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The Washington Post

Singing A Nation's September Songs

By Patricia Brennan

May 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

After Sept. 11, 2001, NYPD Officer Daniel Rodriguez seemed to be a singular figure, singing patriotic songs that encapsulated the national pride despite stunned loss.

He sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the interfaith Sept. 23 memorial service in Yankee Stadium and at another memorial service on Oct. 28 for the families of people killed in the attack. He sang at funerals and memorial services. He sang "God Bless America" at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in February, then flew to San Jose to sing at the National Latino Peace Officers Association dinner, and back to New York to sing at a charity function.

Sunday at 8, two days after his 38th birthday, he will sing "God Bless America" yet again, this time at the National Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol to a nation-wide audience.

Rodriguez first caught the attention of his NYPD supervisors when he sang the national anthem at his own policy academy graduation. They assigned him to the NYPD's ceremonial unit, making him one of several officers who sings at funerals and city functions. And because he is an operatic tenor, he also became a favorite of then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an opera buff.

Since Sept. 11, Rodriguez has also sung at a World Series game, Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. He helped open the Carnegie Hall season this fall, performing with the Berlin Philharmonic, and in April, he sang "This is the Moment" at "An American Celebration at Ford's Theatre." Recently, he sang at the National Peace Officers' Memorial Day service at the U.S. Capitol as part of National Police Week.

Rodriguez also got a contract: Ian Ralfini, vice president of Capitol's Manhattan records, has said he signed Rodriguez as the new label's first artist after watching the planes hit the World Trade Center from his apartment. A single of "God Bless America" debuted in December 2001 and earned $50,000 for New York's Twin Towers Fund. Rodriguez's album of patriotic and Broadway standards, "The Spirit of America," debuted in February. By mid-May, it was No. 22 on Amazon's list with a customer rating of 4.5 stars of five.

Recently, over a sandwich at the Four Seasons, Rodriguez talked about the shift in his life since Sept. 11 that took him to Washington to study with Placido Domingo. At times, he broke into song -- and no one in the bar, lobby or dining area seemed to mind. The hostess had already recognized him.

"I had a very good career going before Sept. 11," said Rodriguez. "Most people don't know about it."

He grew up in a musically gifted Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn, a fan of tenor Mario Lanza. "I've been doing concerts since I'm 12 years old. My first vocal recital, called 'Twilight Serenade,' was when I was 16; at 17 and 18, I did the recital studios at [Carnegie Hall's] Weill Hall."

But at 19, he became the father of a son, then later a daughter. His teacher, who had been training Rodriguez as a baritone, decided that the young father would not have time for his music career.

"He pretty much just said goodbye, and at that point I had no connections, no way to get back into the music business," said Rodriguez. "It was a very, very dark time in my life. I stopped singing for about five years before I was able to pick up where I'd left off."

To support his young family, Rodriguez worked as a grill man at the Lutheran Medical Center, drove trucks, handled hardware for a cabinet maker, and finally began working at the U.S. Postal Service.

"I got bored very easily, but the post office kept me very busy and I made pretty good money, so I worked there for six years," he said.

In 1996, Rodriguez joined the police force, assigned first as a patrol and vice officer in Queens, later as a community relations officer in Manhattan. When he became part of the NYPD's ceremonial unit, he sang at a variety of events honored by the city's police force.

"At first I'd sing one day a week and patrol the other days. Three years into the police, I was singing three days a week," he said. "Sometimes I went for a whole month just singing."

Emboldened, Rodriguez decided to rent a 150-seat hall at Snug Harbor on Staten Island and present a concert that he called "Broadway Magic." "I sold tickets, got a logo, did the Web site, advertised everything, called my family and said I'm singing again, and sold the place out -- made about $300 after expenses. I debuted my old repertoire with a new and improved look, and that was the beginning."

At Giuliani's request, officials at the Metropolitan Opera invited him to audition -- but that went badly. "I had overprepared. I was tense, and I was tired, and I just sounded terrible," he recalled.

Domingo knew about the Met audition and agreed to listen to Rodriguez in September when his scheduled would permit. As it turned out, both men performed at the memorial service on Sept. 23. By then, Rodriguez was becoming known as the nation's voice.

"When I heard him sing the National Anthem, I already knew it was a quality voice," said Domingo. "After his audition for the Young Artist Program, I heard the real voice and it was a really attractive one. You know, they say out of a tragedy sometimes you see there comes a light, and the light for him is that everybody knows him and he's going to be successful no matter what."

Since March, Rodriguez has been on unpaid leave from the NYPD to study with Domingo ("the man is the hardest-working musician I've ever met") as a tenor. "I think that's what interested Placido in the beginning, because we have similar voices,

said Rodriguez. He is also being trained by San Francisco Opera's Lotfi Mansouri, who teaches at the Washington Opera's Vilar Young Artist Program. The program aims to launch singers into operatic careers.

Rodriguez has received a monthly stipend and earns fees for concert appearances. This spring, he has lived in an apartment in Arlington while Gina, his wife of 18 months, is at their home on Staten Island. He is booked to sing with orchestras across the country this summer "to establish myself beyond the singing cop, as a performer, and financially to get some kind of base that I can work from."

And, he said, "Placido wants me to debut with the Washington Opera to show I've developed my skills."

On the day that catapulted him into fame, Rodriguez was on his way to work about 9:30 a.m., driving across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to check in at the Manhattan South precinct, which includes Wall Street, when he saw smoke coming from the World Trade Center. He joined the emergency vehicles rushing to Manhattan and went to Police Plaza, then to City Hall to began solving communications problems and securing buildings to prevent looting. He called his wife and told her not to cross any bridges and to stay at his mother's house until he came to get her.

"I see the towers burning," he recalled. "It's so vivid. I run down to City Hall. There's no one there but one guy trying to set up a phone line. The next thing, the building starts to waver and I see this wave of debris covering people as they're running. We were in the mobile command post, and we came out and started rendering aid to people who were coming out of the towers. I still sometimes hear the radio, hear voices of people who are trapped, in agony.

"And I kept looking at the second building and saying, 'That second building is going to fall. There were two planes -- they were meant to do that.' And it did -- it sounded like the El [elevated train] overhead, a low rumble that builds to a point of deafness. To this day, when I hear a loud noise, my heart begins to pump."

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