Can a Laconic Kansan Named Sam Ramey Be Made Over into Opera's No. 1 Villain? Yup
It can be said of Samuel Ramey, the New York City Opera's rangy basso, that when he's good, he's very, very good, and when he's bad, he's...superb. In Verdi's Attila, he drips malevolence as the scourge from the East. In Mozart's Don Giovanni, he ruthlessly breaks hearts. And whether as Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust or in Boito's opera, he has won international acclaim as the premier silver-throated Devil of the 1980s. "I either seduce, murder, or gamble for men's souls," says Sam, laughing. "Put me onstage and I make Billy the Kid look tame."
There's no denying that Ramey, at 40, is hot. He sang the title role in The Marriage of Figaro to triumphant reviews at Italy's La Scala last spring and will re-create his performance for his long-awaited Covent Garden debut in London next month. In fact, he's booked for the next five years, with his debut at New York's Met scheduled as far ahead as January 1984.
Ramey epitomizes a new breed of stars that has emerged in the past decade since TV invaded the operatic stage. In addition to a pair of gymnastic vocal cords that can span two octaves, he has the lanky (6'), lithe shape of a male sex symbol. "He's got a uniquely beautiful voice with sensational low notes coupled with an extraordinary sense of drama that comes out in his acting," says Beverly Sills, his boss at the New York City Opera. "To top it all off," she adds, sighing, "he looks like John Travolta."
Offstage, Ramey is the mellowest of men. "He rarely raises his voice, rarely loses his temper, rarely ever complains," maintains his wife, Carrie, 39. Sam's conversations tend to be a string of Gary Cooperish "Yups." "When I was a little boy," he explains of his apparent taciturnity, "my dad sat me down to give me this bit of advice: 'Count your words, like notches on a gun.' "
That was back in Colby, Kans., and by his own admission, little Sam was "a terror." The youngest of four children of Guy Ramey, a meat cutter and deputy county sheriff, Sam was born a full 15 years after the penultimate sibling. "We all spoiled him," admits his mother, Grace. "I was always tearing up neighbors' gardens or throwing dirt in their windows," Sam concurs. "It got so my mother literally had to Iasso me down."
In high school he was two-thirds of a fine first baseman (good field, good hit, slow on the base path). "I had to face reality; I'd never make the Dodgers," he notes. But he found consolation in his natural vocal talents, becoming a sort of Pat Boone of Colby. "I sang at all the school dances," he says. "I liked to see the girls swoon."
His father's death forced Sam to quit Kansas State and work at odd jobs until he could enroll at Wichita State for a music degree. He was married briefly to a ballet hopeful, cut his operatic teeth with a small touring company in North Carolina, and eventually bought himself a one-way bus ticket to New York City. There on a blind date he met Carrie Tanate, who then worked for RCA Records. "I expected a hick who'd take me to the rodeo, but instead he took me to the opera," she recalls. "Finally I had met my urban cowboy." They were married in 1970, four months after they met.
He lucked out in other ways, too. After initial hesitation, the distinguished voice teacher Armen Boyajian agreed to take Ramey as a student. "It was the quality of his voice, dark and brilliant at once," Boyajian remembers. "He could move fast through the scale passages without losing its color and execute vocal leaps with astounding accuracy." In 1972 Sam was a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera auditions. The next year he was signed by the City Opera company.
Today Ramey has performed in just about every major opera house in the world and earns upwards of $20000 a year. Yet he still dresses in jeans and cowboy boots, prefers walking to cabs and "home-cooked grub" to restaurant fare. But a travel schedule that keeps the Rameys away from their two-bedroom co-op on Central Park West for as much as 40 weeks a year has precluded starting a family. And it takes Sam away from a favorite pastime: playing in the park's softball league. Still, hope springs eternal. "If they ever write an opera about Steve Garvey," Sam muses, "I'd like to be the bass on first base."
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