“I know why the caged bird sings.”—Paul Laurence Dunbar
As a writer of novels, I find life stories endlessly fascinating. That said, some are more interesting than others. As told to and by author Daniel Bergner, Sing for your Life, the biography of Ryan Speedo Green, is definitely in the latter category.
Ryan Speedo Green, a man with the heart and voice of an opera singer—a voice to be recognized only later—grew up in hard scrabble circumstances. Neglected son of mostly absent parents, he began life in a trailer park and later in a house across the street from drug dealers. Until music became part of his life, he was wild and out of control. By age twelve, he was in solitary confinement at a juvenile detention center. His future looked bleak.
How could someone like this rise to performing major roles at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and in Europe? Tracing Green’s journey from the mean streets of a nomadic childhood, Sing for your Life explores the challenges facing an African-American performer in the world of professional opera.
Green’s is an astonishing journey, one that was aided by dedicated teachers and mentors. Green’s teachers have stories of their own. One of the most pithy accounts is that of Mrs. Hughes, Green’s elementary school teacher. A short Italian Irish woman, her life-long ambition was to be a teacher.
As a third grader, Mrs. Hughes lined up her dolls and stuffed animals and led them through lessons. Years later, her dream of becoming a teacher became a reality. After years of teaching “regular” classes, she was given a room of “special” students. Ryan Green was one of them. Unruly and defiant, he threw his desk at Mrs. Hughes. She refused to be upset by his behavior, commenting that if Ryan wished, “he could learn from the floor, since his desk and books were down there.”
Later in the day, Ryan turned his desk upright and began to pay attention. This diminutive woman meant business. Mrs. Hughes, who had posted a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in her classroom, had her students memorize the lines
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Mrs. Hughes was the earliest of mentors, and possibly the most influential, to help Ryan on his circuitous journey to the opera stage. Others helped him with language and diction, preparing solos for auditions and eventually to becoming the opera star he was destined to be. In 2011, at the age of twenty-four, Ryan, beat 1,200 other selected singers to win a nationwide competition hosted by New York’s Metropolitan Opera In the end, his formerly absentee father came to see him onstage. From that point on, his career soared.
I especially related to Speedo’s triumph over early adversities. As an adoptee, I began life with five years spent in tumultuous circumstances. (To learn more, check out my memoir The Goodbye Baby-Adoptee Diaries). But you don’t have to be an adoptee to relish this heartwarming, inspiring biography. National bestseller Sing for your Life is a great read for anyone who relishes tales of “race, music and family.”
Join Elaine on Mondays for reflections on life as seen through adopted-colored glasses.