all the rage. I highly recommend it. Except that two demons keep popping up unchecked, and often are mistakenly rewarded: Commercialism and Narcissism. If a musician or composer is thinking about dollars instead of notes, the music gets compromised. Today, we are inheriting a lowest common denominator problem that is spiraling out of control. Popularity is confused with artistry. People can't tell what good music is anymore—they have to be told. The ears of the public are out of shape. They listen with their eyes instead, at least when you are dealing with most pop music.

And the narcissists, well, anyone that believes they came up with this music on their own needs to rethink their obligation to many individuals that spent their lives creating the music we know today. Even Charlie Parker was a small piece of the puzzle. He innovated on a collective dialogue that has been passed along for thousands of years, since the first song was sung, before history, before science.

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