Recent Trier Township High School graduate Matthew Polenzani has come a long way as a singer since his high school days ended in 1986.
The Evanston-born, Wilmette-raised tenor joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for performances of Messiah from December 21-23 and performed the title role at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City earlier this fall.
“I’m especially looking forward to singing Messiah, which is music I haven’t always been able to do,” Polenzani said. “This is definitely the soundtrack of my youth, so I’m looking forward to it. Christ is especially great for getting yourself in the holiday spirit.”
Polenzani’s vocal talents and excitement for the CSO concert did not disappoint Chicago’s music critics, either.
Music critic Graham Meyer wrote in the Chicago Classical Review: “Polenzani, a local favorite, was also superb, delivering a strong, high A in the otherwise thankless aria ‘Thou Shalt Break Them.'”
Messiah, an oratorio composed by George Frideric Handel, is a story about the life of Jesus Christ, and many of the lyrics are taken from the Old Testament itself. Listeners may recognize several popular songs from the oratorio, such as “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Polenzani joined the Metropolitan Opera, often referred to as The Met, in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” early in the 2023-24 season. According to The Met’s website, his appearances took place in October and early November. “La Bohème” follows the young Rodolfo and the lady Mimi, played by Polenzani. Rodolfo and Mimi fall in love, until Mimi falls ill and Mimi’s condition worries Rodolfo so much that Mimi’s stay in his unheated apartment becomes a point of contention. Mimi continues to leave Rodolfo for a richer man.
Eventually, the two lovers are reunited moments before Mimi’s death, after the couple’s mutual friend Musetta finds Mimi struggling to navigate the streets due to her illness. The two lovebirds’ friends try to gather supplies and sell their own belongings to cover expenses, but they don’t return in time to keep Mimi alive. While the friends go to collect these materials, Mimi and Rodolfo confess their lifelong love for each other and are happy to be around each other. Mimi dies in Rodolfo’s apartment shortly after her friends return with supplies.
“La Bohème” also includes the widely known aria “Quando M’en Vo”, in which Musetta, sung by soprano Olga Kulchynska, sings about how much she loves to see the burning desire in others’ eyes as they watch her go about her day. .
Polenzani told the Pioneer Press that he hopes performances like “La Bohème” allow audiences to escape their reality for a few hours and appreciate the love in their lives. While many musicians prefer opera and musical theater works because of the lessons they can teach, Polenzani says opera has always been based on the purpose of providing entertainment.
“I want people to feel like they’ve left their own shoes behind. I want them to feel the pain and cry with us,” Polenzani said. “To have them forget their own lives for a few hours and enter into the lives of Rodolfo and Mimi. In fact, this is the case in every opera.”
Becoming a world-famous opera singer wasn’t always part of the plan. Polenzani initially attended Eastern Illinois University to become a music educator, and her transition into performing came when she sang with opera singer Allen Held with the Decatur Park Singers the summer before her senior year in college. Held persuaded Polenzani to pursue a master’s degree in performance at the Yale School of Music. Evanston resident, now American Brass Quintet trombonist Hillary Simms and Marty Tung, a New Trier Township High School graduate and current Carnegie Hall Ensemble Connect bassoonist, studied music performance.
“After his lecture, he pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey listen, have you ever thought about being a singer? They’re always looking for tenors,’” Polenzani said. “That’s when he connected me with Yale, I went there for my master’s degree, and right out of Yale I went to the young arts program at the Chicago Lyric Opera and then straight to The Met.”
Polenzani said his experience with Held helped him imagine what life as an opera singer could be like and also help him understand the true storytelling power of opera. He said the summer months are also the time when he gets into Puccini operas, which he calls John Williams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, considering his cinematic writing style.
“This was back in the days of tapes, so I would probably rewind the (Puccini) tape 30 times,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what I heard”
Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter for the Pioneer Press.