SANTA FE – “British Tenor Saves Night at Opera,” proclaimed the Daily Mail.
The opera was Puccini’s “Tosca,” and the tenor was then-28-year-old Freddie de Tommaso, jumping in at London’s Royal Opera House when the scheduled singer withdrew after Act 1 because of illness.
That was nearly two years ago. Now de Tommaso has just made his U.S. debut at the Santa Fe Opera in the same role, appearing to enthusiastic applause on Aug. 12, five days after a bout of laryngitis forced him to cancel his first performance. His final performance is Saturday.
And he’ll return in the 2024-25 season for another debut, this time at the Metropolitan Opera, where he’ll again be Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi.
In an interview at the opera house here, de Tommaso reflected on his career so far and the “star is born” moment in London that first brought him headlines.
“So many people thought I was like an understudy or somebody they found walking down the street whistling ‘Tosca,’ and that wasn’t the case,” he recalled. In fact, he had been part of the second cast and was already scheduled to perform the role three nights later.
“But it was incredibly exciting,” he said, his animated tone reflecting his exuberant personality. “From the moment I put my costume on until I took my bow two hours later, it felt like about 90 seconds.”
De Tommaso’s exposure to opera began while he was growing up in Tunbridge Wells, where he sang in his school choir. His mother took him to performances and his Italian-born father, who ran a restaurant, serenaded diners with Luciano Pavarotti recordings.
Once he decided to study singing seriously, he applied to the Royal Academy of Music. Mark Wildman, who became his teacher, remembers hearing him audition.
“My first impression of his voice was that it was a robust but rough-hewn diamond of a baritone voice with a surprisingly easy top for one so young,” Wildman said. “He looked like a singer: big broad shoulders, barrel-chested, together with a very strong physique and a voice that matched.”
That easy top got easier and higher as de Tommaso’s studies progressed, and Wildman eventually suggested his pupil might actually be a tenor.
“I well remember his face lighting up as if he’d just received his most desired present on Christmas Day! And there was no holding him back,” Wildman said.
De Tommaso immersed himself in recordings of great tenors and borrowed what he could: Franco Corelli (“so virile”); Mario del Monaco (“The dramatic aspect”); Carlo Bergonzi (“I don’t think you’ll hear any more elegant singing”); Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (“His high C was literally huge.”)
“So I kind of made a trifle of singers,” de Tommaso said, a joking reference to the traditional English dessert in which a chef embellishes sponge cake with whatever ingredients he likes, from fruit to jelly to custard to cream.
DeTommaso’s breakthrough came at age 23 when — on a lark, to hear him tell it — he entered the 2018 Tenor Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona. He ended up winning three awards— the first prize, the Verdi Prize and the Domingo Prize.
The response was immediate. “It was mental, actually,” de Tommaso said. “I remember afterwards being in the hotel in Spain and getting all these emails and Facebook messages from agents. Who are these people, I thought naively.”
Among those listening in Barcelona was Peter Katona, casting director for the Royal Opera.
“I was quite startled when I heard him,” Katona said. “It was immediately clear that he was above everybody else in terms of vocal quality. Often with young singers, there’s something that is not quite there. With him, you could just lean back and enjoy his singing.”
Now at 30, he’s in demand at all the major European houses.
“It’s almost a little frightening that everything has been going so well for him,” Katona said. “With such a special talent one is always wary that he can pick the wrong role, overstretch. So far he hasn’t put a foot wrong.”
For the coming season he has two new roles: Pollione in Bellini’s “Norma” at Milan’s La Scala and Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” in Vienna.
And after his Met debut, he’ll be a frequent return visitor to the New York house. Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, called him “part of a new wave of powerhouse tenors ... that we hope will become Met mainstays of the future.”
At times de Tommaso finds it painful to turn down offers of new roles because they aren’t suited to his voice in its current stage. “I feel like a horse that’s ready to run, and when you’re called back, it can be a bit frustrating,” he said.
“One of the most important words I’ve had to learn to say is ‘”No,’” de Tommaso said, as he did when a German theater asked him to sing Radames in Verdi’s “Aida.” He told them simply: “It’s too early.”
Too early as well is the pinnacle of the Verdi tenor repertory, the title role in “Otello.” It’s his dream to tackle it in “maybe five to 10 years.”
But sparingly. “These little bits of flesh, they can only take so much punishment for so long,” he said pointing to his vocal cords. “And if you’re singing the most dramatic parts like Otello, you can’t keep it up forever. I would quite like to sing until I’m 55 or 60.”
With all the pressures of a blooming international career, de Tommaso still marvels at the opportunities coming his way.
“What a job I have!” he said. “Just going around the world to places like Santa Fe, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.” He rattled off the list of other spots where he’s performed this summer: Verona, Italy; Verbier, Switzerland; Peralada, Spain.
In Santa Fe, de Tommaso has been spending much of his time between rehearsals and performances playing golf.
“I’m not very good, but the reason I like it is my life is so hectic, and when you play golf you can’t think about anything else but hitting that ball,” he said. “Everything else takes a back seat just for the three hours.”
With such a crowded schedule, de Tommaso said his manager has to remind him that he needs to take the occasional vacation. “After five or six days I get itchy feet,” he said.
Still he has managed to carve out time for his wedding next month to soprano Alexandra Oomens, who was a fellow student at the Royal Academy.
They’re flying to Mauritius for their honeymoon, but even that has been tweaked to accommodate his career.
“We were originally going to go for two weeks,” he said. “But then I got a job, so we’re only going for 10 days.”