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This Tonio is not clowning around
Baritone enjoys adding multiple levels and dimensions to an opera character
After an hour speaking with Michael Chioldi, you feel as if you’ve reconnected to the wide world of opera even though you’re sitting in a Cleveland Starbucks. Intelligent, articulate, and funny, with an impressive range of professional experience, this out baritone from near Pittsburgh with a world-wide career provides fascinating insights into his own art and the current state of the opera scene.
Chioldi is back here for Opera Cleveland’s upcoming production of two of opera’s most theatrical short works. One, Poulenc’s forty-minute The Human Voice, is a musical setting of Jean Cocteau’s dramatization of the relationship-ending phone call he received from one of his male lovers. The other, I Pagliacci (The Clowns), is the story of a beautiful young woman, Nedda, who is trapped in an apparently endless relationship with an older and very jealous man whom she married out of gratitude, and from whom she wants to escape.
In the second work Chioldi takes the role of Tonio, one of the two other men who also desire Nedda. Usually his character is portrayed as a malevolent older hunchback, a Quasimodo gone bad, who tries to destroy Nedda because, unlike Esmeralda, she has no sympathy for him.
Working with director Bernard Uzan, who allows singers to contribute to the development of their roles, Chioldi has decided to present him in a different light. His Tonio will be far more sympathetic, a younger man who, though perhaps somewhat limited mentally, still believes that he, too, can aspire to happiness with another. A trusting if naïve individual whom Nedda has strung along for her own amusement, Chioldi’s Tonio will, unlike most, have the sympathy of the audience when the street-savvy and sadistic young woman finally turns on him with her whip. (Pagliacci is one of several turn-of-the-century operas that delve into the realm of S&M.) This Tonio will not be the opera’s villain.
Being able to give multiple levels and dimensions to a character appeals to Chioldi, who began in “straight” community theater and was subsequently drawn to opera by the stories as much as the music. This interest in acting explains, in part, Chioldi’s eagerness to be involved in some of the most important new operas produced over the last two decades.
In March, for example, he took the role of the former president in Long Beach Opera’s production of John Adams’ Nixon in China, for which he received literally glowing reviews. Chioldi spent months researching the character, wanting to find some elements in the man that would allow the audience to have at least a certain sympathy for him.
He also appeared in the San Francisco and Houston premières of Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk, an opera about the assassinated opera-loving San Francisco supervisor. Chioldi spoke at length about the difference in audience reaction to the Houston performances, which were well received, and those in San Francisco, where the heavily gay audience embraced the work as an expression of their own lives on stage.
Another modern work that very much interests Chioldi is John Corigliano’s melodic masterpiece, The Ghosts of Versailles, which ran to sold-out houses at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The work takes a large cast and elaborate sets, however, so the current recession has led to the cancellation of further performances.
Chioldi points out that he has to temper this desire to be involved in modern works. There is still the danger of being type-cast as a specialist in the modern, which still shuts doors and possibilities. Furthermore, many modern works, such as Nixon in China, push the voice to the very edge, so he needs to keep singing Mozart, Donizetti, and Verdi to keep his voice agile and fresh.
Chioldi also has his eyes on several roles in the repertory in between, among them Zurga in the homoerotically charged Pearl Fishers, which Opera Cleveland did in September, and Gérard in Andrea Chénier. Having had a success recently in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in Germany, he now thinks about the possibility of Wotan and even Wozzeck in Berg’s opera about a tormented soldier, sometime in the still somewhat distant future as his voice continues to mature.
As I do with all interviewees, I asked Chioldi whether being gay has played any role in his career. His response was one that I hadn’t heard before. He pointed out that while some of the big female names in opera, such as Brigitte Fassbender and Patricia Racette, have come out as lesbian, none of the big names among the men has done so. That, he explained, was troubling to him seventeen years ago when he, already out even then, began his career. He wanted a gay role model in the profession, but they didn’t exist then and still don’t exist now.
Being identified as gay in high school also played a role in his subsequent career, he explained, in that the pain it caused gave him a depth of feeling on which he has been able to draw for some of the more tormented characters he has subsequently been called on to perform. Among them is Tonio, whom he plays as a victim of others’ cruelty for a difference that merits no such treatment.
I Pagliacci and The Human Voice will be performed at Playhouse Square’s State Theater Thursday and Saturday evenings, November 11 and 13, and Sunday afternoon November 14 at 2 pm. For tickets to see Chioldi’s Tonio call the box office at 216 241-6000 or 866 546-1353, or go to www.playhousesquare.org.
Richard M. Berrong is a professor of French at Kent State University, as well as an accomplished scholar of LGBT issues and the author of In Love with a Handsome Sailor: The Emergence of Gay Identity and the Novels of Pierre Loti.
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