Toronto
4 min

A gigolo with jiggle

Reinterpreting opera's grand seducer

FORGET THE MORALIZING. Michael Chioldi's debut as Don Giovanni will give a sexy new spin to Mozart's famous lothario. Credit: Bruce Zinger

What do a former Yves Saint-Laurent model, a dead Austrian composer and a fictional gigolo have in common? More than you might expect. They’re all integral components of Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni, opening Thu, Nov 11.



Baritone Michael Chioldi plays the title role. Chioldi is attractive, affable, charming and has keen sense of his own personal charisma. It’s an admirable list of traits for a former YSL-model-turned-opera-singer.



“Yeah, I did runway for a year when I was 19,” he laughs. Since then, the Pennsylvania farm-town native has attended Yale University on full scholarship and furthered his studies at the prestigious Merola and Houston Grand Opera training programs. He has won at least 10 major voice competitions, including the Metropolitan National Council Competition.



He jokes that close friends call him “Bella Vita Chioldi” because of his uncanny luck. Chioldi was in-line skating in Central Park when he got a call on his cell asking how quickly could he make it to the Met. He arrived at Lincoln Center within minutes, and enjoyed a very successful debut.



In 1996, Chioldi crashed Opera Atelier’s New York auditions. Artistic director Marshall Pynkoski was so impressed that he offered Chioldi the starring role in Don Giovanni on the spot. However, his agent at the time thought Chioldi was too young to handle such a demanding performance schedule. So he couldn’t accept the offer.



But as his publicist will tell you, what Marshall wants, Marshall gets. Now that OA is remounting its Don Giovanni, Chioldi makes his professional debut as the famous Don here in Toronto.



“I really had to fight not being the seducer,” Chioldi begins, speaking about Pynkoski’s countertrend vision for Mozart’s traditional antihero. It’s a conceit of the 20th century to treat Don Giovanni like a moralistic story about how bad people (read: sexually liberal folks) get what they deserve in the end. They go to hell. OA strips away layers of post-Victorian prudery to reveal a different story, one where Don Giovanni is actually the hero.



A young man at the height of his sexual powers, the Don comes face-to-face within the opera’s 24-hour timeframe with a first: Women begin to resist his advances. This is what drives the action.



The popular idea that the Don is a misogynist is also scrapped. “Marshall thought that approach was so boring,” says Chioldi. Instead, OA plays out the “what if” of a man who truly loves women – specifically, whichever woman last crosses his line of sight. Those who already love Mozart’s heros may recognize in the Don a mature Cherubino of sorts.



“I was disappointed at first,” Chioldi concedes. “But Marshall is very convincing. He said, ‘People are just very attracted to you, Michael. You seduce people just by the way you look, the way you carry yourself as a person. Giovanni is like you, seductive as a person – as opposed to a seducer.’ It’s not what I was expecting. But I fell into it very quickly, and I’m absolutely sold on it.”



Chioldi speaks animatedly about the contrasts within the opera. He points to the light, lyrical line of the Don’s serenade early in the opera versus the so-called Hell Scene at the end, which reads dramatically, musically and vocally almost as a “Verdi moment.” This falls in line nicely with Chioldi’s plans to take on what he calls the baby Verdi roles now that he has reached his 30s. “I consider myself a bel canto baritone [Italianate baritone]. I don’t even offer English or French or German repertoire in auditions any more.” He takes on his first Scarpia in 2005, a marked expansion from his bread-and-butter Mozart roles.



Unlike other opera companies, dancers (not singers) lead Opera Atelier’s artistic team. This polarizes the company in favour of the visual aspects of opera. Opera Atelier is deeply not into ugly.



“Take a look at the cast, they’re all beautiful. And the dancers are beautiful,” says Chioldi. The talent is striking because the concept requires their beauty and charisma to make it work. And they do.



Joining Chioldi are tenor Colin Ainsworth as Don Ottavio, soprano Peggy Kriha-Dye (Donna Elvira), bass Olivier Laquerre (Leporello), soprano Nathalie Paulin (Zerlina), soprano Jackalyn Short (Donna Anna) and baritone Curtis Sullivan (Commendatore/Masseto).



“With the end ensemble,” says Chioldi, “it’s traditionally played out as the moral of the story. Uptight people come out and preach, saying you can either live your life having a good time, or you can be like us. Marshall’s take on that is that you can either live it up, or you will wind up like us.”



Chioldi has recently begun talking freely about his own personal life; being gay in opera has its plusses and minuses. “I just did a Billy Budd in Washington. That has a really gay text, let alone subtext,” he laughs. Having exited a three-year relationship Chioldi is now embarking on a brand new one. He’s the first to admit that an itinerant musician’s life isn’t for everyone.



“It is difficult being away from the one you love for extended periods of time. Take this year for instance. I haven’t been home in seven months. That can really take its toll on your love life. You learn how to balance things and make it work, though.”



It’s a balancing act that Chioldi’s become more adept at, requiring the very same flexibility and open-mindedness that he’s been using to flesh out OA’s fresh vision for the Don.



* On Sat, Nov 20, Opera Atelier hosts An Evening At Versailles Celebrates Don Giovanni, a gala fundraiser in support of the company’s education programs. Tix are $250; call (416) 703-3767 ext 26.



DON GIOVANNI.

$25-$107. 7:30pm.

Thu, Nov 11, 13, 17, 19 & 20.

3pm. Nov 14.

Elgin Theatre.

189 Yonge St.

(416) 872-5555.