In Memoriam: Michael Gray

A Voice Goes Silent in the Met Chorus

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Anyone who attends opera performances regularly at a local opera company develops a relationship with a whole group of people whom he or she may not know personally: The chorus.

While orchestra members are hidden from view and solo singers come and go, the chorus is there providing musical and dramatic ballast, day in and day out. We see their faces and are somehow relieved that they are still there, today as guests at Violetta’s party, tomorrow as priests or slaves in Aïda, the next day as cowboys in La Fanciulla del West, then as a weaver or sailor in Der Fliegende Hölländer, and then as a member of the oppressed masses in Boris Godunov.

Sometimes chorus members take on individual roles when a stage director has a particular concept. This does not mean they sing solo roles, but are called upon to do or be something distinct rather than be one of a nameless gang. Michael Gray (August 10, 1955-July 29, 2011) was such a chorus member in my hometown opera company, the Metropolitan Opera. I knew Michael somewhat through the years as I would run into him at events frequented by opera folk. It struck me that he was always a gentleman and a very sweet and cultured man. In making calls in the days since his death at home (from esophageal cancer) to people who knew him, almost everyone used the same words: Gentleman. Sweet. Cultured.

Michael is survived by Brian Meehan, his partner of 12 years, of New York, and his mother Thelma Gray and brothers Andrew and Tim Gray, all of Baytown, Texas, the suburb of Houston where Michael grew up. I called Brian, whom I did not know, to learn more about Michael. “It might sound odd to say, but he really looked like a stud, yet he was the most gentlemanly, engaging and humble of men.” Met chorus administrator Steven Losito said Michael “was one of the very best....a real gentleman. I will miss him very much.”

Texas Roots

Michael Gray, a tenor, sang in the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. He began performing at the University of Houston, where he majored in music. Among his early appearances was in Showboat. He also played drums and clarinet in the band and sang in his church which, according to Brian, was very significant to Michael in musical as well as spiritual terms. He was also in the famous HGO productions of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the late 1970s and Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha in the early 1980s.

Michael once told me that one of his favorite experiences was being in the 1977 HGO production of Salome that starred Grace Bumbry. I had a look at the cast list and noticed that the role of the Erste Jude was sung by tenor Kenn Hicks, also a Houstonian who by then had made a career abroad. I called Kenn to ask him about Michael. “We met in 1977 during Salome,” he said. “A few years later, I encouraged him to come to New York to audition for the Met chorus and helped coach him with his audition arias: ‘Un’aura amorosa’ from Così fan tutte and Beppe’s aria from Pagliacci.” Michael was accepted as an extra chorus member around 1983 and, according to the Met press office, “started as a full-time Regular Chorister in the 1988-1989 season, completing 23 years of service at the end of this past season.”

Hicks concurred with other opinions I heard about Michael. “He was a very tasteful man, whether it was food, music, fashion or anything else. He was also a very supportive friend. We liked to listen to recordings of some of the old, great singers including Gigli, Björling, Callas, Pavarotti and, especially, Montserrat Caballé. As a musician, he was a consummate, dedicated tenor and a real professional.” Hicks sent me a link to a video tribute he created for Michael.

There are certain reasons why I particularly noticed and remembered Michael. One was the inevitable fact that he was among the first male African-American singers in the Met chorus. Brian Meehan remarked to me that “Michael came to the Met at a critical time for the arts in America. Those were real days of reckoning about people of color.” 

I recalled a conversation with Michael in which he recounted his having politely but firmly objected to director/designer Piero Faggioni’s request that he and certain other African-Americans wear a sort of white-face make-up to appear fairer in color in a new production of Un Ballo in Maschera in 1990. A couple of cast members did wear the make-up on opening night, along with white wigs, and they looked like kabuki actors. Within a few performances the make-up was gone. I could picture Michael, a paragon of courtesy, nonetheless drawing that line with an Italian director who did not understand why his request was offensive. More African-Americans have joined the Met chorus in recent years and have assumed important roles without being asked to alter their skin color to fit the setting of the opera they were in.

Another thing I always admired about Michael was the degree to which he imbued every role he sang with a physicality, a backstory and a palpable sense of character. He did not do this to stand out or compete with a soloist, but because he took very seriously his job as a member of the chorus. Production photos showed Michael as an innocent peasant in Boris Godunov, a smart and proud courtier in Don Carlo (right), a rugged soldier in Il Trovatore, or a suave gentleman (naturally) in La Rondine. I would always use binoculars to find Michael onstage and discover that his eyes and face were in the character suggested to him by his music, words, costume and stage director. Frankly, there are chorus members everywhere who just stand and sing in costume, but not Michael.

Brian Meehan told me that Michael’s favorite role happened to be the last one he performed: Mahatma Gandhi in Mark Morris’s production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. It starred David Daniels as Orfeo in 2007 and 2011, while Stephanie Blythe played the role when it was broadcast in HD in 2009. Brian said “Michael loved Stephanie Blythe and thought she was the greatest opera singer alive.”

A distinct feature of this production was that every chorus member sat in three tiers of seats above the action, each one dressed by Isaac Mizrahi as a famous person from the past, whether it was Queen Elizabeth I, Jacqueline Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln or Princess Diana. It was a great delight, on return visits, to spot familiar chorus members in special costumes and make-up.

Michael was cast as Gandhi, a man of principle, simplicity and strength. He carefully shaved his head before each performance, applied his own make-up and adopted the stooped but charismatic posture of the great Indian leader. A photograph from his costume fitting showed that he had already prepared for the role and had begun to find physical attributes to use as Gandhi.

In the conception of Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi, each member of the chorus represented a benign spirit hovering over and protecting Orfeo and Euridice. Now Michael has joined another kind of heavenly choir, but his warm presence, collegiality and love for opera remain impressed upon all who knew him. In some posts, I have spoken about what the term “Met Family” once meant and how, in some ways, that aspect of the company has unraveled. But Michael Gray clearly was the best of what we mean by Met Family, now gone, much missed, but never to be forgotten.

Photo credits: Metropolitan Opera Technical Department

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Comments [37]

Robert Collett from Houston

I was in the extra chorus (along with Dennis Williams) when Michael was hired by David Styvender. Michael was a wonderful man, he had at his source a gentle, loving spring. I am so sorry for his passing...

Dec. 10 2012 02:11 PM
Mark Hoeler from Brick NJ

I am saddened to hear of Michael's passing. While I didn't know him well, during my decade long membership in the MET extra-chorus, Michael always had a smile or a kind word of encouragement to those of us who were not "regular choristers". My condolences to his close friends and family. He was a class act.

Nov. 22 2011 03:55 PM
Juli McSorley

My dear friend of 24 years and the greatest chorister to partner with I have had. We shared so many memories and shared our soul values. He was my dear friend, one who had a quiet dignity and selflessness: a unique spirit whom I counted on always for advice and a loving ear. Never forgotten and always in my heart and mind. thank you for being part of my journey Michael. How enriching you were to me and so many.

Oct. 07 2011 10:52 AM
Bernard Phillips from New York, NY

Michael was my church, gym, and "Houston" (from days gone by) friend. We always expected the absolute best from each other and he never showed less. I will miss him!

Sep. 15 2011 05:20 PM
Jeanette Thompson from Izmir, Turkey

Fred, what a beautiful, beautiful tribute to Michael. It is so comforting to those of us whom he left behind to know that his art, his character, his soul was honored in such a way. Thank you.

Aug. 21 2011 10:52 AM
Bill Mahley from Houston

Mike - as we called him back then - was a fellow freshman in the dorm at U of H in the early 70's. We all taught him to sing - ha! Just learned of his passing from another alum. He was a great guy, a good friend and always respectful of others, even when having fun. I always wanted to go to the Met and see him perform on the biggest of stages - big regrets now!

Aug. 18 2011 10:48 AM

Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. I met Michael at the Met when we were fellow choristers in that greatly anticipated, exciting "Porgy and Bess" in the 80's. My fellow Texan was always a thoroughly professional, warm, supportive colleague during my 23 year tenure at the Met; a real Mensch!. A great loss to us all!

Aug. 15 2011 01:25 PM
Barbara Mahajan from new york

Michael was a true light and will be missed very much by all who knew and loved him

Aug. 12 2011 12:31 PM
Janet Wagner from Santa Fe, NM

Michael was my dearest friend. We sang together in the Met Chorus for over 20 years and laughed together all those years, too. We even met with laughter. Even when he was so ill we managed some laughter over the phone. A healing man in every phase of his life. A blessed man and the best colleague one could ever have on the Met Stage. Love to Michael

Aug. 12 2011 12:05 PM
Susan Spector from Leonia, NJ

Thank you for this moving tribute. The MET truly is a family to those of us that work there. We have lost a beloved member.

Aug. 11 2011 09:15 PM
Dan DeGarmo from Cameron Park CA

Fred, thank you for a wonderful article on my friend Michael. I first met Michael when we shared a homeroom class in 6th grade at Baytown Junior School. We became instant friends and shared many laughs and good times together. His family became mine and vice versa. After school ended we went to different coasts, but still remained in contact. In the far too few times we got together, it was like we had never been away. He was truly a wonderful man. I'm glad to hear that he was well respected in New York. He was never happier as a member of the Met chorous. I will miss his laughs and his love very much.

Aug. 11 2011 08:31 PM
Pam Warford from Baytown, Texas

Michael and I met in high school choir, he sang at our wedding and each time he was able to venture home, he called, we stayed up late, sipped on wine and shared what was going on in life. He was genuine, he cared, he was kind. I was not a part of his NYC life and didn't know about his friends or admirers there. How wonderful it is to read the comments about what he meant to others in New York. I miss him, his bear hugs, his intense eyes, his beautiful smile, his giggle.....I will miss his love.

Aug. 10 2011 11:01 PM
Jeffrey Mosher

Thank you so much for writing such a fitting article. Michael was the best. He always showed class and dignity in everything he did. The dynamics of 80 very different individuals coming together night after night to give the best performance possible is something most people can never understand. Michael could always be counted on to come through, give his all, and do it in such a confident unassuming way. The thing I will miss the most is his laugh. It was infectious. No matter what my mood his laugh would always make me smile and feel better. He will be greatly missed

Aug. 10 2011 09:45 PM
Craig Mumm from Jersey City, NJ

Michael was such a kind person. I smiled whenever I ran into him backstage or in the cafeteria. I will miss him very much.

Aug. 10 2011 09:45 PM
Laura Fries from NYC

Happy birthday, Michael. I wish with all my heart that you were still here to celebrate it. Instead, I remember you with great love and deep respect, and celebrate that I knew you. Thanks, Fred, for giving Michael the recognition he so greatly deserves. He was truly a unique person and the best of colleagues. There will never be another one like him.

Aug. 10 2011 08:21 PM
Michael Lofton from New York

Thank you, Fred for a beautiful tribute to a truly beautiful man. Michael was a role model for me (and I'm sure for many others) in his professionalism, his loyalty to his friends and to his craft. I am very grateful to have known him. His accomplishments on the Met stage and on this earth will be long remembered.

Aug. 10 2011 04:33 PM
John Ingle

As Fred mentioned, today would have been Michael's 56 birthday. Michael loved to laugh and enjoyed a party. When I was hanging out with him, he loved margaritas. We once decided to go on a search for the "perfect" margarita which of course entailed expeditions to numerous drinking establishments (field research). Celebrate Michael today. Have a margarita! He would love it.

Aug. 10 2011 12:46 PM
Fred

Today Michael would have celebrated his 56th birthday. Take a moment to think of him.

Aug. 10 2011 12:03 PM
Cara De Silva from New York City

You frequently outdo yourself, but that doesn't' mean that isn't, yet again, a comment worth making.

Your approach here, as always, is oblique and yet head on.

How beautiful and stirring that you chose to write about a representative of that most unsung group, the opera chorus. And that by honoring Michael Gray, you honor the institution.

Aug. 10 2011 11:37 AM
Dennis Williams

Our dear Michael; gone way too soon. My colleague for twenty three years. He was always supportive, tasteful, intelligent and dedicated. I'll miss him so much.

Aug. 10 2011 11:28 AM
Greg Zuber

Michael will be missed. Thanks for the article Fred.

Aug. 10 2011 11:25 AM
Joe Starr

I went to college with Michael (btw, it's just the University of Houston) and I remember some wicked games of Spades on the 12th floor of Moody Towers. He always had a crease in his jeans (ironing freak!) and a smile on his face.

Aug. 10 2011 10:41 AM
Jim from Minneapolis, MN

I had the pleasure of witnessing Michael's art on a number of occasions. I saw him frequently on the HD broadcasts and yes, he always stood out in a definite way. He was a very attractive presence, totally committed to the moment, and one could not help but notice him. Because I saw him a number of times and saw how he brought the integrity of the works he performed, to the fore, I was always curious about who he was, where he came from and how he ended up being there. I am grateful for this wonderful article in praise of Michael's art, and truly wish he was well and still sharing with us. Fortunately for us, with the HD broadcasts on DVD, he'll still be with us.

Aug. 10 2011 12:01 AM
Constance Green

Fred, thank you for the noble and fitting tribute to our Michael. What a hole his passing leaves in our hearts. Having worked alongside him for so many years, it is like loosing a close family member. Reading your words is a comfort.

Aug. 09 2011 10:03 PM
David Lowe from NYC

Fred . . . thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to a truly wonderful man. Michael was a dear, loving soul that will be missed by so many.

Aug. 09 2011 08:16 PM
Steven Eldredge from New York City

Fred, this is a wonderful tribute, thank you so much. Michael was one of the sweetest people at the Met, always had a smile and a greeting, he had a lovely energy about him. So terribly sad for all of us in the Met family to have lost him.

Aug. 09 2011 07:45 PM
John Ingle from New York

I just learned of Michael's passing yesterday evening. We had a complicated and intense friendship for about three years, went on some wild and wonderful adventures and then drifted apart. Michael was a passionate, extraordinarily talented, intelligent and charismatic man. We once made a pact that if either of us knew our time of passing was imminent, we'd not leave without saying 'goodbye'". Sadly, having not been in touch, he wasn't able to say goodbye. I'll always remember his amazing smile and those wonderfully mischievous eyes. Goodbye my friend. Thank you for being. You will be missed.

Aug. 09 2011 07:22 PM
Holliday from Freeport, Long Island

Beautiful tribute. I did not know Mr. Gray, nor did I even know his name. But over the years I had not only noticed him on stage at the met but came to look for him in the chorus because of his nobel and regal and engaged presence on the stage. Very sad to hear of his passing at such a young age. Thank you for sharing your tribute with those of who did not know him personally but benefitted from his grace and talent.

Aug. 09 2011 07:00 PM
Judith Apy

I retired from the Met Chorus ten years ago, but I have always remembered Michael with the greatest affection. Both my husband, Art Apy, and I considered him one of the really special people there....not just a colleague, but much, much more. I cried when I received this news. I share the pain of everyone who knew and loved Michael. And I will never forget him.

Aug. 09 2011 06:52 PM
Cori Ellison from New York, NY

Michael Gray's passing leaves a sad, empty, unfillable hole in the wonderful Met Chorus, in the larger music world, and in the hearts of all of us who were lucky enough to have known and worked with him. Sincerest thanks, Fred, for giving our Michael the obit of a star, which he truly was and now quite literally is.

Aug. 09 2011 06:19 PM
Steven Fredericks from Tenafly, NJ

Gentleman. Sweet. Cultured. Yup, that was Michael.

Aug. 09 2011 06:10 PM
Judy Parker

A beautiful tribute to a consummate professional and a very gentle and lovely person. Michael was always kind and welcoming whenever I ran into him, on and off stage. He'll be greatly missed.

Aug. 09 2011 04:53 PM
carolyn sielski

The Met has lost a family member; a friend, a musician, a soulmate. You were always safe with Michael. He was strong and loving. He listened when you spoke to him.
Whenever there was a party, Michael always took my band director husband aside to talk , making him feel included, talking about the marching band in which he used to play, not the opera.
He died too young...there was so much more love , talent and Michael to give

Aug. 09 2011 12:46 PM
Marty Singleton

Michael was a very dear friend. We worked together for over 20 years and sat in the same isle of the Chorus dressing room. Always a gentleman and excellent colleague. We, as friends and Choristers have suffered a great loss.

Aug. 09 2011 09:33 AM
angela deverger

Micheal was the best of the best. He was a wonderful friend and colleague. I work with him from 1996 and I will tell you that he was extraordinary. He was the sweetest and most wonderful person. We have to be partnered a lot in the Met and he was so wonderful as a partner-a real gentleman. Just splendid. I loved him very much. We have lost much this year. Micheal Gray was the best human ever! I will miss him greatly.

Aug. 09 2011 08:45 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Michael has been taken from us all too soon. Thank you, Fred, for this wonderful tribute piece to him.

Aug. 09 2011 12:52 AM
Robert Poda from New York

Thank You, Fred!

A lovely tribute to a lovely man.

Aug. 08 2011 07:02 PM

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