When I was a freshman at Bowdoin, I often studied in a majestic room on the second floor of Hubbard Hall, then the library. The stuffed chairs and high ceilings created a good academic vibe, much better than my room in Appleton Hall where my roommate often played music, sipped booze and prepared to study — but never did.

Nearly sixty years later I returned to that same room and chanced to meet a miracle. Let me explain. Tina and I are auditing a course at Bowdoin entitled, “The History of Opera and Musical Theater.” Our professor, Ireri Chavez-Barcenas, arranged for our class to spend an hour and a half with a distinguished opera star who was spending the day on campus. So we met in Hubbard Hall, now called the “old library,” as it no longer serves as the Bowdoin library.

Ryan Speedo Green is not your typical opera star: He’s African American. He’s six feet five inches tall and weighs 300 pounds. And he’s totally down to earth – a good guy, the kind of guy you could chat with about the NFL or where to get a good steak. A breath of fresh air and, yes, a miracle.

The odds of any singer performing on the Metropolitan Opera stage are minuscule at best, no matter how talented the singer. Ryan Green was one of only five talented singers selected from over 1600 entrants in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in March, 2011. Moreover, only a handful of such winners over the years ever land a role at the Met. Since that time, he has given 78 performances at the Met, and he’s only 33 years old. And, oh yes, he’s performed 34 times at the Vienna State Opera. Did I mention that the range of this mellifluous bass-baritone spans two and one half octaves — from a low D to F sharp above middle C? And that his voice must be strong enough to fill a concert hall without the benefit of a microphone?

It gets better. Ryan Speedo Green did not spend his early years surrounded by would-be opera singers. Rather, he grew up in a mobile home in rural Virginia. An out-of-control young boy, he was sent at the age of twelve to Virginia’s juvenile facility of last resort. He spent three horrendous months there, often relegated to solitary confinement. He emerged determined to change his life, and not follow in the path of two of his brothers who became convicted felons.

Ryan decided to surround himself by peers who, he now says, “could help me be me.” First stop: the Latin Club, composed of a group of nerdy white students totally unlike the football crowd he usually hung with. That experience led to his joining the choir. From there he auditioned for the Governor’s School for the Arts, a selective program that took kids for the second half of each school day and trained them in one of various disciplines — classical voice, orchestra, theater or visual arts

At Governor’s, Ryan faced long odds as he couldn’t read music or play the piano. Moreover, many of his boyhood friends back home considered him an “Oreo” for hanging around with white kids. And his background was very different from most of the other, mostly white students at Governor’s. Serendipity smiled, though, as Ryan had the good fortune to be trained by Robert Brown, a six foot four African American voice teacher with a thunderous bass and a dramatic presence. Brown sensed something special in the young man and spent countless hours working with him on breathing and tone and technique.

Serendipity smiled again when the classical singers of Governor’s took a trip to New York where they saw “Carmen” at the Met. That night the mezzo playing Carmen was an African American named Denyce Graves. Mr. Brown was acquainted with Denyce Graves and took the kids backstage after the performance. Later that evening, Ryan declared to Mr. Brown, “I’m going to sing at the Met.”

To his everlasting credit, Robert Brown didn’t say, “Forget it.” Rather, he laid out the steps necessary for Ryan to stand a chance to sing at the Met. “He said I had to learn to play the piano. And to sing in different foreign languages. And go to college and then to graduate school.” Ryan also had to possess the tenacity to train and develop his voice for the operatic stage. “Opera singers,” he says, “must work every bit as hard as football players to reach the top of their professions.” And African American singers, it must be noted, must work even harder to succeed against the fierce competition.

Much more could be written about the incredible tale of this extraordinary young opera singer. To that end, I highly recommend the book “Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race Music, and Family” by Daniel Bergner, which recounts Ryan’s inspiring story.

Every once in a very rare while, you get the opportunity to come in contact with a true genus, an incredible life force, someone who makes you just step back and think, “Wow!” Thanks, Ryan Speedo Green, for sharing your voice and your light with the world.

David Treadwell, a Brunswick writer, welcomes commentary and suggestions for future “Just a Little Old” columns [email protected]

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