Bryan Hymel had always envisioned himself as more of a piano kind of guy. But when it came time to audition for college music programs, it was the Metairie native’s voice they loved—and all of them were willing to give him full-ride scholarships to prove it.
Thus began the career of a rising international opera star who had, until that point, never even seen an opera and didn’t speak—much less sing—a lick of Italian or German.
The 31-year-old Loyola University New Orleans College of Music & Fine Arts graduate is the star of Carmen in 3D—the first opera filmed in 3D to hit movie theaters around the world. It opened in March, and his performance as Don José has won adoring praise from reviewers.
“It was crazy,” says Hymel, who saw the film for the first time with family and friends at the movie theater in Elmwood, a Jefferson Parish suburb of New Orleans. “I remember the first time I heard somebody say they saw me in a preview, and when I saw it myself, it was a complete shock.”
Hymel’s love of music began in the fourth grade at St. Ann School. That’s where he began taking piano lessons, playing the trumpet in the band and singing in the choir.
“Nobody in my family really studied music, but growing up in New Orleans, music was a big part of the culture,” Hymel says. “My parents picked up on my interest in it from when I was very young. I would perk up and take notice when music came on, and when I went to church, I always wanted to sit close to the organ.”
When it came time to audition for college, he performed both piano and voice, thinking perhaps he could minor in the latter and maybe get scholarships to sing in the choir. Instead, all of them offered him full scholarships to study voice.
“That told me I should at least explore opera,” Hymel says. “I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I remember when The Three Tenors concert came around, I thought it was kind of interesting and cool, but I didn’t really know anything past that.”
The other challenge: Hymel didn’t speak the language. Most classical operas are written in Italian, French or German.
He studied hard under Philip Frohnmayer and, during the summers, went to the Aspen Musical Festival, where students from across the country converged to put on operas.
His junior year, he was a grand finalist in the 2000 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and the offers started coming in.
After graduating from Loyola, though, Hymel moved to New York for three years, living the first six months in the living room of his best friend’s one-bedroom apartment, working several jobs and saving all of his cash for rent and $175-an-hour voice lessons.
Then he moved to Philadelphia to study for free at the Academy of Vocal Arts, which he credits with making it possible for him to have the career he enjoys today.
Hymel has traveled the world performing in different places—London, Toronto, the Netherlands, Russia, Venezuela, Greece, Germany and France, to name a few.
While starring in the timeless Georges Bizet opera Carmen at the Royal Opera House in London last year, RealD—the same company that worked on Avatar—filmed two live performances and one dress rehearsal.
In addition to cameras on cranes and another on a track above the orchestra, a cameraman walked on the stage amongst the performers to get close-up action shots. Hymel and the others had to remain aware of the cameraman’s location while staying true to character in a centuries-old drama of love and betrayal.
Hymel says that while nothing takes the place of experiencing opera in an opera house, he hopes Carmen in 3D will make the genre more accessible to those who might not be able to afford the expense or time of traveling to see one. He also says the movie shows the performance from a whole different perspective.
“That was the most striking thing to me when I saw it,” Hymel says. “I got to see the show from a perspective I’ve never seen. The cameras are so close; you get an idea of just how intense those performances are. In the opera house, the seats are so far away, and the audience never gets a close up view of what it’s like to be on stage.”
While starring in the movie was a thrill, even opera stars want to strike a balance between career and family. These days, Hymel is ready to settle down and start a family. He is engaged to soprano Irini Kyriakidou, a native of Athens, Greece. The pair plan to marry in New Orleans in May.