Suave. Elegant. Charismatic. Riveting. Devilishly attractive. A voice that drips with gold. These are just a few bits of the rapturous acclaim bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, one of the leading artists in all of opera, has received over his career, which was launched right here in Houston.
McKinny joined the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio in 2005 and went on to spend three years training with the program, after which he and his family were based in Houston for the better part of a decade. They now live in Asheville, North Carolina, but McKinny still has a special place in his heart for this city, and for HGO, which he considers his home company.
“It’s my favorite place to sing,” says McKinny, who has performed at the Wortham more than any other house during a career that has taken him around the globe.
McKinny just may be the busiest man in show business. In addition to his opera engagements, he is dedicated to championing the kind of digital art he and HGO pioneered during the pandemic—he played a major role in the first season of HGO Digital, starring in and co-directing Vinkensport and directing Bon Appétit! with his wife Tonya—and recently was named the head of U.S. content partnerships for Marquee TV.
He and Tonya home-school their children so the family can be together when McKinny’s opera career takes him on the road. He also runs, sails, and serves on the president’s leadership council for Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization. How does he balance it all?
“When I figure it out, I’ll let you know,” he says with a laugh.
This season McKinny performs as Jokanaan in Salome at HGO, and in typical fashion, he’s also taken on a number of other roles with the company. The Real Divas of HGO, a hysterical short film starring several of the leading ladies from this season’s operas, imagines what would happen if their characters gathered for a Real Housewives-style dinner party. The credits list him and Tonya as “producers, directors, camera operators, editors, best boys, and diva wranglers.” If you haven’t seen it yet, a delightful 10 minutes awaits you; search for it on YouTube. And read on for more about the man who loses his head at HGO this spring in Strauss’s Salome.
Opera Cues: How do you remember your experience with the Butler Studio?
Ryan McKinny: What was great about it is that I was in so many productions. I was in just everything—I had a small role, or I was covering. Just being on stage that much was so big for me, and having a great voice teacher in Dr. Stephen King, and great coaching, and a place that was very high level, artistically, but also not so pressurized as New York or Chicago. There was a little more room for me to not be perfect, which I now really value.
Richard Bado was a big fan of mine right from the beginning, and I really got along well with him, and Patrick Summers has been such a mentor of mine over the years. And HGO has really been amazing about hiring me back as a guest artist. Houston audiences know me now. I’m so excited to do Salome, because it feels like a role I can really deliver to an audience that I care about, and I think they’re going to love it.
OC: How did the Butler Studio prepare you for your career in opera?
RM: Gosh, in so many ways. The combination of taking risks and being as prepared as you possibly can be—I came to feel very strongly those were two sides of the one artist I was trying to learn to be. And the nuts and bolts of how to prepare for a role wasn’t something I really understood before my time there. I watched world-class artists, and how they interact with their cast and with conductors and with directors. And I learned so much from the coaching staff, musically, and from visiting directors, as an actor, how to sing in a big opera house. I could never have had this career without my time in the Studio.
OC: You’ve performed in dozens of HGO productions. What are your personal highlights?
RM: The first would be one of my very first performances. I was singing the small role of the police officer in Boris Godunov, but Sam Ramey was singing Boris, and just being on stage with him was so incredible, and with the HGO Chorus—I had never heard an opera chorus like that. They were so good. And that just sort of opened my eyes to what was possible. And then, later on, I sang my first Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, and that was with Nina Stemme singing Isolde and Ben Heppner singing Tristan. It was my first big Wagner role, and it was just so exciting.
OC: The last time you performed as Jokanaan in Salome was in 2015 in Santa Fe. What is it like to return to the role now?
RM: Seven years is long enough that you’re kind of working with a brand new voice, which in my case is really funny because I’m much better equipped to sing it now than I was then. You know, a bass-baritone—when you get into your forties, that’s kind of when it all comes together. My voice has a little more weight than it used to. I’m a little bit better singer than I was. It’s fun to go through it again because everything feels a little better. There’s more choices I can make. I’m really excited for it.
OC: How do you approach this character?
RM: He’s tricky. He’s an enigma. You can sort of be sympathetic to him or not, as an audience member. When he’s talking to Salome, he only speaks to her in these prophecies. He can’t talk to her like a real human being. Depending on the production, it can be classic—he really is just giving her the word of God and trying to warn her—or he can represent patriarchy, old thinking, the inability to see other people as human. I’m excited to see how the production goes. But your big job, when you sing John the Baptist, is to sing a lot of loud, high stuff, so that’s the biggest challenge, always. It’s amazing music.
OC: Why should people come see this opera?
RM: Salome is one of the best first operas to see if you’ve never seen one. It’s so sonically and dramatically packed. Every scene is intense, and the whole thing is compact. It’s so short. It’s one act. It’s big music. It’s opera opera. If you’ve never heard a Strauss orchestra or a Strauss singer make this music—you feel it in your body in a way that you never would just at home on your speakers. And it has a bunch of distinct, amazing moments in it. It’s a little bit of a horror flick. If you’re into creepy movies, this is one you might love. But even if you aren’t, the music on its own, and how fast-paced it is—it’s one I think everyone should go see.
OC: In 2019 you starred as Don Giovanni at HGO. Next season you’ll perform as Leporello. What is it like to take on a different role within the same opera?
RM: The acting part of what we do is one of my favorite parts, so I enjoy being different characters. I played Leporello back when I was in college. I’ve also played Masetto, and I covered the Commendatore when I was at Juilliard. So I have all four of the men’s roles in my brain somewhere. It does make it a little tricky when you’re doing ensembles, where everyone’s singing, to remember which thing you’re doing. And in recits, I’m sure that will be challenging, too.
It’s a totally different perspective on the piece if you’re playing Leporello than if you’re playing Giovanni. I’m excited to flip it on its head and experience it from a different direction. It will be fun. I hardly ever get to do comedy, and I really love it.
OC: How did the short film you made, The Real Housewives of HGO, come to exist?
RM: Khori Dastoor, Tonya, and I were just talking about things we could work on together related to HGO’s season. And Khori gave us artistic license to do what we wanted. I can’t remember if it was Tonya’s idea or mine to have a potluck of all the divas together. But it was her idea to have the head of John the Baptist be a cake, which I feel like was the best idea of all.
I know a lot of these women, and even though most of them are known for doing serious roles, they’re all extremely funny people. And so we thought, if we let each of them be their characters but kind of an extreme version, and make it like Real Housewives, it will write itself, which it did. So, Tonya and I came up with a handful of scenarios. We showed up, and let the cameras run, and just said, go ahead and improvise. And so much of what is very funny is straight from those women, who came up with ideas on the spot.
OC: About that cake…
RM: We had to plan the cake way ahead of time, and we had a person in Houston make it. But then we realized we were going to have to film in Santa Fe, because the hardest part of the whole thing was getting all these women in the same place.
We couldn’t fit it in an airplane cabin, so the day before the shoot, I ended flying to Houston and driving the head back to Santa Fe, which is a replica of my own head. (laughs) So I had a severed head that was a cake in the passenger seat of the car, and I was just terrified that I would ruin it. But somehow I didn’t! And then, cutting it—we had one take, and that was a little scary. But we all just had a blast that day.