Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

Tenor David Cangelosi is emerging as one of the strongest participants in the specialized field of comprimario singing.  His roles, though not generally large, are among the most important in opera because of their dramatic significance.  He moves the plot along or brings the most important news to the leading characters, and without these special moments, the performance would founder.  And these all-too-brief lines must be delivered on the same high level as the rest of the musical material or else there is an obvious weakness in the evening's presentation.

Be assured that when these roles are taken by Cangelosi, their impact is rendered exactly as the creators wished, and the audience is carried along without noticing any diminution whatever - and this is how it should be.

Having been nurtured by the Lyric Opera Center, where he participated in both classes and performances, Cangelosi is continues to provide Chicago audiences with stellar moments while advancing his larger career in other major houses.

In October of 2002, I had the pleasure of chatting with David Cangelosi.  His enthusiasm was immediately apparent as he chatted with pride and glee about his earlier career, the current roles, and his entry into Wagner - where the role of Mime in Siegfired looms large and could easily catapult him into a whole new realm of international demand.  Here is much of what we talked about during that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You are a graduate of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.  Was that great training?

David Cangelosi:  Before I entered the Opera Center in 1996, I had a long career working in nightclubs, Las Vegas showrooms, Atlantic City, that kind of thing.

BD:  Pop tunes or rock tunes?

DC:  No rock because that wasn't my voice, but I did a lot of standards and Broadway music, some light classics.

BD:  You were a crooner????

DC:  That's kind of a way to put it, although I didn't croon.  In fact when I would shake hands and meet some people after shows, they'd say, “Oh, you belong in the opera.  You should be in the opera.”  At that time I was still singing baritone and I had sung as a baritone for years doing musical theatre and what not.

BD:  You had had training with your voice?

DC:  Yes.  I got a standard Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance when I was in Cleveland, Ohio.

BD:  Your teachers should have known what your voice was capable of.

DC:  Oh yes, and yet there was one crucial mistake.  I'm not even sure if it was a mistake that anybody made, or if it was partially my doing, and that was the fact that I trained and sang as a baritone.  Everybody kind of looked at me cross-eyed because I had heard for so many years that maybe I should be singing tenor.  I was not sure, and I was convincing enough as a baritone until I hit the opera business.  Then there was something terribly wrong.  I'd lose the bottom of my voice.  It would get totally swamped by an orchestra, and the top kept loosening up.  I wouldn't say I had an unlimited top, but I had a freer top than middle or low.  Finally, when I was working in the summer music program in Aspen, a teacher pulled me aside and said, “Explore this and explore it well.  I can't make the decision for you, but I'm telling you that I think you will be happier singing tenor, and I think you can have an operatic career as a tenor.  What kind of tenor we're not exactly sure, but give it a good workover.”

BD:  Instead of being a mistake, perhaps it was just that your voice needed this much time to develop.

DC:    It could have been a natural progression.  That's the other issue and we'll never know.  Maybe it was just partially my body.  It's certainly not uncommon for baritones to switch to tenor.

BD:  And of course the true heldentenor is a baritone with a big top…

DC:  …and the driving middle, a strong, steely middle.

BD:  Do you feel that's where you're going, or do you want to stay with the lighter parts?

DC:  That's a real good question because when I started singing tenor, I started with the lighter, more leggiero roles.  What's different about me, that separates me from a lot of other singers, is that I have an extremely physical way about me on stage.  I can dance very well, I can move very well and I have a good ability to act and to do different kinds of roles.

BD:  Which of course lends itself very well to the character parts.

DC:  The high end character parts are what I really try to stick with, and then I walk a little bit of a tightrope and cross over and do semi-romantic roles like Prunier in La Rondine, which is a beautiful lyric sing.  I also do Cassio in Otello, and some others that are considered character roles, but sometimes they'll go to a leading-man tenor, depending on what the director or the company is looking for.  I've been very successful at skating along that line, and people have given me the opportunity to do that.  The biggest challenge for me was not only getting the voice lean enough to still allow it to bloom on top, but to put the brakes on and just start slow and keep moving through a progression of roles that leads me to the things that I ultimately want to sing as signature roles.  One of them is finally coming up now, and of all the roles in opera, it has to rank in the top twenty of most towering roles ever written for anyone:  Mime in Richard Wagner's Siegfried.  I will do that at Lyric Opera of Chicago for the first time in the 2003 – 2004 season.

BD:  So have you been immersing yourself into a lot of Wagner to be able to do that role?

DC:  Yes.  I've been a long-time fan of Wagnerian operas.  Every once in awhile there's a style of music that just speaks to you, and it goes beyond explanation.  It seeps down into your bones, you can't get it out of you.  It's like an addiction.  It has you, and you're hooked forever.  It must be the harmonic style that Wagner uses, the exquisite sort of tension and release.  I'll never forget one of the very first experiences I had where I felt this sort of “down in your bones, down in your body” sort of love for it.  It was a PBS telecast of Lohengrin way back in 1980.  The first time I ever listened to Siegfried and heard the role of Mime, I just KNEW, down in my heart, that that was a role for me to sing.  Of course I said to myself, “Oh, but you can't sing it, you're a baritone.”  So when people finally convinced me to switch voices, which is not an easy task, I knew that this role was a possibility.  It's one of the most difficult roles to learn.  There is some nice singing for Mime, and there are some extremely difficult passages for him to sing.  It's a cross between a heldentenor and a character tenor at the same time.

BD:  And you're onstage for the whole of the first act!

DC:  Ninety minutes non-stop!  I never leave the stage.  I'm the only one who doesn't leave the stage, which means I'm the only one who doesn't get a chance to have a drink of water, so we'll hide it somewhere on the stage.

BD:  When you're cooking up the potion for Siegfried, you can taste-test it!

DC:  Exactly.  It's an interesting role on many, many levels.  It's a challenge to sing, it's a challenge to learn.  There are so many words that have to be sung, and so much harmonization of the words.  There's a lot of alliteration in this role.

BD:  And he is the impetus for moving the drama, for pushing the action forward more than Siegfried or even Wotan.

DC:  No question about it.  That's why I say he's one of the most towering roles ever written because everything revolves around Mime.  If you don't have a good Mime on stage, it's going to be a long, boring night in the opera house.

BD:  If they give the role to a has-been tenor or a not-really-good tenor, then it becomes a weak spot in the opera.  For you to make it equal to the lead tenor and the baritone and the soprano in the evening, makes for a much more satisfying performance.

DC:  I couldn't agree with you more.  Truer words were never spoken. It's a shame when an opera producer or an impresario thinks he can skimp on that role.  Wagner himself said he wanted Mime to be played by an “outsung” heldentenor, but in all reality no one wants to be the weakest link in any cast.  If you relegate Mime to an old singer who has had, perhaps, a marvelous career but has a weakened voice at that point, it might fit the dramatic action but this is a real singing part.

BD:  And a real athletic one!

DC:  Right.  If you're going to have an outstanding Wotan and an outstanding Siegfried and a fantastic Brünnhilde later on, I want to keep the audience's attention focused on me when I sing.  I want them to think, “He's a player along with everyone else.”

BD:  What would happen if Mime had been able to get the ring?  That's what he wanted.

DC:  The world as we know it would not exist!  Of course, had he gotten the ring, he would be doomed to die.

BD:  But would he have tried to exert power over Alberich and everybody else?

DC:  No question.  During the forging scene he goes on a little diatribe and starts getting all intoxicated with the fact that he thinks he's smart enough to fool Siegfried, and Siegfried's going to kill Fafner and then he's going to get that ring, and then the whole world, including Alberich, is going to bow to him.  He's real heady.  When I did a recording of the Forging Scene with Placido Domingo, we spent about eight hours working on it.   It was a grueling eight hours.  That's a hard scene to do over and over and over.  When we took a break, Placido came to me and said, “You really do have fun singing, don't you?” and I said, “Boy, I sure do.”  He told me that he had even entertained the idea of possibly singing the role of Siegfried at one time, but after doing the recording he said, “I just don't think I could get through the whole role in one night.”  To record it might be one thing, when you can do it little by little, but Siegfried sings all night long and it's a really, really tough singing.

BD:  Do you see yourself doing Loge in Das Rheingold, or would you rather do both Mimes?

DC: I am learning both Loge and Mime in Das Rheingold so I'll have them both as possibilities.  So, along with the Mime in Siegfried, that will complete the roles in the Ring cycle which are appropriate for me.

BD:  You don't ever see yourself pushing into the title part?

DC:  Never!  Absolutely not!  In the opera business it's important to exploit all of your talents, so if I move well, I want people to know I move well.  If I sing well, I want people to know that I sing well.  If I can dance, I want them to see me doing unique dance moves.  I can fight and do stage combat well, which I did in the production of Billy Budd last year.  It was probably one of the most realistic stage fights ever seen.  I want people to know that I can do that well.  The realm of work that I do in the opera business exploits all of my talents.  It allows me to use all my God-given talents to the maximum.  It's also very, very important to know where your limits are. I would rather be the greatest Mime on the face of the earth than a mediocre to poor Siegfried any day of the week, and that's exactly what I would be if I sang the title character.

BD:  I assume, though, that you want to balance doing Mime a few times a year with some Pruniers and other lovers.

DC:  Matthew Epstein, the Artistic Director of Lyric Opera, talked with me at great length about this recently.  He said, “You do all these roles really well, but we have to make sure that you continue to use the lyric side of your voice, that you don't lose it. That's very important for you to keep.”  So I will do Beppe in Pagliacci with that beautiful serenade, and Goro in Madame Butterfly, which has some beautiful lines to sing.  Prunier in La Rondine is a very elegant Puccini role that uses the most lyric part of your voice.  In Sweeney Todd that we're doing now, Toby has to go out there and sing one of the most beautiful songs of the night.  That is very gratifying.

BD:  Does that hark you back to your Broadway and Vegas days?

DC: It certainly does!  Those were great fun, but it doesn't make me want to go back because that chapter is closed.  The reason I moved into opera seriously was because that was about the only thing in singing show business that I hadn't tried, and it was a challenge for me.

BD:  You might be the ideal person to ask, since you were in show biz and have done musicals.  Is it different, now that you've trained and sung opera, to come back to what is essentially a musical on the operatic stage?

DC:  Yes, it is different, because it is different music.  The weight of the music is a completely different style.  It's a different manner of singing.  Beautiful singing should always be beautiful singing, and good technique should always be good technique, but you wonder how some people on Broadway can do eight shows a week.  It is taxing, and they have my high esteem for being able to do it, but in most cases the music allows them to sing that much if they do it well.  You couldn't sing Siegfried eight times a week!

BD:  You can't sing Butterfly eight times a week, either!

DC:  Right!  I keep that in mind as I move along and plan out my itineraries.  I'm booked well into 2007 now.

BD:  Is that a comforting feeling?

DC:  Yeah.  It's also kind of weird to know that I'm going to be at the Paris Opera in 2007 doing such and such.  But it's a comforting feeling in that I can look ahead and know that I'm going to be working.  A lot of people in show business don't know what they're doing three months from now.

BD:  Is it tricky to set these contracts in 2007, not for where you are but for where you're going to be?

DC:  Yes.  In fact when I do my long-range planning, I ask, "If I'm going to do this in 2007, do I have a lyric sing somewhere in that calendar year?"  Okay, yes, go ahead and check it off.  "Do I have a good character acting role that I want to do in 2007?"  Okay, that one's in place.  If there's a hole somewhere in the artistic design of what I want to do, I try to get a role that fits.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't.  When they gave me the role of Mime, I was signed to do this almost four years ago.

BD:  And you knew you'd grow into it?

DC:  That was their idea too.  I did sing it.  I actually auditioned for it.  I had the whole role prepared and I let them choose whatever they wanted to hear.  The people at Lyric Opera thought it was good then, but they were certain that over the course of four years time that it would grow into my voice and that I would grow into the part. It's is not a perfect science.  Sometimes they'll think a person's going to grow into the role.  They can sing it now, but they'll grow into it and it'll be real good in four years, and sometime it is not.  Sometimes the calculation is wrong.

BD:  I hope, though, that in 2007 you don't feel that you're being held back, and you can look forward to more roles all the time.

DC:  There are favorite roles that I will do all the time that I'm really pleased and happy to do.  When Bizet wrote Carmen, he expected his Don José to be a tenor, of course.  Not my kind of tenor, not my kind of voice, but everyone always thought the role of Le Dancaïre was a baritone and Le Remendado was the tenor.  Actually it was written for two tenors.  Dancaïre was originally listed as a tenor role, and Remendado as well, so when Carmens come popping up, I will never do Remendado.  There have been a couple of administrative screw-ups, and they booked two Remendadoes as opposed to a Remendado and a Dancaïre, and they asked me if I could switch roles.  I said “Yeah, I'll do the other one,” and ever since I did it that's the only one I'll do from now on.

BD:  It's too confusing to sing the other part?

DC:  It's actually a bigger role, and I did the Dancaïre here at Lyric.  They've asked me to do it again and it's a role that I just like to do.  I love singing the quintet, and I like making Dancaïre a very strong no-nonsense leader of the bandits.  It's not a funny part, it's not a comic part.  It is a sneering bad guy and that's exactly how I play it.

BD:  He's out to get as much loot as he can.

DC:  No question about it.  And he has no time for mama's boys like Don José.

BD:  What are some of the more lyric roles that you either have or want to move into?

DC:  I'm proud to say that I have done many of the lyric roles that I want to do.  I've done Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet.  I like that role, it's a good lyric role with good strong singing.  The one I want to do many, many times is Prunier in La Rondine which I will do for the first time in Boston this year.  I also have the nice opportunity to sing Pedrillo in Mozart's Abduction.  That's another part which needs lots of different voices in the same role.  Sometimes he has to sing like a heldentenor, and then he's got some quirky, funny stuff, and also some of the most beautifully long Mozartian lyric lines that have ever been written.  There's a tremendous serenade that he gets to sing, which, as far as beauty is concerned, is really second to none.  It's strophic, so it's hard to memorize.  Finally I did, but it was hard.  We did that in Paris last year and I hope to do that more.

BD:  Are you looking at all at David in Meistersinger?

DC:  I covered David here at Lyric, so the role certainly is learned and ready to go.  Any time anybody wants me to do it I'll be happy to.   Meistersinger productions are few and far between.  One of the quirks of the industry is to see somebody with an Italian name doing all this German repertoire kind of makes people look twice.  Producers are a little bit leery about using an Italian singer – even though I'm American – to sing a lot of these roles, which are some of my best, by the way.

BD:  Do you want to change your stage name for German houses?

DC:  Believe me, I've thought about it.  When I'm in Paris I'm thinking about using Cangelois as opposed to Cangelosi – just change the last couple letters.  I'm trying to think of a German substitute for my name…

BD:  …but really, you're trying to establish yourself and your name as a premiere artist in some of these roles.

DC:  No question about it.    In anyone's career you can always point to a signature role.

BD:  Now that you're amassing these roles, I assume that managements and agents are throwing a lot of other roles at you.  Does it surprise you that you're being asked to do some of these roles?

DC:  Yes. I was really surprised.  Sometimes in the opera business impresarios are very unimaginative and they have a tendency to pigeonhole people.  If one is a leading man, they wouldn't even think about him doing something funny, or doing a comic role.

BD:  Well then, are you trying to create your own fach?

DC:  I am interested in confounding people all over the world.  I want them to say, “Well what is he?”  The answer is I'm not anything and I'm not everything, but I can do a lot of things.  I can sing as long and lovely a line as the next guy, and I can sing with passion and romance as well as the next guy, and at the same time I can give you one down and dirty, nasty-sounding voice when it's required.  Hopefully it's all enveloped in good technique because you can really get into trouble if you start stretching your voice in too many directions without good technique.

BD:  Are you still working with a voice teacher?

DC:  All the time.  All the time.  My best work, however, is when I just sit down alone and experiment in lots of different ways.  There's no one way to sing anything.  This season at Lyric was somewhat of a challenge because Pagliacci and Susannah were running concurrently.  I would do Beppe one night, with the beautiful serenade for which I had to keep the voice so nice and limber, and then Little Bat the next night, and sometimes another Beppe the following day, so sometimes I had troikas.

BD:  Is that a good thing to have to switch back and forth?

DC:  No.  It's a hard thing.  It took a lot of discipline because when you do Little Bat, it's much more dramatic, emotional singing.  There's that big scene in Act I where he spews forth in a real anguished state, telling Susannah that he's told a big lie about her.  It's extremely dramatic.  Some nights I would physically cry with tears in my eyes.  It's always a very, very dramatic scene.  It wasn't put on, either.  In fact, after the opening night the conductor said to me, “Most people just sort of 'speak–sing' this role, and you really did sing it, didn't you!”  I said, “That's what I tried to do.”  It's the only way I could be disciplined enough to do Beppe one night, Little Bat the next and rehearse Sweeney Todd at the same time.

BD:  Now that your career is getting more settled, are you going to turn down some of these roles so that you have a little space between performances and you're not singing every day?

DC:  I haven't made that decision yet.  You bring up a really good question.  If you're doing a bunch of big roles, do you want to slip a Spoletta in there if it's offered to you? We often make those decisions based on finances.  You might think, “Well, OK, I'm here anyway, why don't I just work?  I can do the role and do it well, and it's not the most taxing thing, so let me go in and go to work.”  I'm not trying to say it's just a money thing, but we're in the business of singing, and that's how we earn our living.  I haven't really decided when to turn down a role because I want to give myself a little extra rest.  Right now, if it's appropriate, I take what comes along and I try to squeeze them all in.

BD:  Do you do any brand new works - world premieres?

DC:   I'm going to be doing Bill Bolcom’s A Wedding, which will have its world premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago the season after next.  He's writing a part for me.  I sang for him, and he's writing a role that's in the screen play into the opera.  As I watched the film, at first I wondered how they're going to make it into an opera.  But they assure me it's going to be interesting and different, so I'm looking forward to it.  It will be a new experience for me, because I really haven't done many world premieres or new works to date.

BD:  Is it special to know that he's writing it for you?

DC:  Yeah!  It really is. We sat down and I sang some stuff for him so he could find out where the best part of my voice was.  He said, “I don't know what this role is going to be yet, but I'll try to make it interesting and fun for you.”  So I'm really looking forward to doing that.  New works kind of scare me though.  Not musically, but character-wise because I have nothing to go on.

BD:  You're singing lots of opera.  Do you also sing recitals and concerts?

DC:  I do not.  I have been asked, and I'll be very honest with you, I don't have the patience.  When I'm on stage, I have to move.  I have got to be doing something.  I am the worst stand-and-sing singer that exists.  I get antsy.  I can't keep myself in this imaginary square you create for yourself.  Recitals are very challenging, and they're very good for your voice, and I should buckle down and do them.  I've been very, very busy, but sometimes I think it would be kind of fun to do because I like French chansons very much and I love German lieder.  I also like the American song cycles, and there are some great Italian song cycles too.  Then I get to thinking about the roles that have eluded me and there's one I'm really desperate to do: the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel!  Some people laugh, but I think it would just be non-stop fun for me.

BD:  There are a few tenors who have done it.

DC:  Yes! And I hope it will come, because it's so much fun and it's such great music.

BD:  You just hit 40.  Are you at the point in your career you want to be at this age?

DC:  Yes.  Yes.  And let's keep in mind that I got into opera very, very late.  It was only about six years ago, so I've gone a long way in the opera business. I've climbed several rungs of the ladder partially because people have taken a chance on me.  They've given me the opportunities and I like to think that I've fulfilled them.  Not only am I exactly where I want to be, my voice is exactly where I want it to be right now.  The best singing years for a man should be from age 45 to 60.  In a day and in a culture where success is based upon how young you are, some of the great young voices are pushed to the front very quickly because they're young and they're handsome, or, in the case of women, they're beautiful.  Good-looking people with young, beautiful voices are pushed out there in front to sing big stuff.  Everybody wants to grab that brass ring, and the problem is that a lot of those people get used up very quickly.  If you are a male in this industry, you have to know that your best singing years are your latter singing years, and I feel that my voice is finally moving into the realm of prime.  I work on my voice constantly.

BD:  So you're positioned just right, then.

DC:  I like to think that I am.  Maybe I'm fooling myself.  Maybe I'm just psychologically working myself up to believe that, but I am very satisfied with where my voice is and very satisfied with where my characters lie.  I'm very satisfied with the roles I'm doing and the roles I have coming up. So in that regard, you're looking at a satisfied man in an industry where I consistently find it challenging.  That's what keeps me here.  I got bored in the nightclub business.  I got bored doing Broadway musicals.  There's never a boring day in the opera house for me.  It's a constant challenge to learn music.  Language work is very appealing to me and I take French lessons and German lessons every week.  So there's always a forward motion in everything that I do in my free time that feeds back to my singing and my stage work.

BD:  You started with the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists.  Is it nice to come back here now to do bigger roles?

DC:  When you sing around the world as I do, you hear other people who haven't sung here talk about how they wish they could sing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and you start realizing that if you're singing in this house, you are a very blessed person.  I've had numerous offers from the Metropolitan Opera, and the answer has consistently been, “No, he's not available because he's doing something at the Lyric.”  It's always nice to be back here because I feel a part of something special.  Sometimes they use the word family, and it is like a family here.  I really feel that way.  I love the management and I have lots of friends in the opera house.  They have given me every opportunity to increase.  They give me more and more responsibilities every year.  Sometimes that's hard when you come out of a young artists’ program, whether it be the Met or San Francisco or Houston or here in Chicago.  Sometimes you don't hear much from those young artists after that.  Sometimes they're kept at just certain levels in the opera house where they were spawned.  But here at the Lyric they have a consistent record of giving people an opportunity and letting them climb.  Then it's up to you, the singer, and your own personality and your own discipline to allow yourself to keep moving.  They'll give you the opportunity, but you'd better make it work.

BD:  Thank you so much the work you've already done, and for the conversation.  I look forward to your succeeding seasons.

DC:  It will always be a pleasure to see you around and say hello.

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For more details on his career and more photos, visit David Cangelosi's personal website .

To read other interviews with musicians, visit Bruce Duffie's personal website  and send him  e-mail .

Bruce Duffie has been a regular contributor to The Opera Journal since 1985.  Next time in these pages, a chat with soprano Cheryl Woods.

©2002 Bruce Duffie

First published in The Opera Journal in April, 2004

All photos courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dan Rest, photographer:

   -- In Concert
   -- (leaning over anvil) as Mime in Siegfried
   -- (kneeling) as Mime (right) with John Treleaven in Siegfried
   -- (sitting) as Tobias (left) with Judith Christin in Sweeney Todd
   -- (standing) as the Dancing Master (right) with Laura Aikin as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos
   -- (wearing eyepatch) as Dancaïre (left) with Denyce Graves as Carmen in Carmen
   -- (holding umbrella) as Goro in Madama Butterfly
   -- (in overalls) as Little Bat in Susannah
   -- (wearing Scottish tartan) as Normanno in Lucia di Lammermoor