Semi-serious chronicle of a Lyric minstrel who happened onto this world.
Almost a resume. Not suited as a blurb in the libretto given to the audience.
I was born in Rome, on Wednesday January 22 1964, at 2:00 am (should anybody wish to calculate my ascendant.. not that I care about it!), in the Delivery ward of ‘Policlinico Umberto I.
This is a piece of solid data. I do exist!
I was christened in the San Pietro Basilica, and given the names Pietro, Antonio and Arcangelo.
My parents were Francesco and Silvia Maria Cristina. I have a sister, Paola, who is 18 months older than I am.
My father was a bus driver, my mother a homemaker, but a very good seamstress: she made me a costume, meant for carnevale, (think a mixture of Mardi Gras and Halloween) inspired by my absolutely favorite character: Zorro.
I wore that costume not only for ‘carnevale’, but also for every game, every day; I still smile when I think about it.
My usual statement, before starting any game, was a clear ‘I get to play Zorro, ‘k guys?’ What I meant, of course,
was something like ‘Gentlemen, with your kind permission, and no matter what our choice of entertainment should be, Indians and cowboys, soldiers, explorers, cops and robbers, magicians and sorceresses, I, my lords and ladies, I should desire to play the role of Zorro!’
I should add that if by any chance the other kids were not willing to grant me my wish, I would not be fazed at all: the black cape –would- end up on my shoulders, one way or another.
You can see that ‘playing dress-up’ cast its spell upon me very early on, and this fascination would of course play a huge role in my choosing this craft.
I enjoyed a normal childhood, typical of a middle class family. We could afford vacations in Tuscany, in the Maremma woods, and I was brought up to respect nature, philanthropy and the fact that not every single whim of mine would be satisfied.
My life took a sudden, important turn when I was 8 years old, thanks to a random event.
Our neighbor’s son, older than I, was a singer in the ‘Cappella Musicale Pontificia’.
This institution was the Pope’s personal choir.
The poor lady had had to listen to me screaming my head off as I was playing in the
courtyard, and she alerted my parents to the fact that those yowls had a certain musical quality to it, and that there was a nice ‘texture’ to my voice.
My home was no haven of musical culture: we had a radio and a record player. In my mom’s family you would find love for opera and a few beautiful voices, on a purely amateur level.
My dad, who could not carry a tune in a bucket, told me that learning music could only be good for me, an experience under my belt. He was a prophet!
They asked me to learn a song for an audition with Cappella Sistina and, without even being aware of it, I chose a great classic, O sole mio’ by F. Di Capua.
I still remember everything, in great detail: that day mom took me to Santa Maria in Via, next to Via del Tritone, where Padre Raffaele Preite Servo di Maria, the sight-reading teacher, was to listen to me.
The huge guy (well, he seemed huge to me, in reality he was a small man), all clad in black, accompanied me at the piano.
Even my mom was surprised. My childish, scrawny body produced a strong, assertive voice that nobody had really heard before.
I was very shy, and I did not like to sing in front of anybody, my parents included. It may seem strange, but this is still the case.
I started to sing in an almost transcendent state: my voice rang out easily and fully, my heart was beating madly.
I sang like an animal would: nobody had ever thought of explaining to me what diaphragm, support, mask, covering and spinning the sound were, and nature was working just fine on its own.
A little path meandered down from the convent, and there I was introduced to the voice teacher, Father Vittorio Catena Servo di Maria. Father Raffaele told him I had a voice ‘like a huge boulder’, that needed to be sculpted to bring out the visible and audible shapes of song.
These two men, two priests, were fundamental for my formation, musical and otherwise.
They educated me to love music, to search expression in my vocal acting, to strive for the deep underlying meaning of a piece, not for the cheap effect.
We sang in order to pray, and song was the highest expression of prayer. Therefore, when singing you needed to listen to your heart.
My ability to listen increased through the daily working with polyphony.
Even now, when I happen to get something wrong on the stage (and it does happen!), I always know where I am and how to get back in sync with whomever is there, making music with me.
My parents were of course worried, but still allowed me to go from the suburbs to downtown Rome every day, with just the company of another youngster like me (this required an hour long trip by bus and tramway). The ‘Pueri Cantores’ elementary school is right behind Sant' Andrea della Valle, very close to Piazza Navona.
We spent the first two years, fourth and fifth grade, on technical and musical preparation.
After school hours, we had voice and sight-reading. I left home at 7.15 am, and got back around 3:00 pm. Not easy for a kid, but I felt I was afforded a privilege, what with belonging to the most ancient musical institution in the world.
I spent four years there, first as a student and then in the choir. I became a member of the choir at the end of my fifth grade, and I still remember the first rehearsal, in conjunction with the adult choir. Hearing at my back the tenor and basses voices unleashed a flood of emotions: a silvery, burnished color mixing with the soprani and alto voices, my section. It was a storm on the ocean, it was a blizzard. But a storm, a blizzard kept in check by a master of counterpoint and harmony: Pier Luigi da Palestrina.
Our first concert was in fact in Palestrina, the composer’s birthplace. It is close to Rome and totally dedicated to the great author and singer: he too belonged to this institution.
The first piece I sang in front of an audience, and with butterflies in my stomach, was ‘Tu es Petrus’ conducted by Maestro Domenico Bartolucci.
Only my father was there, at my singing initiation. To him, to his intelligence and instinctive foresight, I owe this profession of mine. He died when I was 12 years old.
After that, came many Sunday masses in Saint Peter, private masses with the Pope, walks in the Vatican gardens: all these brought the excitement and awareness of an uncommon experience.
This beautiful adventure came to an end on February 11 1977, when Father Vittorio Catena
read the names of the singers who, because their voice change, could no longer be in the choir.
I was in total disbelief when I heard my name, and burst out crying. I was barely 13, and I was already out of the choir? I could not believe it; many were able to sing treble until they were 15 or 16! It was a trauma that saddened me deeply, coming as it did so close to the devastation brought on by my father’s death a few months before.
I immediately got involved in another positive adventure. My sister Paola was part of a scouting group. I enrolled too. Why do I tell you this, you might ask. Well, the answer is easy. In Scouting tradition, night means a bonfire, communal singing (I even taught myself to play guitar) and skits put together and staged by the kids, in a carefree manner but with costumes and well defined roles, according to the themes the scout masters suggested.
This trial by fire showed me that performing in front of an audience suited me very well: I was getting a lot of positive feedback about my singing and my acting.
I was still incredibly shy, but that grassy stage and the gentle lighting, courtesy of the bonfire,
were pushing me toward the not too distant world of theatre.
Years went by, I graduated form High School in 1983, and when I was about 20, I became Scoutmaster.
Scouting taught me to love mountains and hiking: we went for long hard hikes with heavy backpacks on, we spent our nights in a tent, and we roamed the woods of Abruzzo, Lazio, Umbria, Marche and Veneto. Most important, we formed deep and lasting friendships that stood the test of time, and are still going strong now, 30 years later!
When I was 18 I started going back to my old haunts, I went back to sing in the choir of the then-trebles, conducted by the very Maestro of Pueri Cantores, Father Vittorio Catena.
A new arena, a new debut, years later, still with the same butterflies in my stomach.
Father Catena first told that me I had a lot of talent, and I could aspire to become a singer.
He also said I was a bass, but at 18 you are neither fowl nor fish: I was too young for anyone to be able to tell how my voice would eventually evolve.
I studied with him for a few months, but I realized that, his ability notwithstanding, he was teaching me to hold back my voice, to cover, to dampen it, as you need to do in a choir.
I had to find other teachers to learn how to produce my voice.
I auditioned with the Conservatory, and I was admitted.
Everything seemed so easy. At every recital, at every audition, I would receive appreciation, accolades, and support. Every night I was at rehearsals with various choirs. I was much in demand:
I read music well, and I sang with great gusto. I was always available. My mother gave up on seeing me, because I was never home.
I was 21 when I auditioned with Maestro Bartolucci and was accepted once more in the Coro della Cappella Sistina, in the basses section. I sang with them for a year, receiving no compensation but taking part in a wonderful 16 cities tour in the United States.
After this experience, I won the competition for a place in the Rome ‘Coro Sinfonico della Rai’
I was 22, with a plum of a job, could I rest on my laurels?
I started looking for a voice teacher, an adventure in itself. It is a world that should trigger magazine articles: a world with wonderful men and women, but also a world where you can find ignorance, arrogance and greed. A world where you can stumble upon self-conceited individuals and you meet liars and losers only too ready to disparage others. And these people are the ones always watching the clock, ready to boast about their success if you are doing well, ready to point the finger at you if something is not working.
Learning to sing has to be your passion, implying a continuous willingness to look into yourself before you do anything else. A constant daily work, with weekly meetings with your teacher. Given the fees that are prevalent even today, only children of wealth and privilege can afford two or three weekly lessons.
I was lucky to meet a very sensible, realist woman: Maestra Mirella Solenghi Ronconi.
She kept talking to me about a mysterious ‘C’.
Only in later years I got to understand what she meant. She was asking me to position my soft and hard palate, and my larynx, in such a way that they would create an ample imaginary ‘C’ inside my mouth. Easier said than done!
I asked her whether I would ever be able to sing opera in the big houses. She looked at me funny, stunned by my question, and then asked me ‘ why on earth would you be studying, if not to do that?’ Talk about rhetorical questions!
I have always been very cautious, even when I was getting compliments and flattering words.
My choices were always rather well thought-out; I never yielded to the Siren songs, so I got called a coward.
It is easy to tell a young guy that he is chickening out. But the very people who do it, who were so ready to push you on to bigger rep, are also very ready, if you make a mistake, to shake their heads and to declare you a has-been, a ruined voice.
I heard plenty of colleagues who seemed meant for stardom, many then had to settle for a lot less, and others even quit!
I decided I would leave my mark in the world of opera, that I was in no hurry, and that I would behave like a Marathoner, who does not shoot out of the blocks, but paces himself to get to the end of his very long race. Step after step.
20 years and counting, for me.
In 1986, in Rome, teatro Ghione hosted a competition, the ‘Concorso di canto Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’. I crashed it, singing ‘Non piú andrai’, and I found myself hired on the spot to sing Pergolesi’s ‘Il Mottetto di Pasqua’. It was my first contract, six concerts in Germany. One year later, in 1987, I entered the ‘Concorso’ the regular way instead of crashing it, and I won, but did not take part in the production the Accademia Barocca set up for the winners.
In the same year, though, a dear friend and school mate suggested to me that I audition for Dr. Rodolfo Celletti. He listened to my tape and asked to meet me, and I sang for him.
He immediately offered me a small role in Bellini’s opera ‘Il Pirata’, that would be done in July of 1987 at the ‘Festival della Valle d’Itria’ .
This was my debut in the theatre.
Now, if you think everything was easy and smooth, you are wrong. I had an easy start, true, but this profession does not afford you the luxury of thinking you can sit back and rest on your laurels. The level of competition is incredibly high, you always need to reaffirm and prove again and again your talent and your gifts.