John Aler sometimes feels as if he's known David Zinman all his life.
"Actually, we've only worked together three times and all in the last two years," the tenor says about the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. "But I admire him no end; he conducts everything well and, unlike many conductors, he really likes working with other people."
There are a lot of conductors who feel the same way about John Aler. That flexible, beautiful voice is always at the service of music (never a singer's ego), and he sings everything -- from Mozart and Haydn to Britten and Stravinsky -- well.
Well, not precisely everything -- just the things he sings. Aler, 41, is what is known as a tenore leggerio -- a light tenor of the kind one hears in Mozart operas, a great deal of French repertory, in lieder recitals and in oratorios, such as Haydn's "Creation," in which Aler will sing the role of the angel Uriel with Zinman and the BSO tomorrow and Saturday nights and on Sunday afternoon in Meyerhoff Hall.
But such roles were not exactly what Aler envisioned for himself when he was growing up in Rodgers Forge and singing in St. Mary's (Catholic) Church in Govans as a boy soprano. Aler grew up in a music-loving family. His father, who descended from an old Maryland family, loved classical music, and his mother, a first-generation Italian-American, adored opera.
"It was the kind of house in which the radio was was always tuned to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts every Saturday afternoon," says Aler, who now makes his home in College Park.
It was also the kind of family in which household gods were tenors such as Richard Tucker and Jussi Bjoerling -- singers who sang the Verdi and Puccini roles for which nature did not design Aler's voice.
"There are two reasons that makes me unhappy," Aler says. "The first is that I love that stuff and it would be great to sing it."
Aler begins to laugh.
"The second is that I'd love to make that kind of dough! I'm well-known in the music business, but unless you sing the meat-and-potato roles you don't become really famous and you never command the kind of fees that come with such fame. It sometimes startles people when I say things like that. But none of us are in this business for our health. You have a job to do and you provide a service that deserves compensation."
But he's in it as much for the love as for the money. You can hear it in Aler's voice when he talks about the goose bumps he gets when the orchestra in "The Creation" announces the first sunrise. He's also the sort of singer who always tries to work with concert pianists of the caliber of Daniel Blumenthal and David Golub who are more likely to challenge him instead of cater to him. And he's the kind of musician who's always searching in used music shops for forgotten corners of the repertory.
Aler didn't set out to become a singer. He entered Catholic University in Washington as a drama major and stayed a drama major until some experiences in the school's chorus convinced him that he was better suited to be a singer. But the dramatic training seems to show in his operatic performances. Most critics who have heard him sing Mozart's Ottavio in "Don Giovanni" or Tamino in "The Magic Flute" seem to think he is their pre-eminent interpreter for dramatic as well as vocal reasons.
"I was no world shakes as an actor," Aler says. "But I try to think about what I'm saying when I'm singing. It makes a big difference in your singing, particularly in you expression."
Aler's career began to take off in the late '70s when he had finished studying at the Juilliard School in New York and won first prizes in several important vocal competitions in Europe. He is now in demand everywhere as an oratorio singer and in the operas by Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini for which his light, beautiful tone, his good taste and his spectacular vocal agility are well suited.
Interestingly enough, one of the places he hasn't visited in recent years is the Baltimore Opera Company.
"When I was a young singer I did Rossini's 'Italian Girl' and the steersman in Wagner's 'Flying Dutchman,' " Aler says. "I'd love to go back. All they have to do is ask."