Michael Mayes doesn't fit the mold of a stereotypical opera singer. The lanky baritone from Cut and Shoot, Texas, looks more like an old-time country singer when he arrives to be interviewed sporting a flat top and a vintage, powder-blue Western shirt. In fact, he is a country singer, with an ear for the classics of the genre. His taste in opera, however, trends toward the contemporary, and he prefers works with something to say. He's in his element playing the role of Col. Jim Thompson in Glory Denied, Tom Cipullo's opera about America's longest-serving POW, who returned from a harrowing experience in Vietnam to something less than a hero's welcome. Glory Denied opens this week as a part of Opera Memphis' annual Midtown Opera Festival.
"We should still perform the museum pieces," says Mayes, who values canonical opera. He's passionate about works like Glory Denied and the disconnect it reveals between the way America uses and subsequently treats its soldiers.
"When his plane crashed, Col. Jim Thompson's back was broken," Mayes says. "When the Viet Cong put him in the internment camp, he was put in a [tiny] cage." Thompson survived the experience by building his dream home in his mind. Meanwhile, faced with the economic pressures of raising a family of four alone, Thompson's wife worked to have her husband declared dead so she could remarry.
"He knew how many board feet it would take," Mayes says of the house that was never built. "He knew exactly what it should cost."
Other festival offerings include The Breasts of Tiresias, a gender-bending surrealist opera inspired by the mythical Theban soothsayer, and Dido and Aeneas, about the queen of Carthage, the Prince of Thebes, and witches. There will also be performances and presentations by New Ballet Ensemble, Collage Dance Collective, LaVinnia London's Cabaret, the Threepenny Theatre Company, and others.