Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall

Michael Chioldi remains a Verdian baritone.

By: May. 06, 2023
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Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall

New York-based baritone Michael Chioldi returns to Seattle Opera in the role of Germont in this month's Francesca Zambello production of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata. A company and audience favorite, Chioldi made his SO debut as Baron Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini's Tosca in 2021 and sang Marcello in Puccini's La bohème that same year.

Chioldi, "generous, big hearted, and immensely talented...a thoroughly charming, perspicacious and erudite man," has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, among others. Here, he shares news about an extraordinary highpoint in his singing career.

ERICA MINER: Welcome back to Seattle, Michael! How are you enjoying our fair city?

Michael Chioldi: Thanks so much. I love it here, especially when the sun is shining. Because of visa issues with our Violetta, I've had free time to explore.

EM: Let's start off with a major milestone-Germont Number 100! What does it feel like?

MC: I absolutely love the role. I've sung 14 Verdi roles. This one always comes back into the queue, because Traviata is in top 5 performed operas, especially in the US. I've had the opportunity to do many different productions. I love the character and really enjoy doing the opera. You come back to characters after you've lived more of your own life and can draw from life experiences that you can bring to a character like Germont. Father characters like Miller in Luisa Miller, where there's a strong father-daughter relationship, or Rigoletto, with its strong father-daughter connection. I enjoy coming back to this role, not just for the singing but for the portrayal of the character.

Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall
Sunny Martini

EM: How has your portrayal has progressed over time?

MC: I never saw Germont as a villain. As I've gotten older, I can see the strength of character he has as a father and bring that in the portrayal more. Perhaps when I was younger I sang him a little too "nice." I didn't want to be as stern. Now I think he changes in the opera, a big change in the duet where he doesn't expect this woman, Violetta, to be as formidable as she is. At the end of the opera where he's asking God for forgiveness for his horrible deed, he feels guilty. I think that flip, if you are a little sterner in the beginning when you meet her, works much better. When I was younger the difference in the arc was not as clear. Now it is. When I do the Q&As after the performances, people ask me what that's like. I always say, "How would you feel if your son was dating someone who was not the most upstanding citizen, how would you treat that? If your family was reliant on you for financial stability, how would you deal with it?" They never see it that way, they see the sadness, heartbreak, the dying. I understand that, but as you get older you realize you can convey things in a more honest way, not mean but to the point. Papa Germont's words speak to a lot of fathers. "No way in hell would that happen to my daughter!"

Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall
Michael Chioldi, Vuvu Mpofu; Philip Newton

EM: It's universal in that it appeals to the father in every man.

MC: I think so, too.

EM: I'm sure you'll have much to say after you redo this role. Then you're coming back for Rheingold.

MC: I'm so thrilled for that. I just started dabbling in the Wagner world, doing The Flying Dutchman with Utah Opera. I sort of made a name for myself as a Verdi dramatic baritone. I still am. But I really enjoyed doing the Dutchman. Coming back for Rheingold is dipping a toe into what is understood as the Bel Canto of Wagner operas. It's a very good first Wagner role. I'm really excited to be paired with some real Wagnerian voices like Greer Grimsley, whom I've watched and admired my whole career. We're also singing together in Florencia en los Amazones at the Met.

EM: Greer is not only a great artist but a wonderful person. What role are you singing in Rheingold?

MC: Donner. It's a smallish role, but he has a great aria. I get to swing my hammer and sing one of the more melodic parts of the opera. You have to wait till the end of the opera to hear it [Laughs].

EM: Compared to other Wagner operas Rheingold is not very long, so the end comes sooner.

MC: [Laughs] That's true!

EM: Getting back to Traviata, in a recent interview, Francesca Zambello said that La Traviata is "just about perfect, musically and dramatically." Would you agree?

MC: I would. There's not one extra note. It's concise, succinct, the story is told well, musically beautiful and to the point. We're cutting the cabaletta of my aria, which is oftentimes done. Stylistically as a formulaic musicality practice it works better with one verse of the cabaletta, but I agree with Alfredo doing his cabaletta in this production.

Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall
Dominick Chenes, Michael Chioldi; Sunny Martini

The great thing about Verdi is that he musically represents the drama so perfectly, it works so well, there's a reason it's a top 5 opera. I remember when I was very young, about 25, I heard Traviata for the first time when I was at the Met for the Met winners concert. When the orchestra started with those very soft strings in the beginning, I was utterly transported from that first moment. I had goose bumps. Then it just swings into this huge Flora's party and "Libiamo." It has such a great arc. The wonderful thing about Germont is his duet in the middle of the opera, what I call the "meat" of the opera, where the piece grounds itself, and changes from there. Dramaturgically it's a fantastic story. Verdi's interpretation enhances it. All great opera, great drama, is when you have a really good story enhanced by the music. Verdi knocks it out of the part with this one.

EM: Someone once said the only thing better than a great story is a great story with music.

MC: That's very true.

EM: How does Ms. Zambello's interpretation differ from the many others you've performed?

MC: I've done this production before, as Germont, at the inception, a co-production with Seattle Opera, with Washington National Opera in 2018. It's gone to quite a few places. Seattle is just now performing it. The interpretation is interesting, set in the early 1900s. The clothing is a little different, the costumes for the women especially are quite striking, which adds to the beauty of the overall look of the story. There's a stark difference between the beautiful colors of the costumes and her being sick. They start in overture where Violetta is already sick. The curtain comes up and you see her in a hospital bed, with other sick people near her Then [Sings] the opera takes off for Flora's party. It transforms into this great ballroom. The difference between those two things is quite nice. Then coming full circle to the end where she ends up in that same bed. It's very clever, it works very well. There are these 3-sided huge set pieces that turn, which helps keep the drama moving. There's only one intermission, which can make it difficult for the Violetta, as she's onstage a lot. That's become a trend.

Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall
Philip Newton

When I do Rigoletto in theatres now they ask if I mind taking just a small pause between acts 2 and 3, which is what they do now at the Met. Last year was such a huge year for me, and getting to do Rigoletto at the Met was amazing. Really transformed my career.

EM: Before we get to that, tell us about your experience with the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, now known as the Metropolitan Opera Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition.

MC: I sang for them the first time in 1991 when I was 21 in my hometown of Pittsburgh, won the district, then went to the regionals in Buffalo and placed 3rd. They only took 1st and 2nd to the winners, so I didn't make it that year. In 1995 I repeated the audition and went on to win. The first time I thought that was my shot, didn't think I would do it again. Then when I participated in the Houston Grand Opera Young Artists Program they encouraged me to do it. I won the regionals in Houston and went to the districts in Dallas, won and went to New York. I remember being there, if you were invited then, you were all winners and sang in a winners' concert and got a big check, which was nice. Now they do places. Being amongst all those amazing singers in that one week was wonderful. The two arias I was going to sing were Largo al factotum and Avant de quitter, the baritone calling cards. I knew if I wanted to win I had to sing something showy and flashy. I was in a coaching with Joan Dornemann, working through the Largo, and she said, "Hold on a second, come with me." She dragged me down the hallway to a studio where Sherill Milnes was coaching some young artists, interrupted the class, sat down at the piano and had me sing in front of all the current artists in the program and work through this aria with Sherill. It was one of those life affirming, beautiful moments. I came out of it thinking, "This is what I'm meant to do, I love this art form, I can do this."

EM: So many of us have these life-changing moments that point us in the direction where we're meant to go.

MC: It was such a positive experience for me the whole week. I saw every opera I could-we had free tickets, sometimes in the company box. I embraced as much as I could and soaked in all the information I could. I remember standing through Parsifal, with Dame Gwyneth Jones and Plácido Domingo on a Good Friday. Not long after, the next year, I was singing Barber, with Julius Rudel conducting, at Washington National Opera. The Met heard me and offered me my first contract.

EM: How exciting! Tell us about your Rigoletto at the Met.

MC: Oh my gosh, Erica, it was so amazing, a life-changing moment for me. I was covering Quinn Kelsey-we were friends. After opening night, he got sick and after the 2nd performance he texted me in the morning and said, "I have a little bit of nasal drip, I haven't told the Met yet, it's probably nothing but just wanted to give you a heads up." I didn't think anything of it. Around 1-2 pm I got the call from the Met saying I was on. It was just thrilling. My voice teacher came to warm me up. I got to the stage door early, my phone rang, they said the New York Times wanted to interview me. I said, "Of course, when?" They said, "Right now." [Laughs] I'm sitting in my dressing room doing an interview with the New York Times, a whirlwind activity, they put me in makeup, I walked the stage for the first time. I'd not been on the set. I was secure with staging. I went on for Act 1, it was an online streaming telecast. My husband says I was uniquely calm [Laughs], I had laser focus and was ready for this moment in my life. I'd sung Rigoletto quite a few times. I was either going to be a huge success or absolute disaster! [Laughs] I sang a very good Act 1. That duet in the beginning is quite difficult, the staging challenging. I was feeling my way around the set, it's a rotating turntable and a little confusing. By the time my Act 2 aria came around-the Duke sings his aria and I come on for "Cortigiani." My friends in the hall said from the first [Sings] "La la, la la" that I was doing my show now. My manager, Caroline Woodfield, was in the hall and said the applause was huge, she hadn't heard applause like that in that house since the 1980s. It was so moving to me that I broke character and smiled back at audience. Latonia Moore, good friend of mine, was in the hall, said she was thinking to herself, "Don't cry, Michael, you still have the half show to sing!" It was my big role house debut, hugely successful. I loved that the Met photographer got a photo of me breaking character, which ended up in the New York Times article.

EM: It must have meant a lot to you.

MC: It had been almost 20 years since I'd sung on that stage. But I was ready for the moment. You never wish anyone ill, but I was happy it happened in a role like that, the tour de force for baritone. It's long, challenging, the tessitura is high, difficult in every possible way to sing, to act. To knock that out of the park, to get love back from audience, was everything. Everyone at the Met was incredibly supportive. The orchestra applauded for me after the aria, the conductor Daniel Rustioni was with me the whole show.

EM: Sounds like a dream come true.

MC: Then they gave me 2 of my own performances the next season, which was thrilling. People who couldn't come at short notice the first time could come then. That was exciting.

EM: Tell us about your recent debut and upcoming appearances at Gran Teatro Liceu in Barcelona. What was it like singing with Radvanovsky, Kaufmann, Beczala and co?

MC: Christina Schepelmann, Seattle Opera's general director, who was running the Barcelona company, hired me to sing Gerard there. It was an amazing second cast, it was my hall and role debut. In another situation I was covering fabulous baritone Carlos Álvarez. He got sick, I ended up doing 10 of 15 performances. I got to sing with Sondra and Jonas, which was amazing. Sondra and I won the Met competition together in 1995. We've been friends this whole time and finally got to sing together, which was incredible. Working with Jonas really special, an incredible artist, so supportive onstage. He gives a lot as an artist. The following season I was asked back to do the first cast of Luisa Miller, with Piotr and Sondra. That was incredibly successful for me. In my heart I'm still a Verdian. The tessitura was a bit higher than Nemico della patria, but I really thrived in Miller.

EM: I'm so excited about everything you've accomplished. What's coming up soon?

MC: I'm singing Iago with the Met Orchestra tour. Paris, London, Baden-Baden, with Yannick conducting. I'm thrilled for that and to be back at Met for Florencia, in the fall, to have my own run of a show, the thing dreams are made of. So many singers at the Met are so talented don't get their opportunity. I feel I'm representing all of them in a way. Just do the work, be prepared, and it can happen. I'm thrilled that Peter Gelb entrusted me with this role, that I can be back in that wonderful opera house, which feels like a home to me. I feel lucky to be singing there, where my friends and so many people can come and support me.

Interview: Michael Chioldi of LA TRAVIATA at McCaw Hall
Sunny Martini

EM: It was my second home for 21 years, so I know the feeling. Thank you so much, Michael. Always a pleasure talking to you. Toi, toi, toi for Saturday!

MC: Thanks so much, Erica.

Photo credits: Seattle Opera, Sunny Martini, Philip Newton


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