Memorial University student Ryan Downey’s goal in life at this point is not to get paid to do what he loves — it’s just to do it.
Downey, 21, is a fourth-year performance major at the School of Music. His chosen performance? Opera. His goal? To sing, whether people want to pay him for it or not.
“I have a great quote from world-renowned operatic soprano Wendy Nielsen,” Downey said. “She said to be up on that stage is a reward in itself, and if you get paid, you’re doubly rewarded. And I believe that.”
Downey grew up in St. John’s as part of a musical family, learning to play piano at age four and taking up singing when he was seven. After doing a lot of folk music and musical theatre, Downey decided as a teenager he wanted to sing classically, and hasn’t wanted to do anything else since.
“Initially what drew me to it was I don’t want to leave home, and the university here has a classical music program,” Downey explained. “The original plan was to maybe do a musical theatre degree, and then, as I got more and more immersed in the classical music traditions, I found I really enjoyed it. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Downey had great local success in musical theatre, earning roles in productions such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Scrooge,” “High School Musical,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Grease.”
As a baritone, he’s performed with MUN Opera in Menotti’s “The Telephone,” Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortileges” and scenes from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote,” as well as local composer Dean Burry’s “Le nez de la sorcière,” which toured the province earlier this year.
Performing musical theatre and performing operatic pieces are entirely different, Downey said, explaining classical singing involves a very specific science.
“You’ll notice for a lot of musical theatre shows, they’ll use mikes. Classical singers don’t use mikes at all,” he said. “It’s because there’s a certain frequency and it’s all angles, air speed, air pressure and velocity. Once you get the right combination of factors in your vocal tract, it happens and it’s not forced, it just sings, and it can cut through an orchestra. It’s all about feeling, it’s not about listening to yourself and changing things. It’s all intrinsic, inside of you.”
For that reason, Downey isn’t content to learn operatic pieces, which are generally in Italian, French or German, phonetically. All vocal performance majors at MUN must do at least one course in the languages, and Downey is learning Italian. He has an insistence to know what he’s singing, so he’ll often take a dictionary and translate a piece word for word to understand it.
“If you don’t know what you’re singing, how will anyone else know?” he asked.
Earlier this year, Downey had the opportunity to learn Italian first-hand as he took part in the University of Toronto’s Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, where he was the understudy to the count in a production of “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
“Being able to go over and sing with all these great coaches from Canada and around the world was an amazing experience, but when I got the extra offer to be the understudy, it was mind-blowing,” Downey said. “It’s a 400-page opera in music, and the count is on maybe 300 of those pages. I was in the parking lot of the School of Music when I got the email and I dropped everything, because it was crazy.”
The classical music scene in Newfoundland and Labrador is bigger than one might expect, Downey said, and is getting bigger.
It’s not new — the quality of talent and skill when it comes to local choirs is known worldwide — and other traditions within the music school and private ensembles are quite vibrant.
Still, an opera singer is perhaps not the most obvious choice of career, and Downey acknowledges that. He even uses that as an inspiration for success.
“It’s hard, certainly. You’ve got to be at the top of your game, and I realized that when I was in Italy and I saw what was expected. It was initially frightening, but then I realized if you want to do this, you’ve got to shape up and do it right.
“I read this article recently that said, ‘Why do we put ourselves through this? Sheer force of will and the support of the people who love you.’ That’s what it said. The career, you’ve got to make it yourself and you’ve got to prove that you are the best option.”
Downey, who is one of 35 vocal performers currently studying at the School of Music, will convocate in April.
This semester, he’s been filling in applications for graduate school, and will audition at four universities over the winter: the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, McGill University and University of Western Ontario.
If he doesn’t get accepted at any, his plan is to move to the mainland and continue studying, then try again next year.
“At the end of the day, I’m only 21 and I have so long to live my life and keep growing in this craft,” he said. “I want to immerse myself in this art form. I want to take away everything I can from it and learn as much as I can.”
In the meantime, Downey will take to the stage in April for his graduating recital with pianist Eldon Murray, and will be joined by cellist Nathan Cook to perform works by Borodin, Poulen, Tosti and Finzi.