As contractors counted down to the 1975 reopening of the restored Orpheum Theater, they needed an acoustic check. They asked opera bass Samuel Ramey, who was in town to sing opposite Beverly Sills in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” to come and sing.
“Mine was the first voice heard in the Orpheum for its reopening,” Ramey said last week.
This weekend he returns to the Orpheum stage for what he says may be his last opera engagement, Opera Omaha’s production of “Bluebeard’s Castle,” by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok.
If it is, it will be the capstone on an incredible 50-year career that has brought Ramey, 71, international fame in the world of opera.
He has sung on the stages of the Metropolitan, San Francisco and Houston Operas, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Scala in Italy, Covent Garden and the Royal Opera in England, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Vienna Staatsoper, Opera de Paris, Arena di Verona and the operas of Hamburg, Munich, Geneva, Zurich and Amsterdam.
The list of conductors and symphonies with which he has sung is equally impressive. His recordings number more than 80.
His reputation for singing devil and villain roles is well-established. MťphistophťlŤs in Gounod’s “Faust” is his most-performed role.
The title role in “Bluebeard’s Castle” has become one of Ramey’s signature roles as well.
Ramey, a native of Colby, Kan., was in an opera before he’d ever seen one. He sang in the chorus of an opera in Central City, Colo., in 1963 while still in college.
“That was the summer I got the bug,” Ramey said last week just outside the rehearsal hall of Opera Omaha near 19th and Farnam Streets.
That same year he picked up a record album of “Bluebeard’s Castle” starring Jerome Hines and was blown away by it. He sent off for the score, the one he is using in rehearsals here, which 50 years later bears his notation where Side 2 of that long-ago album began.
Before ever performing Bluebeard onstage, he recorded it with the Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera in 1987, in Budapest — a bit of a nightmare, he says now, because of a language gap. He was the only non-Hungarian on the project.
He sang the role at the Met in 1989.
“I just love singing the part,” he said. “It just lies in a good part of my voice, and I still enjoy performing it.
“I hope people come out in droves to hear it.”