Baritone Michael Chioldi is a singer’s singer. The New York City-based award-winning baritone and Pittsburgh, PA, native specializes in dramatic roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss and has performed at most major US opera houses. Aside from performing at the Metropolitan Opera, Chioldi recently appeared at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Utah Opera, Austin Opera and Palm Beach Opera.
This month, from June 25-27, Chioldi’s powerful rendering of the infamous villain Scarpia in Seattle Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca will stream online. Tosca is one of the most beloved operas of all time, and Chioldi has much to say about the role and others he has performed during his outstanding career.
Erica Miner: Congratulations on your Seattle Opera debut, Michael! We’ve been eagerly awaiting you! I believe it’s been a long time in coming.
Michael Chioldi: Thank you! Yes, several years ago, Speight (Jenkins, former SO general manager) offered me the role of Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville but there was a conflict and it never happened. I didn’t really know Aidan (Lang, Jenkins’s successor), but Christina (Scheppelmann, current general manager) has been a big supporter of mine since my beginning days. She helped make my San Francisco Opera debut happen, and now I’m thrilled to be here for Scarpia.
EM: When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?
MC: I always felt I had the performing bug, even in high school. My Italian-Austrian family, cultured though middle class, was musical. My brother and sister played piano and accordion, and I grew up playing guitar. The emphasis was on good food, good shoes, and music [Laughs]. I originally wanted to be a doctor, but I switched to music as an undergrad at West Virginia University. I was from the Pittsburgh area, a little coal mining town of a thousand or so, called Avonmore. It was fun growing up there, everyone knew everyone else. I wanted to get out of the small town, but I didn’t want to go too far from home, so I chose West Virginia U.
EM: How long did it take you to switch to music?
MC: The bug bit me early on. I auditioned for the voice studio at Virginia, but I didn’t know what to sing, so I sang the National Anthem [Sings]. Their mouths just dropped, and before it went any further, they said, “Go get the opera director.” He offered me the role of Sam in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. And I said no because I was so busy! [Laughs] But then I heard them practice the opera and I suddenly regretted saying no. Then, as fate would have it, the guy who had been offered the role had a family emergency and I was asked to do it. This time I said yes! In rehearsal I was just struck by everything about the opera, and about opera overall. I thought, if could do this for a living—well, it just hit me that it was what I really wanted to do. I finished undergrad and went to Yale for my masters. Then I got a phone call from Houston Grand Opera. They were looking for baritone. So, I went to Houston after my masters. There were some wonderful singers there—Ana Maria Martinez and Jill Grove among them. A very good class! I sang 10 roles in 2 years.
EM: That must have been amazing. What an experience.
MC: Yes! In 1995 I won competitions, including the Met National Council Auditions. My mom and dad got to see me on the Met stage in the winners’ concert. It was significant for me, since that was the last time I saw my dad. After that I went to Europe, came back here and did the regional circle, then became the go-to baritone at New York City Opera, doing 4 operas a season. From 1999 to 2009 I sang there full time and my repertoire changed as got older. I started out with Papageno, and other light roles, comprimario roles like Morales. Now I’m doing Verdi and more dramatic rep at bigger houses, here and in Europe. Macbeth, Rigoletto, Nabucco. It’s a singer’s dream, to start out with small, “baby” beginning baritone roles and graduate to Mozart, bel canto, and ultimately Verdi.
EM: Let’s talk about Seattle’s Tosca. I assume it’s been socially distanced. What has that been like?
MC: As it’s been done thus far, we rehearsed and then filmed. We flew in, quarantined for the proper amount of time, and followed all the very strict protocols. We were tested every 3 days. Let me tell you, I was more than ready not to have that stick up my nose anymore! Then they broke down the process. We recorded with the orchestra in Benaroya Hall. What a beautiful hall. Such great acoustics.
EM: It is indeed. We love it.
MC: The orchestra was onstage, and the singers were at microphones socially distanced throughout the hall. After they mastered the recording, they piped it in while filming it at the historic St. James Cathedral in Seattle and we lip synched along with it. Believe me, 5 weeks was just enough time to do it. It was intense, really difficult.
EM: It does sound like a challenge. Was it filmed in color?
MC: Yes. In fact, it reminded me of some of the old movies of Tosca, like from the 50s.
EM: Is Scarpia one of your favorite roles?
MC: How can it not be. Not only is it amazing music, but it also has the best entrance of all of opera. Then you’re onstage for 30 minutes and you end Act 1 with the Te Deum. It’s one of the greatest grand moments in all of opera.
EM: And then there’s Act 2.
MC: Yes. Act 2 can be an act totally on its own.
EM: What are some of your other favorite roles?
MC: I love playing more complex roles, ones with different colors, that I can enjoy now that my voice is darker, bigger. I can play with those colors. Iago is one. I’ve sung 3 different productions of Otello. Rigoletto is fun to play. He’s like a Marvel Movies anti-hero. I consider myself a singer’s singer, but my voice is also caught up with acting.
EM: I imagine Rigoletto must lie really well in the voice.
MC: I enjoy Rigoletto. Singing it is definitely challenging. I think Verdi is the best composer for the baritone voice. It’s like he thought of himself as the baritone role in the operas he wrote. Germont in Traviata is a scene stealer. So are Ford and Falstaff, and other baritone title characters.
EM: How about Simon Boccanegra?
MC: I can’t wait to do Boccanegra. I just did Luisa Miller. Though it’s not one of the most recognizable operas, I loved doing it.
EM: You’ve also premiered some operas—the role of Man in Anthony Brandt’s The Birth of Something comes to mind—in fact, you’ve done a fair amount of contemporary opera.
MC: In the earlier days of my career, I was well known for modern music, as a quick learner and good musician. At one time I was getting pieces in the mail from composers almost every day asking if I would do them. At one point I had to choose if I would stick with that or go with the more traditional rep. I always knew I wanted to do Verdi, whereas the modern music, with its disjunct melodies, can be taxing on the voice. That said, I did have to be versatile. When I teach, I tell my students to be as versatile as possible, especially these days. Overall, I think the day of the big opera career may largely be over. It’s more a “gig” life now. New operas keep people coming, which is great. It’s important to do what must be done to keep the art form alive. But there has to be a balance.
EM: I was fascinated to read that you sang in Kurt Weill’s The Protagonist.
MC: I loved that opera. We did it at Santa Fe. It was such a magical summer. I sang in the Greek chorus, part of a troop of 3 players that appeared all throughout the opera. It was really tiring. They had to hide oxygen tanks in various places for the singers! I adore Kurt Weill; he takes you right back to the 1920s. Very cinematic.
EM: How do you feel about singing in English? A number of singers I’ve interviewed have said it’s quite difficult.
MC: Yes, it can be taxing, but in a different way from other languages.
EM: You had a chance to sing the infrequently performed Debussy & Poe: Fall of the House of Usher & Devil in the Belfry. What was that like?
MC: That was a really interesting project in New York City, which was pieced together. Very intimate, jazzy, bluesy, sexy and heady. Kind of the polar opposite of Verdi grand opera. I got to access the more tender parts of my instrument and my acting. I wish I could do more of that. In a museum setting, it made perfect sense. I also got to do The Andrée Expedition, a song cycle by Dominic Argento about a hot air balloon trip to the North Pole, in a marble museum in Vermont. That was wonderful, masterful. I’m now developing it as a one man show. I had written to Argento about it, and he was so excited at the idea. He wrote me an amazing letter back, which I’m going to include in the show.
EM: What’s coming up next for you?
MC: This August in Arizona, I’m doing a workshop for a one-man show. I won grant to develop it with 3-D immersive technology.
EM: That sounds revolutionary.
MC: Then in September, Rigoletto with New York City Opera in upstate New York and Bryant Park in the city. I’m going back to my hometown of Pittsburgh to give a solo recital at the beautiful Carnegie Music Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never sung there and it’s my first time back.
EM: The Prodigal Son returns.
MC: [Laughs] Then back to Seattle for la Bohème later that month.
EM: You’re definitely showing your love for opera in a big way.
MC: Opera is vital to the fabric of society. It touches people in a different way than any other art form. The power of the acoustic voice can touch people in a different way.
EM: Your commitment to that is positively inspiring. Thanks so much, Michael, for sharing your insights.