On the Beat

On the Beat

How Stephen De Maio helps fledgling careers take flight. by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat DeMaio lg 813
De Maio at a recent Lissner event
© Don Pollard 2013

IF YOU'RE A YOUNG SINGER in New York, going from one voice competition to another, there's an excellent chance that you've crossed paths with STEPHEN DE MAIO. For years, De Maio has been both a peripatetic presence and a well-kept secret: few people on the New York music scene have devoted themselves to helping out young artists quite so extensively as he has. For seventeen years, he produced master classes at Marymount Manhattan College, inviting the likes of SHERRILL MILNES and APRILE MILLO to work with his students. Currently, he is administrative/artistic director of the Licia Albanese–Puccini Foundation, president of the Gerda Lissner Foundation (which he founded in 1995, at the request of patron BETTY SMITH), artistic advisor to the Giulio Gari Foundation and a consultant to the Loren L. Zachary Society, all of which hold annual voice competitions and award substantial cash prizes to their top winners. Opera-company directors from around the world pay close attention to the competitions that De Maio shepherds, each of which has an impressive track record of launching singers on major careers.

As someone who has extensively covered these competitions and hosted a number of the winners' concerts, I've had plenty of opportunity to observe De Maio in action. When instructing his various juries, he's a little like a benevolent but strict schoolteacher, reminding jurors that the top awards should be given to truly outstanding voices. "You need to be listening for someone who is ready to step onto a major professional stage tomorrow," he said recently, at the finals for the Giulio Gari Competition. There's a good deal of money at stake here. From 2008 to 2013, at the Lissner Foundation alone, De Maio has supervised the handing out of $1,500,000 to 350 young singers. (The system does have its critics; there are those in the industry who complain that the same people keep winning the top prizes.)

Observing De Maio in action at any of the competitions he oversees is not unlike watching the White Rabbit, rapidly and anxiously making his way through a sea of Red Queens (let's say, some of our more prominent New York voice teachers) and White Queens (let's say, some of our more beloved retired divas). He's an extraordinarily knowledgeable opera-lover and enthusiastic champion of young talent; he's like an eccentric uncle who collects Playbills and can't wait to show you his latest acquisition. Philanthropic organizations, of course, can be as rife with politics as any other organization; in recent years, both the Lissner and the Puccini Foundations have undergone shakeups that have led to the defection of some key board members, among them CESARE SANTAREMO and ALFRED HUBAY. But De Maio has persevered through it all and has plans for continued expansion of his foundations' programs. This year, he hopes to launch the Gerda Lissner Vocal Institute, to provide first-class instruction in a variety of areas, from vocal technique to audition preparation.

De Maio was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father was an avid clarinetist, and he saw to it that his son received extensive instruction in both piano and piccolo. Young De Maio studied music and drama at New York University, Kean College and Fordham and was briefly a chorus boy in summer musicals at Pennsylvania's famed Bucks County Playhouse. In the 1960s, he was introduced to Licia Albanese backstage, after one of her Met performances as Cio-Cio-San. "Eventually, Licia's husband, JOSEPH A. GIMMA, said, 'You're going to be with us. You're going to do everything with Licia,'" says De Maio. When Albanese inaugurated the Puccini Foundation in 1974, he came aboard as her assistant.

"Licia's wish for the Puccini, apart from helping young singers, was that they have a concert bringing back the great stars that the Met had never honored, or had not honored enough," De Maio recalls. At the annual autumn gala, VIRGINIA ZEANI, LEYLA GENCER, INGE BORKH, JON VICKERS, GIORGIO TOZZI, EVELYN LEAR, TERESA STRATAS, BRENDA LEWIS, THOMAS STEWART and many others stepped out onstage to electrifying ovations from the audience. Many of them were past the time when they cared to sing in public, but many others still possessed a vocal security and authority that was often revelatory. I recall LUCINE AMARA offering Marietta's Lied from Die Tote Stadt, legato beautifully intact; eighty-three-year-old MARTA EGGERTH's unforgettable "Wien, Wien, Nur Du Allein"; JAMES KING offering a superb account of "Winterstürme"; FEDORA BARBIERI bringing half the audience to its feet with one vocalized line — "Reverenza," from Falstaff. Albanese was also a great lover of pop music, and she brought back some of the biggies, including ANN BLYTH, JANE POWELL, KATHRYN GRAYSON and MARGARET WHITING. For years, the concert began with Albanese herself leading "The Star-Spangled Banner" with immense patriotic conviction (waving her hand over her head as she sang, "And our flag was-a still-a 'der!").

If the Gerda Lissner Institute gets off the ground this year, what is it that De Maio most hopes to accomplish with it? "Number one, so many of the singers need to master breathing techniques," he says. "It's the key to good singing. And so many of them need to learn how to express the words. The languages are so important, and you need to know what you're singing and how to get it across." He is deeply proud of his foundations' role in developing the careers of talents such as ISABEL LEONARD, MICHAEL FABIANO, BRYAN HYMEL and ANGELA MEADE. "I thought from the beginning that they all had the stuff," he says. "And they're all Americans, which makes it wonderful. I think they all have a God-given talent. Now, you can work with what you have, but they have really worked more than most people. I feel that there is still a golden age out there, and that it will continue. JOYCE DIDONATO is certainly a reminder of the golden age. ANNA NETREBKO, in her own way — she does little things that are not right, but she's something to reckon with. We have to adapt to the changing color of things. We may not have another MARIO DEL MONACO, but we have JONAS KAUFMANN." spacer

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2