Nicholas Meyer’s friendship with Justin Ralls began decades before they collaborated on Ralls’s new Two Yosemites opera. The two boys grew up kicking around the soccer ball in their southeast Portland neighboring ‘hoods of Eastmoreland and Sellwood. They played in the Sellwood Middle School jazz band (Meyer on clarinet, Ralls on drums) and sang in the Cleveland High School award-winning choirs.
Most memorable in their teenage years was their collaboration in Cleveland’s take on the Broadway musical, The Pajama Game, where Meyer performed the lead and Ralls played drums.
Both made the Cleveland junior varsity soccer team, but as they moved into their later teens, sports gave way to music. Their futures dawned, if not in synch, in parallel.
“Justin wanted to write operas in high school,” said Meyer, 29, who will sing the role of John Muir in Ralls’ upcoming Two Yosemites, an “environmental chamber opera” opening on Friday at Lewis & Clark College.
In the old days, while Ralls, 30, was dreaming up operas, Meyer focused on his voice. His current voice teacher, New York-based David Jones, says Meyer has “a special voice with a special color and richness of timbre. The voice reflects emotion that is touching to the human heart and expresses intention beautifully.”
With his 2014 Masters in Voice Performance from Manhattan School of Music, Meyer gracefully graduated from choir nerd to opera singer, taking on such baritone roles at the Manhattan School of Music as Tarquinius in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Beaumarchais in John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, and in 2015, Papageno in The Magic Flute for the Astoria Music Festival.
Jones describes Meyers’s voice as “a beautiful German baritone, which will probably develop toward dramatic or heldenbaritone as it matures.”
Besides opera — and Richard Wagner’s are among Meyer’s favorites — recital music remains a true love. His passion began with Faure’s Requiem, for which he performed the baritone solo during the summer after his high-school sophomore year with the Youth Choral Academy, part of the Oregon Bach Festival. The world-renowned academy drew high school choristers throughout the country, and Meyer’s audition and drive earned him a place, inspiring him to believe more fully in his supple baritone.
Over time, his love for art songs and his musical relationship with Ralls deepened. In 2011, the pair produced an American art-song recital at Portland’s Old Church. Ralls composed a set for baritone and piano, which he says “was the real start of my work in opera.”
Ralls, now a music doctoral candidate at University of Oregon, credits Meyer’s “unaffected” voice with beautiful articulation. “You can understand every word.”
Still, that voice didn’t land Meyer many jobs in New York after he earned his advanced voice degree in 2014. He sold upscale carpet to tide himself over as he auditioned, and early this year, returned to Portland. The two produced another Old Church event in 2016, a preview recital for Ralls’ Two Yosemites, for which he wrote both the music and libretto.
“We were able to work on newly composed music and revisions,” at the recital, says Ralls, whose music has been performed by Portland’s Third Angle New Music. “Working with singers is the most fun, even more fun than hearing the piece performed. We sit around the piano, I sing and play, or Nick plays piano and I sing and we experiment and adjust notes, and adjust to fit the voice. It’s the only way to compose vocal music.”
Opera Theater Oregon is producing Two Yosemites on a shoestring $25,000 budget and in-kind donations. (Meyer’s father, Scott Meyer, a lawyer, chairs the board.) With a 12-piece orchestra and four-women choir as the voice of Yosemite, the opera chronicles the famous 1903 camping trip of 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (sung by tenor Aaron Short, a Portland Opera Young Artist) and naturalist John Muir, who convinced Roosevelt to create national parks and preserve natural treasures.
With its emphasis on nature, Meyer and Ralls hope Two Yosemites will appeal to a young, environmentally energetic crowd. “Plus, it’s short,” said Meyer. “An hour and 10 minutes is not a four-hour Wagner opera.” And it’s sung in English.
Ralls and Meyer hope to see the opera performed in Yosemite National Park at the Glacier Point amphitheater, where Muir and TR set up camp. Ralls calls this possibility “a unique union of art re-enacting history, creating a kind of mythic experience.”
In harmony with Ralls’ nature-inspired music, the opera will be staged both inside and outdoors on different evenings, with Meyer singing Muir, bearded and belting out his whiskey-smooth baritone as a visionary outdoorsman. After this opera and after Meyer earns a few more roles, he has ambitions to take his maturing heldenbaritone overseas. Germany is in his heritage, and Wagner in his future.