In 2011, Ryan Speedo Green won a national competition sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Yet, as journalist Bergner (God of the Rodeo) points out in this gripping and inspiring mix of biography and cultural history, Green’s journey to international acclaim as an opera star was not an easy one. Raised in a home marred by domestic violence and his father’s abandonment of the family, Green grows up being shuttled from a trailer park to a shack in a neighborhood riddled with drugs and violence. He has difficulties in school and grows more and more unruly, until the moment he threatens his mother with a knife. Transported to a juvenile psychiatric detention center so he won’t be a threat to others or himself, Green discovers music as the force that calms his anger. When he returns to high school, he enrolls in the music program, meeting up with a teacher who takes him under his wing and helps Green develop his vocal talents. On a class visit to the Met, Green declares to his teacher that he’s going to sing there one day. Bergner chronicles the auditions and vocal contests as well as the struggles Green faces as a black man entering a musical world that is mostly white, delivering a moving portrait of a young man who succeeds, along with the help of encouraging teachers. (Sept.)
"Deeply moving.... A testament to the limitlessness of the human spirit, even in the most forlorn and unexpected places.... This is a book of great compassion that traces the contours of a single remarkable life. But Bergner is also doing something more expansive, examining the long and tormented history of black involvement in an elite artistic tradition and in society at large. Ultimately, this is the story that captures the most inexplicable thingthe human will itself."New York Times Book Review
"Written with filmlike immediacy.... This book is so good.... And the key elementhighlighted by the book's subtitle 'A Story of Race, Music, and Family'is Bergner's tackling of issues of race. With sensitivity and candor, he shows the subtle and not-so-subtle challenges the opera world poses to singers of color.... [A] vital, compelling and highly recommended book."Washington Post
"An amazing, inspiring story, a beautiful story."Trevor Noah, The Daily Show
"SING FOR YOUR LIFE is about the hard legacy of history and family, and its transcendence through art. This book is Daniel Bergner's masterpiece and puts him at the top of American literary journalism."George Packer, National Book Award-winning author of The Assassins' Gate and The Unwinding
"Sing For Your Life is certain to be billed as a book about race. And it is that, and also a book about art and hope and resilience. But this is not a book about abstractions. It's a story that is suspenseful in the deepest sense, and very moving - a story about a fascinating human being. I am grateful to Mr. Bergner for having introduced me to him."-Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Soul of a New Machine and Mountains Beyond Mount
"Sing for Your Life is a generous book, filled with complicated, compassionate characters, written with great journalistic skill but also empathy. The passages on opera read like superb sports writing. The passages on family illuminate the deeper reaches of identity, race, judgment and love. To read the story of Ryan Speedo Green is to be troubled, confused, heartbroken, thrilled, hopeful, proud, and ultimately, perhaps, changed."Jeff Hobbs, author of New York Times bestseller The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
"Daniel Bergner writes from the heart. Night after night, I stayed up late reading, entranced by this tender, unflinchingly honest, beautifully told story. Ryan Speedo Green. His voice, his journey, his exuberance will stay with me."Alex Kotlowitz, author of National Bestseller There Are No Children Here
"A masterly crafted and unique portrait...While fans of opera will find this to be a captivating biography of one of the most decorated bass baritones, this highly recommended narrative is also about a man who conquers his personal demons and limitations to break racial barriers in one of the oldest cultural institutions in the world."Library Journal (starred review)
"A thrilling and authentic work of art, this is the unlikeliest of portraits of an artist who against-all-odds rises from the ashes of rural black poverty, a broken home, child abuse and the edges of madness to vault to the threshold of opera stardom."
Peter Gelb, General Manager, Metropolitan Opera
"In Sing For Your Life, Daniel Bergner beautifully tells the story of what it means for a young man to, quite literally, find his voice. In this chronicle of the life of Ryan Speedo Green, we see how a young black man can rise, and hold onto hope, despite all the forces working against him. We see how a young black man can sing for his life and find triumph in the most unexpected of places."
Roxane Gay, author of the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist and An Untamed State
"Gripping and inspiring...Bergner chronicles the auditions and vocal contests as the struggles Green faces as a black man entering a musical world that is mostly white, delivering a moving portrait of a young man who succeeds, along with the help of encouraging teachers."
Publishers Weekly, starred review
"In Ryan Speedo Green we see a microcosm of American's own struggle to throw off the shackles of our troubled racial legacy... His story, expertly told by Daniel Bergner, is proof of the possibility of all of our redemption."
Joy-Ann Reid, National Correspondent for MSNBC and author of Fracture
"Sing for Your Life is absolutely riveting. Any rise to stardom in the daunting world of opera is bound to be dramatic, but Ryan Speedo Green's story is harrowing and rewarding in unexpected ways. From the first line, Daniel Bergner sets preconceptions about race, class, and "high" culture against a breathtakingly candid narrative of a young man's struggle, not just to conquer the Olympic challenges of singing opera, but also to see beyond violence and adversity to a life in music."
"Bergner brings Green and [his] mentors to vivid, heroic life.... Bergner's inspirational biography has instant appeal, and, with the added attention to vocal techniques and rehearsals, readers with an interest in music will be especially rewarded."
"A true-life rags-to-Wagner story."
O, The Oprah Magazine
"Bergner richly weaves Green's rising stardom with scenes from a daunting childhood.... In less skilled hands, Sing For Your Life might mimic a cliched rag-to-riches fable.... Instead, Bergner presents a far more nuanced and rigorous examination of the institutional forces that shape Green's life.... It's Green's sense of pride, of his connection to his history, to his heritage, that Bergner so delicately captures in this melodious narrative for which we, the readers, hang on every word."
"Prepare for a feast.... A study in discipline and artistry, musical agility, opera itself and the role that race has played in all of it, this would be an enlightening read even without Green. His story makes it unforgettable."
"Bergner pieces together this remarkable life with an impeccable knack for storytelling.... Sing For Your Life is a first-rate biography of a beaten-down young man who rode the opera train all the way to Lincoln Center."
"Sing for Your Life is a study in voice: part technical account of the vocal instrument, part celebration of its mysterious capacity to move us through song.... [The book] deserves praise, maybe even a year-end reward. It has so many of the qualities that critics and readers admire: a sympathetic hero whose life sketches an arc from tragedy to triumph; a treasured glimpse behind the high-culture curtain."
Washington Post opinion section
"A first-rate psychological thriller.... Bergner cross-cuts between Green's violent, impoverished childhood and his ascendance onto the global opera stage. The result is a stirring prelude to a career dangling on the edge of greatness, as well as a courageous exploration of nature and nurture rarely addressed in cautious industry discussions on diversity."
The biography of an emerging African-American opera singer who overcame a tough Southern childhood.New York Times Magazine contributor Bergner (What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, 2013, etc.) details the life of Ryan Speedo Green, who rose to performance prominence after a harrowing childhood in southeastern Virginia. Described as a physically imposing figure at 6 feet 5 inches and over 300 pounds, Green grew up with little adolescent ambition, raised by a largely absent part-Seminole bodybuilder father and an Air Force veteran mother who grew as abusive and violent to her children as her own romantic partners were to her. Life in their low-income housing project became troublesome for the young, increasingly uncontrollable Green, who, at age 12, pulled a knife on his brother and his mother and was sent to a juvenile detention facility. During his high school years, the family lived in similar squalor, but as Green was steered toward chorus classes to obtain easy high school credits, he ended up uncovering his truest voice. Bergner captures the essence of his subject's desperate childhood even though Green terminated many interviews due to the still-palpable pain and misery of his past. Running alongside Green's childhood is the story of his more recent ascent up the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions competition; the author spotlights both the struggles and the triumphs associated with Green's exhaustive vocal training. The interweaving of both eras of Green's life doesn't always cohere, causing a meandering narrative. Bergner works hard to establish momentum during Green's tumultuous childhood—and finds some success—but when coupled with the details of his opera aspirations, the effect is jarring. Still, as Green's past and present finally meet in conclusion, his prideful performance at the Met (with his father in joyful attendance) seemingly trumps a good portion of childhood trauma. A disjointed structure occasionally hobbles this swiftly written life story of music, forgiveness, and resilience.