Music has long been an instrumental part of opera singer Cristina Fontanelli’s life, but during her formative years she could probably never have envisioned just how far it would take her, both in terms of travel and her career.
Brooklyn-born and Long Island raised in an Italian household, Fontanelli cut her teeth by singing at the St. Ann Italian Festival every year in Hoboken, New Jersey, her mother’s hometown.
“Danny Aiello used to show up, and even Frank Sinatra,” Fontanelli recalled in a recent phone interview. “That became a big part of my life, it sustained me.”
In the years since, Fontanelli, who sings in nine different languages, has gone on to perform at venues large and small — including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and even the White House, for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She has also traveled the globe, touring as a solo concert artist and with orchestras including the Boston Pops and the St. Louis Symphony, performing in major concert halls throughout the United States and in Europe, Canada, the Far East, the Middle East, Singapore and more. She has appeared alongside Tony Bennett and Joel Grey, worked with Lidia Bastianich and was invited by the Italian government to represent the United States in Bari, Italy as a distinguished artist of Pugliese descent. She even had an opportunity to sing in her grandparents’ hometown of Molfetta, Italy.
But in recent years, Fontanelli’s primary role has been that of a singing producer. On Sunday, September 5, she will bring her many talents (and lots of music) to The Basilica Parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Southampton to present “From Opera to Broadway: Cristina Fontanelli and her Fabulous Friends,” an afternoon of classical music and beloved show tunes which she will perform alongside several other talented musicians and singers.
Though she lives in Manhattan, Fontanelli has been singing on the East End for years, beginning with Opera of the Hamptons performances at the former Siena Spirituality Center in Water Mill. When Opera of the Hamptons’ artistic director Barbara Giancola retired, Fontanelli jumped in and for several years, continued to organize Opera of the Hamptons shows at Duck Walk Vineyard on the North Fork.
“But in recent years, I’ve been doing ‘Cristina Fontanelli and her Fabulous Friends,’” Fontanelli explained of her producer role. “I’m the person who has the following, so to speak, I know how to run it pretty well and I have a fan base.”
Though classically trained as an opera singer, Fontanelli notes that it’s certainly not her only passion and audiences who come to the Southampton show will see that in the wide range of musical offerings that will be on display.
“I love great music, whether it’s opera or a great Broadway tune — anything outstanding. I have done my share of opera, but I’ve really spread out to become a classical crossover entertainer,” said Fontanelli, a regular performer at Feinstein’s/54 Below and, before that, at Feinstein’s at the Regency. Forbes magazine once described her performances there like “seeing a cross between Maria Callas and Ethel Merman.”
Fontanelli is at home in many musical settings and she feels that much of her success as a performer can be attributed to her ability to connect with audiences, a skill she said she developed as the result of the need to earn money to pay for her opera voice lessons. From performing at borsht belt venues in upstate New York to singing with various symphonies as a soloist, learning to relate to fans has served her well.
“As a soloist, I always had this extra dimension. I’d say funny things and interact with the audience,” she said. “I love people and I’ve been able to connect with them.”
Being funny helps, and it was her ease with audiences that eventually landed her a gig as a host of opera specials on PBS television.
Fontanelli explained how it all came about.
“I was hired to sing at the Pompeii exhibit at the Discovery Museum in New York and I talked to the audience there,” said Fontanelli. “The producers saw me, and said, ‘We need your energy’ and they put me on as PBS host for Andrea Bocelli Live in Central Park.
“I was green. When I started talking, the producer said, ‘You’ve got to tone it down.’ I said, ‘I thought you said you needed my energy?’”
Eventually, Fontanelli figured out a happy medium and added TV host to her long list of skills. Another skill that she has developed over the years is producing, which began nearly two decades ago when she created “Christmas in Italy,” an annual concert in New York City geared toward all ages that highlights classic American holiday songs as well as favorite tunes from Italy.
“I decided I would rent a theater in New York, so I rented Merkin Concert Hall at Lincoln Center and sold tickets — that’s how I started as a producer,” she said. “Eighteen years later, we’ve moved to Carnegie Hall and I’ve gone out to California with it.”
For the Southampton show this Sunday, audiences can expect not holiday songs, but a selection of music from well-known operas to favorite show tunes. Fontanelli stresses that her shows are fun and accessible to all.
“The first half of the program will be great famous arias and duets,” Fontanelli said. “Audiences love them. Even if they’re not opera lovers, we explain the pieces and keep it bubbling.
“The second half will be Broadway tunes with some younger artists taking part,” added Fontanelli, who noted that among the singers performing will be two local high school students, Shea Rodriguez from Southampton High School and Zoe Richardson from Pierson High School.
Incorporating young singers and dancers is a recurring feature of Fontanelli productions. Passionate about engaging youth in music, she established the non-profit Cristina Fontanelli Foundation with a mission to give young people performance opportunities while preserving the great music of the world and spreading awareness of its healing benefits.
“Classical music and the arts have so many benefits to society and health. My mission is to promote the health and societal benefits of this music,” Fontanelli said. “My heart is not where money is, but where I can do good.
“My mission is to raise awareness of this music and I try to do it in a fun and positive way — like giving kids organic vegetables.”
“From Opera to Broadway: Cristina Fontanelli and her Fabulous Friends” is Sunday, September 5, at 5 p.m., at The Basilica Parish of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, 168 Hill Street, Southampton. Presented by Opera & Broadway of the Hamptons and The Cristina Fontanelli Foundation, in addition to students Shea Rodriguez and Zoe Richardson, joining Fontanelli on stage will be tenor Riad Ymeri, baritone Ricardo Rivera. Tickets are $55 ($48 seniors) at cristinafontanelli.com.