Opera, Drama and the Character Tenor: An Interview with David Cangelosi

As a reviewer of substantial numbers of operatic performances, one comes to appreciate that a truly successful performance requires much more than good singing by the singers in the lead roles. Often, a good performance becomes a great one when the opera’s storyline is enhanced by the strong dramatic presence of singing actors in “supporting” roles.

One such singing actor is David Cangelosi, whose appearances as the scheming Valzacchi in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” (2006) and the treacherous Mime in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” (2008) at San Francisco Opera and the dangerous Guillot in Massenet’s “Manon” (2008) at Lyric Opera of Chicago greatly impressed me.

I interviewed him in his spacious high floor Chicago apartment just a couple of blocks from the Lyric Opera. When I signed in at the apartment building’s offices, I noticed that the previous night his apartment was visited by Natalie Dessay, Jonas Kaufmann and other colleagues for a gathering for the cast of Lyric’s production of “Manon” (following a matinee I myself had attended).

Wm: David, you have made quite a name for yourself in the “character tenor” parts in opera. How did you become attracted to this group of roles?

DC: I never found the “lover boy” tenor roles to be interesting – to me they seem lovesick, stupid or two-dimensional. One day, I decided to listen to Georg Solti’s recording of Wagner’s “Siegfried”. That is when I discovered Gerhard Stolze’s Mime. From that moment, it was Cangelosi, the Italian kid, who wanted to do the Wagner character tenor roles.

Wm: Before we follow up on Mime and your other roles, why don’t you brief us on your biography?

DC:  I grew up in  a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I had a standard public school education in the Parma City School District, although that district was one that had extraordinarily high standards.  I later came to realize that what I had experienced in Parma was the equivalent of a private school education. Among its strengths were vocational programs that ranged from culinary skills to mechanics to woodworking, to the performance arts – theater, drama and music.

There I had several very good music teachers, and at age 16 I sang in the Cleveland Opera Theater chorus in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” (in which Dennis Petersen, with whom I have subsequently performed, was playing Count Almaviva.)

One of my high school teachers, Louis di Rienzo, had a magnificent voice. He had been a voice student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, which had a well-respected music conservatory. It was was through di Rienzo that I first came to appreciate the true power of the unamplified human voice.

He gave me my first vocal lessons, and encouraged me to apply to Baldwin-Wallace. I auditioned there and received a full scholarship to pursue my undergraduate studies. Baldwin-Wallace had outstanding instructors in every department and provided an excellent liberal arts education.

After graduation, I spent a summer of repertory musical theater at the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick. After that, I spent ten years as a night club entertainer, playing up to 325 nights a year, in Atlantic City, the Catskills and Poconos and Miami, or playing pops concerts in which “high end” singers would use their classical operatic voices. Through playing the “big rooms” I learned everything there was to know about the commercial end of show business. It taught me poise, how to read an audience, how to tell a joke to entertain an audience, how to give a different “character” to every song.

But, eventually, I found these kinds of performances no longer challenging me. With no mountain to climb, I found myself resenting this type of career, so I decided to go back to vocal studies.  I found a teacher at Boston University to assist me to retrain my voice and get all of the bad habits out.

In the early 1990s I found myself at the Aspen Music Festival, where I sang Fiorello in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, and sang also Goro in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis. I sang the high baritone repertoire and had a secure bottom range, but I made a conscious attempt to work on a transition from lyric baritone roles to tenor roles.

In 1995, I auditioned for Andrew Foldi’s Lyric Opera Center for American Artists in Chicago. For my audition piece, I chose one of Parsifal’s arias from Wagner’s “Parsifal”. Foldi said, no one has ever auditioned with that piece, but you have demonstrated you are not a baritone. The Opera Center experience, and mentorship by Ardis Krainik, Bruno Bartoletti and William Mason was extraordinary.

Wm: For what roles did the Opera Center prepare you?

DC: I was at the Center for only a month or two when they offered me a contract to sing Goro in a revival of Lyric Opera’s Harold Prince production of “Madama Butterfly”. This was to be my Lyric Opera debut. (My actual debut was as Monostatos in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” for one performance. I was covering Jerold Siena, who was ill.)

[Below: David Cangelosi as Goro in Lyric Opera’s production by Harold Prince; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph.]

Wm: Goro is a role you have sung in some notable productions.

DC: Yes, I did Anthony Minghella’s Metropolitan Opera production of “Butterfly”. He made it clear he did not wish to see Goro as an unctious, fawning caricature, but as a strong “leading man” kind of performance, poised, and with obvious stature in the community.

Wm: Mime, which others have noted is the second longest part in Wagner’s “Siegfried”, has become your signature role, has it not?

DC: Yes, the towering Wagnerian roles allow you to sing, as well as to explore the nuances of each character. They are an embarrassment of riches. The Siegfried Mime, with its many interjections, is one of the most difficult roles. I find that the interjections are harder to sing than expansive melodies.

[Below: David Cangelosi as Mime and James Morris as the Wanderer in Lyric Opera’s revival of the late August Everding’s production of “Siegfried”; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph.]

Wm: What other character roles do you regard as difficult?

DC: The role of Herod in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” is an extremely difficult piece to learn. Sometimes a high end tenor will take it on late in his career. I covered Ragnar Ulfung’s Herod at the Santa Fe Opera, where I was engaged to sing the First Jew. Once I had to sing Herod. It was terrifying.

I think that there are some 20th century works that seem to be made purposely difficult, such as Berg’s “Lulu”. Even knowing how difficult and challenging they are, there are some great roles in Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” and Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen” and I would enjoy seeing them revived.

Wm: In other interviews, you have made the point that you like to move between these difficult works and more lyrical roles.

DC: One of my mentors, the late Richard Pearlman  who was for several years director of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, gave me three words of advice: “always sing beautifully”. There are character tenor roles that absolutely require beautiful singing, a favorite being Prunier in Puccini’s “La Rondine”. Others include Cassio in Verdi’s “Otello”, Don Basilio in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, Normanno in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Monostatos in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. For me, they are not difficult roles, but mixing them with the more difficult stuff is good for my voice.

[David Cangelosi as Normanno in John Copley’s production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Lyric; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph.]

Wm: What was it like playing the adolescent Little Bat in Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah”?

DC: The most extraordinary thing about my doing that role at the Lyric Opera was that it was in repertory with Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” in which I was playing Beppe, while simultaneously I was rehearsing the role of Toby in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”.  Beppe in Zeffirelli’s production was supposed to be a 90 year old man, Little Bat a youngster, and Toby an age somewhere between the other two roles.

Wm: How did you project the differences in each character’s age?

DC:  Actually, it turned out to be relatively simple with some dedicated acting choices and vocal inflections, hopefully to enhance the believability of each character.  But no matter how old the character of Beppe is supposed to be, his Serenade must be sung beautifully and I sang it as beautifully as I possibly could.

[Below: David Cangelosi as Little Bat, in Floyd’s “Susannah”; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph.]

Wm: A dramatic character actor with a beautiful voice must attract the attention of the great opera directors. I would be interested in your impressions of some of the directors with whom you have worked.

DC: I really believe that when you have the right voices, the right cast, the right director, the right “feel”, opera can be a magical experience. I have been fortunate to have been associated with more magic than alchemy.

Wm: Currently, you are performing Guillot in David McVicar’s production of “Manon”. What is it like to work with McVicar?

DC: With McVicar, not only every principal but every member of the chorus must be a distinct character. McVicar is very oriented to detail. He wanted me to know that Guillot had gout, so  I tried to develop a stage movement to suggest that the character was so afflicted. I asked if what I was doing was too much. McVicar said: “I will tell you when you do too much.” I also did Squeak in Britten’s “Billy Budd” with him. It was a memorable experience.

Wm: You worked with Robert Wilson in his Paris production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. What was he like?.

DC: Well, eventually, I was quite impressed by the experience. Bob Wilson really works with the singers. His real strength is his use of light and color in a setting without any movement.

[Below: David Cangelosi is Monostatos in “The Magic Flute” in Robert Wilson’s production for Opera National de Paris; edited image of a photograph provided by David Cangelosi.]

Wm: And Franco Zeffirelli?

DC: For him, I performed my first Beppe to Placido Domingo’s Canio, in a PBS telecast with Leonard Slatkin conducting. It was a memorable experience. In five minutes, Zeffirelli explained to all of us why and how verismo opera was created and why Leoncavallo was among its greatest proponents. Later, we had another lecture about the significance of the opera’s Prologue. I learned more about “Pagliacci” from him than from anyone. He was an extremely visual director. It was as if he were painting the staging.

Wm: Your Normanno was in John Copley’s production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Lyric.

DC: And I was also Dancaire in his production of Bizet’s “Carmen”. Copley was a very pleasant man, who told stories about how others did the role, how to cue in on the good experiences of others. He is a foresquare, solid, traditional director.

Wm: What conductors have you worked with that especially impress you?

DC: When I made my Met debut as “Mime” in Wagner’s “Rheingold” with James Levine conducting, it was unforgettable. Before the performance we had eight or nine minutes of conversation about the opera, about the Island of St Barts, and about Ohio.  (Levine had worked with Conductor George Szell in Cleveland, so both of us have ties to the Cleveland area).

Levine is a man of almost unimaginable musical intellect. He talks to the opera orchestra as if he and the orchestra were playing a single character in the opera. He would say: “We are not playing our character correctly”. He talks on such a high plane, yet it demystifies the music. It was an unbelievable experience. I worked with Levine on Puccini’s “Trittico” as well.

Also at the Met I worked with Mark Wigglesworth, who conducted Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”, whom I regard as a most elegant conductor, of major stature; and Marco Armiliato for Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”, who never uses an orchestral score.

[Below: David Cangelosi in his dressing room at the Metropolitan Opera in costume as the Incredibile in “Andrea Chenier”, conducted by Marco Armiliato; edited image, based on photograph, courtesy of David Cangelosi.]

Yet, even though I have worked with Levine, I believe that Donald Runnicles is all around simply the greatest Wagnerian conductor of our day. He has a perfect sense of the Wagnerian style.

At Lyric it is wonderful working with Emmanuel Villaume, who is great with the French repertoire, and Sir Andrew Davis. But the conductor I miss the most is Bruno Bartoletti. The way he conducted the Italian repertoire made you and every other singer sing better. He also knew just what to do to get you out of trouble. (He could be very difficult.)

Wm: So far, you haven’t worked with Placido Domingo as a conductor, but you have performed with him to create a DVD of the Siegfried forging scene, in which you play Mime to his Siegfried.

DC: When you work with Placido, and you see how his work rises to the levels that it does, you understand his great appeal to audiences. He, of course, is also mentor to so many people. He is an incredible man.

Wm: What other colleagues impress you?

DC: That would be a long list, but at the top of that list would be Catherine Malfitano, whose work ethic is so great. She throws herself into every role. I was amazed by her performance as Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal” in San Francisco. She said that sometimes you just have to go the extra mile.

I also am impressed with two Metropolitan Opera character tenors who sing many of the same roles I do. Jerold Siena takes a very intellectual approach to performance and Anthony Laciura is a man with deep knowledge of all roles, not just his. And, of course, the recorded voice of Gerhard Stolze, remains a key influence on my career.

Wm: I understand that you will be giving back your experience to potential artists in Alabama.

DC: Yes, I will be sharing the techniques I have learned from great conductors, singers and producers through master classes at the Vann Vocal Institute in Montgomery. I am currently engaged in planning a celebrity recital series to augment the teaching there. Recitals, of course, are very challenging and demanding, but they also can be very rewarding.

Wm:  David, thank you for your time.

DC: Thank you, as well.