“I don’t think it’s nuts to do both!” exclaims Bryan Hymel, followed by a peal of laughter. When we met during rehearsals, Hymel was only scheduled to sing Turiddu, the tenor role in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, in the revival of Damiano Michieletto’s production which intertwines the action with its regular verismo double bill partner, Pagliacci. Canio – Pagliacci’s clown who faces meltdown over his wife’s infidelity – was set to be sung by Fabio Sartori, but indisposition has meant Hymel has ended up singing both roles, at least until Christmas. However, before returning to the production in January, there’s no break for Hymel, who dashes off to Munich for four performances of La bohème over the festive period. He’s a tenor in great demand and much of his career has been forged at The Royal Opera.

Bryan Hymel (Canio) in <i>Pagliacci</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel (Canio) in Pagliacci
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Hymel’s career-defining moment came in 2012 when he replaced Jonas Kaufmann in David McVicar’s new production of Les Troyens. Hymel had sung the role of Énée before – “it’s too long and too difficult to have done it at short notice” – and on the back of his success in Rusalka earlier that year, music director Antonio Pappano offered him the opportunity to step in. “It was a huge risk – it could have gone either way. Sure, the audience is always going to give you the benefit of the doubt but there’s a difference between letting the show go on and capitalising upon it.” This was his ‘Seize the day’ moment and Hymel grabbed it with both hands. “Once I saw Pappano and McVicar jump on board, I felt that if they trusted me then the trust that I had in myself was warranted. Without the Covent Garden Troyens, I wouldn’t have been able to do as well as I did at the Met because my relationship with the Met hasn’t been like my relationship here. They’d heard me sing so many times and they were never quite sure what my repertoire was or what to offer me. Troyens here pushed my Met debut forward by three seasons.”

Bryan Hymel (Énée) in <i>Les Troyens</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Bryan Hymel (Énée) in Les Troyens
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Since 2012, Hymel has been Covent Garden’s “go to” tenor for big French repertoire, thrilling audiences with his ringing top notes. Besides Énée, he has sung Robert le diable and Henri in Les Vêpres siciliennes, a role he revived triumphantly this autumn. Arnold in Guillaume Tell is also in his repertoire, part of an impressive portfolio of what Hymel admits are challenging roles. “They’re all endlessly long and the tessitura is really high. French vocal technique sits a bit higher because of the voix mixte; the way Verdi wrote Vêpres and Don Carlos, for instance, is completely different to his Italian works. Even within this repertoire there are big differences between the Rossini, Berlioz and then the evolution into Gounod, which does stay high but also gets into fuller, lusher orchestration. The repertoire picked me!”

Hymel explains a change of voice teacher ten years ago led to him exploring French repertoire, leading me to muse on how different teachers hear different things in the same voice. Hymel nods sagely: “Teachers and coaches and conductors and casting directors and managers! And we haven’t even got to the audience yet or the critics! I was actually offered Nadir in Pearl Fishers and the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten on the very same day! Not from the same company, thankfully, but on the same day! Pretty much everything falls between those two roles!”  

Bryan Hymel (Henri) and Michael Volle (Montfort) in <i>Les Vêpres siciliennes</i> © ROH | Bill Cooper
Bryan Hymel (Henri) and Michael Volle (Montfort) in Les Vêpres siciliennes
© ROH | Bill Cooper

The demands on international opera singers are great. “To be singing at the level I’m singing at all the time, it takes a lot,” he admits. “When you have a performance every three or four days, you never really come down. It’s like picking up little half kilo bags; once you pick up four or five of them in each hand, you’re exhausted. Depending on how long you have to carry them – even though not one of them is actually that heavy – it can, over the course of a season, be overwhelming. Houses often offer contracts in little bunches, two or three at a time. It’s never explicitly “take all three or take none” because they understand if you’re otherwise obligated with a contract at another theatre, but if you’re free and you still don’t want to take it… then it’s not so great.”

Hymel sees his debut as Turiddu as a foray into “bigger Italian music” following his first Don Carlo (also at Covent Garden) last season. Turiddu is a difficult character to fathom. Isn’t he a mummy’s boy on the one hand who’s then cheating on Santuzza? “I don’t know that that’s so different though,” he responds. “I think those mummy’s boys who get away with too much have no accountability to anybody because they figure they’re going to get away with whatever they want. In this production we envisage him in his late twenties, so he’s really impetuous and just charges into situations to do whatever he wants. It’s tricky. You never get to see anything between Lola and Turiddu except for that little exchange in the middle of his duet with Santuzza. You have to assume that there’s this really torrid affair going on. All the drama is with Santuzza.

Bryan Hymel (Turiddu) and Elina Garanca (Santuzza) in <i>Cavalleria rusticana</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel (Turiddu) and Elina Garanca (Santuzza) in Cavalleria rusticana
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

“Turiddu – like Pinkerton in a way – isn’t old enough to really consider the consequences of his actions. Once he sees everything going down, he just gets drunk. There’s one moment of reflection, after he’s already bitten Alfio’s ear, when he already knows what’s coming.”

Talk of heavier Italian repertoire led to my prophetic question about taking on roles in Cav and Pag on the same evening. Hymel was sure – and has since proved – that he could tackle both. Indeed, he questions which is the heavier role. “After having heard the orchestra in both in the Sitzprobe, I think that Cavalleria is actually heavier than Pagliacci, especially given the string doubling in the Mascagni. I understand why heavier voices would rather sing Canio than Turiddu because it doesn’t go as high, but you can never really tell how heavy something is until you’re in the room with the orchestra.”  

Bryan Hymel (Canio) and Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) in <i>Pagliacci</i> © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Bryan Hymel (Canio) and Carmen Giannattasio (Nedda) in Pagliacci
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

String doubling is also what makes Puccini heavier than Verdi, but we agree that Verdi is harder to sing. “Verdi is the Mozart of the 19th century,” he explains. “You have to really know your voice, you have to have your technique so you can kind of go big and come back. With Puccini, you need as much technique but in a different way. But I have seen a lot of singers get away with things in Puccini that they couldn’t get away with in Verdi: voices that would be too exposed; a rough edge or a corner that doesn’t quite turn.”

Flexibility in repertoire is clearly key. “I’ve always thought that it’s been helpful for me to move between different repertoire rather than singing the same thing all the time. It’s like stretching, limbering up. Early on, I was told ‘Oh it’s not really an Italianate sound but it’s not really German either so let’s try Czech!’ Listen, this is my voice, the colour is what it is, you can either hear it in different repertoire or you can choose to only want to hear a certain Italian type tenor in Italian repertoire or French in French or German in German. You know, I remember the first time I heard Birgit Nilsson on a recording. She was singing Tosca. I thought, ‘that’s really f*****g good’! If I think of Tosca, I’d usually think of Tebaldi or Callas but Nilsson sang it so well. I’d have paid a lot of money to have seen her sing that!”

Maria José Siri (Cio-Cio San) and Bryan Hymel (Pinkerton) © Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Maria José Siri (Cio-Cio San) and Bryan Hymel (Pinkerton)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

One role Hymel is unlikely to return to is Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. I saw him sing it last December in the big season opener at La Scala, which was a big deal as it was the first time for years that an American singer had taken on a principal role at the prima. “I took that on because it was the season opener… and that was pretty much it! Butterfly is not a big night for the tenor.” It was even less so in Milan, where music director Riccardo Chailly opted to revive the original version of the opera, meaning Pinkerton loses his brief aria “Addio, fiorito asil” which softens Pinkerton's crass character a touch, making it an even less appealing prospect. “Unless it’s an unusual situation where I can do Pinkerton whilst doing something else, then I probably won’t sing it again.”

Hymel cites Jussi Björling and Luciano Pavarotti among his tenor role models – “my listening goes in cycles” – but a chance CD purchase in Italy led to him exploring Tito Schipa, which in turn led to forays further back in time. “ It had been difficult to get my ear accustomed to these older recordings, to hear past the crackle, but then I spent a lot of time listening to Beniamino Gigli and Enrico Caruso. But the tenor that I listen to the most now is Plácido Domingo. His is not the kind of voice that is like mine, but he’s recorded more than just about anybody else and now after knowing him and working with him I feel a certain connection.”

Bryan Hymel © Dario Acosta
Bryan Hymel
© Dario Acosta

A tenor for many types of repertoire, but if Hymel woke up and found himself a baritone for a day? His eyes light up. “Scarpia! He’s so unlike any character we tenors have. I usually listen to music that I’m involved in preparing, but if I want to put on something just to enjoy, I usually put on Robert Merrill, Leonard Warren or George London… all great American baritones. The other baritone roles would be Simone in Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and Michele in Il tabarro. Whilst I was at the Academy of Vocal Arts, I was hired by New Orleans Opera to do Trittico. I got to totally appreciate Puccini. The orchestration in Tabarro is great and as for the comic timing of Schicchi… it’s genius. I did both Luigi and Rinuccio there three days running – a great experience but I’d never do both again.” Two roles on the same night? That would be nuts, Bryan.