Interview: Baritone Michael Chioldi loves playing villains, stars in Kentucky Opera's Tosca [Music]

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Michael Chioldi

Baritone Michael Chioldi takes on the role of the villainous Scarpia in Kentucky Opera's opening performance of Tosca this Friday night. Puccini's classic tale of love, jealousy, betrayal, and tragedy is a grand entry to ring in the 60th Kentucky Opera season and to welcome back the much-missed Louisville Orchestra to the pit. Chioldi has performed at nearly every major American opera house including The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, Washington National Opera and Los Angeles Opera, as well as stages around the world.

I recently had a chance to interview Chioldi, who makes his home in New York City, about how he got his start in opera and his take on playing Scarpia. Along the way, he shared some of his career highlights and where he likes to hang out in Louisville.

Where are you from originally, and how did you get your start in music -- and then into opera?

I am from a very small town in Pennsylvania named Avonmore. (Pennsylvania, Appalachia). It has a population of about 400 people. I think there are more people living in my apartment building in NYC than in the town I grew up in. I started singing when I was young. I sang all the time, to the point of annoying everyone. However, when you are 8 and singing all the time, it is cute, I suppose. I joined the church choir at St. Ambrose and that was my first singing gig. When I was in high school I sang in the choir and played piano and guitar, and was involved in community theater as well. 

I started studying voice at West Virginia University, where I was an undergraduate. When I auditioned, I did not have a great knowledge of repertoire at that point (understatement), so I sang the National Anthem as my audition piece. I ended up at Yale University for my Masters in Music and then at the Houston Grand Opera Young Artist Program, after that. I apprenticed at Santa Fe Opera and with San Francisco Opera's Merola program. In 1995 I won several competitions including the Metropolitan Opera Voice Competition, and made my debut there the next season in Andrea Chenier with the late great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Certainly, one of the highlights of my career.

You've played Scarpia before -- how do you prepare for a new performance of a role that you are already familiar with? Do you have some examples of some of the subtle changes or different shadings that you've given the role over time?

I have been singing Scarpia now for about seven years. This is my seventh production and I have a few more coming up this season. I believe it is my favorite role in all of opera. As I have grown as an artist and as a person, so have my performances as Scarpia. As a younger Dramatic Baritone, my voice is just now hitting its prime. So, it is easier to sing now than a few years ago. I suppose when I was younger, I just saw Scapia as mean and perhaps emphasized that characteristic. However, now I see him as a multidimensional, severely complex character and try to bring that out in my portrayal. I believe that he enjoys much of the horrible things he does and therefore when singing it, I can enjoy it as well. For example, using a sweet tone now where before I may have chosen a harsher one.

Do you prefer playing heroes or villains? Is there a classic role in the baritone repertoire that you haven't had a chance to tackle yet?

I was known earlier in my career for singing comedic roles, such as; Papageno in The Magic Flute and The Barber in The Barber of Seville. Both wonderful roles. But there is no doubt in my mind that the villain is my absolute favorite to perform. 

I hope to some day sing the role of Woton in Wagner's Ring Cycle. That is my dream role.

Who are the performers that you've been most influenced by?

When I was at Yale, I had the opportunity to work with Sherrill Milnes quite often. His use of language in creating a character had a big influence on me. The performer that has had the biggest influence on me and my career though, would have to be Placido Domingo. I have had the opportunity to share the stage with him quite a few times and he has conducted me in a number of operas as well, one of which was Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas at the Kennedy Center with the Washington National Opera. I was a last minute replacement for an ailing colleague and Maestro Domingo hired me to fill in. It was undoubtedly one of the highest moments in my career thus far. Sheer vocal influences would have to be: Sam Ramey (whom I've been lucky enough to perform with a few times), Leo Nucci (whom I covered as Scarpia in France), and Robert Merrill (whose recordings have taught me much about singing Verdi).

What are your interests and hobbies outside of music?

Anyone who knows me could answer this question in a heartbeat. I am a huge tennis fan. I love to play and a few weeks ago I was at the US Open in NYC nearly every day. I am a pretty good cook, thanks to my mother Barbara, and have become a serious foodie. I have been to some wonderful places here in Louisville. Some of my personal favorites in town are: Decca, the Mayan Cafe, Proof, and Hammer Heads. I love Please and Thank You for coffee and little did I know that September was National Bourbon Heritage Month. Score one for Kentucky Opera for having me here in September. I also have a fascination with fast cars, and anything to do with the outdoors. However, my biggest interest these days is my niece Alexis. She is a beautiful girl with a wonderful spirit. She calls me Uncle Mikes. Plural. HA.

Quick opinions

What is the most romantic opera?

La Boheme

What is the most overrated opera?

Cosi fan tutte. You do realize how much trouble this question/answer is going to get me in, don't you? :)

What opera should be performed more than it is?

Don Carlo (I am doing my first one in Austin, TX next year.)

What is your favorite contemporary opera?

Nixon in China

What is the most uncomfortable bit of costumery you've ever had to wear?

None. I had to be nude in an opera years ago. I was in a pool of water and the temperature of the water was a serious issue.

***

Want to see more of Michael? No, there are no nude scenes in Tosca, but he is one of the Barihunks. He would probably most prefer that you take in one of the three performances of Tosca at the Brown Theatre on Friday, September 21 at 8pm; Sunday, September 23 at 2pm; and next Friday, September 28 at 8pm. Buy tickets online or call (502) 562-0100.

Check out a preview of Michael's Scarpia in this performance from Spain:

 

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