THE BALLAD OF MICHAEL HENDRICK
11 June 2022
It was meant to be a simple, but otherwise all-important concert for the world-renowned opera singer Michael Robert Hendrick. It ended up being a possible preamble to a semi-permanent homecoming to the LaGrange native.
In March 2022, Hendrick set foot in one of the most humbled stages he set foot on in the entirety of his nearly 30-year opera carrer - the sanctuary of the First Baptist Church on the Square. He recalled, months later, being surprised at the site of the expansive crowd of eager listeners - a mix of family, friends, and former classmates. Many have followed his performances from afar or through his mother, Rogene Hendrick, who was sitting front and center in the church's gallery.
"[Coming home] never crossed my mind so much until I saw how much love and support I got from so many people who appreciated me and the occultation I was making in singing," he said. "I thought, did they come because they knew me or did they have an interest in this type of singing that's not so common?"
It was indeed the definition of a homecoming concert for Hendrick. His plans at the time were to return to Louisiana where his wife and 21-year-old son await, but a shift claimed him, and his trips back to his hometown have become more frequent and stretch on for weeks at a time.
While nothing is set in stone yet for the LaGrange native son, there's a possibility that he may set roots more permanently in LaGrange once more.
"There's so many art and musical opportunities happening [in the LaGrange area], and I think if there's any way I can contribute to the growth of the arts in West Georgia, I would love to be a part of that," he said.
Hendrick was born in LaGrange and graduated from Troup County High in 1984. Following graduation, he attended Berry College in Rome on a trumpet-playing scholarship. At this point, his singing experience had been limited, and Hendrick wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to do for a living.
One day, while he was sitting in Berry College's art museum, a fellow muscian told Hendrick about a new voice teacher and suggested he join the class.
Hendrick agreed, accepting the class as a new sort of challenge and continued taking music classes until he graduated from Berry College. He went on to the University of CIncinnati College-Conservatory of Music where he experienced a cultured shock like none he'd yet known.
"It was very different based on my small-town experience in LaGrange," Hendrick said.
He adjusted quickly and stayed in Cincinnati for 10 years, earning a master's degree of music in vocal performance and [another] in opera performance.
As noted on his personal website's biography, he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in New York City in roles such as Menelas in Die Ägyptische Helena, followed by other engagements at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, including the title role of Peter Grimes in "Peter Grimes," Bacchus in "Ariadne auf Naxos," Chairman Mao in "Nixon in China," and as the Drum Major in "Wozzeck" by Alban Berg. Throughout his 25-year career, he's performed in titular opera performances in Rome, Croatia, Spain, Moscow, and other countries throughout Europe.
While in New York, Hendrick met his wife, and the two settled in her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
As his performance schedule escalated, his trips home to LaGrange became scattered throughout the years, he said.
In February, however, he ventured home to visit his mother for a month-long-stay while his wife and son stayed behind in Louisiana. His mother told her former Choral Society of West Georgia associates of his visit. The society invited him to perform through them, and Hendrick jumped at the chance.
Hendrick's homecoming performance consisted of several musical pieces complementary in the opera world. He started his show with a rendition of "O Divine Redeemer" or "Repentir," meaning to repent. Hendrick noted the song was "Old Testament in nature" and suitable for the venue he was performing in.
The offered program deciphered the musicals' lyrics both in English and their native languages.
One performance, "Vesti la giubba," or "Put on the costume" from the Italian opera "Pagliacci," required Hendrick to tap deep into his theatrical roots. Hendrick deciphered a scene were Canio, the main character, is forced to put on bright face despite dealing with unspoken heartbreak from his wife's infidelity.
Due to the intense emtion of the scene and its Italian lyrics, Rogene suggested her son add a disclaimer before he performed the piece.
"He was practicing at home and carrying on... I said to him, 'Michael, you have to say something to them before that thing starts, they're going to wonder what's going on," she said.
Hendrick's performance was partically accompanied by mezzo soprano Dr. Toni Anderson of LaGrange, LaGrange College pianist Andrew Harry, and the Bell Ensemble of First Baptist.
Hendrick spent his month in LaGrange rehearsing his performance, his mother acting as his audience member and judge.
Hendrick has taken time to explore the changing town he grew up in, using the Thread and his former classmates as guides. He said he was amazed at the changes and additions, especially downtown, crediting entities like Callaway Foundation for progress.
"It's meant to much to come back and perform at a place I was born and raised and see the [changes,]" he said.
"It's amazing that when what you experience as a child can stay with you and mean so much to you."
Following the homecoming concert, Hendrick fell into a new routine of visiting his hometown. In March, he even accompanied his mother to her LaGrange High School Class of 1961 reunion, meeting some of the adults who surrounded him in his earlier years.
Not long afterwards, he accompanied Bettie Biggs, director of the Choral Society of West Georgia, on a lunch outing where the subject of the arts community came up.
"She said, if I wanted to come back, she'd love to invite me to teach voice at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, and I said yes," Hendrick said.
Hendrick recently earned his doctorate at Louisiana State University so he could pursue a career as a music professor. Since early 2022, he was interviewed by several major universities for open positions. Hendrick said he doesn't quite see the new opportunity as retirement, as he wants to remain active even if he steps away from regularly performing. His wife remains in Louisiana to care for her own parents, though there's the possibility that she may one day venture from the bayou.
"My wife said she'd come visit me... but she teaches, herself, and our son is still a student," he said.
"It's not so easy to pick up and move with me... but when choosing where to live one day... why not just come backk to a place where I feel so close to so many people already?"
(Story continues! Drop by the offices of LaGrange Daily News to pick up your copy of LaGrange Living magazine!)