Approaching its 30th anniversary, Boston Bel Canto Opera makes it mark as founder moves forward

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by Frank Conte

In 1993, Bradley Pennington, already an accomplished musician and teacher, formed the Boston Bel Canto Opera making it a much-welcomed addition to Greater Boston’s cultural arts community. Its aim — then and now — is to bring the absolute finest in operatic performances to its audiences. Most of the performances over recent years have taken place at the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center, often with the support of Italian American organizations such as the Pirandello Lyceum.  Pennington was lauded in 2018 by Pirandello as one of “I Migliori in Mens et Gesta, is from the Latin meaning, “The Best in Thought and Actions” that promote Italian culture.

As its founder and artistic director, Pennington has assembled numerous soloists who work under his direction.  Since that time Pennington’s passion is not only providing musical accompaniment on piano but also organizing the multi-faceted tasks that comprise a performance — from choosing the repertoire to be sung to overseeing the printing of concert programs. As with most cultural institutions, BBCO depends of the support of donors who have built a legacy of excellence. 

BBCO will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a concert of arias and ensembles on Sunday, November 19th at 3 p.m. at the Dante Alighieri Cultural Center. Among the selections are works by Rossini, Puccini, Verdi and Donizetti and others.

The following interview took place online. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As a musician did you start out with opera or with some other genre? What drove you to this musical form?

I began piano lessons at age 12 in the seventh grade and was told by my teacher that I had a major talent.  My progress was such that I usually won first prize in local piano competitions.  I did not “discover” opera until I went to the Indiana University School of Music to acquire the Master of Music degree in solo piano.  There, I played accompaniments for the voice majors, thereby learning much of the standard operatic repertoire.  I was simply enraptured by the sound of it!

Who were your major influences?

At Indiana, I was influenced and inspired by two voice faculty members, soprano Margaret Harshaw and mezzo-soprano Martha Lipton.  Both ladies had been major artists at the old Metropolitan Opera house in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s

My other major influence, this in piano instruction, was Menahem Pressler, the celebrated pianist who had founded the Beaux Arts Trio at the university which was located in Bloomington.  He gave me the technical foundation to play piano in the grandest, most correct manner.

My most important mentor in classical vocal music, and particularly in opera, was Madame Iride Pilla.  She had been a successful operatic soprano, both in Europe and in the United States and was the senior member of the Boston Conservatory voice faculty.

I made her acquaintance in 1976 while I was a doctoral degree piano candidate at Boston University.  She was impressed by my knowledge of opera, and engaged me to play for her voice students.  Within a few short weeks, she had the president of the conservatory hire me for the school faculty as a vocal coach and accompanist, a position which I held for 20 years, 1976-1996.  She also had the administration appoint me as teacher of opera history for graduate voice majors in master’s degree programs. 

What is it that you impart to your current students from your years of experience as a teacher and artistic director?

Madame Iride Pilla’s most invaluable gift to me was imparting the Italian Bel Canto singing method which she had taught for half a century!  She showed me how to sing easily with brilliance and security, and all the more crucial, how to teach my own voice students in the same regard.  It is this concept which is displayed by the singers whom I showcase on Boston Bel Canto concerts.

My last person of influence in refining my prowess in opera was Signor Arrigo Pola, the first singing teacher of Luciano Pavarotti.  He had been a well-known operatic tenor in Europe, a native Italian from Modena.  When he came to Boston to give voice lessons and master classes in 1987, I was asked to play vocal accompaniments for his sessions and to serve as intermediate interpreter since his English was limited, and I was fluent in Italian.  Since my singing voice was tenor, he further “polished” my ideas of technical command in private lessons.

How did Boston Bel Canto get off the ground? And why did you give it the name Bel Canto, which is a particular style of opera growing out of the genre?

In 1993, I had been living and teaching in Boston for almost 2 decades.  My private voice studio had so many wonderful singers that I contrived the intention to found my own opera company in the city to give these vocalists public performing opportunities.    I decided to name the business “Boston Bel Canto Opera” because I had a special affinity for the operatic music of the early nineteenth century, especially the works of Italian composers.  I had previously done extensive research into the repertoire of this period while I was a graduate student.

Paul Soper

Obviously, opera is an Italian invention and your choices of selections for the Nov. 19 represent among the greatest Italian works. What is it that sets apart Italian opera to this day? Moreover, how much of those classics are open to interpretation?

Italian operatic music in the Bel Canto era is known for endless melodies of beauty and expression.  It is also characterized by ornamental “additions” to the vocal line which are chosen by the singer to enhance the composer’s original thoughts.  No other style of operatic composition permits this option.

Over the years, you have been featured at many events sponsored by Italian American organizations such as the Pirandello Lyceum often at the Dante Alighieri in Cambridge. How did that relationship begin and how critical was it to your success?

The Pirandello concerts began in January, 1998 at Harvard Club of Boston in the Back Bay. The (then) president of the Lyceum, Dr. Stephen Maio, was acquainted with me from my faculty status at Wakefield High School where I taught voice and piano lessons from 1993 to 2007; he was the school’s former superintendent.  Having heard my excellent voice students in performance, he initiated the request that resulted in my company’s singers giving opera concerts under the aegis of the Lyceum.  Since then, the Boston Bel Canto’s reputation has blossomed to glowing proportions.

There are so many selections you could have chosen to celebrate your 30th anniversary. Does the selection for the 19th have any significance?

Some of the operatic selections for the 19 November concert harken back to some of the complete Italian operas which BBCO gave at Jordan Hall, this from 1994 to 2004.

There are so many great composers which one did you never tire of playing?

The best answer is probably Verdi, although Bellini and Donizetti are runners up! 

What sets Verdi apart from the others?

Verdi’s works combine the ethics of the Bel Canto composers with modernistic trends, offering something aurally satisfying for almost everyone.

Six soloists will be performing on the 30th anniversary concert? How long have you worked with them and are there any new performers we should watch?

I have worked with Joanna Porackova for 37 years; Joseph Holmes – 30 years; Giovanni Formisano – 8 years; Paul Soper – 3 years; Letitia Stevens – 3 years. The one to watch from now on is the debutant Adrianna Repetto, who I have been working with for the past 6 months. She is the principal soprano soloist at the historic Old South Church in Boston.

What is the most difficult piece for your singers to perform?

The most difficult pieces for any voice category would be those which have either very high notes and/or fast coloratura.  Considering the standard opera fare, those works would have been composed in the early to middle 19th century, both those written in Italian and in French.

In its beginnings, opera was closed off to women, at which point did the doors open for them?

Female operatic roles sung by actual women began to appear in the early and middle segments of the 18th century.  The major reason was that the Catholic Church lifted its ban which had prohibited women from singing on stage.

Can opera be more accessible to young listeners? What needs to be done?

Young attendees at operatic events would likely increase in number if the program repertoire for a specific date included pieces in English as well as the usual foreign languages. My only other suggestion that could be a possible incentive for younger people would be to organize concert programs which offered a repertoire mixture of both opera, operetta, and famous musical theatre pieces.  Classically-trained singers in my organization could easily interpret American musical theatre numbers as well as those in foreign languages.

Has Bel Canto ever performed the works of more modern, 20th century composers?

BBCO has offered music from the works pf Puccini, but only one complete opera, Suor Angelica (1918).  Additionally, my singers have performed music from Manon Lescaut (1893), La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), La Fanciulla del West (1910), and Turandot (1924).  Only Giancarlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) has been done by BBCO, the whole opera in 4 different productions.

You have accomplished much over this period. What is next for Boston Bel Canto Opera?

To advance BBCO’s reputation might require a liaison with some of the venerable oratorio societies in Boston, thereby sharing soloists in sacred works which demand extreme technical capability.  Insofar as considering doing complete operas in concert, the current formidable expense of production would necessarily require substantial financial underwriting by local philanthropic organizations.

Frank Conte is the editor and publisher of EastBoston.com. He can be reached at editor@eastboston.com.

Tickets for the November 19 performance are available at the door. Admission is $26.00; $23.00 for seniors (62 and older) and students with proper ID. (Cash and personal checks only.)

File Photograph Frank Conte

Originally posted November 12, 2023