Those who went to the Metropolitan Opera on January 4th expecting to see baritone Quinn Kelsey in the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto were in for a big surprise. As Kelsey struggled with cold-like symptoms, Michael Chioldi was called in at the last minute to replace him. And what Chioldi did was no less than Caesar-like: he came, he sang, he conquered. Not only on that particular evening, but also during the following two performances, on January 7th and 11th. A highly praised singer in the United States and abroad, Chioldi had not been back at the Met for almost 25 years. To return and to debut a role of the magnitude of Verdi’s Rigoletto on that stage is not only a heroic feat but also the realization of a dream. It isn’t every day that chances like this one come along. But when they do and the singer who has been preparing for such a moment for a long time, is ready—in fact, more than ready—to seize the opportunity and give it his all, the experience is extraordinary for both singer and public. I had the pleasure of speaking with an exuberant Michael Chioldi after his second performance as Rigoletto. (For more information about Michael Chioldi, please visit his website, mentioned at the end of this interview).
You just took over for Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto, can you tell us how it all happened?
I was engaged at the Met to cover the role; I’m also covering Scarpia in Tosca and Enrico in Lucia. As a cover you always have to be prepared to go on, of course, but during these times of Covid, even more so. Quinn came down with Covid, and because of this very contagious variant, at the Met they’re doing everything they can to keep people away from one another and also trying to rehearse. We’re tested three times a week. We’re rehearsing and singing with masks until the performances. I really hope that Quinn gets better soon. But I was very excited for the opportunities to sing these performances.
Michael Chioldi relishing the moment in front of the Metropolitan Opera,
The last time you sang at the Met was in the 90s, right?
I sang five roles there between 1996 to 1997, like Fléville in Andrea Chenier with Luciano Pavarotti and Maestro Levine. Then I’d gone away, and over the years I sang across the plaza at the old New York City Opera. I was a favorite baritone of theirs for a while. Then, with singing on the big regional circuit here in America, I’d always have maybe one or two gigs at the big opera houses here, what we call the A houses.
So, how did it feel to step on that Met stage and win the audience’s acclaim, as you did?
Oh my God, it was amazing, it was a dream come true! I wasn’t so much nervous as I was really thrilled and excited. Maybe a little bit nervous, but I was incredibly focused to try and do everything as best as I possibly could. I knew it was a very big moment for me. I just poured my heart and soul into the music, and the audience rewarded me. It was incredible! The ovation after my aria… I mean it’s the stuff that careers are made of!
Michael Chioldi at a rehearsal for “Rigoletto”.
Rigoletto is not an easy role. Privately, he is a father, and then he has this public persona: as a buffoon, he gets paid for mocking people and he can be cruel. At the same time there’s this immense tenderness in him when it comes to his daughter. This complexity comes through not just in the vocal nuances, but also in your body language. As Rigoletto, in one instant you can appear defeated, like when your daughter is telling you what happened to her, and then in another, you seem empowered and larger than life when you think of avenging her. Do you have a specific approach to building the many facets of this role or is it instinctive?
Maybe a little bit of both. But I think that to play the big Verdi baritone roles, you have to be able to access not only that tenderness and that legato quality in your voice, but also the really strong sort of biting quality in the singing and the acting. That’s what makes a true Verdi baritone. That’s what the great singers of the past had, and that’s what I try to do as well. It’s something that I love because I’m really an actor. I’ve always enjoyed the characters in opera, especially these multifaceted complex characters like Rigoletto. I don’t see him as an evil person. I see him as a sort of pathetic being. The only thing he has left in life is his daughter. I mean, how many fathers in the world wouldn’t do everything they can to protect their teenage daughters? I’ve played him so many different ways. Bringing a bit of all of these characteristics and different colors of the role, that’s the big challenge but also the most rewarding for me and for the audience.
Yes, and that came across because yours was such a multidimensional Rigoletto. Some baritones transmit mainly the tenderness and the revenge-oriented aspect, but you added so many nuances in between in the way you phrased and in all the dynamics and colors.
Thank you. I worked very hard for all of that!
Michael Chioldi backstage getting into make-up and costume.
Plus, the physicality is important. The slightest change in body language conveyed how you were feeling.
Yes. My brother was here on the second night, and he was saying that it’s the first time he had realized how physical of a role Rigoletto is. It’s definitely a role that requires a lot of stamina for the singing and the acting. It’s a long night! There’s only maybe 30 minutes in the opera when I’m not on stage.
Do you have a strategy in how you pace yourself?
For sure. That’s the hard part about being a cover because you’re not really rehearsing the whole time, so you’re watching the other cast do it a lot. When you actually get to go on, you haven’t been up there rehearsing every day. You have to be really prepared and keep yourself ready, like an athlete, I suppose. Keep the training up and be ready at any moment. It’s a lot of dedication to the art form to be able to do that.
Did you get any time on stage before you learned that you had to go on or did it happen at the last minute?
It was very last minute. I think I learned at 1:00 PM on the day of the performance. I got to the Met at 6:00. I did an interview with The New York Times, and then by 6:30 the Maestro came and talked to me about some musical things. At 7:00 I was put into makeup, at 7:30 I went onto the stage for the first time, walked through the set and did some technical things, and at 8:00 it all began.
Did you feel like you were dreaming?
Indeed I did! The next days it all felt like: did it really happen? Was this really true? That’s why I was so happy to get a couple more performances. Of course, I feel badly for my colleague, and I wish him a speedy recovery but I’m so grateful for the chance to do this role in the world’s greatest opera house.
The last “Rigoletto” production was the Rat Pack-era Las Vegas one. This is a new production. How did you find it; was it easy to work with?
There are certain challenges. I mean, you’re singing one of the hardest parts of the opera in a duet and you’re walking up steps. It’s very difficult but I really like the set for several reasons. In most of the scenes there are hard surfaces and of course the Met is a very big house. As opera singers, we always like to sing against walls, so it projects the voice out into the hall a little better. I think the costumes are gorgeous and overall the production works very well. I’m a fan of it.
Michael Chioldi channeling Rigoletto in his dressing room.
You sang in many opera houses throughout the United States. How do you find regional audiences here as opposed to in Europe or other parts of the world?
It’s interesting, I remember years ago when I would do outreach programs to schools. I would sing a high note and they would applaud in the middle of an aria at the high note. The culture is not quite there like it is in Europe, but there’s a certain enthusiasm in American audiences that I really enjoy. For instance, when you sing Scarpia in regional houses sometimes they will boo you when you come out for your curtain call. That never happens in Europe; they never boo the evil character ever. They always applaud the singer.
So, there is more audience participation in the actual story here…
That’s right. It’s a different experience altogether. In Barcelona for instance, I did Andrea Chenier with Sondra Radvanovsky and Jonas Kaufmann, and it’s like a soccer match there sometimes. They probably understand the singing and the opera part of it much more than some American audiences. Of course, in New York City and the other big cities they understand it very well. There’s a big opera culture here, in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago… and in Seattle where I’m singing a lot these days.
Michael Chioldi as Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” with Palm Beach Opera in a production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (Photo courtesy of Michael Chioldi)
Can you share some future plans with us?
This summer, on August 6th, I’m going to sing Papa Germont in Verdi’s La traviata in Bryant Park with Charles Castronovo and his wife, Ekaterina Siurina. Then I go to Utah Opera in Salt Lake City, which is a company I’ve worked at very often because I really love it there. They have a very rich culture there, and a very young audience. They’re mounting Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman for me there; I’m very excited about singing that title role. Then I go to Atlanta to sing Sharpless in Madama Butterfly.
You have also sung a lot of contemporary opera…
I’m known for being a very good musician and learning music very easily and quickly, and I had a prowess for contemporary music; it really sustained me in the early parts of my career. I enjoyed it very much. But, you know, I made a real decided choice to focus on the Verdi and bel canto repertoire. There was a moment in my career, maybe in my mid-30s when I thought that if I’m only known for contemporary music it would possibly shorten my career. Contemporary music is wonderful, but oftentimes it’s challenging to sing and build a career only on contemporary music.
As a dramatic Verdi baritone do you feel you come into your own later in life?
I was fortunate enough that my voice developed into a full Verdi baritone. Early on I sang a lot of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and so many light lyric baritone roles. Then I went into the high French repertoire singing Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, then Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas. I sang Pelléas in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande once, which is almost a tenor role. At 33, I started singing all of the bel canto repertoire, for instance the Donizetti roles: Belcore in L’elisir d’amore, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, which is a great role, it’s sort of the bridge role for a baritone to see if you can move into the Verdi repertoire. For Verdi it’s not just the complexity of character, you also have to have the complexity of voice to do it well. The high notes in Rigoletto are very high, some of the duets are also very high; then of course the there’s the high A-flat at the end of Act 2 in “Si vendetta.” Almost like a tenor on the high and like a bass-baritone in the middle. That’s the calling card of a Verdi baritone: this warm, rich, beautiful sound in the middle and then a very powerful trumpet-like sound in the high voice.
Michael Chioldi where he plays tennis in NYC at Pier 40 on the Hudson looking South onto World Trade One/Freedom Tower. (Photo courtesy of Michael Chioldi)
Some may be tempted to sing forte a lot because they go for a booming baritone sound, but you didn’t shy away from soft singing, from pianissimi, which was so beautiful.
Thank you. I worked really hard at that. I’m not young anymore, I’ve been singing for a long time, and I think it takes a lot of maturity to have the courage to sing softly, piano, on stage.
Do you have any message for your fans who came out to support you?
I want to thank everyone for their huge outpouring of love and for showing up for me at the Metropolitan Opera. It felt sort of like, the hometown boy does good! Everyone has come out to see me. It’s been amazing, truly the stuff that dreams are made of. And because you don’t ever imagine how it’s going to be… I mean, you dream of it being amazing, when it actually happens it’s so much better than you ever could have dreamed. So, I just want to give all the love back to everyone who was there on those three nights, and to everyone who came to support me.
Top photo: Michael Chioldi taking a curtain call following his performance in the title role of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera