Houston Grand Opera singer Cory McGee muses that any kid who aspires to sing on an opera stage needs the strength of a long-distance runner and the mind of a seasoned linguist to meet the physical and mental demands of an opera career. The 25-year-old bass, who identifies as biracial and pansexual, appears to be up to the strenuous task before him.
This summer, McGee is in New Mexico rehearsing for the role of Theseus in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Santa Fe Opera. There will be four different performances in August, and they’re all being learned simultaneously. Two of the shows will be in English, and the other two will be performed in Italian and Russian. Next March, he will be headed to Detroit to sing the role of Colline in Puccini’s La Bohème with the Michigan Opera Theater.
McGee’s musical journey began in his hometown of Stafford, Virginia. He played the viola in middle school and also joined the school choir, which soon led to an interest in musical theater. In high school, an instructor suggested he consider classical voice training, which sent him on the path he is following today. “I immediately fell in love with it and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
The performer notes that some of the most important training for his career came from his athletic pursuits as a youth. Playing soccer, running track, and bowling helped him develop the determination and stamina he would need onstage. “Opera is very active. People compare it to sports all the time.”
Of equal importance to physical strength is the ability to memorize lyrics in multiple languages, McGee notes. His familiarity with five languages has given him an edge in a highly competitive career. He studied Spanish for seven years in grade school, Italian for three years as an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio (which included two summers in Italy), and Russian and French as part of his opera training. “It requires a good memory,” he emphasizes.
The production of a major opera is an enormous undertaking. There are about 400 people involved in the staging, including the stage crew, orchestra members, and the cast of singers—who must be heard without microphones over a full 60-piece orchestra. Movements on the stage and many pages of lyrics must be memorized and delivered with confidence. “It is very much a challenge, but it is absolutely worth it.”
McGree credits three opera singers of color with inspiring him to pursue his goal. Soprano Leontyne Price, who was the first Black opera singer to achieve international fame, “paved the road for people of color,” he notes. She was the first African American soprano to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera. “For her to have such a prominent voice in the field, it [convinced] people like me that we could.” Black bass singers Eric Owens and Morris Robinson, who have also starred at the Metropolitan Opera, further inspired McGee to develop his own voice.
McGee is passionate about making sure that opera remains popular in a changing world, and he sees the need to adapt classical European operas for today’s society. “We like to show people it is a different form of art, but it is still relevant.”
At summer’s end, McGee will be returning to Houston from New Mexico with his two cats, Lupo and Percy, who accompany him on the road. During his three years in Houston, he earned a master of fine arts degree from Rice University and was accepted into the Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artists’ Vocal Academy—one of only five singers chosen from among 1,200 applicants.
McGee says the Houston Grand Opera training program is considered one of the top three in the country, along with programs at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The appointment includes a salary, making it both an opportunity and a gift for the talented bass. “It’s a big thing. I’m very grateful to be a part of the studio and the long lineage of singers that have come out of it.”
With Houston serving as his home for now, McGee hopes to someday travel the globe as he develops his singing career. He is single, has a large group of friends, and loves to go out to Houston’s many restaurants. The singer also has a few family members in Houston, so he enjoys spending holidays with them. “I love Houston. I’m a bit of a socialite. I like to meet new people, and there’s a ton of people here to meet.”
But above all, McGee loves preparing for a career on the opera stage. “Doing what you love and getting paid for it—that’s such a joy to me.”
Follow Cory McGee on his website at corymcgeebass.com.
This article appears in the August 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.