Freddie De Tommaso interview: 'Pressure seeks me out!'
After an overnight sensation at the Royal Opera House, the tenor talks about instant fame, his love of theatre and getting children into opera
As it was, he was still at the Royal Opera House when his fellow tenor, the American artist Bryan Hymel, fell ill and was unable to continue as the painter Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s opera Tosca. De Tommaso, scheduled to sing three performances later in the run, found himself leaping into his costume with stripey waistcoat and propelled on stage for Act Two, playing the artist persecuted by Rome’s vicious chief of police. At 28, he was the youngest tenor ever to sing the role at Covent Garden, and also the first British Cavaradossi for nearly 60 years.
An excited audience gave him a huge ovation when the curtain came down on both Act Three and on the singer’s accidental debut in one of the most important roles in the opera repertoire.
‘In a situation like that the adrenalin is pumping,’ De Tommaso tells Culture Whisper, after that historic first night. Days later he had to embark on his official first performance. ‘It was quite bizarre, thinking, I should have first-night nerves but I don’t!’ What he did have were, in the audience, the family and friends who had missed that breakthrough moment earlier in the week.
Tosca is set in Italy, the country of Freddie De Tommaso's Puglian family
Proudest must surely have been mother Emma, who introduced him to opera from an early age. The family ran a popular Italian restaurant in Tunbridge Wells named Signor Franco after the singer’s father. Sadly, he lost his father, to whom he bears a strong physical resemblance, at the age of only 18. But what with, as one customer recalls, ‘Pavarotti on a loop’ in the restaurant and his mother’s enthusiasm for taking each of her three sons in turn to Glyndebourne or to Covent Garden, opera was soon under his skin, as well as in the genes, for here is the great Italianate tenor of the future, albeit British-born and bred.
Franco’s family came from Puglia, and Italian rolls off the tongue most naturally as his son sings. At Covent Garden, the boy’s first experience of opera, at around the age of 12, was Turandot composed, like Tosca, by Puccini. He remembers seeing the great Russian tenor Vladimir Galouzine in the heroic tenor role of Calaf, appearing with the Kirov Opera, under Valery Gergiev.
But the road to a singing career did not start then: at Tonbridge School, despite its strong music tradition, he was most interested in drama, winning a drama scholarship. Those who have been lucky enough to see De Tommaso already in his relatively short career will know that this enthusiasm for creating character feeds readily into his roles. The last-minute dash may have helped when he sped on stage, but his persecuted Cavaradossi was totally believable. And at his official first performance, with Anna Pirozzi – with whom he'd been having coffee – as Tosca, his youth made complete sense, of his older lover’s paranoia.
Even when a musical career was on the cards, De Tommaso took a circuitous, but well-worn road to the tenor repertoire. ‘When I started off, having singing lessons at school and at the Royal Academy of Music I started as a baritone.’ This is not uncommon for so-called spinto tenors – the ones who get to do the passionate, dramatic roles created by 19th-century Italian composers in particular. Leading artists he admires, such as Jon Vickers, did the same.
De Tommaso played Cassio in Verdi's Otello. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Then came the Italian polish. ‘The Italian sound? It’s in my blood. My go-to operatic tenors are Enrico Caruso and Mario Del Monaco.’
Like many British-trained artists, he set out for Europe, honing his craft in Salzburg and Munich, and in 2018 walked away with a clutch of trophies at the Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona, scooping the First Prize, the Placido Domingo Tenor Prize and the Verdi Prize.
Covent Garden audiences first heard him as an Apprentice in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in 2017, and two years later as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello. His spectacular success in Tosca quickly led to his taking on too the performances from which Hymel had to withdraw. These included the nationwide live cinema relay on 15 December, which will also be seen worldwide live or at a later date.
A huge invisible audience is something else that the singer has experienced very early in his career. In Austria he sang the heartless naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The performance reopened the famous Vienna State Opera last autumn after its only closure, because of Covid, since the second world war. The whole music-loving nation tuned in.
‘It was incredibly exciting! As I go through my life, these pressurised situations seem to find me. I should have done some performances at Dresden, to warm up, but they were cancelled because of Covid.’ So it was in at the deep end, with all Austria watching a moment of great national pride and relief.
London audiences can hear how it goes, playing a cad instead of a brave political prisoner, when he reprises the role of Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden in June – an altogether less lovable character, who casually marries a young Japanese bride then abandons her and marries again in the States.
‘I much prefer the character of Cavaradossi. All the time with Pinkerton, you’re thinking, this is awful – I wouldn’t do that!’
Girlfriend Alexandra Oomens sang Josephine in ENO's HMS Pinafore
The passion for opera that early exposure gave him encourages other parents to make opera a natural place for young listeners to go. ‘You can introduce young children to the music just by playing the recordings or just pop the radio on, listen to the orchestra too – the instrumental music from Cavalleria Rusticana, or Manon Lescaut.’
With two major Covent Garden roles under his belt so early, what next? Sensibly, he is setting his sights on some of the smaller roles in the Italian repertoire. ‘I’d love to do some of the earlier Verdi roles, such as in I Due Foscari and Ernani, which are still very bel canto in their style. And before La Forza del Destino or Otello, because once you’re through that door the other door closes.’
The phone has been ringing off the hook at his agent’s office since his sensational role debut, and bookings are lining up for 2025 and beyond. Coming up shortly, some 13 weeks away in Vienna, La Scala, Milan, Munich, Dresden and beyond. With dual Italian/British nationality and an EU passport he is spared the problems with performing on the continent that have befallen many British artists since Brexit.
Fortunately his girlfriend, Australian-born London-based Alexandra Oomens is a performer too. English National Opera audiences have just heard her enchanting as Josephine in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, which closed on the same night as De Tommaso’s official first performance. Luckily, that had an early start. Oomens sat in the audience then headed for her own performance at the Coliseum.
Very nippy, these opera singers… They have to be!
Tosca is performed again on 17, 19 and 22 December 2022. Click here to book. Tosca Encore is at cinemas throughout London on 19 January. Click here to book. Madama Butterfly is at the Royal Opera House from 14 June to 6 July 2022. Booking opens on 10 May 2022. Freddie De Tommaso sings performances on 14, 18, 21, 24, 27 and 30 June; 6 July