After years singing opera, this transplanted Brit finds a niche in American standards.
He studied with some of the world’s finest opera coaches and vocal teachers; sang the lead in famous operas like Tosca, La Bohéme, Aida, Pagliacci, and Madame Butterfly; performed as soloist for oratorios and masses by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Verdi; and graced the main stage at Carnegie Hall as a featured soloist.
So why is Michael Lyon singing cover songs of Sinatra, Bennett, and Bublé for the Thursday-evening crowd at Ryan’s Bistro? He’s living his dream—a dream he has re-formed many times over.
“It took me until my mid-50s to understand that what I am is a performer,” says the singer in his West Omaha home. And what a performer he is!
Dressed casually in black, Lyon sings the standards with the air and confidence of a seasoned professional. His beautiful tenor voice carries a rich tone, but he holds back on the power his voice can reach. He hits high notes with ease and in tune. He’s smooth but never smarmy and keeps the schmaltz at bay. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks; he has the talent and training to let the music and lyrics do the talking.
“…I knew down to my very toes that I had to sing opera.”
“We get people in here who think they’re listening to a recording, a sound system,” says Julia Stein, bar manager at Ryan’s. “He’s awesome. We love him here.”
Is this what Lyon envisioned over 30 years ago when he set out to be a great opera singer? No. Is he satisfied with his life as Omaha’s go-to tenor for special events? “Yes,” he says without hesitation. “I have become very adept at surviving in this world.”
Lyon’s world began in England’s county of Cornwall, where he grew up in a small dairy farming community. Neither parent displayed any musical abilities, so when their little son opened his mouth and made a beautiful sound, the only nurturing of his talent came from the school choir…until he got kicked out at age 10 for “goofing around.”
Lyon eventually channeled his feistiness into a single-mindedness that paved the way for his future. When he was about 20, he listened to a recording of an Italian opera “and I knew down to my very toes that I had to sing opera.” And so he did.
With newfound purpose, Lyon won a position with the Bristol Opera Company. Within a year and still without vocal training, he secured the lead in a production—as a baritone. “I then decided that I had to study seriously, which I did, and won several competitions,” explains Lyon.
“A guy was leaving Ryan’s and said…’How come you’re not somebody?’ And I said, ‘I am somebody, just not necessarily the somebody you want me to be.’”
Flush with confidence in his talent, Lyon emigrated in 1981 to Los Angeles, where he continued his vocal studies. He credits opera star Baldo dal Ponte for “giving me my high notes” and transforming him into a tenor. In 1984, Lyon met his future wife at an opera workshop. He and Kristin, an Omaha native, spent the next decade and a half performing in L.A.’s numerous opera and music theatre venues. They were at home on the stage and in demand, but singing didn’t pay the rent. The bottom fell out when both lost their day jobs within a month of each other.
Michael, Kristin, and son Max relocated to Omaha in 2000. With limited opportunities to pursue opera here, Michael and Kristin began a successful real estate career. Michael also teamed up with KIOS-FM as the local host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” from 5-10 a.m.
But Lyon, who retains only a tinge of an accent from his native England, knew his whole identity was wrapped up in singing. After an eight-year hiatus, he bought a sound system and remade himself into “a hip guy.” Word-of-mouth brought success quickly.
“An events planner at Stokes [Grill & Bar] told me about Michael,” says Chris Blumkin, a management consultant and wife of Ron Blumkin, the president of the Nebraska Furniture Mart. “We went to hear him at the Zin Room downtown. He has a genuine, warm way about him. We’ve hired him five times for corporate and family events.”
Lyon has never lost sight of who he is. That’s why sideways compliments from customers don’t faze him.
“A guy was leaving Ryan’s and said, ‘You’re so great. How come you’re not somebody?’ And I said, ‘I am somebody, just not necessarily the somebody you want me to be.’”