Thursday, October 10, 2013

Featured singer: Michele Angelini, tenor

Photo credit:  Rebecca Fay
Some readers will recall a post about a lovely performance of Mr. Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle a few years ago. The tenor soloist in that performance was Michele Angelini. His recently revamped web site lists an impressive range of credits, including covering Juan-Diego Florez and Lawrence Brownlee at the Metropolitan Opera, an upcoming debut at Covent Garden, and performances at the Rossini Opera Festival, Deutsche Oper am Rhein (Frankfurt), Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center. Mr. Angelini (Mike to his friends) has forgiven me for that blog post--my primary memory now is of a beautiful and free sound, but apparently at the time I thought he lacked subtlety--and has consented to a profile in these humble pages.

We recently sat down for a lovely outdoor lunch and interview. We talked at length about his career, singing and fitness, and taking care of one's voice like the owner of a priceless instrument would do.

What do you want to tell the world? What one message?

Be true to yourself. Be true to your voice. Be true to the elements of this art form that drew you in. You must maintain that connection with what attracted you. Keep that magic.

Have there been times when you've had to struggle to keep that alive? Challenges that you've had to overcome?

Of course. There are no easy answers. When I first started out in this career, I had no idea what it took. We all get into something like this because it's fun, it gives us joy, we seem to be good at it. If we're getting paid, so much the better. The veneer comes off and we realize there's a lot of work, discipline, maintenance, and business sense required.

I was fortunate at the beginning. I began working as a singer almost right out of college. I had a good group of people who cared about me and believed in me. They introduced me to opportunities, and I was able to effectively begin my career at age 23. I had to learn a lot on the job, where there was no room for error. It was hard to learn how to deal with all the things I was confronted with, without any buffer zone, where every move had to be the right action at the time.

Savonlinna Festival
I'm fortunate that no mistakes I made were irrevocable, but I did have a very tough challenge early on. I was 25 at the time. There's a natural growth spurt that happens for many singers at 25 or 26. I'd just finished my first Ramiro (Cenerentola), and within a week the way I had naturally always sung, particularly my upper register, just stopped working. There were some things going on in my personal life, as well—very painful loss and worry--and it exacerbated the situation. My voice became volatile, inconsistent. There were great days and there were days when nothing was happening correctly. I made the mistake of singing in a competition, and of course I did not sing nearly as well as I could have. Because of that one performance, I was asked to re-audition for several upcoming contracts to prove I was still capable of singing the roles. It was difficult. 

I became a man with a mission. I wanted to sing for upcoming contracts at a professional level. I had six months before my next contract obligation, and I basically took all of that time to work on my voice. I didn't go out, I didn't socialize—I just saw my family, my teacher, and my coach. I worked on my voice and I worked on my body. That was also when fitness started becoming much more important to me. At the end of that period, I was able to walk into my next job without an worry. I was able to re-establish myself with individuals who had lost faith in me after that one disastrous performance.

We all have to learn to sing when we're not at our best. When I was younger I was much more afraid of putting myself out there when I wasn't feeling as well, but as I've become more secure in my technique, I've learned to let my technique and my experience work for me. That's a big lesson—what variables can we control, and what is beyond our control? 

As Elvino in La Sonnambula
Photo credit: Greater Miami Opera
You told me recently that as you grow and mature vocally, you feel even more firmly placed in your fach, whereas other guys your age might be looking at or moving into more mature or bigger vocal categories.

The issue of fach is a tricky discussion. The fach system has its benefits as a tool for categorizing the repertoire and voices, but on the other hand it's important to understand every voice is different, every person is different, every approach is different. Your voice will tell you what it should and should not be singing. It's important for every singer to learn to recognize that. At the end of the day the only person who can make those decisions is you. You must know what your voice is meant to do.

And let's face it—there are voices that transcend fach. Nicolai Gedda could sing practically anything that was on the page, but he was always true to his own voice and never sacrificed what was natural in his own voice. Herbert von Karajan asked him to sing Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos) in his mid-20s, and he said no. But he sang Don Jose in his 20s. He knew what he was doing, how to negotiate just about any role using his own voice. We all have a little bit of trial and error, but it's best to not make too many errors.

When I was young I used to sing along with all the recordings I had, a little bit of everything. Coming from an instrumental background (Mr. Angelini is a highly accomplished woodwind player, as well), I didn't know about fach. I had this idea that all music written for tenor could be sung by any tenor. As an instrumentalist there is no excuse to not play any piece of music. If it's written for your instrument you have to figure out how to do it. Not so with the voice. It's as if each type of tenor is a different instrument. 

But I have to say I love my repertoire. There is nothing in my core rep that doesn't make me happy, and that singing doesn't bring me some level of joy. I can enjoy an excellent Siegfried without wanting to sing the role. I don't think, “I have to sing Rossini today but I want to sing something else.” I'm thankful that I get to sing the repertoire that I do sing. It's almost limitless. The bel canto, Baroque, Mozartian and early Romantic French opera that I consider my core repertoire is unending. It wouldn't be possible to sing everything that my voice could sing. I'm like a kid in a candy shop. And I get to cater all those roles to my voice. I can sing Rossini and add and subtract to show off what my voice does best. You can't do that with Puccini or Wagner. 

Now if only someone could write me a mad scene, I would be even happier. 

I talk about this with other singers who are very fit, like you are. It often seems like there is a concern that they want singers to look like Hollywood stars, and there is a fear that singing talent is considered secondary.

It's true that directors are asking more of singers physically these days, so we do have to have a certainly level of fitness to do those things with comfort and ease. For me, the body that houses a voice doesn't matter if the voice is able to do what the role and the character requires. But I'm not a director and I'm not casting, so it's not really my place to say much more about this.

Fitness has more to do with my instrument and my physical well being than something about looking a certain way for the stage. Singing really is a sport. It's an athletic endeavor. My body is my instruments. I treat my body like an athlete would. That means feeding my body properly, working on overall fitness and flexibility, working on breathing, and having a certain measure of athleticism. When I first started becoming more active and athletic, I noticed an improvement in the way my voice was responding and my breath was working. I found myself practicing silently on an elliptical machine, memorizing my roles, breathing as I would were I singing. It made a huge difference in terms of what I could do in the practice room and on stage. 

I think yoga is a huge essential as a singer. There was a time when I used 10-15 minutes of yoga as a warmup before singing anything. All the core muscles, all the parts that have to be in alignment and function properly for singing are already moving and released and ready to work. I didn't have to work so hard vocalizing because the muscles were already prepared to do what they would be asked to do. There is something phenomenal about having that sense of inner flexibility as well as the sense of breathing, relaxation, and getting rid of tension. Then we are able to do much more musically, dramatically, vocally. I think it all kind of goes hand in hand. 

You seem happy with your body. What if a director asked you to sing without clothes?

Not right now. [laughs] I did sing in my underwear in Il sogno di Scipione with Gotham Chamber Opera. I don't think there are any pictures of me in my underwear.

I always conclude with a question stolen from Inside the Actor's Studio--what's your favorite swear word?

All of them? So many! So many different languages. My favorite is in Italian: cazzo. Literally it means male member, but it's the Italian equivalent of the F-word.




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