N.Y.C.'s answer to Pavarotti: a singing cop

Policeman juggles desk job with auditions for the Met.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If Verdi were to write a new opera, it might run like this: A young man loves to sing, but at first he doesn't succeed. Then he joins the police, where he sings the national anthem. Thanks to his great voice and the mayor's patronage, - he cuts a CD and gets to study with Placido Domingo.

But Verdi can put his pen down - it's true. Call it the Daniel Rodriguez story. Or, maybe "l'Aria del Singing Cop."

Over the past three months, life has moved faster than a Gilbert and Sullivan libretto for the Brooklyn-born-and-raised Mr. Rodriguez. The tenor has sung the "Star Spangled Banner" to open the World Series, performed for millions during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and hit the high notes for NBC when the network lit the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Almost everyone from David Letterman to Larry King wants to hear him croon. On top of all that, he's still trying to do his job as a community-affairs officer in Midtown South.

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"I'm not the kind of person who says no to many things," says Rodriguez, immediately after singing on the nationally syndicated Don Imus radio show. "They asked me about my future the other day, and I said, 'Five years from now, I'd like to get some sleep.' "

That won't come anytime soon. Tom Scott, producer of the Emmy's, heard Rodriguez sing at a rehearsal for the annual television awards. "I was so moved by his rehearsal - in ways I can't describe - that I asked him if he had a record deal or would like one," says Mr. Scott.

They agreed on a deal that sends the proceeds of the single to the Twin Towers Fund, to help the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. The CD was released last week, and Manhattan Records/EMI will release a full album in February.

Life hasn't always been such a dream for Rodriguez. He grew up in Brooklyn's Sunset Park section, the son of a transit authority employee, who also loved to sing. "My father was the life of the party," says Rodriguez. "He'd grab the guitar - he couldn't play - but he'd start singing."

The youth picked up on it right away. At age 13, he started taking voice lessons. For eight years, he was in a repertory company, and at 16 had his first recital at Carnegie Studios.

Police Academy: savvy career move

But at the same time, he had fallen in love and started a family. It meant that he had to start thinking about a different kind of C note - the type that comes with pensions and benefits. He worked as a short-order cook, a truck driver, and then in the Post Office. He kept singing whenever possible, but when he was about 30, he got a call to enter the Police Academy. "I thought it's about time to hang up my hat. I can always keep singing, but it doesn't look like I'll be a movie star, so I took the police job because it's great and every day is a new experience."

When he entered the Police Academy, Rodriguez knew that the NYPD looked for a rookie to sing the national anthem at graduation. So he marched up to the lieutenant's office - a bold move for a recruit. Rodriguez snapped off salute and said he had arrived to audition.

"What makes you think you can sing the national anthem?" replied the officer. "I wouldn't be here if I couldn't," answered Rodriguez, who then sang it. "Boy, you're going to be singing in Madison Square Garden," the lieutenant said after hearing the recruit.

The police department quickly assigned Rodriguez to its ceremonial unit, which sings the "Star Spangled Banner" at sporting events - some of them frequented by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an opera fan from his youth.

"Some time ago, I decided Danny has tremendous talent," says the mayor. "He has a really beautiful tenor voice that is quite lyrical and very powerful."

The mayor quickly decided to become a benefactor of sorts, and picked up the phone and called the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera Company, Joseph Volpe, to suggest that they audition the policeman. As Rodriguez tells it, he answered Volpe's call by saying, "yeah, who? The Met?"

But the audition didn't proceed as smoothly as a nervous Rodriguez hoped it would. Almost instantly, the Met's director of music administration, John Fisher, began interrupting Rodriguez's singing with instructions. The policeman "tanked the C." "I sounded like Tarzan," he says of the failed audition.

Opportunity knocks ... again

A month later, the phone rang again. Opera star Placido Domingo was planning a fundraiser and had heard about the singing cop. Another audition was arranged, this time at the Lincoln Center.

On the day of the audition, no one could figure out how to turn on the lights. The studio was completely dark when the famous Spanish tenor walked in and heard Rodriguez singing, "Be My Love," one of Domingo's favorite songs. The world-renowned opera star sat in the dark and listened. This time Rodriguez hit the right notes.

Domingo suggested an aria next. "The Metropolitan audition came back in full force," recalls the policeman. "I was like: AAARRRGGHHH!"

Afterward there was a long silence. "I'm thinking, that's it buddy boy, pack your bags, it's back to the beat," recounts the policeman. Instead, Domingo complimented Rodriguez and invited him to Washington this March to be part of his Young Artists program. When Rodriguez asked if he wasn't too old to be eligible, Domingo told him that he was going to make an exception in his case.

Rodriguez says it's not fame or fortune he's interested in. "My ministry is to sing and to share with as many people as I possibly can. What comes from that is icing on the cake, but it's not my focus."

But what about being a policeman? Rodriguez wants to continue for as long as he can. But he says, "My first love is music. I've been singing since I was 12 years old, and it's taken me 25 years to become an overnight sensation."

Verdi, can you beat that for a story line?

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