A Titan Among Opera Singers – Baritone Michael Hewitt Discusses Fitness, His Appearance on ‘The Titan Games,’ and Opera’s Marketing ChallengesBy Chris Ruel
“I am Khumn!” These were the first words ever spoken on stage by baritone Michael Hewitt. The phrase is one you might expect from the Narrator in “Akhnaten” but not in a fifth-grade educational history play about ancient Egypt. According to Hewitt, his entrance was dramatic and well-received. He recounted striding to center stage, dressed from head-to-toe in black and shrouded in dense fog. He dropped his voice low and let fly the line.
The Colorado native’s composer father recognized the nascent talent within his son and connected him with a children’s theater impresario. Encouraged by his dad, Hewitt joined the troupe and was soon playing the Huntsman in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” From that point forward, Hewitt was onstage at least once a year until he entered high school.
Seeking to trade the footlights for the free throw line, he went out for the basketball team. Hewitt didn’t make the cut, remarking he had no capacity for sports. However, should a role call upon him to toss a football, he could do so convincingly. “I can fake it really well,” he said with a laugh. The setback was a blessing in disguise, making room in his schedule for a different extracurricular activity. Hewitt returned to the stage. It’s more than a little ironic that a kid who failed to make the basketball team would later compete in the American reality television show, “The Titan Games,” in which contestants execute feats of superhuman strength and athleticism.
As Hewitt continued performing in high school theater and choir, those around him provided positive reinforcement and steered him towards opera. “People were like, ‘You should be an opera singer.’ My dad was the only person who had said that until I began hearing it from professionals and educators.” But Hewitt was skeptical, thinking perhaps those pointing him towards opera were offering a back-handed compliment. He resisted the idea until a book, Hermann Hesse’s, “Demian,” changed his mind.
Paraphrasing Hesse’s ideas, Hewitt explained, “The most difficult thing for someone to do is to walk down the path of destiny or something grand like that. Once a person does, everything just clicks into place. That was back when I was an apprentice at Barrington Stage Company in 2011. I thought, ‘You know what, I think this is what I need to do.’ Right then and there, I committed fully to opera, and it’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Getting in Shape and Training His Voice
Hewitt admits that he wasn’t always as physically fit as he is now. Early on, he based his identity on the perceptions of others until doing so became untenable.
“I was an overweight kid,” Hewitt said. “As my waistband expanded, so did my sense of identity. I realized that the way I fit in my social circles and why people gave me attention was because they wanted to see how much and how fast I could eat. I’d have a box of pizza for lunch and then the same people would make fun of me for being fat.
“I saw myself as one kind of person while the world viewed me differently, and I encouraged that. Eventually, I couldn’t sustain it any longer, and so I did whatever it took to change. I lost almost 50 pounds during my freshman year of high school.”
Rebuilding, as Hewitt put it, has taken more than a decade. He views himself on both a music and fitness journey or MW—Music and Weights. The baritone aligns the two in terms of training, boiling it down to understanding the difference between the things he can control and the things he can’t.
“The more that you prepare your music, the more you invest in yourself and control the things you can control—whether it’s your stage performance or otherwise—the better off you will be. The music will never lie to you. You’re in tune or you’re not in tune. You’re singing the right notes, or you’re not. With weights, it’s not the 200 pounds’ fault you can’t lift it, it’s your fault.”
I asked Hewitt to talk more about the synergy between physical strength and stage performance. Opera has evolved. The days of parking and barking are over. Today’s opera stagings require a lot of movement and, therefore, stamina.
“I think strength is nothing but an asset for a stage performer and especially an opera singer because we don’t use microphones. The demands on a singer’s body have increased, requiring the ability to establish a mind/muscle connection.”
The baritone related how he recently viewed YouTube videos of his singing. As he watched, he thought critically about what he could repurpose and what remains true about his sound today, noting that as his level of fitness increased the quality of his sound improved.
“Your voice will only be as good as the technique you’re following. Whatever your physical training looks like, it should complement your vocal training and vice versa. Fitness does not have to be about achieving a six-pack. It’s about making sure your body can do what you’re asking of it.”
Remaining fit and healthy on the road can present challenges. Hewitt loves to pump iron, so I asked if he found it problematic to locate places to work out as well as sustain a healthy diet.
“I would say opera singers are in a unique position while traveling. Our work schedules allow for better nutritional choices. Every time I go overseas, I don’t change my daily routine, but the food I eat. Even if I’m consuming more calories or fewer ‘clean meals,’ the quality of the food is better. When you go to Italy, you know the tomato in the burrito is from the farm up the road, but in the US, the corporate farms load fruit and vegetables with chemicals.
“Regarding fitness, whenever I travel, I enjoy going to a gym or somewhere in the community where people are working out. It allows me to try out my language skills. I’ve found that nearly every city has a gym. Being on the road is a blessing in disguise for an opera singer who wants to take their health and instrument seriously because, at home, we’ve got a bunch of distractions. On the road, there are similar distractions, but I would say it’s more socially acceptable for us to go back to our hotels and prioritize rest and recovery.”
Battling it Out on “The Titan Games”
In the United States, “The Titan Games” is a reality sports competition hosted by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, a former professional wrestler and now a Hollywood star. The show features athletes from across the US competing in endurance-based mental and physical challenges with the goal of becoming a “Titan.” At the conclusion of the season, the Titans vie to become the last man or woman standing. So, how did the kid who couldn’t make the basketball team end up competing on a major network primetime series?
“I applied during ‘Traviata’ at Washington National Opera. I was home during an off night. My wife was at work and I was toying around on the computer when I see this ‘Titan Games’ thing. I’m a big fan of The Rock, so I applied for the first season. I didn’t get a response, and I was okay with that because I expected nothing to come of it. Then I get an email right before I started rehearsals for ‘Newsies.’ The producer said, ‘Hey, we saw that you applied for Season One. We just got an agreement for Season Two. Are you still interested in being on the show?’ That started the very, very long interview and material-sending process that lasted about six months. I found out I was going to ‘The Titan Games’ the third week in January.”
I asked Hewitt about balance. How could he appear on a television series while managing a performance schedule? Fortunately, he was in between contracts, so the timing worked out perfectly, though he had to bow out of one audition. Hewitt spoke about the filming process, and how, at times, it didn’t differ much from an opera rehearsal.
“Hollywood is different from what I thought. We had to be in the hotel’s lobby by 6:45 A.M. They’d take us to the studio and there we stayed, waiting. There was a lot of waiting, just like during an opera rehearsal. I might be there for six hours and then someone would come in and say, ‘We just want to film you doing this one thing and then you can go home.’ I was fine with it because I developed so many relationships. The people I competed with couldn’t be closer to my heart. We created a little family. We still have a group chat and talk every day.”
An Opera Evangelist’s Thoughts on the Art Form’s Marketing Shortcomings
How did Hewitt’s fellow contestants react to having a professional opera singer in their midst against whom they would battle for the title of Titan? They responded by asking questions, and Hewitt was happy to answer them as they sat waiting in what he referred to as “the pen.”
The baritone views himself as an opera ambassador, someone who evangelizes the art form by speaking in a down-to-earth manner to the opera-curious, as well as to those who haven’t given it much thought or have preconceived notions.
“I have long believed that what opera needs for a comeback is prominence. It needs a tastemaker, or a culturally impactful household name to designate it as cool or at least say ‘You should check this out. You’re missing out if you’re not part of this.’ I’m hoping that if Dwayne Johnson has an opportunity to attend an opera performance, he’ll want to check it out because there was an opera singer on ‘The Titan Games.’ If that happens, I’ll consider my work done.
“Most of my fellow contestants knew nothing about opera. They had never seen or listened to a performance. Many have preconceived notions about what they should and shouldn’t like. People will say, ‘Oh, my God! You’re an opera singer? I love ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ It’s my favorite.’ Look, I fully understand why we have the reaction most of us have, but they’re trying to connect with you. That’s a person who’s ready to be converted. Just say, ‘I love ‘Phantom,’ too. Those melodies are like nothing else, and when the chandelier drops, it’s amazing. If you like ‘Phantom,’ let me turn you on to X.’
“I think opera has a marketing problem. It doesn’t know who it’s marketing to, and it doesn’t know how to respond to criticisms in a way that’s anything but defensive and uninviting. Opera seems unable to decide if it’s for everybody or if it should double down on people’s assumptions that the opera is a place to be seen, that it’s expensive, and you have to dress up to go.
“As for the contestants in the pen with me, I think they would go see an opera because the singer they met was candid, personable, and tried to be as much of himself as possible. It’s about how you show up in the world. The whole world is waiting to be converted to opera. I love that.”
Hewitt recounted one of his first encounters with opera. He watched the Met Opera production of “Eugene Onegin.” The great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was onstage, and when the last scene rolled around, he remembered sobbing uncontrollably and didn’t understand why. He was 19 years old.
“I felt this kinship or connection with the entire world and specifically with Dmitri. I thought, ‘I could do that. I think it could be me up there.’ It’s a calling that’s been impossible to shake for the past decade-plus.
Hvorostovsky remains a role model for Hewitt, seeing in him the perfect complement of technical and acting skills.
“He’s just so elegant. Technically, the singing is so good, but then he was so expressive and communicative that it really got the job done. I think that’s what made him resonate and hit the hearts of listeners. When I read his interviews, he is an excellent role model for taking back your own power within the opera world. He wasn’t afraid to say, ‘You know what? I think this is right for my voice. I’m not going to listen to you right now. I think I know best.’
In this field, it feels like conditioning to ask constantly for permission. If you deviate one time from what seems like what you’re supposed to do in lockstep, then you’re blackballed forever—no free thought allowed. However, that idea couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Wrapping up my time with Hewitt, I asked which role he most enjoys singing, and which opera he’d recommend as a suitable place for those new to the art form to begin.
“If I had to spend my life doing one role, it would be Don Giovanni. Hands down. I think ‘Traviata’ is the perfect first opera. There’s nothing extraneous. All the characters are dynamic and strong, and you really feel for all of them. The music is unbelievable, and Violetta is an incredible character. As a baritone, it doesn’t get any better than the duet with Violetta.”