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Mayes returns with surprising ‘Rigoletto’


Michael Mayes, baritone, will perform for Des Moines Metro Opera on Saturday, Jan. 4 at the Church of St. Paul, 815 High St., at 2 p.m.

Michael Mayes, baritone, will perform for Des Moines Metro Opera on Saturday, Jan. 4 at the Church of St. Paul, 815 High St., at 2 p.m.

Michael Mayes looks like he’s about to go nova, across the skies of opera. His next gig is Boston and Verdi. He’ll sing “Rigoletto,” no less. Yet the baritone regards Des Moines as an “artistic home.” In 2010, he says, the Metro Opera gave him his “first big shot” in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” Two years later, he was singing Don Giovanni and showing off more than his pipes. He’d dieted and worked out and, as he puts it on his blog, he’s become a “barihunk.” He opened the show shirtless.

The performance earned the praise of Opera News and for more reasons than the star’s looks, but Mayes doesn’t dwell on such career highlights. When he and I linked up on Skype this week, he wanted to talk about his “deep respect” for the Des Moines program and the “lifelong friends” he’d made here. Such feelings bring him back for this weekend’s performance, though the trip’s a squeeze en route to Boston.

But then, Mayes is an anomaly, with an upbringing no one would imagine for an opera star.

“I was raised in a double-wide trailer in Cut ’n’ Shoot, Texas,” he explained, interrupting our Skype session now and again to hug his pit bull, Pete. And he claimed his childhood was like that, a dog and a garden and, of course, football. “I didn’t choose opera,” he admitted. “Opera chose me.”

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In high school, “Mike” would never have joined the choir if he hadn’t broken his fingers during tackle practice. With that, however, he went on to state honors. A barihunk born.

Mayes can laugh at his unlikely trajectory, but he’d rather talk about the resources it gave him. “Trailer trash” was an insult he had to endure, and this helped him inhabit his most important and demanding role: murderer Joseph de Rocher in “Dead Man Walking.” This 2000 opera, adapted from the book and movie of the same name, forced Mayes to mature as both actor and singer. After all, onscreen, Sean Penn played de Rocher. In Mayes’ case, his first go at the part in 2012 won such acclaim that he’s reprised it a number of times (though unfortunately his schedule won’t allow him to take it on this summer in Des Moines).

The learning curve also led him to embrace the art of his times.

“A lot of baritones can sing Don Giovanni,” he said. “But if you want to touch people’s hearts these days, you’ve got to get into the modern stuff, the intense stuff.”

“Rigoletto” is certainly intense, but it was written in 1851, and Mayes now seeks to promote more recent work. He hopes to win fans for the other contemporary operas he’s sung, such as “The Crucible” (1961) and “Glory Denied” (2004). This weekend, he declared, he’ll lead off with such material, “full of emotion.” After that, he’ll lighten up.

“I’ll surprise you,” he promised. “You’d never expect this from an opera guy.”

Maybe — with Mayes, it’s best to expect the unexpected. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See

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