"I know I'm not a perfect singer," says Robert Cantrell. "Who wants a perfect singer? All the great ones had their flaws."
The Georgia-born bass-baritone gives a little laugh as he says that, the laugh of someone who doesn't take himself too seriously. But Cantrell does take his art very seriously, as audiences will be reminded Sunday when the Baltimore resident will be a soloist in the Handel Choir of Baltimore's performance of the exquisite Requiem by Maurice Durufle.
For the better part of two decades, Cantrell, 44, has been a frequent and much-admired contributor to the region's musical life. He began appearing with the Baltimore Opera Company shortly after starting graduate studies at the Peabody Conservatory in 1987.
"I had a chance to be an apprentice with the company and did a lot of small roles," the singer says. "That was the good thing. The bad thing was that I wasn't really prepared for that world. My background had been in church music. I never had any aspirations to be an opera singer. I was pulled into a different path when I came to Peabody."
Stanley Cornett, the exceptional tenor who was Cantrell's primary teacher at the conservatory, recalls the budding student.
"He was in his formative years. Technically, our big task was to get that voice working, especially the top notes," Cornett says. "He grew as a musician, from a student who was scared to get through the most basic arias. I'm proud to see his evolution into an artist."
Hearing Cantrell today, "the depth and beauty of the voice is what strikes you," says Cornett, who points out additional assets. "He's a gentle, cuddly, very ingratiating person. And when he walks into a room, everyone responds in that way. He makes you feel you're the most important person in the world."
Cantrell didn't always feel too important back when he was getting his vocal cords wet at the Baltimore Opera. "Some conductors I worked with were total [jerks] who were not at all helpful to a student," he says.
Nonetheless, the bass-baritone gradually gained skills and confidence, enough to audition successfully for the Washington National Opera chorus. "I kind of wanted to spread my wings," he says.
In 1992, he made his debut with the D.C. company as a chorister in Puccini's Turandot, with soprano powerhouse Eva Marton in the title role. "Oh, my God! I had never been near a voice that huge," Cantrell says. "And it was fantastic seeing that personality in rehearsal. One time, the conductor said, 'You're late.' She just said, 'No, maestro, you wait for Eva.' "
Seven years later, Cantrell moved from the chorus into a supporting role in the Washington production of Massenet's Le Cid, starring Placido Domingo and televised nationally. "I remember how petrified I was," Cantrell says. "I had a really bad throat infection the day of the broadcast, but I was not going to let someone else sing for me."
The company continues to engage him for supporting roles and choral work.
"Small parts are very important," says Christina Scheppelmann, director of artistic operations. "You can ruin a whole performance with bad singing in a small role. Bob sings small roles with presence. He works very hard and [has] a very good voice. And he's such a nice guy."
Last November, Cantrell was in the supporting cast for Washington's production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, which showcased soprano Renee Fleming. "She was so down to earth, and very helpful in rehearsal," says Cantrell, who also shared a stage with Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera, where he sang in the chorus for a few seasons. He turned down offers of regular Met work.
"It would have made things simpler, but you lose your identity when you're in a chorus," he says. "And I wasn't going to move to New York."
Cantrell has strong ties to Baltimore, starting with being a faculty member at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "He had to struggle with his technique when he was a student," Cornett says, "and, in the process, he understood it more. That makes him a very good teacher. I tried to get him to teach at Peabody."
Adds Scheppelmann: "I'm amazed he has the energy to sing, with all the teaching he does." But she wouldn't mind if he could reduce that schedule, "so he could spend a little more time on [his] voice and work on the top [register]."
Cantrell admits that "it's hard trying not to kill myself instructing my babies how to sing. But when they graduate and come back and say, 'Thank you'- there are just no words for it. I have one [former student] on full scholarship at Oberlin [Conservatory] now, and another at the University of Maryland."
In addition to the teaching and all the singing in the area - Handel Choir, Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Opera Vivente, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Holiday Spectacular, etc. - Cantrell has held a steady job for a dozen years at Grace United Methodist Church as soloist in the adult choir and director of the youth choir.
"The young people love him, and he's on a hugging relationship with most of the [adult] choir members," says Bruce Eicher, longtime music director and organist at the church. "Whenever he's a soloist, people are always gaga; his solos always get applause."
Cantrell has a wish list of concerts he'd like to give and leading opera roles he'd like to tackle someday. "I don't have an agent, but I sing constantly," he says. "There's always a new challenge ahead of me. I'm 44, and I'm just now hitting my stride."
if you go
The Handel Choir of Baltimore, conducted by Melinda O'Neal, performs Durufle's Requiem with bass-baritone Robert Cantrell and mezzo-soprano Catherine MiEun Choi at 4 p.m. Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5401 N. Charles St. Tickets are $25-$44. Call 410-366-6544 or go to handelchoir.org.