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Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,318 ratings  ·  215 reviews
The touching, triumphant story of a young black man's journey from violence and despair to one of the world's most elite artistic institutions, as if The Blind Side were set in the world of opera.

Ryan Speedo Green had a tough upbringing in southeastern Virginia: his family lived in a trailer park and later a bullet-riddled house across the street from drug dealers. His
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published September 27th 2016 by Lee Boudreaux Books
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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 ·  1,318 ratings  ·  215 reviews

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Sep 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
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Feb 26, 2017 rated it liked it
There is a really fascinating story here, unfortunately this book misses the mark. The narrative style of switching between times is confusing and doesn't add anything to the story. There is a big leap that needs to be colored in quite a bit more than the stark transformation that happens. Also, Ryan Speedo Green's name is not even featured on the cover of this book. Sure could have benefited from some photos as well. All that said, the story of a young man being brought up with neglect and ...more
Well done. Clear writing about technique and the artistry of opera. Very good sections on racism in general and how it affects opera singers. The difficult sections about Green's rough childhood seem to strike the right balance between communicating the pain and keeping sufficient journalistic objectivity.

A friend recently saw him sing and was very impressed. One can only wish the best for him.
I was part of a fantastic book club when I still lived in Virginia, and I still get updates for the books they've chosen to discuss. This is one of those books. I read the blurb and knew it was a book that I'd be interested in, and once I realized that Mr Green grew up in southeastern Virginia, close to where I spent a good portion of my childhood and quite a few years of my adult life, I was even more intrigued.

Bergner paints a very honest portrait of Green, a young man who was so troubled that
Pamela Okano
Oct 04, 2016 rated it it was amazing
He had never killed anyone, but if his life continued to deteriorate, it wasn't out of the question. He was just 12. He was incarcerated, some of it in solitary confinement, for threatening his mother with a knife. Today, 18 years later, in an art form traditionally the province of white Europeans and Americans, this 6'5" black man is winning rave reviews for his Colline in the Met's La Boheme. Before that, he wowed the crowds and the critics in Vienna. This book, authored by a contributor to ...more
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Loved this story of how Ryan Speedo Green overcame poverty and a dysfunctional family life to become an accomplished bass-baritone at the Met. Inspiring message on how specific individuals can impact on a person's life. In case you didn't think it takes a lot of work to become an opera singer consider this; "(The) job is to figure out how to sing 36 pitches on...20 vowels, so six hundred combinations." As one who cannot sing a note I marvel at Ryan's mastering of the linguistic, musical, vocal ...more
Catherine Read
Apr 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love this book so much.

If Sing for Your Life had been a novel, it would have been dismissed as too unbelievable. If this story had been pitched as an ABC After School Special, it would have been tossed aside as too improbable for even children to believe.

Ryan Speedo Green's story is incredible and author Daniel Bergner is masterful in telling it. Ryan managed to survive a tumultuous childhood of abuse and poverty in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. He was taken into custody by police, at
J Beckett
Sep 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Beautifully penned story about the trials and triumph of opera singer Ryan Speedo Green. This is a tale of how Green overcame childhood hardships, including placement in a juvenile facility, a broken family, and poverty, to develop into a sought after opera star. Bergner included the expected bells and whistles, but was careful in crafting Green's journey, so not to overly emphasize elements that were socially predictable such as racism (note the emphasis on his singing "Old Man River at the ...more
Rachel Pollock
Jan 07, 2018 rated it liked it
The basic story of this man’s life is great, uplifting, inspiring, makes me want to hear him sing. But the book itself is just weird. Why is this author writing it? Is he a friend, colleague, fan...who knows? And race is a big theme, yet the author never addresses or even acknowledges his own white man’s perspective in narrating the story, despite the frequently discomfiting white-gaze lens through which he’s observing.
Nov 25, 2016 rated it liked it
This was a very disjointed book- some bits were fascinating, and some bits really dragged. It was confusing in parts- the author would be discussing one incident, and then there would be a flashback to several years before, and then within the flashback there would be another flashback to another time, and then it would move back to the original flashback, and so on. I also wish the author had explained how Ryan could have arrived at the Met competition without being able to read music, after ...more
Minetta Smith
Aug 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
I wanted to love this book so much and I did love the underlying story. The journey of Ryan Speedo Green from a life of poverty and a dysfunctional family to singing at the Met is amazing. Unfortunately the writing of the story is disjointed and confusing. The author jumps from time frame to time frame and from character to character in each chapter. I found myself searching for a thread to cling to as I read. Wait! Who is that? Did this happen before the time in juvie or after? Now who was this ...more
Sarah Swong
Nov 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Ryan Speedo Green was not destined to sing opera. Unlike most classical musicians, he is African American, and grew up in poverty. But even more unusually, he had no obvious musical talent for a long time. His voice was unremarkable in middle school. After getting into the Governors School of the Arts on a fluke, he nearly fails out of school because he cannot sing and cannot read music. He attends "mid-tier" conservatories. At the Met Competition, he struggles with basic technique: he cannot ...more
Mar 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
It took me a while to get into the way this story was told -- the shifting multiple points of view funneled through the white reporter collating the stories -- but once I bought in, I was sold. This is an amazing and remarkable story with many things to say about race, domestic violence, and trying to fit in where 99% of the people doing the job you're doing don't look like you. The section that educated me on Dr. Joseph DeJarnette was a heart breaker, as were the pages recounting Green's ...more
Apr 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club
This is an inspiring, thought-provoking, and beautifully told story of a young, Black man from a tough background who manages to climb his way out of his state's worst juvenile detention center and keep going all the way into the very white, very elite, very exclusive world of opera. Ryan Speedo Green's story shows how such things as internal strength and perseverance, supportive mentors who don't give up, and even just the desire to rise above your family's circumstances can be powerful ...more
Betsy Berman
Oct 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Singing for your life

What an amazing story coming from such grinding poverty and abuse and achieving success on the Opera stage. Along the way we hear about racism, the magic and hard work needed to learn to sing. Go listen to Ryan Speedo Green on YouTube and then read this book!
Kasa Cotugno
A rich biography relating the journey of Ryan Speedo Green from a volatile, uncertain future onto the stages of the Metropolitan and Vienna opera houses. His story reminded me somewhat of that of Dan-el Peralta as recounted in his memoir, Undocumented. Both were fortunate in catching the attention of people who could make a difference in their lives and were willing and able to spend their time and influence to motivate the success of these two remarkable young men. Green's struggle against the ...more
Nov 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via a Goodreads giveaway and the favor of an honest review was requested. I was so delighted to read this book! Ryan Speedo Green has an absolutely amazing story -- with still much to come, I am sure -- and Daniel Bergner does an absolutely wonderful job of telling the story. The book is truly suspenseful and really plunges you into each time and place it takes you to. Most of all you get to see the true tenacity and brilliance of Green, as ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars Ryan Speedo Green has done amazing things in his life and with music. Passages on race and the skill and artistry of opera are noteworthy. However, so much attention in the book is paid to the physical and mental skill and physiology of opera singing but it would have also been interesting to know the emotional response and connection to music that Ryan and other singers have. Ryan's childhood experiences and his evolution as an opera singer (from the Met forward) are introspective and ...more
Jun 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
I received this book at BEA in Chicago. I was so impressed by the author's ability to tell this story honestly. It would be tempting to skip certain events so that the reader would embrace Ryan with no hesitation. Instead, we hear the heartbreaking truth. Anyone who reads this story and the violence that is the basis of much of Ryan's life, will be shocked that a person can achieve success in his professional and personal life. I appreciate that Bergner describes in detail the constant struggle ...more
Feb 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I'd been dying to read this book since hearing Ryan Speedo Green, the subject of this book, interviewed on Fresh Air last fall. Here is a story not just about overcoming improbable odds to become one of the rising stars of the opera world, but what it means to fight for one's very life. Mr. Bergner is an excellent storyteller, and I found myself riveted time and again as I briskly read this beautiful biography.
Leslie Latham
3.5 stars. The book jumped around so much that I sometimes found it difficult to follow, and I wanted to know how Ryan would overcome the mammoth obstacles he faced. He's an exceptional young man, and I loved hearing of his triumphant career. I hope he continues to do well.
I had heard part of the Fresh Air interview about this book, so when I saw it on the new books shelf at the library I picked it up. It was very well researched (what biographer talks to his subject's elementary school principal?), though the writing style was a little choppy. I thought it somewhat unusual that it was clearly written by Bergner, because I've read an awful lot of celebrity biographies that are ghostwritten, or "written with" a ghostwriter, and are written as a first-person ...more
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
I was reading the playbill just before Verdi’s Requiem was to be performed at Tanglewood and came across the description of the singers, including that of Ryan Speedo Green, the Met’s bass-baritone, an African-American who was 6’6” and weighed 300 pounds. It described a book written by Daniel Bergner, Sing For Your Life. The performance was magnificent, and so is the book.

It is difficult to distinguish the writing from the character. What made this to be a great biography- the subject or the
Wendy Cosin
Mar 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Sing for Your Life is the story of Ryan Speedo Green's path from a childhood of violent poverty to the world of opera. The secondary title, "A Story of Race, Music, and Family", sums it up nicely.

The first half is well-structured with sections alternating between Green's family history - including the worst of his experiences as a large black teenager locked in a juvenile detention facility - to, 12 years later, competing in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The second half
Dec 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bookclub, non-fiction
Sing for your Life: A Story, of Music, Race and Family is the powerful, emotional story of Ryan Speedo Green a world renowned opera star. From his poverty stricken childhood, an absent father, and a distant emotional devoid mother his raw voice with an unbelievable range becomes apparent. After threatening to kill his mother he survives a harsh incarceration and finds teachers who foster his talent. There is a strong contrast between Ryan and his brother Adrian who while exhibiting artistic ...more
Jan 29, 2018 rated it liked it
This is a story worth telling, and reading about but unfortunately I think the author, Daniel Bergner, got too emotionally involved. It is understandable because Ryan Speedo Greene's story is remarkable. A sort of rags to riches story or an underprivileged man rises above his circumstances to achieve great things. Throughout the book Ryan is challenged by people who are more powerful than he is, his mother, his stepfather, his teachers and those in charge of his incarceration. And yet somehow he ...more
Apr 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I honestly don't know what possessed me to pick up this book, but I'm so glad I did. Inspiring, obviously...young, big and black, our subject overcomes poverty, child abuse, mental illness (or, probably more accurately, behavioral effects of childhood trauma), incarceration, and poor education, to rise to the top of one of the most erudite, snooty, and competitive professions on earth: professional opera. But it's the unfinished/unresolved elements of the early life of Ryan Speedo Green that ...more
Jul 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Speedo Green's story is an amazing tale, worthy of a better writer than Bergner. The structure, content, and writing fall short of what could have been a telling with the stature of one of Dicken's novels of triumph over poverty, violence, and abuse. As it is, I persevered only because of the intrinsic worth of Green's life and talents which I've had the privilege of experiencing via the Met Opera's Live in HD broadcasts. As others have noted, the book is built in time jumps, often with no ...more
Dec 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: other-books, bookclub
Book club selection
This is truly an inspirational book. It's the story of a young African American with a background of poverty, heartbreak and dysfunctional family relationships, and how he manages to overcome this very tough start and become a renowned international opera singer.
Two things that bothered me about the book were the introduction of the author as "we". "We" just appeared out of nowhere. I found that a little confusing. Also, at the end of the book I was left with the question
Bryce Van Vleet
This was my first time ever listening to a "real" audiobook, and I think the fact that it was my first time affected my overall opinion of this book. While I appreciated having something to listen to the few times I wanted to read but didn't feel like, or wasn't able to, read conventionally, most of the time I struggled to find opportunities to pick this up. I was also conflicted on what speed to listen at. Normal was a good option for getting a feel of the rhythm and tone of the book, but it ...more
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Daniel Bergner is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the author of two previous books of nonfiction, IN THE LAND OF MAGIC SOLDIERS: A STORY OF WHITE AND BLACK IN WEST AFRICA, a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year, and GOD OF THE RODEO: THE QUEST FOR REDEMPTION IN LOUISIANA’S ANGOLA PRISON, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Bergner’s writing has also appeared in Granta,
“The antidote to color, to all the crap going through the minds of the people behind that casting table, is to sing so well that people go, Oh shit. You have to overcome the visual. You have to make the visual irrelevant. You have to overcome aurally. I knocked it out of the park in certain roles, and people suddenly thought, Where’s this guy been? Well, I’ve been right here, incognegro.” 2 likes
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