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.”
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