By David Stabler
December 17, 2009
When Michael Kepler Meo becomes an opera singer, he will live in a condo in New York City. He will get up early and take a taxi to work. He will work days and nights. He will travel. Sometimes he will have big chunks of money, and sometimes he won’t.
He will not just be any old opera singer. He will be a heroic tenor, slayer of dragons, defeater of armies, rescuer of maidens. Tenors, you see, “get the biggest parts.”
At 11, Mike already is getting big parts. Last winter, he sang the role of Miles in Portland Opera‘s compelling production of “The Turn of the Screw.” Miles is a key role in Benjamin Britten’s cryptic tale of [the corruption and death of a young boy in a rural English manor house]. Mike mastered the difficult music with a mature performance.
“He’s a natural on the stage,” says Rob Ainsley, who coached him for the production. Ainsley, Portland Opera’s chorus master and principal coach, was a boy soprano himself when he was growing up in Durham, England.
“He’s a very, very intelligent child,” Ainsley says. “You ask him to do very complicated musical things and he will go away and practice them overnight and come back at the level you want him to be. He gives you everything you want as a musician.”
When Mike, a Portland Boychoir member, auditioned for the role, he didn’t know what opera was, but word of his Portland success spread to Houston Grand Opera, which hired him for its production of “The Turn of the Screw” next year. Houston will require him to move there for six weeks next month, putting him on a larger musical map.
What else? In October, he starred in a Vancouver production of a key boy soprano role, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” And starting Friday, Mike will make an unusual appearance in Handel’s “Messiah” with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. Lo, instead of a soprano singing the voice of the Angel, Mike will comfort shepherds abiding in their field: “… fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. …”
Mike didn’t start out winning major solos. He got his start at the age of 6 in Portland Boychoir, led by longtime choir director David York. Says Mike, “I was totally overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to read anything, let alone read music, but I kind of got it.”
From day one, he was serious about singing, recalls his mother, Trudy Meo. “I don’t think he broke eye contact the entire time. Other kids were squirreling around. Not Mike. He was like a laser.”
Mike has a “really wonderful set of pipes,” York says, “and he has a real prowess for performance. He gets energy from the experience, and that continues to fuel his next opportunities. Other boys in the choir sing harmony as well or better than Mike, but to his credit, he’s a team player. He can blow out the choir and he knows that that’s not what good choral singing is about, and is able to therefore temper his performance.”
Each weekday before lunch, Mike, who is homeschooled, practices piano, guitar and voice for an hour and 45 minutes. “If mom hasn’t made lunch, I have to keep practicing,” he says.
Neither parent plays an instrument or sings, but when Mike was 5, his father read to him William Blake’s poem “The Tiger,” which begins, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright.” Mike was so bewitched, he set it to music. He got deeper into music through singing and playing the guitar with Ballet Papalotl, a local Mexican culture and dance organization.
Mike lives in Northeast Portland with his mother; father, Michael; and brother, John, 9, who also is homeschooled by Mom. Dad teaches math at Benson Polytechnic High School.
Mike’s favorite food is Top Ramen — “I gotta love him for that!” says his mother. And he adores Greek mythology. His favorite movie is “Troy,” starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, half-god, slayer of Hector — faster, stronger and more deadly than any other man. At the mention of Achilles, Mike leaps to his feet, raises his arms in a heroic pose and recites Achilles’ speech from the movie:
“Myrmidons! My brothers of the sword! I would rather fight beside you than any army of thousands! Let no man forget how menacing we are, we are lions! Do you know what’s waiting beyond that beach? Immortality! Take it! It’s yours!”
Says Ainsley, “You know, he reads ‘The Iliad’ in Spanish at breakfast.”
Mike knows he has little time to waste. Boy sopranos have only a few years before their voices change. That’s why Houston Grand Opera grabbed him. “Word travels very fast,” Ainsley says. “Not a lot of boys in the country can do this. Boys are not singing that much anymore. You never know whether the voice will break.”
For that reason, Mike and another boy were both cast as Miles in the Portland production. When the other boy’s voice did break during rehearsals, Mike got the part to himself.
“He was a young Miles, only 10 at the time,” Ainsley says. “Most of the time on a major stage you’re going to put a kid who’s 13, 14, who’s been singing for several years, whose voice is maximum size. (Mike) is capable of projecting. It was a huge feat of precociousness.”
In Houston, Mike will have an understudy. In one of his droll moods, he says, “I have to constantly confirm my dominance.”
But first comes the angel in Handel’s “Messiah” this weekend. It’s only two minutes of singing, but Ainsley, who is conducting the performances, chose him to add vocal variety. “It’s a long, long piece for the audience, so you’re looking for variety, trying to latch on to anything that’s narrative, a hint of plot.”
Says Mike, “I said yes because I need to be saying yes to things. I need to be open to stuff, on the lookout for opportunities. Singing is great; it’s awesome. I think I do better performing for people than practicing for nobody.”
© 2009 Oregon Live LLC