There is a big heart that has been celebrating Italy, Christmas, children and the musical traditions of our country for almost twenty years in New York. It does so with commitment, courage, talent, and an infinite love and pride for its Italian roots.
It is the heart of Cristina Fontanelli, artist, singer, producer, who every year in December organizes a wonderful initiative called Christmas in Italy. This year it will be on Saturday the 17th and We the Italians encourages all New York readers to buy a ticket and participate, while those who are not in the Big Apple can make a donation to the foundation organizing the event. You will not regret it. Thanks to Cristina Fontanelli, a great friend of We the Italians with an Italian and American heart: once again, Two flags, One heart.
Ciao Cristina, and welcome on We the Italians. First of all, please tell our readers something about you and your Italian heritage…
I am delighted to be speaking with you and honored to have been invited for this lovely interview.
The blood that runs through my veins is 100% Italian! My grandmother on my father’s side was from Basilicata and my grandfather from Gragnano in Campania. My mother’s side is from Puglia - Molfetta. One of the highlights of my life was when I was invited by the Italian Government as a “Pugliese nel mondo”. I sang in one of Europe’s largest music conferences, MEDIMEX in Bari and a local presenter set up a concert in my grandparents’ hometown, Molfetta. It took place in the Museo Diocesano.
It was so amazing to sing in their hometown, but what was the icing on the cake was, at the end of my concert, a Monsignor (I am so sorry, I cannot recall his name!) came up on stage and said into the microphone “Mingooch” – that was my Grandfather, Domenico De Candia’s nickname! They knew each other, grew up with each other in Molfetta and then my grandfather went to America and settled in Hoboken, NJ.
On my father’s side, my great grandfather’s last name was Rocco Maria Marasco: he came to the United States with nothing and became a very successful businessman, the typical American success story. He became a shoe shine boy and then went on to own Real Estate in Little Italy, starting the Italian Savings Bank and Hospital, becoming a NYS Assemblyman who was instrumental in starting Columbus Day as a legal holiday.
When did you discover your passion and talent for music?
My mother, Francesca Anna De Candia Fontanelli, had one of the most beautiful singing voices I have ever heard, even to this day. She won a contest on the radio but didn’t pursue a professional singing career, even though she lived to sing. She was always singing around the house and at family functions. My voice needed careful training, but my mother’s was pure and natural. Angelic.
I actually didn’t want to be a singer, even though as a child I would wander around the garden and sing to the flowers, to the trees, sing and produce in local neighborhood shows for the children on the block. I wanted to be an actress and graduated from NY’s most important acting Academy, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. All students were cast in their senior year in a drama or comedy. I was cast in the great depression era Clifford Odet’s play “Awake and Sing”: and that is exactlywhat happened to me. One of the scenes involves the grandfather constantly listening to the recordings of Enrico Caruso (in rehearsals I heard over and over the magnificent tenor aria from Tosca “E lucean le stelle”), I played the matriarch of the family trying to keep everything together. At one point, my character smashes all of the Caruso recordings because she is so frustrated. I attended the Metropolitan Opera at the same time I was rehearsing and for the first time read a libretto. I was struck by the drama and the music. It changed the trajectory of my life and I started to search how I could study this wonderful art form.
On a funnier note, since the Academy was constantly sending me notes that I needed to lose a few pounds – I decided I should head in the direction of being an opera singer because “I could sing, I could act, and I could eat the lasagna!” Everyone loves that line! I say it many times in my nightclub performances.
Which music do you listen to in your spare time?
The singer that inspired me the most is Maria Callas. It is because I heard her voice when I was performing with the Light Opera of Manhattan, that I was inspired on the spot to dedicate my life to opera. I humbly relate to you that I was compared to her in my early and later reviews: “Elegante e vivace. Una giovane Callas” the great playwright Mario Fratti wrote after my first public concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in NYC. I performed with the former stars of the Metropolitan Opera, the current ones and I was the newcomer. I also enjoy popular singing - I have the channel Siriusly Sinatra on on the radio in my car. I love to listen to Frank and to the singers of that generation and genre. I switch to WQXR – our top classical music station – back and forth according to who is singing and what they are playing!
Who is the Italian singer or band you prefer?
I love Mina, a fan/friend gave me the entire collection of her music. And I love very much the voice and music of Andrea Bocelli. But my background is opera so I have studied and admire so many of the old time singers such as Beniamino Gigli, Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano: I sang at Lincoln Center with him! It was the very first appearance I made in public as a singer! I was so nervous. I sang “Musetta’s Waltz”, surrounded by veteran stars of the opera. What an auspicious beginning! At the party afterwards, Di Stefano leaned over to me and said in a deep, operatic voice “Brava!” That was like manna from Heaven to a young singer!
Is there an anecdote that happened through your long and successful career that you’d like to share with our readers?
I have so, so many anecdotes in my career, during my travels throughout the world: people tell me constantly that I should write a book. I have stories that also include my TV hosting for the historic PBS-TV special starring Andrea Bocelli in Central Park. I nearly had an exclusive interview with Mamma Bocelli but they didn’t get the cameras there in time to escape the Record company representative whisking her away for her evening plate of pasta!
I have performed all over the United States, Canada, not so much in Europe. But also exotic places like Singapore, the Middle East, several times concert tours in Korea, Japan, even Africa! One of the things that stands out is when I was on tour as soprano soloist with the Mantovani Orchestra. We were touring Korea and Japan. The Japanese audiences are usually very polite and quietly listen and then show their appreciation with warm applause at the end of the performance. But this particular night I heard loud shouting and clapping coming from the audience. I found out there was a blind man in the audience who was so moved by my singing that he started clapping, shouting and the whole audience started joining him, clapping to the song “Sukiyaki” which I sang every night on tour. It is so gratifying to know that human beings respond so enthusiastically to my singing.
Is there an opera you are particular happy to sing when you perform?
I love so many operas and have sung many of the great soprano roles. Madame Butterfly and Tosca are two of my favorites, and, of course, Violetta in “La Traviata”. How proud we are of our incredible musical heritage: these composers are giants in the firmament, such incredible artistry, such beauty. I became, as the media wrote “La Diva della canzone”: so much of my career has been singing classic and popular Italian songs. How beautiful they are. Our world desperately needs more and more of this music, not less.
Next December 17 once again we will be able to admire you and your commitment in the annual wonderful event you have been organizing every December: Christmas in Italy. Please tell us more about this and how our readers can lend a hand…
Yes, on Saturday December 17 of this year, at the world’s most prestigious musical complex, the Lincoln Center, I will perform the inspiration that I began 19 years ago, dedicated to my Italian heritage.
I began Christmas in Italy 19 years ago as a "love letter" to my heritage and to keep the great musical traditions of Italy alive and teach them to future generations. I had a vision to create a show filled with the joy and family values that I experienced growing up and to perform the music in its traditional style, with authentic Italian instruments including mandolins, guitars and accordion. I am very proud of this headline article in the NY Epoch Times Newspaper about how my work/the show is preserving values.
The idea for Christmas in Italy came to me after I sang at an event in 2004 where there was a NY Times reporter. I sang what I thought was the very famous Neapolitan song, “Torna a Surriento". The reporter loved it but did not know it. After I explained that the song was traditional from Naples Italy he wrote about it in the NYT. I decided then and there to present a show to the public once a year at Christmastime where they could come and hear the great musical gems of Italy. I began this completely on my own, using funds that were generated through my singing engagements and every year it has been a "leap of faith".
Christmas in Italy started in the Merkin concert hall in 2004 and we have steadily needed a larger venue: the Kaye Playhouse, Symphony Space in 2012; the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in 2014 and 2015. Then the 2016 NYC Christmas in Italy took place on Sunday, December 18 at the Washington Irving Landmark Theater in Gramercy Park. In 2017 we did two Shows at Symphony Space; in 2018 and 2019 at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, while during the Pandemic we performed at St. Jean Baptiste Church and the Church of the Most Precious Blood, the original immigrant church in Little Italy, NYC. This year we’ll be at Lincoln Center!
I had a vision for the show to have children performing and, indeed, throughout the years we have had hundreds of children singing, dancing, even at Carnegie Hall, the great music of Italy and Christmas! I feel very gratified that they will carry this beautiful memory throughout their lives.
This is a quote from a fan, Frank C., Macchio (President of Queensboro UNICO) that sums up the reason for this beloved Christmas show: "I attended your Christmas in Italy concert yesterday and I was so deeply touched. Your exquisite voice and selection of songs brought tears to my eyes. When I was young, the family entertainment was getting together on a Saturday night and my Dad and his brothers played the mandolin and guitar and sang those wonderful songs. Thank you for the beautiful memories. Cristina, I can’t thank you enough. I was in tears through most of the concert. Tears of reflection and memories. Your rendition of Ave Maria was truly the most moving I’ve ever experienced. I was left in a transcendental state of peace. May each year, more and more, embrace your Christmas in Italy concert so our future American bambinos can learn where we came from and the fibers that join us together.”
I started out with an inspiration and, as they say, ignorance is bliss! Rented an important concert hall in NYC, hired the musicians, planned the program, sold the tickets (like I did in my neighborhood as a child!) and became a singing producer! There was a time that that was a normal thing. There is even a book about it: Divas were always producing their own concerts.
I didn’t call myself a producer, but I finally realized that is what I am and after 18 years of dedication, I knew it was time to “formalize” the charitable musical work that I have been doing for so many years. The Cristina Fontanelli Foundation, Inc. was formed pro bono by an important law firm in NYC that believed in our mission. This is our mission statement: “Founded by Award-winning singer/PBS-TV host, Cristina Fontanelli, to produce family-friendly entertainment productions across the spectrum of the media (Stage, Film, TV, Internet, Radio) providing children/youth with training and performance opportunities, donating free tickets to Veterans and the underprivileged and discounted tickets to seniors and the underserved community while raising awareness of the scientifically proven health and societal benefits of the arts, namely classical/semi-classical music. A portion of the proceeds (10%) are donated to children’s causes such as St. Jude’s Hospital.”
Christmas in Italy is not the only event we produce. Another event I’m very proud of is Opera & Broadway of the Hamptons. The opera company has been in existence for 30 years. The Cristina Fontanelli Foundation took charge of it 6 years ago so that it could continue the mission of bringing world-class voices to the East End of Long Island. Our concerts are held at Duck Walk Vineyard in Southold, NY and at Guild Hall in East Hampton and at the Basilica of the Sacred Hearts in Southampton.
We also produced Memories of Mama in 2019 at Symphony Space, NYC, giving youngsters and children dance opportunities with mother/daughter tap dancing. We did The Great International Songbook in New York, preserving the great songs of the world, while providing performance opportunities for children/youth and diverse choruses. And in 2020 we produced the streaming film Christmas 2020, an edited one-hour version of our 2016 Christmas in Italy that took place at the Washington Irving School in Gramercy Park, NY.
The Cristina Fontanelli Foundation is a legal NYS charitable organization. If any of your readers would be kind enough to help us by making a tax-deductible donation in any amount, large or small, we appreciate it: they can do it here. I can use mentoring help as well, wisdom and direction. I will be more than delighted to meet in person and explain more and listen and learn from any of your readers that may have helpful insights.
Thanks Cristina! Thanks for all you do, I hope that many We the Italians readers will buy a ticket for Christmas in Italy and/or donate to your Foundation!
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to tell my story Umberto! I admire and respect you so much and I am happy that the readers of “We the Italians” will know more about my passion for my heritage which I have expressed through my singing voice for so many years. I am blessed to have so many wonderful fans throughout the world and throughout the United States. They start out as fans, and then so many have become wonderful friends. This is one of my most favorite things about having a singing/performing career: the wonderful people you meet. I hope some of your readers will become fans and friends too and join us at Lincoln Center on December 17. Grazie e Buon Natale!
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