Classical Singer Magazine interview 2003

An Overnight Success ... 25 Years in the Making

Interview by C.J. Williamson,

Written by Marsha Maxwell. 

You heard Daniel Rodriguez during the dark days of 9/11; you saw him sing at Yankee Stadium during the World Series and watched his appearances on Letterman, Regis, Larry King and every other talk show. He was recently accepted into the D.C. Young Artists Program - at age 40 - paving the way for older "beginners" everywhere. He is now singing concerts all over America. Overnight success? Hardly. He's been paying dues a long time.

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CS had the opportunity to see him at a concert in Park City, Utah. The voice is glorious from top to bottom, the Italian diction perfect, but best of all was his stage presence. Years of constantly working in front of an audience have taught him how to bond instantly with them - it was amazing to be a part of it. He has a lot to share with his fellow singers.

 

Daniel: I will tell you a little about myself. I have been singing since I was 12 years old. I started singing in school. My first role was Jud Frye in Oklahoma.

 

The drama teacher in school was a very talented man, Elliot Dorfman, who studied at Julliard. He worked with Stella Adler and had an extensive background in theater and music. He also started coaching, and had a company called "The American Youth Repertoire Company" in Manhattan. They put on three, four, or five shows a year, and he invited me to do that. I was thirteen when I started.

 

So I was training musically, taking both voice lessons and piano lessons. I was in a repertory company, where you do everything, from roles to set designs, lighting: everything from A to Z. So that gave me a lot of practical experience in the theatre. I studied with my teacher four days a week. We studied many great classical singers: DiStefano, Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti, Bjorling.

He thought that the lower range would be safer for your voice? 

Yes! So I was being trained for many years as a baritone. I was doing a lot of baritone repertoire - songs like "The Pride of Jean Brody." It was really nice. My first professional recital was in Carnegie Hall, Studio 856. I was billed as a sixteen-year-old baritone. The next year I went into Weill Hall and did my next recital.

By yourself?

Yes. I sang 27 numbers, a 2 hour concert of baritone repertoire. It was Broadway and operetta. My teacher, Elliot did not want to bring me into the opera yet; he wanted to wait until I had more background. I had very little opera knowledge at the time. At 18, I started doing my first arias and started studying my first operatic roles. I had been with the repertory company six years. We did not have an off season-we did summers-we trained, rehearsed and performed constantly. Then suddenly Elliot closed the repertoire company, and left due to family illness. All I knew was school, theater and music. People ask me, "Why didn't you continue? Why didn't you pursue music? After my teacher left, you know, I had no clue how to sell all that I had learned.

Your musical "father" was gone, and you weren't sure what to do next?

Right! I did not know how to audition. I didn't know how to go about continuing my music career, so I stopped. Started a family, and of course, I had to go to work. So there was a four year lag in my music life. I call it the "Dark Ages." The passion of music had always been in my life, and suddenly it was gone. After a while I knew I needed to pursue that passion.

 

What kind of shows were these?

I started singing with church choirs and became the leader of song, and that took off right away, because of all those years of training. Then I met Miroslav Markov from the Bolshoi, during an audition. I actually auditioned for the Regina Opera.The Regina Opera recognized the training, but for some reason it wasn't in the right spot, or whatever. Miroslav said, "You are not a baritone. You're a tenor. I will prove that you are a tenor. "I said, "All right."I spent three years with Miroslav, developing B flats, Cs, C sharps, and Ds.

 

That must have been a great feeling to have your upper range open up!

Well yeah, it was amazing. So now I had a dark quality to my voice, but I was singing to B flats, and people were saying "Wow!" The first show, when I was 16, was called "Twilight Serenade." When I started to sing again, at about age 25, I started my own show. It was called "Broadway Magic."I wanted to start where it all began for me, to return to that musical pinnacle in my life. I was living in Staten Island at that time. I went to Snug Harbor, which is the cultural center there. I said I would like to put on a show there. They said, "Okay."

 

That took a lot of courage with no background except a teacher setting things up for you and church gigs!

Now wait, you don't know what happened. They said it is going to be this much money to rent the hall, and this much money for the lighting tech, etc. I said okay. They said, "Do you have a piano player?" I said, "Well, not yet." I met with George Poppe, the person who played organ at the church where I was singing - a very talented man. He played wonderfully, and he always encouraged me to develop my voice. I said, "Would you like to accompany me for a for a concert?" He said, "Yeah, absolutely." So George became my new best friend. George and I actually spent the next five or six years together, doing "Broadway Magic.

At Snug Harbor?

Well, Snug Harbor was our first venue. I had to print the tickets, sell the tickets and set the lighting up.

 

How were you making a living? I was driving for the Post Office. I think by this time I had been at the Post Office six years, and I did music at night. The church gave me a lot of confidence to get back to singing. George Poppe was an excellent accompanist, and so with George I said, "Let's try some new stuff. Let's try "Maria" from West Side Story. Let's try the balcony scene from West Side Story. Let's get a soprano." The first concert, I think we spent $2,000.00, and I think we made $2,100.00, and I thought, "I can make it work." 

How did you publicize?

I made flyers. I just put all the information in a little format that I created. For about two years I did that for every show, and at that point I was doing a show a month. We went out and started putting flyers on telephone poles, street lamps, etc. After we did the show, we got raves. The local paper did a review that said, "New guy out of nowhere, great singer." I took that review, the flyer, and the program that I printed up, and I made a little media package and took it to the next venue. I decided that churches were the best way to go, because churches had built-in audiences, and it was always a matter of faith for me. No matter what I had done throughout my life, I always knew someone was watching over me. So I was drawn to the church.

 

I thought, "What was my first church?" Saint Patrick's in Bay Ridge. I showed them my little "media package," and I said, "I would like to do a show here." They said, "Okay, how do you want to work it out?" I think I charged them $400.00, two hundred dollars apiece for me and George, and I let them keep the rest of the money from the ticket sales. I did all the advertising, made up the program and did the tickets. I made up the flyer and gave it to them, and they put it in the parish bulletin. We got two hundred people, and of course $15.00 apiece made some money.

 

They were happy, and we did a fantastic show. Little by little it grew, and I said,"George let's charge a little more money, because I want to get a violinist to accompany us.  So now, let's charge another $200. "George always said, "You can charge $2,000.00." I would say, "No, I don't want to go nuts, I just want to do music. We will just make enough money to have pocket change." We did these shows, also weddings and funerals. Soon we got a cellist and violinist, mother and daughter.

 

So how long did you do these shows? I had been doing it for, I guess, ten years. I still do it. I never stopped doing shows even with everything that has gone on, even after I left the post office, became a police officer, and became the National Anthem singer for the police department. My career really started to really take off when I started singing the Anthem in uniform. Are you taking voice lessons now? Actually, Placido Domingo invited me to study with Domingo Young Artists Program. 

Now, how did that get started? 

I was doing "Broadway on Broadway" every year. All the cast members of current Broadway shows come to Times Square and do a free concert. I was the singing cop. I was on CBS, NBC, ABC, Telemundo, CNN. Everyone was calling me for appearances and interviews

 

This was long before 9/11. CNN's Jeanne Moos actually filmed me for a TV special "A Day in the Life of Daniel Rodriguez." Gradually, as I got the opportunity to sing the National Anthem for the police department, I began to be noticed.

Even the mayor himself. I sang at the 150th anniversary of New York City on New Year's Day, about five years ago. I was one of three people on stage singing "Happy Birthday" to New York. I had started working on arias by this time, because I was very interested in getting into opera. When my teacher and I parted ways, that was the direction he wanted to take me. The music I had been doing was much more comfortable for me at the time, and fun, and so that is what I did in concert. It was easy to bring people out to a night of Broadway or a little night of music. But I did start learning arias.

 

Unfortunately, I started learning arias without a professional teacher. I was doing "Che Gelida Manina," and I was looking down when I sang "le luna," [the moon] things like that. I had no idea what I was saying. I didn't as much study the aria as I heard it sung, and I copied what I was hearing. It went well for the most part; people that were coming to the shows were not as familiar with opera, so they thought it was perfect. The show was a great success. I did many, many shows. I was doing a circuit of churches, a circuit of yacht clubs, of social clubs.

 

So when did Placido contact you? About two years ago I did "Broadway on Broadway." I went out and did the National Anthem in uniform, and Mayor Giuliani was coming out after me. We had spoken many times before, but this time for some reason he said, "Dan, you should be at the Met." I said, "If you can make it happen, I will go." So he said, "I am going to make a phone call. Wait for me afterwards. I want to talk to you." So afterwards we started walking, and he put his arm around me and told me about all these wonderful tenors he has heard. He is an avid opera buff. So, I got a call from the director of the Met.

 

Joseph Volpe called you? Yes. I was painting my apartment, and I got the call. Mr. Volpe said, "You come highly recommended. What we are going to do is have a guy listen to you and see what we can do for you." I know this is an opera magazine, so I am not going to mention names, but my audition for this person was a disaster. He had already made up his mind about me. His first question was, "So what makes a police officer think he can become an opera singer? I don't understand. Do you sing or what do you do?"

 

I actually said, "Do you really want to hear me, or should I just leave now?" I had prepared "La Donna e mobile," which of course I had never studied it with a teacher. I had never even seen the opera. I'd just been doing it the way I heard it in recordings. I know that the ability to hit a high C, to place it well, and to let it ring and shoot it to the back of the crowd, is only a small part of what it takes to become an opera singer. Afterwards, I thought, "Okay, so I don't sing at the Met. There are plenty of other places to sing. I am not going to stop singing."

But great things often come out of bad experiences. Placido heard about the audition. Placido was at the Met, and he met Giuliani, and said, "I heard you have a police officer who wants to sing opera. Would you like me to listen to him?"

Now, I know from working with him that Placido is the hardest working man in the business, as far as I am concerned. So we never got the chance to get together because of his schedule. Every month I would call. Finally it was set up for September. Then tragedy occurred. I was there when the buildings collapsed. I was at City Hall; I was on duty. 

I had never put that part of your story together. Of course you were involved.

I was there. I'd rather not tell you all the horrors that I saw, and I relive it all the time. I went to City Hall to the command post. There was a mobile command post right alongside of City Hall. I met my inspector there, and we started heading down to Ground Zero. We were two or three blocks away when the first building collapsed. Everything after that was just horrific, just devastation.

 

I was at Ground Zero for about two weeks, and then they were putting together the Prayer for America, which was at Yankee Stadium. It was prayer service with clergy members from different denominations. They called the police department and asked for me to sing the National Anthem.I wanted to sing, because with everything I was doing I still felt helpless. It became a kind of ministry for me to give comfort and to do what I could. You know, I found my niche. I took what I do most and do best, and I used it. At the Prayer for America service I finally met Placido; he was singing "Ave Maria."  I went up to Placido. I have met a lot of celebrities, but this time I was speechless.

 

He said, "You are the singing police officer. You have a beautiful voice. You have a very natural tenor voice." I said, "Well, we were supposed to meet. People have been trying to get us together so I can sing for you. "He said, "You don't need anyone to get us together; you are doing very fine on your own. I will be in touch with you."

 

Shortly after that, the Yankees called me to sing for the playoffs. Placido called me to audition for him the same day. So, that afternoon I went back to the Met. I went down to one of the studios there, and he hadn't gotten there yet, so I decided to warm up. I was doing "Be My Love," and all of a sudden the door opened, and Placido said, "Who's this singer doing my song?" So I finished the song, and I think I ended it with a high C. He said,"That is beautiful." We spoke, and at that point my heart sank. I didn't know enough opera. I said, "I only know a few arias. I know 'Che Gelida Manina' from Boheme." He said, "Well, sing that for me."

How did it feel to sing for him?

I sang well, but once I started studying with Placido I almost felt embarrassed for the way it was presented. Placido was there and watching me intently, and I was not even thinking of the song anymore. I was thinking to myself, "Placido Domingo is looking at you, is watching you sing opera and you are at the Met," and that is all I thought about.

Then the song was over (Daniel claps), and Placido said, (in the accent of Placido) "Is very good. Is very good! Beautiful high notes." Then he said, "Do you realize you go flat in the middle in the break? On the E and the F. The reason for that is you are very comfortable singing "Be My Love." "Be My Love" was beautiful, the tones were perfect, placement was perfect, but you were not comfortable singing the aria so you did not have the support."

He said, "I think I can help you. I am starting this new thing called "The Placido Domingo Young Artists Program." I would like you to come. Can you take three months off of work? I want you to come out starting in March." I had to actually hold myself from jumping right out of my shoes. I said, "Maestro, Thank you so much," and I floated out of there.

 

Then I went to Yankee Stadium and sang for the playoffs. The announcer said, "Now ladies and gentlemen, turn you attention to the mike behind home plate and our National Anthem sung by New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez." The place went absolutely berserk. I sang the MOST heartfelt National Anthem. It was an amazing experience.

 

I ran over to the Mayor, and I said, "Placido wants me to come to Washington." And he said, "I knew it. I knew it! You got to go for it." I said,"I am going to need your help, because now I have to take three months off of work." He said, "What ever you need." I was like, "OKAY THAT'S IT! PACK MY BAGS" I am going to heaven!" The Yankees won the pennant that day.

 

Well, one thing led to another. The Yankees called and asked me to sing for game three of the World Series. As I was waiting to sing for the World Series, Regis and Donald Trump walked in. Regis looked at me and said, "You're the cop. I have been looking for you. You got a pencil? Write this number down." He did about five minutes on how I was a cop without a pencil. I gave him a call, and the next morning I was on "Regis and Kelly." I got a phone call leaving Regis's studio; Letterman wants you on his show tonight. I was on Letterman that night. I leave Letterman. I get home, and there is a message on my answering machine; there will be a car to pick you up at 5:00 a.m., You are doing "The Today Show" tomorrow morning, so get to bed. I do "The Today Show." I leave the "The Today Show," and then it was Larry King.

 

Now everything has gone through the roof. I got a call from Mr. Tom Scott, of Tom Scott and the Elliot Express. Tom has two Grammys and 12 Grammy nominations: one of the premier Jazz saxophone players of our time. So I was asked to sing at the Emmys, and I went to Los Angeles. I sang with the LA Choir. It was like 350 voices; a combined college choir. Tom had a wonderful arrangement of "America the Beautiful." 

Tom was in the little monitor, and I was singing. I had no idea that the last "America" was supposed to go on for about eighteen measures, so I didn't hold the note, but the choir kept on singing. So Tom said, after a little consultation, "Dan, if you don't want to hold that note, that is quite all right. You can just cut it short and the choir will finish it up.

 

I looked at Tom and I said, "You know Tom, Mr. Scott, I may never get to do the Emmys again, so how cool would it be if I nailed it?" So he said, "Okay, let's go for it." Not only did I nail it, I held it-but I think I went for two beats after they were done.

 

That probably brought down the house!

The audience went nuts. This was the dress rehearsal; it was filmed and recorded. Later, I had just gotten to the Emmys when they announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just bombed Afghanistan. The first bombs have fallen on Afghanistan in retaliationfor 9/11, and the Emmys have been cancelled." That night I turned on the television and saw Tom Brokaw saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, of course the Emmys were canceled today, but if you had seen the Emmys you would have gotten a chance to see this young man." And they showed the dress rehearsal. That night something touched Tom and called me the next morning. And Tom, you can tell what happened next.

Tom Scott: [sitting in on the conversation] "You touched me in way I can not describe. I have not been moved by a singer that way in I don't know how long. I cannot be the only one who feels that way. I honestly believe you have a gift, a unique gift, to give to this country." I proposed that he allow me the right to be his representative to the recording industry for two weeks.  I thought about Sony Classics, EMI, Classics, MCA Classics-all the labels this guy could use. In 72 hours in New York I had appointments with all of them. It was just timing. They all knew who he was, and they all wanted to talk about him.

Daniel: We got to EMI; we had a few other offers but EMI came in with the best deal. They understood that I wanted the first CD to benefit the victims of 9/11. So we did "God Bless America" as a single, which came out December 11th. ALL proceeds-mine, the recording companies-went to the Twin Towers Fund. I think to date we've given them close to $100,000 dollars.It was just a single: "God Bless America, We Will Go On."

 

Then it was time for my album,"Spirit of America." All the songs on Spirit of America were songs that I was doing in the concerts-songs that really touched me throughout my life: "This is the Moment," "Bring Him Home," "Into The Fire," "Danny Boy,"" Shenandoah."

 

It has been out there doing well ever since, and of course in March I started with Placido. After the first several months, Placido invited me back. He said, "I want you to come back in August. I want to do another nine months. I think you have everything that it takes to become a major opera star."

 

So now you know the story of my life.  People ask me, "How are you handling all the fame? How does it feel to be an overnight sensation?" I say it took me 25 years to become overnight sensation!

 

We'd better stop. I certainly don't want you to wear out your voice before your concert. Thanks so much for sharing your inspiring story with us.

 

Daniel: You're welcome.

See video mentioned above:

CNN Jeanne Moos "A Day in the Life of Daniel Rodriguez"