When Joseph Ryan opens his mouth — watch out. His voice is as deep as it thunderous, and if you’re not careful, it could blow you over in a confined space — i.e., his apartment.
Listening to a male opera singer belt out “O du mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” is impressive enough when it happens on stage.
In a one-bedroom apartment, it can make you feel claustrophobic, or what it might have felt like to be married to Pavarotti.
“I don’t sing before 10 (a.m.) or after 9 (p.m.),” Ryan says nonchalantly. “I know I can be loud.”
The last time the 30-year-old baritone rehearsed in his apartment, a neighbor mocked him by chanting “Figaro, Figaro” from a nearby balcony.
The response didn’t ruffle Ryan. At least the heckler knew Figaro was a baritone role.
“To tell you the truth,” Ryan says, “music in general helped me come out of my shell. Singing in front of a sea of people can be extremely empowering or extremely intimidating. I’ve had to learn how to open up and put myself out there.”
It’s safe to say he feels more empowered these days.
Since arriving five years ago in Sarasota to study with the Sarasota Opera’s Apprentice Artist Program, Ryan, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, has padded his resumé with a dizzying number of local gigs.
He’s a cantor at three churches: First United Methodist Church, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key.
He regularly sings with Gloria Musicae, the Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota, the Anna Maria Island Concert Chorus and Orchestra and the Brandon Choral Society.
In addition to these performances, he gives private lessons and works as a voice teacher at Best Buy.
(That’s right. The big-box retailer now offers in-store music lessons. According to Ryan, it’s a “Geek Squad for music” and it’s more sophisticated than you’d think.)
“I don’t know if it’s a character flaw, but I like to be validated in what I do,” Ryan says. “It’s really rewarding to see students get it.”
Last fall he replaced Key Chorale’s longtime bass section leader Dan Cartlidge, a role that has brought him even more validation in what is predicted to be a high-profile season for the 100-voice chorus.
In addition to last weekend’s spine-tingling Cirque des Voix collaboration, Key Chorale’s 2012 season includes original Radiohead covers with Sybarite5 and a summer tour of Ireland and Scotland.
“Joe was my first phone call when the position opened up,” says Joseph Caulkins, artistic director of Key Chorale. “He has a really wonderful voice and a great sense of technique. When you bring someone like that into your organization, everyone else gets a little better.”
As passionate as he is about his choral and cantor engagements, he’s a bona fide zealot when it comes to opera, especially when it comes to playing villains.
“When you’ve got a lower voice, you’re usually stuck playing the old guy, the sidekick or the villain,” Ryan says. “I don’t mind playing the villain. They’re larger-than-life characters.”
They’re also drastically different than the singer’s real-life persona.
Tall with clean-cut, strawberry-blond hair, the Ohio native is even-tempered and polite; a nice guy who reads science fiction when he has the time and whose DVD collection includes a box set of “Columbo.”
As a child he sang as a boy soprano in children’s choirs and, at the urging of his parents, studied the violin, which he credits with giving his voice a natural musicality.
He gave up playing the instrument in ninth grade.
“It was dangerously difficult,” he says. “I was not able to devote the time it takes to perfect it.”
Instead, he devoted every ounce of his energy to singing, which, in hindsight, was probably no less “dangerously difficult” or time-consuming.
How else do you explain the fact that Ryan, who admittedly enjoys indie rock music, hasn’t been to a non-classical music concert in nearly a decade?
“I got free tickets to see Chicago when I was still in college,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘These old guys still got it in them,’ and then I thought: ‘Why is everyone around me talking?’”
Lucky for Ryan, the people who turn out for his concerts usually don’t talk through a performance. Even more promising: A male opera singer doesn’t peak before he’s 30.
The singer’s vocal chords are starting to calcify, meaning the voice he has now will likely be the voice he has for the rest of his career.
“You stop changing,” Ryan says. “Your voice is not going to go up and it’s not going to go down, so you better use it to the best of your ability.”
He hums a few bars under his breath, the sound of which is so low and warm it almost vibrates the walls.
“I have a level of control to my singing now that I didn’t have when I first started,” Ryan says. “I feel like things are only going to get better from here.”
HOW RYAN KEEPS FROM GETTING HOARSE
• He drinks water all day.
• He gets a good night’s sleep.
• He sings warm-up exercises in the car on the way to a performance, even if passing motorists give him funny looks.
• If he’s over-sung the night before, he doesn’t rest his voice completely. He simply hums lightly throughout the day.
• He follows the sage advice of Pavarotti, who once said, “If I don’t sing for a day, I know it. If I don’t sing for two days, everybody else knows it.”