Today, Ryan Speedo Green stars in the classic La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
“When one realizes their dream — and they’re living their dream — then everything is just cloud nine,” Green, 30, tells PEOPLE. “And I’m so grateful that I’m able to live my dream.”
Indeed, the opera singer has a lot to be grateful for. And he hopes that by sharing his story — told in Daniel Bergner’s new memoir, Sing for Your Life — he’ll inspire others.
Growing up in Virginia, Green was raised in an volatile home by Valerie, his troubled, Air Force veteran single mother. He witnessed his mom spiral into a depression as her two marriages crumbled: the first, after his father, Cecil, was unfaithful while Valerie was on deployment; the second after years of heated squabbles. By age 9, Green had moved with Valerie and his older brother Adrian to a housing project, where neighbors ran a prostitution business and sold drugs.
Feeling “alone and abandoned” after years of instability, began lashing out. And when he was 10 years old, “I was put in a special class for the worst of the worst,” Green recalls. “The school district felt we were uncontrollable and that we were a danger to the other kids in the class.”
Green admits that he had grown violent.
“One of the first things I did when I met my teacher [Betty Hughes] was throw a desk at her,” he recalls. “There was a blind anger in me.”
Rather than giving up on her troubled student, though, Hughes used the incident as an opportunity to teach.
“She gave me constructive criticism,” says Green. Soon after, Hughes taught him Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which he took to heart. “She taught me at a young age that I wasn’t just a number, just a color — I could be somebody.”
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Despite Hughes’ nurturing, Green’s problems at home persisted. And when he was 12, he threatened his mom with a knife, which led to a two-month stint in juvenile detention.
In the “facility,” as Green calls it, he did some soul-searching.
“I made a decision to make a 180 to become a completely different person,” he says. “I knew I had no other choice; I didn’t want to end up back in the facility, so I made a conscious decision to change the way I talked, the friends I had and my interests. And I realized I could channel that rage into other things.”
Listening to Usher and the Backstreet Boys on a radio in the facility, Green found a passion for music, which he continued to pursue when he left juvenile detention. Green attended a high school for the arts, where he joined the chorus, where another teacher — his voice coach Robert Brown — encouraged him. Then, on a class trip to New York City with Brown, Green, 15 at the time, discovered his calling when he saw his first opera — Carmen — at Lincoln Center.
“I left the Met saying, ‘That’s what I want to do. I’m gonna sing at the Metropolitan Opera,'” Green remembers. “Mr. Brown told me, ‘Someday when you can read music, when you can sing in a foreign language, when you can remember your lines when you get onstage, when you can perform in an opera, when you go to college—then maybe someday you’ll be able to audition for the Metropolitan Opera.'”
Adds Green: “It was the first dream I ever had.”
From that day forward, Green began to set goals. Earning a bachelor of music degree from the Hartt School of Music then his master’s from Florida State University, he and his rich baritone-bass vocals went on to win the Met’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 2011.
Since nabbing those honors, he’s performed in opera houses around the world. When he’s not traveling or in New York performing at the Met, Green lives in Vienna with his wife Irene, whom he married this spring in her native Germany.
“I wake up every morning and pinch myself,” Green says of his life now.
And he credits the educators who believed in him for giving him a chance at that life.
“I had a dream, and they did everything they could to put me in a position to have a higher education and college and grad school,” he says. “When I’ve fallen down, when I’ve hit rock bottom, I had to get up myself. But I had people to help show me what I’m capable of.”
And Green is hopeful sharing his journey will motivate others.
“You can overcome things and achieve your dreams.”