The gym can wait until after Baton Rouge.

Michael Mayes wants to eat lots of south Louisiana delicacies first, which is OK, because he doesn't have to be buff for Opéra Louisiane's "Opening Night."

Mayes will join fellow singers Sarah Jane McMahon, Andrew Garland, Dennis Jesse and Richard Hobson in opening the company's 2018-19 season on Friday in the Manship Theatre.

The arias will be joyful; the ensemble numbers will be fun.

Then it'll be back to Mayes' home in Lyons, Colorado, for the beginning of some serious workouts. It's something that goes with the territory when playing an operatic condemned murderer on Louisiana's death row in composer Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking."

"I have to sing the aria in act 2 while doing 30 push-ups," the baritone says. "Yes, I have to sing and do the push-ups at the same time."

Mayes has played Joseph De Rocher nine times, including in the New Orleans Opera's 2016 "Dead Man Walking" production, and one in Tulsa.  

"It was my breakout role in Tulsa," Mayes says. "A lot of people find that hard to believe, but 'Dead Man Walking' was big in Tulsa. I read a comment by one woman on a Facebook fan page that she drove from Kansas to see it."

The woman added that her daughter had been killed and Mayes' performance helped her see her daughter's killer in a different light.

"We usually have talk-backs with audiences when we perform this opera," he says. "We tell them that this is a story based on a book and incidents that happened in this book. It doesn't take sides in the death penalty argument; it just tells what happened. But it does challenge the audience to analyze their opinions on both sides."

The role of De Rocher isn't like those of classic operas. The story takes a raw look at contemporary events, so De Rocher isn't tragic in the literary sense but visceral and unapologetically vile, at least until his redemptive end.

Mayes prefers playing the modern-day killer, or the veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or even one-half of a gay couple separated during the Holocaust, because of their present-day relevance.

Their stories may be dark, but they make the audiences ask questions. And Mayes believes that questions prompt empathy analyzation.

"I prefer contemporary opera because of this," he says.

However, he'll shy away from dark arias in Opéra Louisiane's opener.

"That's a time for having fun, and that also makes a difference in people's lives," Mayes says. "It brings people together from different walks in life, beliefs and political views and takes them away from all of that for a little while. Everyone can come together and enjoy the music."

Mayes' career has taken him to cities throughout the world. Not bad for a guy from Cut and Shoot, Texas. That's his hometown, just north of Conroe in the Houston area. He's the first opera singer to emerge from his hometown.

"The only other notable person was the boxer Roy Harris," Mayes says. "He fought in the 1950s."

But Mayes won't be returning to his hometown anytime soon. His upcoming season is busy with a batting order that begins with "Madame Butterfly" and ends with "Dead Man Walking."

In between, he'll return to his role as the PTSD veteran Col. Jim Thompson in Tom Cipullo's "Glory Denied."

"That one will be in Seattle," Mayes says. "It's based on a real character who alienated himself from his family and committed suicide."

While preparing for the role, Mayes developed an online friendship with Thompson's daughter, who told the baritone stories about her father and included his mannerisms.

"The last time I performed the role was in Nashville, and Col. Thompson's whole family came," Mayes says. "After the performance, his daughter told me, 'Tonight, I was able to say goodbye to my father.'"

Then she pressed a token in Mayes' palm, a token Thompson had carried with him for 30 years.

"It was his one-year sobriety token from Alcoholics Anonymous, and he was proud of that," Mayes says. "She passed it on as a gift to me to remember him by. I treasure it — my wife keeps it in her jewelry box."

Mayes' wife is mezzo soprano Megan Marino, who also is facing a busy performance schedule this year. While Mayes will be jumping in his truck and driving from Colorado to Pittsburgh, dog at his side, Marino will be heading for Utah.

And in the midst of all the travel and singing, Mayes will be devoted to the gym. As De Rocher, he'll not only be performing his push-up aria, but also must have muscular arms and chest as they will be exposed.  

"I lost 60 pounds before I did the role of De Rocher the first time," he says, laughing. "I have to start over again, but it's worth it."


Opening Night

Opéra Louisiane's first performance of the 2018-19 season

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

WHERE: Manship Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts, 100 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge

ADMISSION: $18-$90

TICKETS/INFO: operalouisiane.org.

Follow Robin Miller on Twitter, @rmillerbr.