Insatiable Curiosity – How Opera Turned Into A Life-Long Obsession For Tenor Michele Angelini [Exclusive]By Francisco Salazar
How does one discover opera? Is it through recordings, family or through music in schools? The answer is never a simple one and at times it is merely by coincidence. For some it is about discovery and curiosity.
That’s Michele Angelini’s story.
“It was the movie ‘Amadeus.’ Specifically June Anderson singing the Queen of the Night,” Angelini revealed in an interview with OperaWire regarding how he first became curious about the artform.
For some audiences that moment when Anderson hits the Highs F’s in the famous aria may have been cool but ultimately just another scene in a film.
But for Angelini that was the moment he was hooked.
It was also the moment the tenor became curious about this particular soprano, looking for recordings and as he puts it, “other big high soprano things.”
His curiosity led him to discover LP’s from Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti. But his main appetite came for sopranos such as Sutherland, Eleanor Steber , Leyla Gencer and other obscure names such as Maria Cebotari, Rosanna Carteri, and Clara Petrella.
There was also Pavarotti, Giacinto Prandelli and early Gianni Raimondi. Angelini admits “I tend to gravitate towards pre 70’s singers and that way of singing.”
His immersion into the opera world was furthered by the support he received from his parents, who helped him discover new artists, giving him new CD’s for Christmas. .
One CD that he remembers as his first was “Movies go to the Opera.”
“It just had everything from ‘Apocalypse Now’ to other films. It had some really fantastic voices. Callas singing Rosina, Scotto singing Butterfly, Caballe singing ‘Manon Lesacut.’ There were all of these things on there and I guess that was really the first ‘only devoted to opera’ CD that I had.”
Growing up on Long Island, New York, Angelini found other major allies in developing his musical life outside of his home.
“All of my teachers were knowledgeable musicians. All my teachers were extremely accomplished and complete musicians. A lot of them helped turn me toward other conductors, orchestras and singers.”
But one thing that also helped him develop as a musician was the bassoon, which he played throughout his primary school years before starting to sing.
“It was beneficial in terms of all around musicianship and just being able to approach learning what I had to learn vocally a little bit easier. I play piano, bassoon among another instruments.”
Now as a singer Angelini is very analytical when he gets a new piece.
“It’s not about learning the notes but getting the music into the body and into a good muscular memory,” he emphasized. “That’s the most important and most time-consuming thing. Anybody can sing the notes on the page but the really question is whether you can sing them well and sing them in a way that you can do it over and over.”
But it wasn’t all smooth-sailing for the tenor.
“My struggles were always with memorization because as an instrumentalist I never had to memorize things,” he revealed. “So I didn’t grow up developing that skill, so I am slower in terms of memorization but faster in terms of learning notes on a page.”
The Metropolitan Opera
As a young singer Angelini has remained curious in discovering new repertoire from the standard to the obscurities. He has performed well-known operas such as “La Sonnambula” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” as well as rarities that include Haydn’s “L’isola disabitata” and Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra.”
With this repertoire he has conquered most of the American stages from Caramoor, Alice Tully Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. He has also sung with many renown companies including Florida Grand, Fort Worth, Gotham Chamber, Roma and Bologna among others.
Ironically the one theater that eluded him for many years was his hometown company, the Metropolitan Opera. Angelini has been part of the company’s roster for seven years and has been a cover in such popular operas as Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” and Rossini’s “Armida,” “La Donna del Lago,” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.”
However, in the years he had been with the company he never had the chance to make his Met debut.
“I had never done a stage rehearsal. I had come very close to doing some but it never worked out,” he explained.
His dream came true in October of 2016 when the Met asked him to sing the role Ruodi in Rossini’s “Guillame Tell.” It was Angelini’s first non-leading role at any company but critics still called it “luxury casting,” a comment Angelini reveled in.
The experience of debuting was exhilarating for Angelini but it was still a challenge. Even though the role is short he noted that Ruodi’s aria is quite difficult.
“It’s one of these pieces where it looks so easy and everyone thinks about the high C’s,” he noted. “For me, the high C’s are not the issue. Everything else is. And it looks like it should be easy but it really was one of the hardest things I have ever had to sing.”
But the challenge was worth it.
“It was a unique experience. I was walking into a place that has effectively become my home theater for the last seven years,” he stated. “So I knew the staff, the administration, so I felt comfortable. Whereas when you walk into a new theater and a new company you have to start the relationship from the bottom up.”
Now that he has fulfilled one of his dreams, Angelini will continue to explore the Rossini repertoire adding his 14th Rossini role, Argirio in “Tancredi,” for his Opera Philadelphia debut.
The opportunity will give him the chance to bring a rare opera to U.S audiences that has not been performed in America since the days of the legendary Marilyn Horne.
There will be an ample opportunity to make new friends and see old ones. Angelini will reunite with Emilio Sagi, a director he has worked with numerous times and who he holds in great esteem. He will work with Stephanie Blythe for the very first time and meet up with Brenda Rae, a colleague he shares numerous friends with. He will also get a chance to reunite with his long time friend Daniel Mobbs.
“Daniel is a very dear and longtime friend of mine. We’ve covered a number of things together at the Metropolitan Opera and it goes all the way back when I was just getting started.”
The role of Argirio will also give him the chance to discover new aspects of the composer who has given him so much in his career. It’s his first role playing a father and it’s also one of the earlier Rossini works in which the composer was still discovering his musical style. Angelini added that the biggest difference is in the recitatives.
“He famously didn’t write a lot of his own recits and he usually had a collaborator or a student or another composer working on it for him,” Angelini revealed. “But it is hard to say what’s his and what’s not. They are less refined than some of the other recits like ‘La Cenerentola’ and ‘La Donna del Lago.’
And in the vocal writing it presents some new challenges. Argirio has a usual entrance aria that is not very different from what Rossini normally presents. But what follows provides a unique experience.
“The next time I come out I have an extremely long set of declamatory recitatives. It’s challenging because it’s high in voice and it’s very ‘declamato.’ So it requires a little more energy than more conversational recitatives. Plus he is an older man and he is a senator. You can see that he is trying to impose these characteristics on the music that he is writing,” he noted.
“But I basically have a disembodied cabaletta and I have this extremely long drawn-out recitative that meanders and doesn’t really want to change key. I’m basically saying ‘Addio’ when I sing this whole cabaletta and it’s a really great and fun piece to sing. It’s just unique and there is nothing really proceeding it with a dual format.”
But the surprises don’t end there. When the character of Argirio realizes he has condemned his daughter to death, Rossini gives the character a third aria that lasts more than ten minutes.
“It’s the kind of music that’s perhaps unlike anything he would write for the tenor in his later years. It’s almost unrelenting particularly once the cabaletta begins there is very little time to rest to relax. It’s a very extended scene, which I don’t think is quite as common in a lot of his stuff.”
Angelini compares the aria to “Cessa di piu resistere” from ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia” which is ten minutes in length but lower in the voice.
“There are maybe two F sharps and everything is from G and up. So there are no low notes. The first two arias have low notes and then this one takes it much higher. So that is something that is a bit interesting.”
One thing however that comforts Angelini is that Rossini’s music always follows specific patterns and structures that keep it familiar.
Baroque Music and On
Once he finishes his run in Philadelphia, Angelini continues his string of debuts in the Teatro Real de Madrid where he will take on his first Baroque opera, Handel’s “Rodelinda.”
Angelini has experience in the baroque repertoire as he has performed the “Messiah” several times and the “Judas Maccabaeus,” works that have been a lot easier to approach. musically and vocally.
While the style of music is different from his usual repertoire, he is adamant about singing baroque with a full-bodied voice.
“I personally don’t agree that there should be a different way of producing the voice from one style to the next. Style is not necessarily defined in terms of how one produces the voice but how one uses the voice,” he stated. “More specifically how one phrases with articulation and the musical gestures.”
Now in Rodelinda, he gets to play Grimoaldo, a role that has a mad scene, the prospect of which excites the tenor.
“I don’t know if its because the character sort of goes mad a little bit. I mean it was like a Lucia mad scene. It’s probably the closest thing to a mad scene.”
The tenor notes that Handel wrote in some very unpredictable harmonies that make for challenging musical moments.
“There are some very odd harmonic juxtapositions and there are some strange vocal malismas in intervals that I have not come across in other Handel works. At least not with that level of frequency. In Grimaldo its every single piece that is unexpected.”
Whereas with Rossini he can predict what is coming and there is a formal structure that the composer presents, Handel is very diverse in his style. “He wrote with so much more variety that there are a lot of curve balls thrown our way.”
The future and beyond
With so much happening in his life nowadays, it’s hard to predict where Angelini will be next. For now he has a major debut coming at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich where he will be singing a Rossini role he is very excited about.
And he is also scheduled for Hawaii and France in the coming season. While is already scheduled for coming season, that won’t stop Angelini from discovering more and dreaming about bringing new roles to life, particularly in the Rossini repertoire.
“My number one that I want to do now is Idreno in ‘Semiramide’ because I don’t have to all that much dramatically but just sing really hard music.”
He also wants to do Rossini’s “Elisabetta,” Arnold in “Guillame Tell” as well as Donizetti’s ‘Marino Faliero” and Bellini’s “I Puritani.” But Angelini also wants to discover the possibilities of his voice in the Mozart repertoire. One of his biggest dreams is Idamante, which today is sung by a mezzo.
“There is an interesting tradition to always do it with a mezzo and we thankfully have young Pavarotti doing that role and it’s exquisite. But in Mozart’s own day it was sung by a low voice castrato. I’m not sure when the tradition of the mezzo began but it was intended for a male.”
The possibilities are enormous and Angelini is taking it one step at a time analyzing his career. As he becomes increasingly in demand he makes sure to keep his confidants close and re-analyze what he is doing.
“There is so much in this world that we have no control of. And I think as I’ve gotten older and more seasoned and proficient I try to minimize things that I can’t control and not let those things derail me.”