Michael Spyres

The American tenor on Donizetti's Les martyrs

Michael Spyres (Russell Duncan)
Published: October 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

We talk to the American tenor ahead of his appearance in Opera Rara’s production of Donizetti’s little-known opera Les martyrs


Donizetti’s Les martyrs isn’t performed very often. Could you summarise the plot for those of us who aren’t familiar with it?
The opera is set between Armenia and Rome in 300 AD. I play the main character, Polyeucte, who converts to Christianity when his wife, Pauline, is on her deathbed. He prays to the Roman gods and, when they do not answer, turns to the Christian God who saves Pauline's life. She is the daughter of a high priest of the Roman gods and remains devout to them so the two have to struggle with loving each other while believing different things. Polyeucte eventually becomes a martyr who is willing to die for his religion and his wife finally converts to Christianity as well. The opera has a dramatic ending where she and Polyeucte are put to death by a lion in a public spectacle.

Is Polyeucte a believable character, do you think?
Yes, definitely. Throughout the opera you see the internal conflicts of two people who believe very much in different things but also want to stay married because they love each other so much: it makes the whole opera very relatable. In the conversations between Polyeucte and his wife they basically say: ‘I wish you saw it my way, but I still love you.’ It’s a very human drama.

Can you relate personally to some of the themes in the opera?
Absolutely. I come from a town of about 1,400 people in the Midwest of America and we have, I believe, 13 churches. Everyone has their own set of beliefs, but we all get along and there is a real feeling of community between people from all these different churches.

Why do you think Les martyrs is performed less often than other operas by Donizetti?
There are two reasons. Like a lot of French grand opéra, the work is having a renaissance because there are people who can actually sing it now. It is some of the hardest music ever written because of the length of the piece and because of the extremely high notes it requires from singers. The other reason is that it’s difficult to stage an opera that is set in both Armenia and Rome. And one that ends with death by lion. It can all be done nowadays.

What has it been like to work with conductor Sir Mark Elder?
He’s like a human encyclopedia – he knows every single second of each opera performs. His history with ENO and his contribution to the music world is just so vast. It can be intimidating if you don’t know your music because he will know it better than you. Having him as a conductor is inspiring.

This is the first time you have performed with Opera Rara. How has the experience been so far?
Most people, unfortunately, have only heard of about ten operas – Carmen, La bohème and so forth. The scholarly work that Opera Rara is doing, and the company’s belief in lesser-known pieces is amazing. I love that Opera Rara makes opera feel revolutionary by performing so many pieces that were controversial when they were written. Les martyrs wasn’t even allowed to be shown when it was first written. The great thing is that we live in a time where people are able to hear and see these wonderfully well produced and well researched operas that they may not have heard of before. Opera Rara is a label that I have always wanted to sing for so I’m living my dream.

Opera Rara’s Les martyrs takes place at 7pm on Tuesday 4 November at the Royal Festival Hall. Visit: www.southbankcentre.co.uk to find out more

Photo: Russell Duncan


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