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Long Island family finds generational harmony in opera

At the Murray family home in West Babylon on April 3, 2019, John Horton Murray and his son, Bryan Murray sang an aria from Puccini’s "La Boheme."  (Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas)

John Horton Murray has sung in many of the biggest opera houses in the world, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to Covent Garden in London. He stepped in for Plácido Domingo, rode an elephant on stage in “Aida” at the El Paso Opera in Texas, and soloed in “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” by Richard Wagner and conducted by Georg Solti, which won a Grammy Award. But recently, he sang a duet with his son, Bryan, in a more intimate setting.

On a weekday earlier this month, their West Babylon home, complete with a custom-made stained-glass window interpretation of the Metropolitan Opera’s monastic arches, was transformed into an opera house as the father and son sang.

Watching John and Bryan was William B. Murray, their father and grandfather, respectively, himself an opera singer who performed in Berlin for much of his life. That was to be the last time John and Bryan sang a duet in front of William, well-dressed down to his tie with his blue eyes sparkling, who had started what would become a kind of family calling.

“I sang a few performances with my father along the way,” John says. “The most memorable was a concert of the oratorio called ‘Elijah,’ by Mendelssohn. Usually you have family life and professional life separate. There it was combined in a thrilling experience.”

William, 84, died April 7, just days after the father-and-son duet in West Babylon. He had lived the life of an American opera singer, often abroad, performing in about 2,000 productions, including more than 900 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in Germany.

“If you heard a recording of my father from 30 years ago, you’d probably say he sounds like us,” John says. “Our voices sound not the same, but they blend very well.”

Opera is about sound and spectacle — including costumes, wigs and a grandeur many associate with the past — but emotional drama also drives the art form.

“As a person growing up in our society, you don’t feel heroic,” John says. “In the opera, there’s that entrance music. It gives you that feeling. ‘I’m the hero.’ It helps you get that feeling in you.”

Bryan describes the entrance music for Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” in which he recently performed in Berlin, as a kind of surge that lifts the singers and the audience. Something else mattered as well: He’s performing it at the same opera house where his grandfather William regaled audiences for decades.

“I was on stage most of the opera,” says Bryan, his face framed by a leonine mane of red hair. “To be on stage and have that orchestra wash over you, it’s such a robust sound.”

Although William was born in Schenectady, miles and a world away from the world’s great opera houses, he grew up in New Hyde Park and was encouraged by the choral teacher while at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park.

“We sang ‘Pirates of Penzance,’ ‘Mikado,’ a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan,” William said on the day of the West Babylon duet. “In high school, when you sing the main roles in things, it puts you in that path. And it’s a lot of fun.”

To say that the Murrays are an opera family is understatement.

A start in Germany

William studied music at Adelphi University with Karin Branzell, a Swedish-born contralto who had sung at the Met, then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship to study with Luigi Ricci, a famous Italian opera researcher and coach, before auditioning in Germany. He soon began a 33-year run at the Deutsch Oper Berlin.

“I went over with my wife and children,” he had said. “You live there and learn the language.”

The United States is good at producing opera singers, the Murrays say, but it has fewer opera houses and less work. Singers often follow the work abroad, as William did.

“A lot of the singers were American,” William had said of expatriates educated in the United States. “We all studied music in college.”

He sang in Italian, German and French and still remembered the thrill of the first three chords of “Tosca,” in which he appeared 49 times. He sang about 2,000 productions of operas ranging from “Rigoletto” to “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” from 1959 to 1996, including many at the Deutsch Oper Berlin.

He also sang at the Vienna State Opera, Teatro alla Scala (in Milan, Italy), New York City Opera and many other houses.

“You work on it every day for rehearsal,” said William, In 1992 he went on to teach at Rice University in Houston. “When you’re on the stage, doing a part, it’s thrilling.”

John followed in his father’s footsteps — but then, he was practically raised in an opera house in Germany.

“I grew up going to the opera in Berlin,” John says. “The first time I was in an opera as a soloist, it wasn’t unfamiliar to me.”

After graduating from high school in upstate Eldred, John studied opera at SUNY Potsdam. “Compared to a lot of freshmen who were undeclared, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to be an opera singer.”

John and his wife, Louise Sweet, herself a trained singer, went to live upstate near Port Jervis, his mother’s ancestral home, when bills piled up between gigs. When the phone rang on New Year’s Day 1990, it was Broadway calling.

“It was Cameron Mackintosh,” Sweet recalls, referring to the producer of “Phantom of the Opera” and other musicals. “They wanted him to come sing for [Broadway director and producer] Hal Prince. That’s how John got to sing for ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ ”

They sublet an apartment in Manhattan for the run. John, who played the opera singer Ubaldo Piangi in “Phantom” for eight performances a week on Broadway from February to September 1990, remembers getting more requests for tickets than ever before.

“When I did opera, a small amount of people wanted to come,” he says of family and friends. “When I was on Broadway, everybody wanted to come.”

At age 29, John made his debut at the Met in Manhattan with a brief appearance as a messenger on Oct. 8, 1990, in “Boris Godunov.” A large poster from the show at the U.S.’s premiere opera house hangs in their West Babylon living room.

“As an American opera singer, the pinnacle, of course, is the Met,” Sweet says. “To get there was amazing.”

They bought their house in West Babylon in 1991 and have lived there since, unless they’re on the road.

Singing across the world

John went on to sing lead roles at the Met: Don José in “Carmen,” by Georges Bizet; Walther in “Die Meistersinger”; the emperor in “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” by Richard Strauss; and more.

He sang Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” at La Scala in Milan, three operas at the Covent Garden Royal Opera House in London and 226 performances, including five leads, at the Met.

“After John was done with his rehearsal schedule, when they went into production, there was time to spend time with the family,” Sweet says. “It was exciting.”

Initially, John’s selection as the stand-in for Plácido Domingo’s Don José in “Carmen” at the Met seemed a flattering but unenviable role since the maestro never missed a show — until he did.

“Plácido had never canceled in 25 years. They said, ‘You’ll never go on.’ He got a call at 3 in the afternoon,” Sweet says of the day John stepped in for Domingo on Nov. 4, 1996. And he got to ride a horse on stage.

Then there was the time they went to Verona, Italy, to see Sergei Laren, a Russian opera singer, in “Carmen” and learned the singer had lost his voice.

“John sang from the pit, because he didn’t know the staging,” Louise says of the performance reported from China to the United States. “Sergei did the acting. The lead tenor was on stage.”

In 2011, John retired from his career as an opera singer and began teaching. He went on to work as a private voice teacher while teaching singing, piano, musical theater and running the theater club at Suffolk County Community College. He is also the music director, playing piano and organ and leading the choir, at Community Presbyterian Church in Deer Park.

John and Louise have three children. Alison, 34, works in retail and Colin, 18, is a freshman majoring in musical theater at SUNY Cortland.

Bryan, 29, a baritone son of a tenor and grandson of another baritone, grew up surrounded by opera. But at first, it looked like the Murrays’ operatic mission would end.

Joing the family fold

“As a rebellious teenager, you try to tell your parents you’re going to do something else,” says Bryan, a 2007 graduate of West Babylon High School. “You’re not going to be like them.”

His rebellion? Playing violin, which he studied at Stony Brook University before switching to singing. Then he got a master’s in voice performance, specializing in opera, at Purchase College in 2015.

Bryan performed the role of the count, a lead in “The Marriage of Figaro,” in 2015 at age 26 with much of his family, including his grandfather William, in the audience.

“It’s a lovely feeling of accomplishing something bigger than yourself,” Bryan says, “coming together with so many people to put together this one show.”

William said it was a major moment for Bryan to sing on stage. “It was exciting to hear the first time Bryan sang,” William said. “He’s following right in the path of everybody else.”

“For a parent to see a child in a production, it was very emotional for me,” John says. “It was exciting, but also very emotional.”

Bryan went on to get a master of musical arts at Yale University in 2018 on a full scholarship before being hired from 2018 to 2019 at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, where William had performed for more than three decades and John had performed in two productions of Richard Strauss operas.

Bryan recently performed in “Carmen” and 10 other operas there. He is scheduled to play Marullo in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” at the end of April and Fiorillo in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in May, and will be in two more performances of the “The Magic Flute” in May and June — all at the house where his grandfather performed so often.

“It’s a lovely city, warm and welcoming,” Bryan says. “The downside is you’re far away from family and friends you have over here. When you move anywhere, you make new friends.”

It’s a well-worn path for the family, getting to know the world through the window of opera careers.

“We were young and got to see a lot of the world,” says Sweet. “I felt very fortunate for that. I still know a lot of people who are retiring and haven’t seen a lot.”

“You’re in it because you love the music,” says John. “The first time you hear the orchestra swell and play the music, it’s wonderful.”

For more Act 2 stories, visit newsday.com/Act2.

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