Stefano de Peppo: Insights from an Italian Master

CS Music has had the privilege of working with Stefano de Peppo multiple times, and his Masterclasses have always been informative, encouraging, and extremely insightful. We had the opportunity to sit down with him and get a glimpse into his world and what he’s currently working on.

CS: Tell us a little about your background. Where did you first get started with singing?  What first drew you to working in the classical world?

Stefano de Peppo:  I grew up in Milan, Italy. The only boy after three girls, they tell me that when I was 3 or 4 years old, I would love to play 45 rpm records (which I recognized by the label’s color as, of course, I couldn’t read yet) on my sisters’ record player and sing along toItalian songs of that period.

As I was told I had a pretty voice when I was 5, I took part in a famous Italian TV singing competition for kids called “Lo Zecchino d’oro” (The Golden Sequin).

Alas, I did not pass the Semi Finals!

At Public Elementary School in Milan back then we used to have one hour a week of groupsinging (how great is that??), and I remember that I was one of the “good” ones. When I was 8,one day the Chorus Master of La Scala Children Chorus came to my School to select kids for the following season, and after the audition (my first one of many…) I was chosen to be part of that Chorus. I will never forget the first day of rehearsal of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci!

For 7 years, until nature made it impossible, I took part in many opera productions where children are required at La Scala as a Boy Soprano, somehow sharing the stage of that prestigious theatre with big stars of the time, from Pavarotti to Domingo, Birgit Nillsson, Carreras, Caballe, Giuseppe di Stefano, Mirella Freni, etc.

It was then that I fell in love with opera. With the little money that at La Scala paid me, each month I would buy a new opera in LPs, usually the same one I had just been part of, and at home I would constantly listen to them and memorize arias, duets, trios and singing along nonstop, making my sisters not particularly happy at times.

I started to reach puberty and, of course, my voice started to change, too. I remember vividly how sad I was the day when the Chorus Master told me that I could no longer be part of the Chorus! Nonetheless, that unique experience gave me the desire to choose what I wanted to become in the future: an Opera Singer!

When I was 19, I entered the Conservatory of Music of Milan and started slowly with proper voice and music lessons. It is mostly a natural process for boys with a high voice to develop into baritones or basses, and so it was for me. I started to study with Rosetta Noli, an Italian soprano who had quite a remarkable career in the 1950s and 1960s, and she was brave enough to throw her students into little concerts with a piano, which she put together throughout Northern Italy.

Even if most probably this would be unthinkable of today, I think that it was a fantastic experience for us to work on overcoming stage fright and to feel the contact with the audience.

When I was 26, I moved to London with a Scholarship and kept studying and taking part in concerts and started singing amateur roles or with semiprofessional Companies in the UK, until a few years later I was offered a Fest Contract with the prestigious Opera de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and once again I packed my staff, this time traveling to another Continent. I lived 10 years in Mexico City and in that country, I started my real professional career. After Mexico City in the year 2000 I moved to New York, and the rest is history!

CS: Are you currently involved in any productions? If so, what are your responsibilities/jobs/roles? If not, what was the most recent project you worked on?

SdP: Right now, I am just finishing the last few performances of Tosca and Attila at Sarasota Opera, where I spent the last 9 weeks. After the Pandemic hit the world, as performers we, of course, have been forced to a halt, so it is absolutely fabulous that some companies were able to restart putting together operas in the safest environment, and Sarasota Opera has been one of those, starting from January 2021 to give a chance to singers to perform and to audiences to enjoy live shows again. I feel extremely lucky to still be able to sing and to have singing projects for the future!

For few years already, I have been occasionally invited to give Masterclasses or 1 on 1 coachings on Italian Diction and Repertory in Schools or for Young Artists Programs, and it is something I always liked to do.

With the Pandemic (as MANY singers did) I started to give lessons and coaching online, being invited to be part of online programs substituting the usual live programs. When I sang at Opera Colorado I was offered by Lamont School of Music (part of the University of Denver) to become their part time Italian Coach, which is something that I do online and present when I sing there.

CS: What has been the most difficult role for you and why?

SdP: Being a Native Italian, of course, the huge majority of my repertory is in Italian. I speak also Spanish and French, so I have sung in those languages a few times.

But when I was offered to sing Papageno the first time, I REALLY struggled a lot with the German dialogues! I don’t speak German, of course I know the IPA and diction rules, but it is not a language that my mind processes, so it took me a long time to be able to manage it comfortably.

My bread and butter is the Italian repertory of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and their contemporaries, so another big struggle was when I had to learn the role of the Cat in an opera by Stravinsky called Renard. Again, my mind doesn’t process more modern composers easily!

CS: One opportunity you’ve had a lot is to work as an Italian Repertoire Coach and private voice teacher. What do enjoy most about this job?

SdP: Since I started, I always thought that great diction is a fundamental part of a singer. I remember that when I sang Escamillo in Carmen (in English) in a small Company in London 35 years ago, a reviewer wrote that I was the only one he could understand the words from. It has been very important to me to try to transmit to young students the importance that words and good clear diction have in order to make sentences, phrases, and to give life to characters when we sing, so that an audience can feel the story we are offering them as performers.

CS: What do you find most students studying Italian repertoire struggle with?

SdP: Well of course each language has its own IPA, its own way of pronouncing vowels and consonants. Opera was born in Italy more than 400 years ago, the principals of vocal technique are based on Italian “pure” vowels, so as an Italian this is definitely an advantage for me. When I coach Italian, I already know some of the struggles the student has, depending on their Native
language. For English speaking singers placing correctly those “pure” vowels is a challenge, so are the famous double consonants that we have in Italian. Also, the way we accent syllables and words in Italian is quite different and “unique.” I totally understand the struggle of being a student!

CS: Do you have any advice for those wanting to teach more?

SdP: Patience! Each student is different, and even if there are of course general rules of technique, diction, musicality, etc, the way a young singer absorbs everything is quite diverse from one to another.

CS: Do you have any advice for the young singer who is just getting started?

SdP: The first thing that comes to my mind is the same thing us coaches and teachers must have: Patience! Musicality and passion are also extremely important. As I learned myself when studying Papageno in German, knowing a language as much as possible is really important. If a singer feels that his or her main repertoire is of Italian composers, try to learn Italian as much as possible, managing how it flows while it’s spoken will make the way the language is transferred into music much easier, giving life to this marvelous form of Art which is Opera!

Mary Taylor

Mary Denton Taylor is CS Music’s Online Magazine Editor. She loves helping thousands of singers find their potential at the CS Music conventions and vocal competitions. She is a former librarian who writes young adult and middle grade fiction when she isn’t working or being a wife and mom to her four music-loving kids.