By Peggy Carroll
He was a New York City cop from Brooklyn and an operatic singer. In the aftermath of 9/11, he became the “Singing Policeman.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, Daniel Rodriguez was one of the first responders when the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
He was at Ground Zero for months, missing only the days when he was called upon to attend memorials and the funerals of too many of his peers. He went to sing, to use the trained bel canto tenor that was his other profession.
It was this voice that made him known as the “9/11 Singing Policeman.”
In those stark days, and in the time after, he believes, he was seen as “ a symbol of the healing process, giving some sense of comfort and normalcy” to a traumatized city and nation.
On Sept. 11, 2016, Rodriguez, now 52 and a full-time singer, will mark the 15th anniversary of the attacks with a performance at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. He will present a blend of classical and popular music, the patriotic and inspirational, traditional and jazz and Latin songs from his Puerto Rican heritage. His program begins at 3 p.m.
It is the first time Rodriguez has appeared in his own production, rather than as a guest or entertainer at a charity or special event. But it continues the quest he has set for himself: To rediscover the unity the nation experienced in the wake of the attacks.
“For a brief period, our differences dissolved,” he says. “We came together. We treated each other with compassion and generosity. We were all connected. And then suddenly, it was gone.”
People, he said, remember 9/11 as a time of profound sorrow. They also should remember that it proved the nation’s strength and resilience.
Rodriguez started life as a kid from Brooklyn, the first son of Carmen and Jose Rodriguez, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico when they were in their teens. It was a musical family. Both his father and grandfather also were tenors and many of his cousins are musicians.
His own talent was nurtured by a teacher, Elliot Dorfman, a Juilliard-trained singer who took him under his wing. He also studied with Juilliard’s Aldo Bruschi and Miraslov Markoff of the Moscow Ballet and Opera. He performed at Carnegie Hall’s Del Terzo recital hall when he was 16.
But while he had singing jobs, they did not pay the bills when he married at 19 and became a father. For the next decade, he said, “I was a taxi driver, a truck driver, a short-order cook, caterer and postal worker.”
It was while he was working in the post office that his life began to change. He was dating a policewoman-in-training, and he attended her graduation from the Police Academy. He noted with interest how “one of the troops” sang the National Anthem at the ceremony.
Shortly after, he received notice that he had been accepted to the Academy. “I had forgotten I had even applied,” he says with a laugh. But it was a good job, with good benefits.
And remembering his past girlfriend’s graduation, he began to lobby to sing at his own graduation. Nothing from his friends or teachers worked. So, he said, he went to the NYPD ceremonial unit himself.
“I was not supposed to be there,” he recalls, “and the officer in charge was not happy to see me. Then he told me to sing the anthem. And he said it had better be good, because he could end my career. So I sang.
“When I got to ‘the rocket’s red glare,’ another officer walked in and asked, ‘Is this the guy who’s singing at graduation?’ The first officer said, ‘Yeah.’ So I sang at graduation. I had a large audience. We had 2,000 graduates, the largest class up to then.”
That was 1995 and for the next six years, he was a beat cop – walking and riding patrols and one year on undercover. He also was one of the Department’s designated anthem singers.
Then came Sept. 11.
He was living in Staten Island and was driving to work on the Verrazano Bridge. He could see the fire on the Twin Towers. He managed to pull into the HOV lane and work his way over the bridge.
At one point on his frantic trip, he said, he made a decision to turn left. “If I had turned right, I would have been under the first Tower when it collapsed,” he says.
He was two blocks away when it fell. He was at the Trade Center when the second came down.
“I made my peace with God several times that day,” he says. “And I said goodbye to my wife and children.”
But the policeman’s job was to “protect and serve,” he said, and so they did. He worked that day with a mobile command as first responders shepherded dazed survivors across the Brooklyn Bridge.
At one point, there was a temporary morgue right behind his unit. “We saw so much,” he recalls. “We witnessed too much.”
He was on the site for three or four days –he is not sure which – before he got home for the first time. “We slept on cots and people brought us clothes and food,” he remembers.
For the next few months, he was at Ground Zero every day – except for the times he was asked to sing at funerals and civic memorials. Through all of his police work, he had not put his music aside – and his talents as a singer were known by his peers.
One of these memorial ceremonies was to change his life. He sang at the “Prayer for America” at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001. It was a nationally televised tribute to the fallen and a promise to rise again.
AN INVITATION FROM PLACIDO
Also on the bill was Placido Domingo, who invited him to attend the Domingo/Vilar Young Artists Institute in Washington DC for 18 months of opera study.
He also became the Police Department’s emissary, appearing on numerous TV shows including Oprah, Regis and Kathy, Larry King Live, David Letterman, and the Early Show, and because he is fluent in Spanish, on Spanish language programs.
He often was presented as “America’s Tenor.”
In those months, too, he sang at the Carnegie Hall season opening and was signed to his first recording contract.
In 2004, he retired from the police force and has made music his full-time profession. He has
since recorded several albums and appeared as lead tenor in several operas. He also regularly appears in support of charities and performs a full domestic and international concert schedule.
He again is living in Brooklyn with his wife, Marla Kavanaugh, a soprano who has performed in concert and opera. They have a daughter, Alexandra, now 7. He also has a son, Daniel, 32, and daughter, Jai-Lisa, 25, from a previous marriage.
Last February, he found that he had not escaped a 9/11 related illness. Surgeons at the World Trade Medical Clinic performed sinus surgery and found extensive infection and numerous polyps.
“You’re a singer?” the surgeon asked, amazed.
The surgery brought a change for him. “My voice is lighter and I’ve gained a tone and a half,” he said with a smile.
He is, he believes, an even better singer.
Daniel Rodriguez, the 9/11 Singing Policeman, presents Harmony for Heroes…United We Stand at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center at 3 pm on Sept. 11, 2016. Tickets are $29-$59. Call 973-539-8008 or visit the box office at 100 South St. for more.