Curate 757

S4 E6 | FULL EPISODE

Ryan Speedo Green

A native of Suffolk Virginia, Ryan Speedo Green experienced a difficult childhood that ultimately led to juvenile detention at the age of 12. Green turned his life around with the help of dedicated teachers and learned to sing opera. At only 33, still young for a baritone, Green has performed on stages around the world, including the New York Metropolitan Opera.

AIRED: January 01, 2020 | 0:08:47
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TRANSCRIPT

(bright music)

(singing in foreign language)

- The fact that I went to juvenile detention at a young age

meant that I was probably gonna end up in jail.

And I was already destined to fail,

according to society and statistics.

(audience applauding)

- Welcome, Ryan Speedo Green.

(playful piano music)

(singing in foreign language)

- When I was in Elizabeth Hughes's special education class,

it was a class for kids who were

the worst of the worst in our school.

I was so angry at the world, because I didn't like myself.

I felt ashamed of myself and my situation.

I started acting out in school

and then started acting out at home.

That's what landed me in juvenile detention.

- He came in with his mother and he just looked at me

(desk clattering) and he threw his desk over

and said, "I'm not working with that white woman."

And I said, "Well, that's okay," I was a little scared,

"You can learn on the floor!

"Before the day ends, I want you to go look

"at Martin Luther King's speech," that I had up,

"about the content of my character, and memorize it,

"'cause that's the way I'm gonna treat you,

"by the content of your character."

Well, he eventually got back in his seat, and we bonded.

(singing in foreign language)

- The lessons that I learned in Mrs. Hughes's class,

that I am worthy of love, that I am worthy of change,

and that I could change and I could be a better person,

they were always there in the back of my mind.

She gave me a safe home, a safe place.

- This is an amazing journey of transformation.

He came from a very difficult home life.

He was locked up at the age of 12,

put in leg shackles, not just cuffs,

to be driven across the state to Virginia's

juvenile institution of last resort,

lashed out there, was put in seclusion cells.

- How many 12-year-olds have that much time

to think about their personal situation?

I knew when I got out that I never

wanted to end up there again.

I needed to change not only the people I was around,

but I needed to change how people saw me,

I needed to change the position I put myself in,

to be a better person, so I started joining everything

from football to Latin class to chorus,

to all these things, to get myself off the streets.

And it just so happened that at this audition

for the Governor's School for the Arts,

the principal of the Governor's School for the Arts

was no other than Leon Hughes!

Elizabeth Hughes's husband had become the principal

of the Governor's School for the Arts.

So when I found out after my audition that the person

who was the head of the school was the husband (laughs)

of Miss Betty, Miss Hughes, I sort of was in shock,

and I'm glad I didn't know, because I probably would've

not done my audition, 'cause I would've been too nervous!

They've been a part of my life since I was in fourth grade.

They've been there from my first role in an opera

in ninth grade to my debut at the Met.

- Well, once he got to a certain phase at Governor's School,

I had a pretty good idea that he was

gonna have a good future.

I didn't anticipate (laughs) that he would be calling

and say, "I won the Met competition!" (chuckles)

(singing in foreign language)

- When I look back to think about how I got into opera,

I think about a field trip that I took

with the Governor's School for the Arts.

It was a trip to New York City.

That was my first-ever opera.

When I, first of all, walked into the Metropolitan Opera,

it was the most beautiful theater I'd ever seen.

To me at the time, opera was a big, white Viking lady,

with a Viking helmet, breaking windows,

that's what I thought opera was,

or if I thought opera was something,

it was something that, never, someone like me could do.

The person who was portraying the title character of Carmen,

the main character, was an African American mezzo soprano

by the name of Denyce Graves. (singing in foreign language)

The person on stage looked like me.

It made me feel that I could be up there.

And when I left that theater, I told my course teacher,

who would become my voice teacher,

that I know what I wanna do with my life,

I wanna sing on the Met stage.

First of all, he didn't tell me no, that it's impossible.

What he told me is, "It is possible,

"but for you to sing on the Met stage, to even audition,

"you have to first of all, learn how to sing."

It was a laundry list of requirements to even be

on the level to get an audition on the Met stage.

And I took this as him saying I can do it.

(singing in foreign language)

Little did I know that that little white woman

would become the closest thing I've had to a grandparent!

And her husband would become one of the most

inspirational men in my life, even so much

that my son's middle name is named after him.

(singing in foreign language)

(regal music)

When I was first approached by "The New York Times,"

"The New York Times Magazine," and the writer Daniel Bergner

telling my story, I never thought I had a story to tell.

I was doing what I wanted to do,

living my dream, and I never thought that

what I did to get there was anything special.

(singing in foreign language)

- It's so inspiring.

We really want lessons to be drawn from it.

I've watched him try to relate to kids.

In fact, I'd say desperate to relate to them,

desperate to save some of them.

- It's really important for me--

- [Daniel] I've watched him succeed magically.

He just won't let it go, he wants to remind them

that that is not the end point.

- As I mentioned before, I grew up in a trailer park,

and throughout my entire life I lived

in pretty much low-income areas, and you can imagine,

not many of those kids or adults or parents or anybody

there knew what opera was or was interested in it,

and so I faced discrimination and bullying

from both my peers at the music school

and from my hometown.

I think that with the knowledge

of knowing what I did has helped me tell other children

that it's okay to have a past

that you're maybe not so proud of,

or to make mistakes, even big ones like I made.

I tell children this because I want them to know

that it's okay to fail, it's okay to not be the best,

it's okay to have big dreams,

but to have them is the first thing.

You gotta have them, you gotta want something.

Want something, whether it's small or big,

reach for something, 'cause you're all worth it.

(singing in foreign language)

- But what I can say is that man has

a singular, powerful will,

and that is so much a part of what brought him

from there to here.

- There's always a chance to better yourself and change.

It's never too late; when you're a child,

when you're a teenager, even as adult,

it's never too late to change.

It's never too late to better yourself

and to have a dream and to aim for it.

(audience applauding)

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