Opera Star Samuel Ramey Returns To Wichita In 'Turandot' (with video)

Aug 28, 2015

Opera star Samuel Ramey has enjoyed a stellar career singing all over the world. In fact, he reigns as the most recorded bass in history.

The Kansas native and three-time Grammy winner will grace the stage tonight as deposed King Timur in Wichita Grand Opera’s New Production of Turandot. Ramey talks with KMUW’s Carla Eckels about the performance and some of his achievements over the years.

Ramey performs in a Wichita State production in 1966.
Credit Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives

Seventy-three-year-old Samuel Ramey grew up in the tiny town of Colby, tucked away in northwest Kansas.

"I’ve sung for as long as I can remember," Ramey says. "I always just loved singing. From the time I was a toddler I used to drive people crazy singing all day. During my high school years I had a summer job working on construction, building houses, and I used to drive my coworkers crazy because I sang all the time while I was working."

Ramey’s mother, Grace, was delighted when her youngest child decided to pursue singing.

"All of my brothers and sisters sang, and my mother had a very pleasant voice," he says. "I used to hear her singing while she did her housework so she always hoped that somebody in our family would pursue music in some way, and I was her last shot so she was happy when I decided to study music."

Ramey first attended Kansas State, originally with the idea of becoming a music teacher.

Italian bass Ezio Pinza sparked in Ramey an interest in opera.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

"I hadn’t been exposed to opera yet," he says. "I didn’t know what opera was except for the occasional opera singer that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was my only exposure. But when I went off to K-State my voice teacher started me working on an aria from the Marriage of Figaro, so I thought it would be a good idea to find a recording to listen to and get an idea of the style, so I went out to a LP of a singer called Ezio Pinza."

The famous Italian singer instantly sparked an interest in Ramey. He went on to audition for a spot in the chorus of a summer opera in Central City, Colorado. It was the summer of 1963.

"I found myself in an opera before I had even seen one," Ramey says.

Some WSU students in the chorus encouraged Ramey to transfer to Wichita State, where Ramey began performing in operas and working with voice teacher Arthur Newman, an original founding member of the New York City Opera.

Arthur Newman, seen here in 1968, was Ramey's vocal teacher at Wichita State.
Credit Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives

"I heard stories about New York City Opera from him all during my years here," Ramey says. "So I sort of set a goal while I was here at Wichita State that some day I would like to sing at New York City Opera."

After working at an opera company in North Carolina, Ramey caught a greyhound bus to New York. He sang in the Big Apple for several years and was eventually hired by the Metropolitan Opera through ties with fellow singer, Marilyn Horn, whom he had starred with in a Canadian production of Handel's Rinaldo.

Ramey made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1984 in the Met's production of Rinaldo, starring as the Saracen warrior Argante.

Ramey performs as Argante in the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of 'Rinaldo.'
Credit Metropolitan Opera Archives

"I had a fantastic entrance, Ramey says. "I was riding on a chariot pulled by these demons and at the time of my entrance, I was about probably 15 or 20 minutes into the opera before I came on and there hadn’t been much going on dramatically or musically, and my entrance was the first time that the brass played.

"These big doors were thrown open and I came in on my chariot, so it very exciting," he says.

Ramey, sang at the Met every year for almost 30 years. He’s played several characters most often villains and demons which he enjoys (his stock answer when asked why: "The bad guys always have more fun").

His farewell performance at the Met in 2013 was as deposed King Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, a role he now reprises for the Wichita Grand Opera.

"It’s very often a part giving to a young singer starting out. It’s a graduating part into larger roles, or it’s given to somebody on the down side of their career, toward the end of their career. That’s what I’m doing here," he says with a laugh.

Turandot is a "fantastically interesting opera," Ramey says, and very different from other works from Puccini, known for Italian operas La Boheme, Madama Butterfly and Tosca.

"It’s just a quintessential Italian Grand Opera," Ramey says of Turandot.

Last year, Ramey took a faculty position at WSU’s College of Fine Arts, coaching vocal students. The veteran singer with the thick mane of silver hair--once described as a John Travolta look-alike--now enjoys sharing his knowledge with students.

"I’m not a voice teacher as such, but they come to me with arias and things they are using for auditions or preparing recitals, so I just try to help them with the style and with languages. It’s very rewarding for me. I’m enjoying it very much," he says. "My students, the students at Wichita State, we have had a really good crop of singers."

The cast watches as Prince Calaf (Ricardo Tamura) and Princess Turandot (Zvetelina Vassileva) embrace.
Credit Nadya Faulx

One of the misperceptions about opera, Ramey says, is that is that it’s over people’s heads. But if you do go to an opera, he says it helps to do a bit of research.

"You should read about it. Read the story and then you’ll enjoy it," he says. "You’ll enjoy it anyway, but you’ll enjoy it more if you do a little homework."

Ramey says he looks forward to being a part of tonight’s international cast.

"It's very exciting. I’ve performed on some previous occasions with the Wichita Grand Opera, but it’s wonderful to perform back here in front of a home crowd, so to speak," he says. "It’s very exciting."

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Carla Eckels is a reporter and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.