Bel Canto in Troubled Times: A Conversation with lyric tenor Michele Angelini, Part One

My conversation with Michele Angelini began at the Glimmerglass Festival where he was performing the lead tenor role in Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” and resumed during the global Covid-19 pandemic that has so disrupted the performance of opera. 

[Below: tenor Michele Angelini; edited image of a Rebecca Fay photograph.

Wm: Michele, the Glimmerglass performance of “Gazza Ladra” was my second opportunity to see and hear you perform. The first time was a performance of Italian soprano Renata Scotto’s production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Florida Grand Opera [“Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013 ]. You sang the role of Elvino with Rachele Gilmore, your co-star in “Gazza Ladra” performing the role of Amina. 

In my review, I characterized it as a “stunning performances that not only showed mastery of the Bellinian vocal style, but stratospheric upper ranges for both artists. Angelini astonished the audience with a high E flat, and Gilmore with a F above high C.” 

MA: I remember that review and thinking “Wow! Someone actually understood that I was singing E-flats and not just generalizing everything as a High C”. Chapeau, to you.

Wm: I was present at five memorable Scotto performances at the San Francisco Opera between 1974 and 1985, in each opera paired with tenors whom I also admired. Scotto sang Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” to Jose Carreras’ Pinkerton, Leonora in Verdi’s “Trovatore” to Juan Lloveras’ Manrico; the title role of Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” to Giacomo Aragall’s Maurizio, the title role of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” to Luciano Pavarotti’s Enzo and Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther”, in which Alfredo Kraus sang the title role.

What was it like being directed by Signora Scotto, and participating in her realization of Bellini’s beautiful “Sonnambula”?

[Below: the actress Adriana Lecouvreur (Renata Scotto, right) and Maurizio (Giacomo Aragall, left) pursue a passionate love affair; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

MA: Debuting the role of Elvino with Renata Scotto as director was a dream come true. It helped that we already had a longstanding rapport, having studied with her for several years and participating in two of her Academies (Westchester and Rome).  She was extremely supportive of me and knew how to help me find the right balance vocally and dramatically with the role.

I remember in one rehearsal as we were staging the recitativo before the duet, when Elvino’s jealousy comes to the fore. I really went for it, perhaps thinking I would impress her with my acting, and Renata comes sauntering up to me with a handkerchief and says, “Eccolo! Il fazzoletto!” I thought maybe I had forgotten a prop for the scene, but she laughed and said, “I thought maybe we were doing ‘Otello’ today!”  

We had a wonderful chemistry and our ideals for the character were aligned. We both wanted Elvino to be authentic and sincere, but to never take anything away from the music and text.  Truly, it was a treasure to work professionally with her. Notwithstanding my erstwhile role as her student, she treated me as a professional.  To have that kind of opportunity, especially for “Sonnambula”, which was one of her legendary successes, was a rare and precious gift.  

The production was not without its drama, however, as the entire cast came to odds with the conductor.  There was an unfortunate moment during the first orchestra rehearsal where, after so many weeks of doing everything possible to remain calm and dutiful, we came head-to-head and I nearly walked out of the production entirely.  

It was amazing because Renata, ever the teacher, was present and helped me navigate that situation.  I was so crushed in that moment, really having done everything just to be professional and to do my job and sing well. From the stage I could see her sitting in the audience coaching me through gestures to keep my head up, to breathe, and to hold my ground. It was a very different sort of lesson that day!  When I went over to her, she looked at me wistfully and said, “Well, I’ve certainly had my moments with conductors. These things happen! But you can’t leave! There is no one else who can sing Elvino like you! No, no, we must resolve this.”  She was brilliant!

[Below: Rachele Gilmore (left) is Amina amd Michele Angelini (right) is Elvino in the Florida Grand Opera production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Florida Grand Opera.]

Wm: What were your early experiences in vocal and dramatic performance? What was your academic preparation for a performing arts career?

MA: I always sang. When I began buying my first opera scores, I would pretend to conduct them along with the recordings, or, I’d either pull out my bassoon or flute and play along or sing along with any or all of the vocal roles. I didn’t know the languages at that time, but I think the early imitation helped develop my ear for diction. I had a high soprano extension at the time and loved to sing along with Violetta, Aida, Brünnhilde, Butterfly, Queen of the Night – you name it! Oddly enough, I knew I was a tenor, but I wanted to sing Figaro and Papageno and those were the first arias I ever learned. Eventually that somehow translated into singing for people at school. I wanted to sing everything that Luciano Pavarotti sang. I think the very first aria I ever publicly performed was La donna è mobile from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in High School.

I experienced a lot of bullying in school and exclusion from my peers.  I went from being a lively, extroverted, confident child to one that was endlessly picked on and teased, and, like so many sensitive kids, became extremely introverted and socially awkward. Funny enough, the two areas where the other kids never seemed to bother me were Art and Music. I seemed to be able to command a certain amount of respect from them when I was doing something artistic. I think they realized they couldn’t touch me in those, so they left me alone and I was able to shine undimmed.  I didn’t suffer from stage fright and I loved the opportunities to show off.  I guess as I was given more solos in chorus and would sing more arias on school recitals, I gained a certain confidence that I lacked in my daily interactions. The natural extrovert wanted to come back out and play.

The desire to act on stage came later as I only participated in two musicals in High School. In college, at The Ohio State University, I wanted more opportunities than were available to perform in opera. My teacher, Dr. Robin Rice, had me sing for Mark Rucker, the incredible Verdi baritone, who was performing with the Columbus Symphony and auditioning young singers for a summer program at the time run by Nancy Stokes Milnes called “American Singers Opera Project [ASOP]” which just happened to be back home in New York City.  They were doing Verdi’s “Falstaff” and I had already been singing Fenton’s aria, so I auditioned without any expectations.  

[Below: baritone Mark Rucker in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from Grand Rapids Opera.]

Mark called me up after consulting with his team and they decided to entrust me with the role; I was 19 and the youngest person there that summer! It was my first real experience on stage and I loved every moment of it. I returned to ASOP the following summer to sing Rinuccio in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.

At Ohio State, I did one production as Heinrich in Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”, an “opera scenes” event where I sang Rodolfo in Act 3 of Puccini’s “La bohême” (if you can believe it!), and concert performances as Nadir in Bizet’s “Les Pêcheurs des Perles”. 

Wm: Were these experiences singing opera at Ohio State during the academic year and with ASOP during the summer breaks determinative in you deciding to pursue an operatic career?

MA: No. There was never a clear moment when I knew I wanted to pursue singing on a professional level. I had won a few local competitions, I loved singing and finding any chance to perform, but I was also very devoted to playing the bassoon and had been playing semi-professionally already since I was 14.  Going to ASOP was a big decision, although an easy one since it meant going back home for the summer and getting to participate in the program with some of my close friends. Otherwise, I would have auditioned as a bassoonist for something like Aspen or Music Academy of the West. I was merely dipping a toe in the water without any expectations.  

I faced a lot of adversity at the University from most of the professors and administrators who wanted me to choose between bassoon and voice.  There was an immense amount of general discouragement and possessiveness that I had to fend off, and I was always made to feel like a pariah. Offense was taken whenever, for example, merely by virtue of needing to meet degree requirements, I had to sing in the advanced Chorale. It meant, due to scheduling overlaps, I couldn’t continue playing in the Wind Symphony, even though I was still able to play in the Orchestra. I had to deal with a lot of unintentionally bruised egos and several of those relationships, disappointingly, never repaired.  The University itself was not equipped to design a program for a double performance major. If my sources are correct, I am still the only person to have simultaneously completed two performance degrees there successfully. 

[Below: Don Ramiro (Michele Angelini, right), a prince disguised as his valet, courts the unsuspecting Cinderella (Ginger Costa-Jackson, left) in the 2019 Seattle Opera production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”; edited image of a production photograph for the Seattle Opera.]

After graduation from Ohio State, thanks again to Mark Rucker, I participated in Martina Arroyo’s inaugural “Prelude to Performance” program. There was a sense of relief in a place like ASOP or Prelude to Performance [PtoP] where my being an instrumentalist wasn’t regarded as a hindrance, but also, I wasn’t having to appease everyone around me. I could just concentrate on one thing – opera!  I already had a wealth of experience playing in orchestras and chamber ensembles, arguably far more than most people at that age, and what I lacked was a better understanding of how opera worked.  

Programs like ASOP and PtoP were amazing in what they afforded young artists beyond just a performing experience, but a chance to dive into stagecraft, diction, how to research and actually learn a role, to develop a character, participate in and watch masterclasses, and create wonderful social opportunities with other dedicated young people.  The net began to widen, and I was encouraged to use my experience and knowledge as an instrumentalist to further enrich my experience as a singer.  

I remember I did one year of Juilliard Pre-College as a bassoonist.  It was an intense program that had a lot of ups and downs for me, but the individual I was taking bassoon lessons with one day actually berated me for “wasting my time” singing in school or for fun.  The way he saw it, any time not devoted to practicing the bassoon or making reeds was wasted.  I loathed lessons with him and was often reduced to tears.  How wonderful then, to have begun studies at OSU with Christopher Weait who understood the value of vocal training for an instrumentalist!  Now it was time to flip it and allow the instrumental training assist the vocal.

It was in Arroyo’s “Prelude to Performance” that I sang Almaviva in my very first Rossini:”Il barbiere di Siviglia“. I look back on all of those opportunities with great fondness and gratitude.

Wm: There have been many tenors whose only Rossini role was Almaviva, and few of these have performed the vocal fireworks of Almaviva’s traditionally cut final aria Cessa di piu resistere. Your voice has the vocal flexibility to master roles in the bel cantooperatic repertory, particularly the elaborate ornamentation associated with Rossini’s works. Your repertory includes Rossini roles that had almost disappeared for a century because so few singers were trained to perform them. What are your thoughts about the renewed interest in authentic performances of Rossini operas, and your contributions to the Rossini revival?

[Below: the Count Almaviva (Michele Angelini, right), disguissed as the student Lindoro, is besieged for money by the musicians who accompanied his song, in a Royal Opera House, Covent Garden performance of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Sevilla”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Michele Angelini.]

MA: To answer that, I think I have to make mention of another important mentor I had in my life who wielded an enormous influence on me despite her very untimely and unexpected death just barely a year after we first met.  While at The Ohio State University, an incredible musical polymath named Bliss Johnston Virago came to give masterclasses.  Until then, my relationship with Rossini’s music was primarily the overtures and a few recordings of “Barbiere” and “La Cenerentola”.  I sang along with them, surely, but I had my hopes and designs set on singing Puccini, Verdi, and Wagner!

Bliss was invited to give some masterclasses and coachings and I first met her in our Italian Diction class.  I was one of the students asked to sing for her and I chose “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.”  Because, as I hinted at before, I was straddling these two worlds of instrumentalist and vocalist, I kept feeling like I had to prove myself in whatever way possible.  At the end of the aria, singing the traditional cadenza, I ended on a sustained High Bb.  Bliss, who was at the piano, stopped and chided me. I was so embarrassed!  She lectured the class about certain stylistic conventions and expectations and how what I had done was purely gratuitous and without any stylistic or dramatic merit. 

After sufficiently bringing me down several notches, she waxed eloquent on her studies when she would play for Alberta Masiello’s sessions, the various artists she worked with at The MET and San Fransisco Opera, as assistant to Maestrps Max Rudolf and Richard Bonynge. I knew immediately I wanted to learn from her.  I nervously signed up for a coaching, walking in she looked at me and said rather severely: “Ah, yes, I remember you. What will you sing?” I offered “Un aura amorosa” from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Leoncavallo’s song Mattinata, and Fenton’s aria from “Falstaff”.  My life changed that afternoon, not only because we would become very close very quickly, but it was where she opened the door of Bel Canto and took me through it.

Virago was the first person to educate me about Bel Canto, explaining that it was much more than just simply a compositional style, but rather a philosophy, and not just singing fast notes, as everyone seems to think of it today, but about singing legato!  She instructed me to go to the library and find the Canzoni da camera of Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.  I looked at all the little notes on the page and told her I wasn’t advanced enough yet to sing that kind of music.  I thought of singing instrumentally: one learns long notes first and then shorter notes.  She explained that in singing it should be the opposite, that one needs to learn how to move through the breath in order to learn to sustain.  One learns to sing proper legato on longer note values through the managing of the breath with shorter note values—and this should apply to all voices!  

Under her guidance I explored and studied this music and began to understand vocal style.  We discovered quite quickly that I had a natural ability to sing passagework – probably due to my instrumental background as well as imitating all that high coloratura soprano repertoire.  She was the one who prepared me for the audition for the role of Fenton, and she died unexpectedly just a week later.  Of course, my subsequent interactions and studies with Maestro Alberto Zedda continued to open up the world of Rossini’s vocal music for me.  We really have him to thank for the so-called “Rossini Renaissance”.

Wm: Continuing our discussion of Rossini roles, I was present at the Glimmerglass Festival in which you performed the role of Giannetto in Rossini’s “thieving Magpie [La gazza ladra] (again opposite Rachele Gilmore). See Review: Gilmore, Angelini, Ngqungwana Take Flight in Rossini’s “Thieving Magpie” – Glimmerglass Festival, August 7, 2016. What are your thoughts on “festival experiences” such as Glimmerglass and that production?

[Below: Giannetto (Michele Angelini, second from left), having obtained the approval of Fabrizio Vinagradito (Calvin Griffin, left) to marry his daughter finds his Fabrizio’s wife Lucia (Leah Hawkins, right) to be a tougher sell; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

MA:  Each festival is so different and so unique, I can’t think of a way to generalize, but I’m sure, like all things, one’s experience will depend so much on where it is taking place, the weather and climate, the social opportunities, and the work itself. Glimmerglass is an idyllic place and a fantastic theater to work in, but it wasn’t without its challenges that take some time to adapt to.  I was staying in a beautiful house quite far from everything, so that certainly made socializing and even just getting to rehearsals difficult for me.  

Additionally, a festival like Glimmerglass relies so much on its body of Young Artists (one could make the argument that its primary focus is in helping young singers develop and gain experience, which is wonderful) that those of us who were guest artists sometimes felt left out.  I don’t think this was ever the intention, just merely a matter of fact: some of the YAPs were involved in all four productions; I was involved in one.  The area is absolutely gorgeous but it meant I had a lot of alone time and for someone like me who is extremely social, it was hard feeling so isolated for much of the time.  

The production itself was fun even if getting to rehearsals wasn’t – haha!  I loved singing again with Rachele Gilmore, loved working with director Peter Kazaras—he really *got* me from the first day.  He understood that, although it’s a comedy, Giannetto and Ninetta are the two serious, tragic characters, and likewise allowed for us to occupy that space in the context of the production. The costume was amazing. I absolutely loved it despite it being very hot. I felt gorgeous!  I knew Maestro Joseph Colaneri from working with him at The MET and it was an absolute joy to finally collaborate and sing under his assured baton.  I loved making music with him, and he’s so full of knowledge and stories. I could listen to him for hours!  It was a great group of very talented and hard-working people putting on one of the more challenging Rossini operas to stage, and I think we did it in spades.

[Below: Michele Angelini in a performance as Orphée in the Château de Versailles Opéra Royal’s production of Gluck’s “Orphée  et Eurydice”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Michele Angelini]

What are currently your favorite roles, and what would you like to sing in the future?a

MA: My favorite roles, to be sure, are Don Ramiro in Rossini’s “Cenerentola, Don Narciso in Rossini’s “Turco in Italia”, Idreno in Rossini’s “Semiramide”, Libenskof in Rossini’s “Il viaggio a Reims”, Tonio in Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment”, Percy in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff”.l

Some of the roles I would love to do are Norfolk in Rossini’s “Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra”, Peter Quint in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”, Belmonte in Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail”, Idamante in Moart’s “Idomeneo”, Arturo in Bellini’s “I Puritani”, Il Duca in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,  the Governor in Bernstein’s “Candide”, Georges in Boieldieu’s “La Dame Blanche”, and Chapelou in Adam’s “Le Postillon du Lonjumeau” – to name just a few! I actually have a really long list!

Wm: The last year, with the world impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic has been a very rough time for operatic artists. I know your schedule, as those of most artists, has been impacted by performance cancellations. How have you spent your “down time” and how have you adjusted to the pandemic’s impact?

MA: The pandemic certainly had major ramifications for anyone working in performance-based and collaborative industries. I had just arrived in Cologne, Germany to do a semi-staged “Il viaggio a Reims” which was, of course, canceled.  

I did my best to not be discouraged or undone by what was happening – it was out of my control. No one wants to lose work, but one also has to have a presence of mind to not internalize whatever is happening outside. I spent the time baking cookies but also doing a lot of running and exercising. I continued to study my then – upcoming roles in hopes of their being rescheduled, I started to learn some new repertoire and recital pieces. I was extremely fortunate that the apartment I had rented just happened to have an excellent Steinway piano in it, so I was able to continue playing and singing even if it was just for myself (and, I guess, the neighbors!).  

I was also very lucky in that I was able to go to Vilnius, Lithuania in August to sing the production of “Anna Bolena”, which had been rescheduled from April-May to August 2020.  Maestro Sesto Quatrini, with whom I had sung “La gazza ladra” in 2019 in Lisbon, Portugal, offered me the role during that engagement and was determined to save the production however possible. We ended up having a breakout of Covid in the theater, where, unluckily, I (and several of my colleagues) became sick but, fortunately, had very mild cases, and the theater was able to reopen and still put on the production in October.  The worst part was being stuck in isolation for nearly six weeks because in Lithuania they don’t allow you to end the isolation until you produce two negative tests within 48 hours, which, theoretically, could take months.  The production ended up being a huge success and was, for me, an extremely important role debut.  Thanks to Maestro Quatrini, we pulled off a miracle, producing a fully-staged production of a complete integrale “Anna Bolena” in the middle of a pandemic!  

One week after the last performance, I was contacted by the Donizetti Festival to replace Javier Camarena in “Marino Faliero”, but it meant I had to learn the role of Fernando, which is one of the most notoriously difficult to sing, on the spot during the rehearsals.  This was, I think, the most insane and stressful thing I’ve ever agreed to do. Ultimately and unfortunately, I was indisposed at the time of the performance but I needed to do what was possible to save the production.  Fernando was always a dream role of mine, and I accepted in part because I thought, “when will I ever have another chance to sing this?”, but I wish he had come to me under better circumstances.  I did what I could given an extremely challenging situation made all the more difficult by the pandemic, but I was very lucky to have Maestro Riccardo Frizza supporting me.  I do hope I’ll have another chance to sing “Faliero” under less crazy circumstances.  

Now I’m working at the Glyndebourne Festival for “Il turco in Italia”, and things are going well.  The festival has taken every precaution and we move forward. This is what we have to do – not alter our values and our commitment to the art form, but do what is necessary to preserve it and keep it relevant.  I feel honored to be part of that and to be doing what I love to do, collaborating with wonderful colleagues and a fantastic director to create what I think will be a truly spectacular production.