Quite the Mayes: Baritone Talks Unique South Coast Journey
If vocal fellow Byron Mayes’ name seems familiar, you’re not imagining things. The baritone, like all the other 2021 fellows matriculating at MAW’s Miraflores campus in Montecito this year, was part of MARLI, the Music Academy’s virtual-only season during the early part of the pandemic last summer. But the singer’s Santa Barbara-connected tenure goes back a few more years.
Thirty-year-old Mayes, who was born in Houston, came to town to work toward a master’s degree at UCSB in 2017, and was quickly tapped as an Opera Santa Barbara Chrisman Studio Artist when the program’s original baritone suddenly departed. Mayes appeared as Fiorello in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Sam in Trouble in Tahiti for OSB in spring 2018 as well as in many other OSB studio programs. The singer was still in Santa Barbara as a doctoral candidate before the pandemic forced his work to go virtual, and he also stood out at the end of MAW last summer when he was named a winner of the Music Academy’s 2020 Digital Challenge.
Now at the tail end of his first in-person summer at MAW, the baritone shared stories from his past and present over the phone late last month.
Q. How did you come to choose opera singing as a career?
A. I always loved music. I loved all the Disney musicals as a child, and I was a big fan of The Temptations growing up. But I was more into art at first until my teacher in high school wasn’t very good, which killed my passion for it. So, I joined the choir and I found I had a knack for it… In college I was studying music education, but in my sophomore year I realized that I loved being on stage, not just singing, but also playing characters and performing. As far as opera, I love the grandness of it, but it’s also that my voice lent itself more towards opera than any other genre. It was telling me where I needed to be.
What stands out from you most from your year with OSB?
It was a lot of work, and that showed me what it takes to be successful in this field, because things happen pretty quickly. There were times I had to learn a piece in a week’s time and be ready to perform it at the end of the week. That really helped me improve my work ethic and grow as an artist. But my biggest enjoyment was the outreach aspect, where we would go to elementary schools and have them write an opera and we’d improv it. The whole thing was a lot of fun, and the opportunity to introduce this all to young students was awesome.
You were one of the winners of the Digital Challenge last year for the video where you sang Margaret Bonds’ “I, Too” from Three Dream Portraits with text by Langston Hughes and accompanied yourself on synthesizer. How did you come up with that?
It’s my favorite poem by Langston Hughes, and I felt it was very relevant today. I got the idea to animate it and sing and tell the story through art, but I was late to the process, so I recorded myself singing it then sat down for three days drawing and taking pictures because it was stop-motion animation. I also didn’t have a pianist who could do it in the time frame I had, so I wrote it out on an online notation software and recorded it. So, I was very surprised I won.
You were also part of the re-jiggered vocal presentation that switched from video to live at the Lobero, the first vocal program to be performed on stage with a large audience this year.
I hadn’t performed for over a year, and I was doing the opening song, and I had a bit of stage fright during rehearsal because I was singing in front of my peers. But when it was time to get on stage for the show, it just felt so natural, like this was where I was supposed to be, and it was awesome. I felt very connected to the song, which was “Distance to the Market” by Paola Prestini, the composer who was here working with us. It’s from the point of view of a kid watching their father disappear over the hill and yearning for him to come back. My dad wasn’t around much when I was growing up, and the song made me think about those times when I’d look out the window hoping that he would come by, even though the song itself isn’t that explicit. Paola has a similar story with her own father, so we connected over that.
The last big performance of the year is the Horne Vocal Competition. What will you be singing?
I’ll be doing songs by a couple of African American composers: A cool arrangement of the spiritual “O Freedom” by Shawn Okpebholo, a modern composer who I actually had to contact directly to get the music, and one by Margaret Bonds called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” which also has a text by Langston Hughes. Then I’ll also be singing three songs by Poulenc, and a piece by Hans Pfitzner called “Mailied.” (In a new format for this year), we all started with a program as if we were going to sing an hour recital, then cut it down to 30 minutes for the summer, and then finally the 15 minutes we’ll get on stage for the competition.
Before we go, I want to ask you because I saw a post of yours on Facebook asking how you might find a Black opera stage director, just how the upheaval in the last 14 months since George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests have affected you. Does it show up in your music?
More and more nowadays just because I want to see it. My experience in Santa Barbara is you don’t see a lot of Black faces walking around town. I wasn’t seeing my culture in my environment, and not in my art either. So, at this point in my life, I’m very passionate about bringing Black stories and the Black experience to the opera stage and the recital hall. So, I’m looking more at songs by African-American composers, and operas by African-American librettists, and my dissertation is on Black characterizations. So, at this moment I am really passionate about the Black experience and how we can show that in this art form. That’s also what I’m doing for the Fast Pitch Awards this year. (Mayes was named one of the three winners last Monday night.)
This Week @ MAW
The end is here for live events for the 2021 Summer Festival, as MAW winds up five exemplary event-packed weeks that defied any possible problems of the pandemic. Indeed, MAW’s protocols of requiring vaccination for everyone on campus and testing the whole community every week let the organization not only complete presenting the concerts that were announced pre-season, but also add or transition from streaming a few extra live events. Kudos once again to the team at Miraflores for making it happen.
Meanwhile, there are still three more days of musical immersion for those who want more or might have as-yet missed out, including just about everything on the MAW menu.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 6
Oboist Eugene Izotov leads today’s penultimate master class, as the principal oboist of the San Francisco Symphony whose playing has been praised for “luminous beauty” (San Francisco Chronicle), “lyrical gold” (Chicago Tribune), and “fiery Russian temperament” (Boston Globe) takes the fellows through one final opportunity to receive feedback in front of an audience (1:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $10)… Chamber musician and collaborative pianist Jonathan Feldman — a longtime MAW favorite and Juilliard faculty member — who has performed with some of the world’s greatest instrumentalists including Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, James Galway, Sarah Chang, and Joshua Bell — imparts some of that wisdom and varied experience to the collaborative piano fellows in the final master class of the summer (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… Every one of the MAW singers and vocal pianists get to shine in the annual Marilyn Horne Song Competition, MAW’s most prestigious challenge in which the winners – by an esteemed jury panel led by Marilyn Horne herself — receive a $5,000 cash award and a commissioned work by Carlos Simon to be premiered as part of a recital that will be performed next spring in Santa Barbara and elsewhere. Use promo code “COMMUNITY” for $10 tickets. (4 pm & 7:30 pm [with single admission]; Granada Theatre)
SATURDAY, AUGUST 7
The final orchestra concert of the summer at the Granada Theatre is happening twice at the historic downtown venue. Wielding the baton for the pair of performances is Marin Alsop, who was the first woman to serve as the head of a major orchestra in the United States, South America, Austria, and Britain and is heralded for her innovative approach to programming and audience development as well as a deep commitment to education. Fittingly, the fellows will first be firing up “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” Joan Tower’s answer to Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man,” followed by Alberto Ginastera’s “Variaciones Concertantes” and Beethoven’s big and powerful “Seventh Symphony” to send the audience home with a song in their hearts until next summer. (2 & 7:30 pm; Granada; $10)
SUNDAY, AUGUST 8
MAW’s online only week of virtual events kicks off with a compilation video distilling “Aha! moments” and discussions from the seminars with guest artists, entrepreneurs, thought leaders and other industry exports presented by the Innovation Institute during the season’s first week when the fellows were quarantining after arriving in Montecito, as well as some scattered additional events during the summer. The edited video lets everyone share the wisdom and experience from the interactive workshops that focused on the performing arts ecosystem, the future of classical music, and business and career skills.
(5 pm; online; free)