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

Wm: Since the first part of this conversation was posted [Bel Canto in Troubled Times: A Conversation with lyric tenor Michele Angelini, Part One], you have appeared at the Glyndebourne Festival in Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia” directed by Mariame Clément, whose work I have admired [ Review: Mariame Clément Mounts Wagner’s “Liebesverbot”: Opéra du Rhin, Strasbourg, May 17, 2016]. What was the Glyndebourne experience like during this time in the ongoing pandemic?

MA: Glyndebourne was a dream come true and the Festival (which is still continuing) was brilliant to decide on presenting the productions two at a time (“Turco” alternating with Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova”) In fact, they were so successful at keeping us in our respective production ‘bubbles’ that at no point did any of us ever encounter the “Kat’a Kabanova” cast or espy them from a distance!  On occasion we greeted the production team as they were waiting for transport back into Lewes, but other than that we just never saw them! 

This is a testament to how well-run the festival is and how serious they have taken the various restrictions put into place to ensure the success of the festival.  It showed great thought and ability to problem solve.  Of course, it would have been wonderful to have the full Glyndebourne Experience. The catering was minimal; we weren’t allowed to mingle with the public during the intervals, nor have guests to the dressing rooms; but despite it being a reduced experience it still had quite a lot of magic both between ourselves in the production and the very generous audiences we had the pleasure to perform for!

[Below: Don Narciso (Michele Angelini) and Donna Fiorilla (Elena Tsallagova) in Marianne Clement’s 2021 Glyndebourne Festival production of Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia”; edited image, based on a Bill Cooper photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]

Wm: Obviously, you are associated with many Rossini roles, during an era in which Rossini’s works have received new critical editions reflecting musical scholarship over the past two decades. What are your thoughts on what has been described as a “Rossini Renaissance”?

MA: My own thoughts are simply that I’m thrilled that opera companies are so willing to produce these works and other rare works by Rossini’s contemporaries.  I have been lucky enough to be a part of them and hope to continue to have opportunities to bring more of this music to a wider audience.  As for the Renaissance itself, it’s rather difficult to generalize because there were some important revivals of some of these works even in the 1950s and 60s, before Maestro Alberto Zedda created the first ‘critical edition’ going back to manuscripts and primary sources.  That kind of musicological work has been incredibly important and revelatory for understanding the notational and stylistic language of many of these composers.

[Below: Conductor and Rossini scholar Maestro Zedda; edited image of a publicity photograph.]

Wm: I recall my interview of the mid-20th century Italian lyric coloratura soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer. Encouraged by her mother, a professional musician, Meneguzzer had been “classically trained” in vocal technique derived from the 19th century singer Mathilde Marchesi, the teacher of many famous operatic divas prominent the early 20th century. [An Interview with Lyric-Leggiero Soprano Jolanda Meneguzzer]. 

So much of operatic tradition fell into disarray because of the war’s impact on Italy, France, Germany and Austria – traditional centers of operatic performance. Then, during the first postwar decade, when many continental opera houses were still closed, transoceanic jet travel and the “long play record” – allowing the proliferation of complete opera recordings – had transformative effects on the opera world. 

MA: Without getting too deep into this rather fascinating topic, suffice to say that following the war there was a big shift in the way singing was taught and how certain established singers of that era began to treat and use their voices.  

The advances in recording technology also played an enormous role in changing the values of both how people sought to produce their voices as well as the results demanded.  I don’t know if this has always been to the benefit either of the singers or the music. I find that when one listens to Rossini sung in pre-Critical Edition eras (before c. 1965), one still hears a very consistent vocal production and way of using sound that, even if perhaps divergent stylistically from decade to decade, speaks to a truth presently lost in the way singing is approached, despite certain traditional performance practices and mannerisms then employed which are discouraged today.  

[Below: Michele Angelini (center, in bathtub) is Ernesto in Manitoba Opera’s 2013 David Gately production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”; edited image of a Robert Tinker photograph for the Manitoba Opera.]

One cannot say that performances of early 20th century vocalists singing these operas were ‘incorrect’ – it was just a way of singing and interpreting the music that is different from ours, chronologically closer to those composers, and uninfluenced by recordings.  I think they should be immensely helpful as we consider our modern approach to engage with this music.  

You can hear that tenors of that epoch in this repertoire aren’t trying to overly lighten their voices and direct them like laser-beams as has become the common approach for several decades.  For all of what would be considered today excessively sentimental and emotive in the legato singing, they lacked nothing in the speed and accuracy of coloratura, never sacrificing the richness of tone and core of sound.  

Ultimately, we are the ones who have many more filters to pass through to try and get to whatever Rossini himself might have expected, but we also have to contend with this breaking point somewhere in the 1950s in the way voices were trained that diverted away from the long traditions of the Bel Canto school – which was so much more than just singing coloratura!  It was entirely based on the precept of singing legato, of having clear and controlled emission of the voice, everything on the breath, chiaroscuro, interpretative imagination and power, clarity of language without cheating themselves of beauty of tone, and building a homogenous instrument capable of confronting any and all demands made upon it by the composer.  

It’s also important to consider that repertoire wasn’t quite so categorized and limited as it is today.  Singing was singing.  Maria Callas was most glorious in her renderings of Lucia, Amina, and Violetta, but transferred those skills to other roles.  Giulietta Simionato and Christa Ludwig were equally capable singing Amneris as they were Cenerentola.  George Thill sang Romantic and Wagnerian parts with the same sense of elasticity and spin as if he were singing Bellini and Donizetti.  

Those singers were still connected to the original Bel Canto techniques and traditions, despite having large, dramatic instruments.  It seems as though recent generations are finding they have to reverse-engineer, as one way to put it, to tap back into that philosophy.  We just aren’t taught and developed in the same way any longer and what is expected of us is almost entirely different.  Those earlier generations weren’t singing for microphones.  Elisabeth Schumann and Lotte Lehmann singing Lieder is very different from what, just a few decades later, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau decided to do.  I happily admit that I prefer to emulate the former.

[Below: Michele Angelini as Count Almaviva in the Royal Opera House’s 2014 production of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia:; edIted image, based on a Tristram Kenton photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]

For me personally, it has always been about finding a balance between the available philological and musicological information with a complete technical preparation of my instrument paired with the sincerity and honesty of my vocal production.  I guess you could say that I try to sing like they sang in the 1940s and 1950s, with an elastic, more lyrical sound, while still being able to accurately perform whatever acrobatics a composer throws my way, and honor the musical and dramatic expectations of our era.  This way of thinking about singing came to me from all my mentors: Dr. Robin Rice (my first voice teacher at Ohio State University), Bliss Johnston Virago, Charlie Riecker, Ruth Golden, Martina Arroyo, and Renata Scotto.  These are ultimately the values that I try to bring into everything I sing.

Wm: In Part I of this conversation you spoke of your studies as a bassoonist. What were your early musical influences that led to your pursuing both instumental and vocal studies, prior to your choosing an opera career?

MA: Classical music surrounded me as a child thanks to my father. He’s a physician and would receive numerous compilation CDs from Drug Reps and already had a small collection of classical LPs and cassettes. In fact, he had a cassette someone made for him of Mozart’s Piano Concertos 20 and 25, no performers listed, which was a constant diet in the car and I loved it. I never got tired of hearing it! All those along with annual birthday and Christmas presents of cassettes and CDs exposed me to a wide repertoire: Vivaldi and Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Gershwin and everything in between.

Some had operatic tracks. One was an EMI disc called “The Movies Go to the Opera” which had a sampling of Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Rossini, and so forth. That was my first exposure to Callas, Scotto and Montserrat Caballé. Truthfully, the real interest in opera came from watching the movie Amadeus. All of these little breadcrumbs resulted in me going to the library to take out recordings and rent opera videos, or to spend my holiday money at Tower Records and Borders Books to buy scores and CDs, requests to attend the New York Philharmonic or concerts at the Tilles Center, and, of particular joy, chamber musc concerts at the Planting Fields Arboretum. It’s not a particularly sophisticated background but I was lucky to have parents who supported my interests and provided me the opportunities to attend concerts, pay for and drive me to lessons and rehearsals, and remain supportive.

[Below: Michele Angelini (left) is Don Narciso and Olga Peretyako (right) is FIorella in the 2017 Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich) performances of Christof Loy’s production of Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper.]

Wm: You were accepted into Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy for the Vocal Arts [AVA], but only spent a few months there? What was the AVA experience like for you?

MA: After graduation from Ohio State and after participating in Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performancc program, I had management back in New York City waiting for me.  I began rounds of auditions.  The wonderful thing was that there was no pressure on me to do anything other than sing and sing well.  It was, in effect, a long trial period as I had decided to hold off on applying for a Master’s program – either to continue studying bassoon or to further study voice. 

In the meantime, I had friends who were attending The Academy of Vocal Arts and it seemed like, were I to continue to pursue singing, that it would be the ideal place to go. They encouraged the resident artists to have management, to be working professionally, and afforded the flexibility to start one’s career while also providing a safety net.  By the time I was accepted into their program, I had my first contracts lined up and my invitation from Maestro Alberto Zedda to participate in the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro just prior to starting the term in Philadelphia.

While I was making my professional debut in Brussels, the most astounding opportunity came my way: to debut at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna as Lindoro in “L’italiana in Algeri”, Maestro Zedda having put my name forward to replace a singer.  I had barely a weekend to make a decision: the Comunale was to begin rehearsals in two weeks and I would have had to arrive a week later following my performances in Brussels – just enough time to learn the role!  As a result, AVA withdrew my scholarship and we parted ways.  I was disappointed, certainly, but their administration had also made it clear to me they were not willing to produce, besides Mozart, the kind of repertoire in which my voice sat most comfortably.  It seemed the best solution for all parties, in the end.  Despite my experience there being so short, I could never have known it would connect me with one of the most important and lasting relationships in my life: my teacher!

Full circle moment: My time at ASOP included a masterclass with the wonderful and fondly-remembered Charlie Riecker, former and beloved Artistic Administrator of the Metropolitan Opera and Rudolf Bing’s assistant, with whom I subsequently worked with until his unexpected death in August of 2006 (I was in Pesaro at the time). Charlie was an important mentor of mine and it was through his advice that, were I to attend AVA, I work with Ruth Golden.  I requested to be in her studio at his urging and here we are a decade and a half later still working together!  She is someone to whom I have so much to thank for building my technique and helping me navigate this crazy thing we call an Operatic Career!  It’s amazing to think how things work out in the end. 

Wm: As you look back on your performance career, what, besides the Florida Grand Opera
“Sonnambula” we discussed previously, do you regard as career highlights?

MA:  I think some of my career highlights were the performances of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice with John Eliot Gardiner at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and in concert at Hamburg and the Opéra Royal in the Palace of Versailles; Count Almaviva in Laurent Pelly’s new production of Rossini’s  “Il barbiere di Siviglia”for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and which Jéremie Rhorer took us to sing in the wonderful concert halls of Dortmund and Bremen; and Gennaro in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” at Caramoor Opera with Angela Meade as Lucrezia and Will Crutchfield as d’Este 

[Below: Angela Meade (left) is Lucrezia and Michele Angelini (right) is Gennaro in the Caramoor Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”; edited image, based on a performance photograph for the Caramoor Opera.]

“Thais” in Madrid and Castel de Perelada with Placido Domingo, Ermonela Jaho, and Patrick Fournillier; Corradino in “Matilde di Shabran” at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival with José Miguel Perez Sierra, who is my brother in Rossini ever since we started in Pesaro together, as well as a fabulous “La cenerentola” we did together in Santiago, Chile with Pietro Spagnoli; Percy in “Anna Bolena” at the Lithuanian National Ballet and Opera with Sesto Quatrini; “Semiramide’ at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam just before the pandemic with Albina Shagimuratova and Michele Mariotti; my debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper as Narciso in “Il turco in Italia”; and “La Fille du Régiment” in Hawai’i.

[Below: Michele Angelini as Tonio in the Hawai’i Opera Theater production of Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment”; edited image, based on a photograph for the Hawai’i Opera Theater.]

There really are so many that I look back on with pride and contentment.  I feel very fortunate to have had a career thus far full of beautiful music-making in incredible places with wonderful colleagues.

Wm: Thank you, Michele, for a most interesting and informative disscussssion.