He was a former football player from Cut and Shoot, Texas, who had performed in church choirs all his life. After an injury forced him out of athletics, he enrolled in high school choir and even made Texas All-State Choir. But this class was different.
"I could follow the shape-notes in the Heavenly Highway Hymns book we used at church, but as for reading 'real' music, it was like being dropped off in a foreign country that used a completely different alphabet and being expected to function like a local," he says.
At the end of the week, he showed up in tears at the office of Mel Ivey, the late Professor Emeritus of music. But Ivey gave Mayes the advice that would lead to his career on the opera stage. Mayes, a baritone, now performs around the world in traditional and contemporary operas, most memorably as the convicted murderer Joseph de Rocher awaiting his execution in Dead Man Walking.
"Mr. Ivey listened to me patiently," Mayes says, "and then walked around the desk, sat on the edge, looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Michael, you aren't the first country boy to be sitting right where you are, saying exactly what you're saying to me right now. It's a lot, and I know it's overwhelming, but I believe that you have what it takes to hang in there. Just give it a semester, we'll get you the help that you need, we'll make sure you don't fall behind, and trust me son -- you'll look back on this one day and be glad you didn't give up now.'"
Ivey was right. After graduating from UNT, Mayes landed classic roles such as the title characters of Rigoletto and Don Giovanni, but he prefers operas that touch on current events --like Glory Denied, about a soldier's tumultuous return home from the Vietnam War.
Audience members have told him stories about how his shows have affected them. Glory audience members said their relationships changed with family members who served in the military. After Dead Man Walking, one woman changed her opinion of the man who murdered her daughter.
"When I discovered opera for the first time, as a result of my scholarship to come study at UNT, it was the storytelling aspect of opera that truly drew me in, combined with the sheer power of the unamplified voice and all the trappings of the stage that really hooked me," he says. "It was the ultimate culmination of so many things that I loved, and it's that sweet spot of convergence that is the center of my artistic universe to this day."