Against all odds, rising opera star fulfills dream of singing at the Met

With a rich, robust voice and a presence commanding the stage, it’s easy to see why 6-foot-5 Ryan Speedo Green is considered one of the world’s most promising stars of opera, gracing top stages in Europe and the U.S. 

But his improbable rise to the heights of one of the most elite of all the arts has its roots in poverty and violence, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford. Green, 30, said his father was largely absent in his life, and he had a “volatile relationship” with his mother growing up. 

“It was tough. It was really tough,” he said. 

Green grew up near Norfolk, Virginia, amid chaos and dysfunction. In elementary school, he was sent to a class for the most disruptive students, taught by Bette Hughes.

“The first time I met her, I threw my desk at her. And that was how I said hello to her. And this woman, instead of sending me to the office or sending me home to my mom, like most educators would do, she took my chair away and said, ‘You can learn from the floor since you don’t want your desk,’” Green recalled. “She gave me a chance. And she stayed with me and didn’t give up on me.”

Even when he nearly gave up on himself.  

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Ryan Speedo Green , 30

CBS News
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CBS News traveled to Virginia with New York Times Magazine writer Daniel Bergner. His book, “Sing for Your Life,” chronicles Green’s story.

“It was here that Ryan threatened his mom’s life. Probably with a knife. Cops came. He was 12 years old when he was loaded into the back of that car, cuffed, shackled, driven across the state to Virginia’s Juvenile Facility of last resort,” Bergner said.

The facility, a tough place for troubled kids, was Green’s home for two long months.

“I was lost, and that’s pretty much the best way I could put it. I was lost,” Green said.

Green often found himself in solitary confinement.

“When I got out, I promised myself I would never end up there again. I started pursuing other forms of entertainment as a child, like doing-- joining the Latin club and being in chorus. And I was trying to find outlets so I could stay off the streets,” Green said.

The big break of Green’s childhood came at the prestigious Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk. Green auditioned and was accepted -- though he didn’t really know what he was getting himself into.

“It was not an exceptional voice back in 9th grade,” said Alan Fischer the head of the school’s vocal program. “But over the four years, it grew to become an exceptional voice.”

At Governor’s, Green flourished under a new mentor -- a voice teacher named Robert Brown.

“For every person that has a dream, they need someone … to be their foundation, be the person to kick them in the butt when they need to be kicked in the butt. He taught me, not only music, but he was a father figure to me,” Green said.

Brown took his students to see “Carmen” at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the title role performed by Denyce Graves.

“I never thought it was something that a person of color could do...When I left the Met that evening, I told Mr. Brown, you know, I wanna sing at the Met someday. That’s what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna sing at the Met,” Green said.

And that’s exactly what he did. He threw himself into the study of opera, and after graduate school, entered a National Opera Competition at the Met.

He won and on Wednesday night, he’s back -- opening in a leading role in the opera, “La Bohème.”

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Ryan Speedo Green, 30, at dress rehearsal

CBS News

“Do you ever just stop and think, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this?’” Crawford asked.

“Even arriving a couple of weeks ago in New York to start rehearsals in ‘La Boheme,’ I woke up in my apartment and sort of pinched myself, thinking, like, ‘I’m going to go to work at the Metropolitan Opera,’” Green said.

“And you’re going to continue pursuing?” Crawford asked. 

“Yeah I am. The dream is not finished,” Green replied. 

Denyce Graves, the singer who was such an inspiration to Green, is scheduled to attend Wednesday night’s opening, and so will Green’s wife, Irene. He and Irene got married earlier this year. 

His mother is planning to attend a later performance -- that relationship is still a work in progress. 

But what an incredible journey he’s had.