Interview with Michele Angelini

US tenor, Michele Angelini, has established himself as one of the most exciting young singers of the baroque, Mozartian and bel canto repertoire to have emerged in recent years.  Following studies in voice and bassoon in Ohio, he won a number of international competitions including the Savonlinna International Competition and the Gerda Lissner Foundation competition.  He has appeared widely throughout North America and his European engagements have taken him to Berlin, Bilbao, Stockholm and London where he has appeared at the Royal Opera as Almaviva, Don Ottavio and Orphée.  Current and future engagements include Orphée at Versailles with Gardiner, Almaviva in Bilbao, Pittsburgh and Seville, and Giannetto in La gazza ladra at Glimmerglass.  I caught up with Mr Angelini as he prepared for his debut in the role of Orphée at the Royal Opera.

Photo © Rebecca Fay
Photo © Rebecca Fay

Mr Angelini, welcome back to London, England.  Tell us about how you came to opera.

I came to opera initially as a listener.  I grew up listening to classical music and I always loved it, but I started out as an instrumentalist – originally as a saxophonist and pianist.  I did also play a lot of jazz too when I was quite young.  I enjoyed my studies in saxophone but when I realized that it wasn’t really an orchestral instrument, I felt that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life playing in bands – I wanted to be in an orchestra.  I had toyed with the idea of trying out some string instruments and eventually the bassoon as an idea started to come around.  I really loved it and loved the music for it.  I had also taught myself to play everything else – primarily flute and clarinet, but also had experiences with trumpet, euphonium and percussion.  The only winds I didn’t play were low brass and oboe.  I formally got into singing and started taking lessons in my freshman year of college while I was already a bassoon performance major.  I eventually added vocal performance as a second major.  I didn’t come to singing from a theatrical standpoint – I wasn’t interested in theatre, I was interested in music.  I was lucky that I was surrounded by amazing teachers throughout my entire musical upbringing, from the very, very beginning until today.  I’ve always been surrounded by people who were knowledgeable and who were able to help me cultivate my musical education and culture.  For me, performing has always just been about the music, about reading the letters of the composers and studying performance practices – discovering what they were trying to do, trying to understand the older vocal traditions, reading treatises and really trying to figure out what it is that the music really requires.

As Elvino in La sonnambula at Florida Grand Opera (Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Angelini)
As Elvino in La sonnambula at Florida Grand Opera (Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Angelini)

If I think back to when you did Ottavio a few months ago at Covent Garden, I mentioned at the time that you showed a deep understanding of the style and really managed to make the music your own.  You mention reading widely – composers’ letters, treatises, understanding traditions.  How do you look at a score and decide and integrate all of these things into the approach you take?

When I started my musical education, I went through a period of extreme rigidity where I was determined to find solid, absolute answers to my questions – yes or no.  I drove my university professors totally crazy because I couldn’t accept that what I was hearing was not what the score said!  When I was really young I went out and bought the Callas recording of Barbiere and a full score; I was probably around 10 or 11 years old at the time.  I started listening and all of a sudden people were not singing what I was seeing on the page.  I had already seen ‘Cessa di più resistere’ because it was in the score and I remember looking at that aria at such a young age and thinking ‘I can’t wait to hear what this sounds like,’ and then it never came.  Then, here I am listening to Callas doing all of this amazing ornamentation and I was so angry because I couldn’t see it, because I didn’t know what it was, why it was happening and I thought it was disrespectful – I thought it was something just completely unnecessary.  Eventually through my musical educators and my reading, my listening, my research and exploring I started to discover that there is more than what I’m seeing on the page, there’s a whole other world out there.  I have to say that one of the most influential people who helped put me on that path was a woman named Bliss Johnston Virago.  I met Bliss during my freshman year at college.  She was my mentor for about a year, and then she sadly passed away in an unexpected and tragic manner.  Among the many amazing things about her was that she was an absolute musical genius.  Through her I really started to get interested in performance practices and really understanding what was considered good taste within the composers’ own times.  I believe that Mozart needs to be ornamented – there are so many instances in his letters where he discusses singers ornamenting or him writing ornaments.  It’s only on a rare occasion – such as where he was referring to a Sarastro, who apparently he didn’t like, he recorded that he had said to this bass, ‘if you cannot sing tasteful ornaments then you would do well to just sing what I have written!’  It meant that even in a part like Sarastro, a low bass role, he expected some sort of fluidity and some sort of personalization of that music.  So then we come to the modern world and a production needs to be homogenous, conductors have their ideas and it’s part of my responsibility as a singer to be respectful of that.  At Covent Garden, I didn’t even do as many ornaments as I have done in my ‘Dalla sua pace’ or my ‘Il mio tesoro’ because it didn’t really quite fit this production in terms of what the entire cast was doing, but the maestro did allow me to introduce a couple of things that I felt were appropriate.  It’s more than just about a vocal display.  Especially in a character like Ottavio where you take an aria like ‘Dalla sua pace’ which is really so bare bones that that sort of structure begs to be filled in: it really requires it.  One of the joys that I have when I’m preparing music, especially classical, bel canto and baroque, is that I can explore all those different ways of ornamenting, and they’re always changing.  So the ornaments that worked five years ago may not now, or maybe I might sit there and say ‘you know, that’s not really the emotion I want the character to have in that so let me find something else, either vocally or dramatically’.

As Nangis in Le roi malgré lui at Bard Summerscape. (Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Angelini)
As Nangis in Le roi malgré lui at Bard Summerscape. (Photo used with the kind permission of Mr Angelini)

You have such a flexible instrument with great agility and ease even at the very top.  How did you build the voice to be able to expand the range, flexibility, ease?

The basic reality of it is that when I started singing, I sang just for the fun of it as a little kid singing along with recordings of opera, everything from Mozart to Aida and the Ring Cycle and singing all the voice parts.  I always had that extension up there.  I lost the extreme falsetto when I was around 19-going-on-20 but I didn’t understand that there was some kind of mechanical difference between voice parts.  I knew I was a tenor, there was no question about that, but then again coming from an instrumental background I didn’t understand that there were different types of tenors.  I went into singing with this expectation that if it was written for the tenor voice I should therefore be able to sing it.  Thankfully I had a teacher who was able to sit there and say ‘that’s not really quite true’.  And I was heartbroken – I cried when I found out I was not going to be singing Wagner!  I thought if I could sing all the notes, why couldn’t I just do this?  Eventually the more I studied, the more I listened, the more I was able to finally come to terms with that.  I think listening to a lot of recordings was a big, huge payoff in terms of understanding the natural limits of a given voice.  By listening to other singers who didn’t fare so well in a given role or a given type of repertoire when they excelled in something else, I started to be able to understand.  As a result of the previous uninhibited approach to singing I wasn’t really thinking technically, I was just thinking of using what was naturally there.  Then of course, the voice starts to mature, the body starts to mature, one hopes the musician inside starts to mature and that’s when I started to have to learn how to sing: just relying on natural talent was no longer an option.  I was always so fortunate that my teacher in college, Dr Robin Rice, his interest was not in making my voice become something that it wasn’t.  He was interested in those earliest formative years to allow my voice to do what it did in the most natural way possible with just enough guidance to keep it healthy and to keep it from getting knocked out of whack, so to speak.  I was by no means a finished product – nobody is a finished product when they’re 21 or 22 and graduating college, we like to think that we are but we’re not.  Then I went to the Academy of Vocal Arts for a very brief period and met my current teacher, Ruth Golden and with her it was time to start really building a solid technical foundation.  I was lucky because I didn’t have coaches and I didn’t have teachers who tried to make my voice do something other than what it was meant to do.  I think I was lucky in that the homework that I had done in terms of listening, reading and studying allowed me to have enough of a wherewithal to be able to understand and to look at a piece of music and say ‘my voice can’t do that’ or ‘ok, my voice has trouble doing this but everything else is ok so what is the solution?’.  I was never asked to force or do anything other than just keep the voice totally lined up.  It’s not an overnight thing, it was years and years of absolute tears and hardwork.  Your voice is always changing – it’s a constant readjustment.  Sometimes, it’s even day to day.  I think the hard reality is the first time that someone tells you that singing is supposed to be easy – it’s not, otherwise everyone would be doing it.  What they mean is that it should be physically easy.  But the work that has to go into getting there is not easy.

And you never stop.

Right, and you never stop.  It’s a constant battle with the body in a sense because what is familiar, what feels good is not necessarily what the voice needs to be doing.  For me a number one rule is to never sing beyond my means and beyond the natural limits of my voice.  As an instrumentalist you can’t sit there and say ‘oh no, I can’t play that concerto, I can’t play that sonata, I can’t play that symphony’, when you’re expected that once you have established a technique on a mechanical instrument, you can therefore feasibly play anything that’s been written for it.  The voice is just not built that way. I think for me one of the biggest watershed moments in my development was coming to that realization but still being able to take the musical culture and education I had as an instrumentalist and bringing those things into singing.

As Almaviva in Barbiere at the Royal Opera House. Photo: © ROH/Tristram Kenton
As Almaviva in Barbiere at the Royal Opera House. Photo: © ROH/Tristram Kenton

Let’s talk about your current assignment.  You’re here in London to sing Orphée which you’ll also be singing in Versailles and Hamburg.  It’s a very long role and it sits very high, tell us a little about the challenges you find in the role.

It has got to be the most challenging vocal experience in my career thus far and it might end up being the most challenging ever.  Orphée has been a dream role of mine since I was 18.  I had discovered that there was this tenor version when I was in college and I immediately went to the research room in the music library, pulled the full score down from the complete works of Gluck and started looking at it and started vibrating intensely saying, ‘I have to sing this!’.  I had searched high and low for a vocal score – it didn’t really exist.  The Bärenreiter edition had apparently been completed but it hadn’t been readily available in stores and I really wanted to sing the big Act 1 finale bravura aria  ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’.  I took the full score, did my own piano reduction for it and I’ve been singing it since I was 19 years old.  That’s really the only piece that I have consistently sung over the years.  I started officially working on the role back in December and as I started singing it and beginning to know it, I started to realize that this is not written like anything else that’s out there.  It’s one of the most unique and unforgivingly odd pieces of music ever written for the tenor voice.

It has pretty much everything – you have the rapid-fire passagework, the high sustained writing.

It has everything.  Tessitura has never been something that frightens me.  This is one of those pieces where part of it, if it were a half-step lower or a half-step higher it would be easier to sing than the pitch that it’s written in.  I think this has to do with the fact that it was written for a voice part that no longer exists.  There are people who are specializing in haute-contre repertoire but the actual voice type doesn’t exist because the knowledge of how those singers were trained in the 18th century hasn’t survived – it’s lost.  For me the musical gesture has always been the thing that guides me.  I’m not, per se, a text-driven singer.  As much as I love literature, poetry and languages, I look at the score note by note and not word by word.  When I started to sing it into my body I would find at least at that juncture that the rhythmic integrity was actually the thing that made it easier to sing.  I showed up and Maestro Gardiner had a completely different idea of how to approach this and he wanted to approach it much more from a text perspective.  For a couple of weeks there was a bit of patting my head and rubbing my stomach to try and go against the natural musical gesture in favour of the textual gesture.  But in doing so there has been almost a freedom that has opened up somehow and I think it came about as a result of having prepared it rhythmically first versus linguistically.

How do you find singing in French? 

I love singing in French.  I work with great French-language coaches in New York and I love the French repertoire.  I love everything I sing in French.  I feel actually fairly at home in the language.  I do a lot of thinking about languages.  Not all composers are equally gifted in setting text and we can either sing everything syllabically, we can sing everything idiomatically or we can find the essential middle ground between these things.  I really love spending the time and trying to find when does the text help me with the vocalism and when does the vocalism need to help with the text.  This has been one of those pieces that has required a much more extreme balancing act than probably anything else and that has partially to do with the tessitura and the fact that a modern tenor voice that strives to be connected all the way through is not how it was sung 250 years ago.

As Lindoro in l'italiana in Algeri at Atlanta Opera Photo: © Jeff Roffman
As Lindoro in l’italiana in Algeri at Atlanta Opera Photo: © Jeff Roffman

So we’ve talked about where you came from, what you’re doing now.  Let’s look ahead to the future, what are the exciting things we can expect from you?

I’ve got a couple of other projects that are already scheduled; I’m not yet at liberty to reveal them but as soon as I can I’ll keep my website up to date.  I do have a lot more Rossini coming up, some new roles for me as well as some repeats.  I’m not looking to make any drastic shifts in repertoire any time soon, I think.  I did Lucrezia Borgia last summer and I loved singing it.  It was a tough sing but it was so utterly rewarding.  That for me was the first big stretch that I had taken, vocally speaking, and, if anything, it helped prepare me for Orphée.  I’m happy to stay where I am.  There’s so much repertoire – a lot of it’s forgotten, a lot of it’s neglected – but  there’s so much out there!  I’ve gotten enquiries about taking on heavier parts and my answer has generally been ‘no’, the voice has to choose what repertoire it’s going to do, not the mind, not the actor.  When selecting a role, I look at the score and I ask, can my voice sing this part the way I would want to hear it sung?  And if the answer is no, I don’t do it.  That’s just where it is.  My job is to do my homework, to do my studies, to keep my voice in the best possible working condition and hopefully to go out and do the best I can at the moment in any role that I am assigned to do.  I try to approach things, in a sense it may sound silly, imagining, if the composer is there, is he going to be happy with what I’m doing?  For me that’s where it all originates and that’s where it stays.

Michele Angelini on Facebook


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