With a mellifluous style and a charismatic way with the villainous roles that lie at the heart of the repertoire of the operatic bass, Samuel Ramey became one of American opera's major stars in the last quarter of the twentieth century. He is said to be the most-often recorded artist of all the operatic basses. Ramey is compelling as a physical presence, and has been featured, nearly alone among opera stars, in the likes of People and Vogue magazines. He developed his voice carefully and has enjoyed an unusually long career. Although he specializes in portrayals of the Devil and other demonic figures who appear as characters in numerous operas, Ramey is actually a friendly small-town prairie Midwesterner by birth, who has become unusually well-liked by his associates in the often cutthroat world of top-level opera.
Ramey was born on March 28, 1942, in Colby, Kansas. As a child, he was hardly aware that opera existed. His father was a meatcutter and deputy sheriff. He played football and basketball, and he favored Elvis Presley and Pat Boone when it came to music. "When an opera singer came on the Ed Sullivan Show, I'd think 'Turn this off,'" he told Opera News. Nevertheless, he sang in the local Methodist church choir, and was aware that he had an unusual talent. "My voice already had vibrato, and I stifled it when I sang solos," he told Time. "I didn't want to be made fun of."
Ramey was later bitten by the opera bug when he heard a record by vocalist Ezio Pinza, and while he was studying at Kansas State University, a friend suggested that he audition for a summer workshop at Colorado's Central City Opera. He was accepted, and was thrilled with what he saw and heard while singing in the chorus in two opera productions. He then transferred to Wichita State University because it had a better music program, and studied with former New York City Opera performer Arthur Newman. After he finished his degree, he spent a year with the Grass Roots Opera Company in North Carolina, and then moved to New York in 1969.
Job opportunities were slim at first, and Ramey supported himself and his first wife, Carrie, as an advertising copywriter for a book publisher. But he found a voice teacher, Armen Boyajian, and remained his student for more than 30 years, continuing to develop his skills. In the 1972 auditions for New York's Metropolitan Opera, the epicenter of American opera and one of the world's great opera houses, he reached the finals. The following year he made his debut at the New York City Opera (NYCO) with a small role in Bizet's Carmen, and later that season he took one of the major roles, that of Don Basilio, in Rossini's The Barber of Seville.
It was the melodic, highly ornamented music of Italian opera that attracted Ramey early in his career; he often performed in works by Verdi and Bellini, as well as in a host of Rossini roles. After the death of long-ensconced NYCO bass Norman Treigle in 1975, Ramey essentially took his place and was cast in lead roles for the bass voice. Two of those roles were as Mephistopheles (the name of a personification of the Devil in the Germanic Faustian legend) in operas by Charles Gounod (Faust) and Arrigo Boito (Mefistofele). NYCO conductor Julius Rudel suggested the satanic turn, but "I didn't have to be talked into it," Ramey told the Newark, New Jersey, Star-Ledger. "These were parts I felt born to do."
During the 1970s and early 1980s, Ramey's career took on worldwide reach. He appeared in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at England's Glyndebourne Festival in 1976 and made debuts in Chicago and San Francisco in 1979. In 1981 he appeared for the first time at the king of all opera houses, La Scala in Milan, Italy, and sang the role of Figaro in Mozart's opera at the Vienna State Opera, in the city where the work was created. He sang at other venerable European houses such as London's Covent Garden and the Paris Opéra. But one major prize eluded him: many observers wondered why he had never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera (the "Met") in New York City, a decade after reaching the finals of its open audition process.
Some blamed the predilection of Met conductor James Levine in favor of singers that he had discovered himself. In any event, Ramey's belated Met debut came in January of 1984, when he appeared as Argante in George Frideric Handel's opera Rinaldo, opposite famed diva Marilyn Horne. Horne had demanded that Ramey be cast in the role, and he came through with what was generally acknowledged to be a showstopping performance.
By that time Ramey had already attracted unusual attention for an opera singer. Dubbed a male sex symbol by People magazine, Ramey didn't reject the title. "I hope they know I don't ask for these bare-chested costumes," he told Stereo Review (as quoted in Opera News). "But I don't mind that kind of attention. How many opera singers get to be sex symbols?" In 1984 Ramey sang the part of Figaro on the soundtrack of the hit Mozart film biography Amadeus, and for the rest of the 1980s and 1990s he was unstoppable. He appeared as Mozart's arch-seducer Don Giovanni at Austria's Salzburg Festival in 1987 and made several return visits to the Met.
In 1995 Ramey went on tour with a concert called "A Date with the Devil," featuring many of the demonic arias he had performed on stage over the years. Despite protests by fundamentalist Christians, the concerts proved so successful that Ramey was still performing them in the early 2000s, and he made a Date with the Devil recording on the Naxos label in 2002. "I have always enjoyed playing the real sinister, evil characters the most," Ramey explained to Time in 1987. "The bad guys always have more fun, I guess."
By the early 2000s Samuel Ramey had become one of opera's true greats, and he had commitments booked years ahead, at an age when many opera singers are thinking about retirement. He has spoken of a desire to perform in a Broadway musical, and to take on roles in operas by Wagner and other German-language composers he has hitherto avoided. Married for a second time, to singer Lindsey Rae Larsen in 2002, Ramey became a father for the first time; his son, Samuel Guy, was named after Ramey's own father. Making his home in Chicago, Ramey is considered to be at the peak of his operatic career.
For the Record …
Born Samuel Edward Ramey on March 28, 1942, in Colby, KS; son of a meatcutter and deputy sheriff; married first wife, Carrie; married second wife, Lindsey Rae Larson (a singer), 2002; children: (second wife) Samuel Guy. Education: Attended Kansas State University; Wichita State University, B.Mus., 1968.
Operatic bass, 1968–; made professional debut at New York City Opera, 1973; appeared in starring role at Glyndebourne Festival, England, 1976; appeared at La Scala Opera House, Milan, Italy, 1979; made debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York, appeared on soundtrack of film Amadeus, 1984; appeared at Salzburg Festival, Austria, 1987; released A Date with the Devil, 2002.
Addresses: Agent—IMG Artists, 825 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website—Samuel Ramey Official Website: http://www.samuelramey.com.
Gounod: Faust, Teldec, 1994.
Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov, Sony, 1994.
Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Teldec, 1996.
Meyerbeer: Robert le Diable, Adonis, 1999.
Amadeus (Special Edition: Director's Cut), Fantasy, 2002.
A Date with the Devil, Naxos, 2002.
Handel: Ariodante, Philips, 2003.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Opera News, January 11, 1997, p. 40; January 3, 1998, p. 12; November 2002, p. 62; October 2003, p. 88.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2003, p. D1; October 21, 2003, p. D1; October 22, 2003, p. D4.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 10, 1999, p. 18. Time, June 8, 1987, p. 76.
"Samuel Ramey," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 26, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
Ramey, Samuel (Edward)
Ramey, Samuel (Edward)
Ramey, Samuel (Edward ), outstanding American bass; b. Colby, Kans., March 28, 1942. He attended Kans. State Univ., and then studied voice with Arthur Newman at Wichita State Univ. (B.Mus., 1968). After singing with the Grass Roots Opera Co. in Raleigh, N.C. (1968–69), he continued his studies with Armen Boyajian in N.Y. On March 11, 1973, he made his professional operatic debut as Zuniga in Carmen at the N.Y.C. Opera, where he rose to prominence as its principal bass. In 1976 he made his first appearance at the Glyndebourne Festival as Mozart’s Figaro. Following debuts at the Lyric Opera in Chicago and at the San Francisco Opera as Colline in 1979, he sang for the first time at Milan’s La Scala and at the Vienna State Opera as Mozart’s Figaro in 1981. From 1981 to 1989 he appeared in various Rossini roles in Pesaro. In 1982 he made his debut at London’s Covent Garden as Mozart’s Figaro, and then portrayed Mosé at the Paris Opéra in 1983. On Jan. 19, 1984, he made a brilliant debut at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. as Argante in Handel’s Rinaldo. That same year, he sang the role of Mozart’s Figaro for the soundtrack recording of the award-winning film Amadeus. His first appearance at the Salzburg Festival came in 1987 when he sang Don Giovanni. He returned to the Metropolitan Opera in such roles as Bartók’s Bluebeard in 1989, Don Basilio in 1992, and Boris Godunov in 1997. He also returned to the Lyric Opera in Chicago as Boris Godunov in 1994, and as Méphistophélès at the San Francisco Opera in 1995 and at the Vienna State Opera in 1997. In 1999 he portrayed Olin Blitch at the Metropolitan Opera.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire