But as much as he favors traditional tales, the 42-year-old Pennsylvania native has also given a voice to non-traditional operatic roles, playing characters such as Richard Nixon and former San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk.
On Friday, he will perform at First Presbyterian Church of Anniston.
“I hope to be able to invoke thought, free minds and inspire,” he says. “If I can reach one person in some way, it will be worth it for me.”
Chioldi, who recently completed a round of performances in Palm Beach Opera’s “La Traviata,” talked recently about his roots in music, what it takes to play a president and why the Kennedy family story is just dying to become an opera.
Q: You’ve played roles of public figures — Harvey Milk, Richard Nixon, political black sheep John Sorel in “The Consul” — as well as notable roles in “Madama Butterfly” and “The Barber of Seville.” What character trait do you look for when assuming those roles?
A: I try and find aspects of any character that I am playing in my own person. To make a character believable and honest, there has to be some sort of connection there. Admittedly, finding the humanity in evil characters such as Scarpia in “Tosca” is more difficult than The Barber.
Q: In 2010, you portrayed former president Richard Nixon on his first visit to China. What was it like to literally give a voice to him? How did you want him seen when it came to bringing his life to the stage?
A: This was indeed a daunting task. I have to admit I was not the biggest Nixon fan when I began my journey. However, after doing intensive research, I realized what a deeply intelligent and passionate man he was. I believe he was a patriot and wanted to do well and be accepted. Very human ideals. He was the very first person to realize what a power China would become.
I guess I wanted my portrayal of Nixon to be one of misunderstanding. I wanted to show how complex he was and not just one note of insecurity, which is often how he is portrayed. It remains one of the highlights of my career and I hope I get the opportunity to do it again.
Q: When did you realize that to sing and to perform as an artist was going to be your chosen career, that there was no turning back?
A: I began singing as a child in the choir at church. I was interested in acting and theater as well. I think I always knew this is what I am supposed to do. However, my no-turning-back moment was when I won the Metropolitan Opera Competition in 1995. The following year I made my Met debut at the age of 26 with the late, great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and James Levine. It was truly amazing.
Q: If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
A: I imagine I would be doing something to help people or animals. Perhaps a doctor or a marine biologist or vet. My parents always taught me that I could do anything that I set my mind to. And I believed them. It was the greatest gift that they could give to me.
My brother and sister are both highly intelligent, and I remember one Thanksgiving where the whole family was around the table and my mom said, “Of all my children, the one I was least worried about was Michael.”
A huge outcry and argument ensued. My mother continued to explain, “Michael always had the gift of gab. He could talk his way from a C to an A in an instant. Furthermore, I knew that he would never be alone, as he can make friends with anyone.” I thought it was a perfect answer. I do love to talk — and meet new people!
Q: If opera has the power to evoke such strength and melody, why do you feel that some people have such a stodgy idea of the art, and what can be done to change it?
A: I have spent much of my career trying to de-mystify opera. The stories are wonderful and the music transcendental. The fact that it has been an artform for the elite historically does not help.
Honestly, if you do not expose opera to people at a young age, it is more difficult to get them involved at a later age. However, I believe opera is growing. In the ’40s and ’50s there were not so many opera companies in the USA. Now there are hundreds. Education and exposure are the keys to making opera more accessible.
Q: Whose life story is just waiting for an operatic turn?
A: The Kennedy story would be a wonderful opera. Full of controversy and drama. Two assassinations. The tragic plane crash of JFK Jr. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The “Kennedy curse.” Pretty intense stuff.
I have also had this idea about re-telling a famous story from a different character’s perspective — like “Salome” told from John the Baptist’s perspective.
Q: How do you ready yourself to perform before a big show?
A: Sleep is key. I usually try and get a good nine to 10 hours of sleep before a show. I know it sounds like a lot, but you have to look at it like an athletic event.
It is intensely difficult and takes an enormous amount of energy to sing a large role for three or four hours.
I usually eat a big meal high in protein around 3 p.m. for a 7 or 8 o’clock curtain. I am usually starving for carbs after the show. That’s why I am at the gym so much!
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Where: First Presbyterian Church Anniston
Cost: Suggested donation is $5 for students $5, $10 for adults
Information: Online visit www.jacksonvilleopera.org or call 1-800-838-3006.