An Interview with David Cangelosi

A very nice young man who is studying our craft, and starting his career, was given an assignment at school recently.  His charge was to seek out a professional colleague and interview them.  His questions were so good, and his intentions so sincere, that I decided to post the interview to my blog.  Thank you Scott Gates for stopping by my dressing room that afternoon.  It was a great pleasure to have met you!!  Best of luck as you pursue your career!

An interview with David Cangelosi


SG – What is your educational background?

DJC – I received an undergraduate degree in Vocal Performance at Baldwin Wallace College in Cleveland, Ohio.  I am from a suburb of Cleveland so I was able to do some prep work at the Cleveland Institute of Music but did not get a degree there.  After a few years of being a nightclub entertainer and performer, and some musical theater work, I went to get my Master’s Degree at Boston University.

SG – What was your first exposure to opera once you decided to pursue music as a career?

DJC – I have to credit it to my junior year in high school around 1982 or 1983.  Our English teacher made us watch the opening night television broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera.  We were studying Shakespeare and the broadcast was Otello.  The cast included Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, with James Levine conducting.  Watching this made me say, “Hey, that is really spectacular stuff.  I wonder if I could ever do that.  I wonder if I could ever be on that stage, or a big stage.”  There were no microphones or artificial enhancements and that was fascinating.  The power of the voice reaching that many people in a hall was something I could only dream about doing.

SG – Who are your musical influences?

DJC – My earliest influences in classical music are from the early experiences of the Cleveland Orchestra when I was in grade school.  I was around to see George Szell, Lorin  Maazel, and then Christoph von Dohnányi.  But also, in my teenage years, being a part of the Cleveland Orchestra Festival Chorus under Robert Page.  He was a man of extreme charisma, very musically apt and bright, with a great sense of humor and a powerful demeanor.  He was the real thing and took an interest in younger people, so I had access to a great guy who made sure I was heading in the right direction.  I was also blessed, which is very rare these days, to have had outstanding public school teachers.  In junior-high I really fell in love with the ‘voice’, and my high school music director is the one that turned me on to the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

SG – You mentioned going back to school for a Master’s at Boston University.  What repertoire were you singing?

DJC – I was singing baritone repertoire at the time and then went to the Aspen Music Festival one summer and a teacher from Juilliard had suspicions that I might be a tenor.  I had heard this before, and he began steering me in the direction of singing ‘tenor’ repertoire.  This began a long process, which is not unusual for young baritones switching to tenor.  It is a procedurally conservative change that has to be administered over the course of 3-6 years.

SG – So when you finished the transition to tenor, what were you singing?

DJC – I transitioned from the Romantic/Lyric Baritone repertoire and was fiddling around with a number of different possibilities in the tenor range including baby heldentenor rep, lyric rep, and a few character rep arias because of my big personality.  But I will be honest with you, there was only one role in the entire tenor rep that really caught me; and this precipitated my entrance into the high-end character rep for good.  My wife at the time had given me a full cassette-tape box recording of the ‘Ring’ cycle for my birthday.  I don’t know why, but I started with Siegfried as opposed to Rheingold, because someone said there was a great part in there for me, and that was Mime.  I started listening to it right at the beginning where the character first appears.  He’s the very first thing you see and hear, and I said, “THAT is the one.  That is the one I want to sing. Whoever that is, whatever that is, that’s what I want.” That was me, because it had heldentenor characteristics to it, and it had wonderful character qualities too. It had interesting text, and you had to have a big personality, so whatever that fach was, that’s where I was going.  That was the final nail in the coffin that made me put everything else aside.

SG  – So you made a clear decision that you wanted to do that.

DJC – It was a clean, clear-cut decision.  It wasn’t a default position, it was “that’s what I want to do, and that is the role I want to do”.  And with it, I found a whole wealth of repertoire in all the other character roles.  I am thankful for it, because to have a signature role of that magnitude is great; meaning Mime.  I have recorded it, performed it all over the world, and it has kept me in this repertoire for all these years.  I just want to keep singing it and get better at it.  I don’t care if it’s a full-length recording, staged version, new or old production, covering it, scenes of it; as long as it can be a part of my life.  I’ve literally been working on that role for 20 years.  There are large sections you can learn which take a long time, and there are all these interjections that take just as long to learn.  There may be harder roles than Mime, but it is one of the top 20 towering roles in all of opera.  The only character that sings more than Mime in Siegfried is Siegfried.

SG – What is your definition of a character tenor?

DJC – Someone that combines winning individualized characterizations with the ability to provide beautiful singing along with modified characterized singing.  In other words, you have to be a really good actor and approach the music with the best of vocal intentions before you can stylize anything.  You want to be remembered as a strong character.  (There are no small roles, just small voices.) There is a huge movement component that can be built into these roles too, but you have to sing them beautifully first.

SG – Is there a tradition of certain character roles that you sing through time, such as a young character tenor building a career?

DJC – Beppe is absolutely something you can start with.  Basilio, Goro, Gastone are all great roles you can get mileage on.  Little Bat is one that a young person sings as well.  Then there are some age appropriate characters such as the Dancing Master, Cassio, Prunier, Tybalt, etc.  You don’t sing Mime until you are 40, not because you can’t, but because of the weight of it.  You might be able to sing it, but the real question is, can you recover enough to sing it again 3 nights later?

SG – What has been your most rewarding moment?

DJC – There were two moments, both while singing Mime.  The first was 2004 in the MET”s legendary Otto Schenk production of Das Rheingold.  Immediately following the performance, my dressing room phone rang.  I never get calls so I assumed it was the wrong number.  I answered just in case someone was lost, and it was James Levine on the line!  “James Levine here.”  I was in shock.  It was very common for him to call Renee, or Placido, and talk about how much he enjoyed a performance…but me? That was a very proud moment because I knew I had done my job and that led me to several other engagements.

The second was the summer of 2011 in San Francisco.  Before doing the full ‘Ring’ cycle, they were performing Siegfried as a standalone in their regular subscription series.  I worked extremely hard on this performance from day one.  I had some requests regarding staging and props, and was very adamant about it because knowing this character so well, I knew it would make a huge difference in the show.  I rarely make demands, but these were things I had to have.  The director gave in and was very thankful for it in the end.  And I’m sorry, but when I came out for my curtain call it was like a bomb went off.  It was so loud you almost couldn’t hear it.  It was so humbling, not a “hey, I’m a big shot” moment.  The kind of applause that is reserved for Wotan or Siegfried was given to me.  It happened every time we performed it.  I was especially proud because my colleagues knew how hard I worked and they all congratulated me instead of having ego issues.  This really wasn’t about the amount or volume of applause; it was more about audience appreciation that was so rewarding.

SG – When did you know that you were successful in this career?

DJC – I think it was in London around 2000 or 2001 when I was doing a film version of Tosca.  It was going to be premiered at the Venice Film Festival.  I was the only American on the project and I remember them flying me back and forth between Chicago and London to do the recording, and then an onsite location in Italy and Germany, and finally a flight to the Venice Film Festival to view the premiere.  While I was going through this whirlwind of getting measured for costumes, being asked my opinions on the film set, and being escorted from my trailer and having eyes on me everywhere; I thought, “This is for real.  This is real.”  My MET debut had already been scheduled, and many other things scheduled into the future, and I realized, “Ok, you’re in.  Recognize you’re in and enjoy it…and be grateful.”

SG  – What are your goals from here forward?

DJC – Thank you for asking.  I am getting to the point where the majority of my career is behind me now, but I hope to have another good 10 years of doing what I do.  I have worked with every major conductor, legends, future legends, stage directors, film directors, and the best coaches in the world; and if there is one thing I want to do from this point forward is pass on the knowledge.  I have a little vocal institute in Alabama where a lot of my friends come down with me to work with the next generation of young singers.  I’m the last of a generation to work with the old-timers who are now almost all gone.  There are many aspects and concepts of this business that I want to teach going forward because one of the worst things an adult can do in any industry is to not pass on your knowledge to the next generation that is interested in learning.

SG – What do you wish you had more of before you started your career?

DJC – More piano as a child and rudimentary work on an instrument, and foreign language study.  I wish I had learned at least one foreign language fluently when I was much younger.   I was already an adult before I was speaking a few languages well; but I should have concentrated on this sooner!

SG – What advice do you give to young singers trying to start a career?

DJC – It is not really about the size of your voice.  It just isn’t.  Natalie Dessay has a smaller voice than most, so would she have a career if that is all that people believed?  It’s about carrying power, not about decibels.  When your voice is developing, back off the decibels and pump up the quality.  Don’t try to get too big too fast.  I’ve been around a long time and have seen so many people come and go who were always “the next big thing.”  Young singers picking up roles that are too big makes them leave a piece of their voice behind in all those instances; and in 5 years they are done.  Everyone wants the new beauty, the young handsome fresh-voiced singer; and companies want to showcase them.  A lot of ego is involved and people think, “If I don’t do it, someone else will.  I’m going to miss my chance.”  Do you want a long career, or do you want to be a rising star and flame out?