From Colby, Kan., to the top of opera
New York — For someone growing up in Colby, Kan., it can't have been easy preferring the stage to the stadium. American bass Samuel Ramey freely admits that ''in high school I was not Mr. Popularity. If you wanted to go practice scales instead of football, it was a bit strange. The athletes were always the big stars.''
Well, now Mr. Ramey is one of the opera world's biggest stars. Everywhere he goes - whether it's the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Hamburg, Milan's La Scala, London's Covent Garden, the Paris Opera - he is cheered by the public and lauded by the press. And no wonder. Mr. Ramey's voice is an evenly produced instrument that effortlessly spans two octaves, with a distinctive timbre that sounds as fully at home in Boito's Mefistofele as in Mozart's Figaro.
Versatility has always been Ramey's calling card. He can sing Don Giovanni one night, then switch to the role of the Don's servant, Leporello, the next time around. He can run up and down the scales of a Handel opera, and be just as effective in the stentorian villainy of Verdi's Attila.
He still finds it unbelievable that he is singing so many leading roles in all the important houses of the world. After all, he never heard a single opera until he got to college. ''Not many operas come to Colby, Kansas,'' he noted, and no radio signal carrying the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts got there, either. ''I've sung probably for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up, I never thought that I would use my voice to make a living.''
By the time he was college-bound, Mr. Ramey had decided to become a music teacher. But a voice teacher assigned him some arias, and to get an idea of what they sounded like, he bought an Ezio Pinza recording. Suddenly, a new world opened to him.
It was not easy getting started, and when he finally arrived in New York he resorted to proofreading for a book publisher to keep the bills paid. But when he finally joined the City Opera in 1973, things began to click. And for that clicking he credits Julius Rudel, one of the important influences in his artistic life. ''Working with him, when I began at the City Opera - all the encouragement that he gave me - and our relationship, and how it developed over the years with the company'' is the way Ramey verbalizes that influence.
What is most remarkable about Mr. Ramey is the strength of his presence on a stage. When this svelte, six foot tall bass enters, all attention is immediately riveted on him. In his Met debut this past season in Handel's ''Rinaldo,'' he entered on a slave-drawn chariot and the audience cheered wildly. Then he sang a dazzling aria full of runs, peppered with insistent high notes, and stopped the show cold for a good two minutes.
I asked him if he ever took formal acting lessons to hone that unusual presence, and he responded that, outside of ballet classes, everything came to him naturally. He points out, however, that he continues to study with his teacher, Armen Boyajian. ''I don't ever see a day when I won't. A singer is always going to need that second pair of ears. You know, a lot of singing teachers can be just someone you go to. You give them your $60 or $75, you take your hour lesson, you leave, that's it. I've been fortunate that my teacher is somebody who takes an interest in his students.''
I asked Mr. Ramey if he had a favorite role, and after long consideration, he avowed that no one role was a particular favorite. Among those he most enjoys singing include the Mephistos of both Boito and Gounod (''Faust''), Figaro, Giovanni, the villains in Offenbach's ''Tales of Hoffmann,'' Assur in Rossini's ''Semiramide.'' Roles he hopes to add are mainly in the Verdi line, with the thought of ''Boris Godunov,'' the supreme basso role, very much in his thoughts. On records, he has already done a few roles he has yet to do on stage, including the Count in ''Nozze di Figaro.''
''Recording is not a process I enjoy much,'' he comments after being asked about his experiences in front of the microphone. ''The 'Figaro' I did a few years ago (singing the title role, with Sir Georg Solti for London Records) was enjoyable, because the whole cast were good friends.''
He is learning to say ''no'' more often these days. ''You have to start saying it if you want to be singing 15 or 20 years from now. I have been guilty of taking on too much in the past couple of years. But it's becoming easier to turn things down now.'' And this from a man who is virtually fully booked for the next five years!
Samuel Ramey is currently touring with the Met in Handel's ''Rinaldo'' (June 9 at the O'Keefe Center, Toronto; June 16 at the Public Auditorium, Cleveland; New York's Central Park performance June 19; and also at Eisenhower Park, Nassau County, N.Y., June 30). Next fall in New York, the City Opera mounts a revival of Boito's ''Mefistofele'' for him. On the recording docket, we can expect releases of his Count (in ''Nozze di Figaro''), his Nick Shadow (Stravinsky's ''The Rake's Progress''), and the title role in Rossini's ''Maometto II,'' among others.