David Cangelosi: The Art of Singing Secondary Roles

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In the glamorous world of opera most singers aspire to be the next star. Students rush to sing big arias such as “Nessun Dorma” or “Casta Diva” with the hopes of becoming the next Pavarotti or the next Callas. However, American tenor David Cangelosi recognized early in his career that he wanted to sing opera. Instead of chasing the primo uomo roles, he decided to put his acting talent and vocal intelligence to the service of secondary roles.

His decision proved fruitful. Cangelosi is one of the few opera singers to remain relevant today after over 20 years of singing secondary roles. His list of roles include characters such as Mime, Beppe, Goro and Cassio, while sharing the stage with legendary stars such as Placido Domingo, Johan Botha, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna.

Cangelosi’s road to the opera stage had some early detours. In fact, right after obtaining a Bachelor in Voice performance he became an entertainer, singing in bars and Broadway. “People kept saying to me: your voice belongs in opera,” Explaining that he wasn’t really a pop singer, he just sang old time classics with a classically trained voice. At one point after some years of touring as a “pop” singer he felt he needed a new artistic challenge and decided to go back to school.

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Siegfried, San Francisco Opera

He enrolled for a Masters in voice at Boston University to clean his bad vocal habits and give opera a shot. “By that point, I also decided that I was a tenor, so a lot of things were up in the air,” Cangelosi said. “I remember when I auditioned for the young artist program of Lyric Opera of Chicago, I had sent all my paperwork and planned to audition as a baritone, but by the time the audition came I had become a tenor.” He added that Andrew Foldi, director of the program at the time, didn’t even want to hear him sing because of this sudden change of fach, reluctantly he accepted and recognized the talent immediately after hearing the tenor perform an excerpt of Mime in Wagner’s Siegfried.

“For me singing character roles was an absolute conscious decision, back in the 1990s there was a great need for someone like me. At first, I was still covering and understudying roles, I was watching the few masters who were still around. I would listen to singers such as Florindo Andreolli, Piero de Palma and listen to almost every Mime you could think of, and in the back of my mind I always thought I could do it better that them’”. He was convinced he could not only do justice to those roles with his great stage presence but also by singing them beautifully. “I made it my absolute mission to try to be the best Mime in the world”.

Die Fledermaus, Canadian Opera Company

Anecdotally, he remembers that conductor Pierre Boulez told him once during a rehearsal that he was singing too “beautifully” implying that he should not do so, because he was a secondary role. He shrugged it off and replied “I will try to ugly it up next time.” He admits that sometimes there are companies, conductors or artistic directors who don’t want any competition for their lead characters. However, he insists that he tries to sing beautifully first and keep the characterization to a minimum. By doing so he has won the respect and praise of many of his colleagues who feel inspired and motivated by his performance.


He confesses that the most important thing for him is to figure out the passaggio area, which for a tenor can be anywhere between Eb 4 and Ab 4. If a tenor sings without proper technique in that zone of the voice, he will typically end up shouting or passing into falsetto with little resonance. “Still to this day I have to think where I am going to place F,F# and G. Sometimes I have to even isolate every F F# and G in the score and decide the best strategy to sing them”. He continued explaining that one of the biggest realizations he’s had, was to accept that for his voice there was no unique solution to singing the passaggio notes. “In fact, there are three or even maybe four different ways that I can approach them” . 

He continued revealing that he learned a lot from listening to recordings. He studied how tenor Ermanno Mauro treated the passaggio. “He would sometimes already be covering in an Eb, like a baritone. Placido Domingo would also do that sometimes.” He added that he has been fortunate enough to have sung along great tenors and has taken every opportunity to ask them voice technique related questions. “I would ask them if they had 30 minutes to teach me how they did this or that and none of them ever said no.” He points to an important lesson he had with dramatic tenor and friend Johan Botha, “I sat down and recorded his voice routine. To my surprise 90% of his routine consisted of 1 hour of falsetto exercises, adding little by little his regular chest voice. “The result was amazing. He thought falsetto limbered up his vocal chords and didn’t cost him.”  Since that day Cangelosi has adopted the same routine. He gave me a live demonstration of falsetto use by singing an excerpt of Mime in Siegfried that starts on a high Bb. It resulted into a dolce and legato line. “It’s just the perfect solution, it always works,” he added.

Siegfried, San Francisco Opera

The American Tenor will be performing tomorrow his emblematic role of Mime in this year’s production of Das Rheingold by Opéra de Montréal – November 10,13,15 and 17.  www.operademontreal.com


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