Our hills come alive

with the songs of Maria

Opera singer's new CD a seasonal treasure

By Susan Dewey

Worcester Magazine December 16, 1998

When Maria Ferrante sings, she leaves you breathless. It's as if the clarity, the purity, and strength of her voice absorb all the oxygen in the room. This happens in Mechanics Hall, where she recently thrilled the filled-to-the-rafters Messiah crowd with her stunning solo performance - or in her Worcester kitchen, when she demonstrates a particularly demanding upcoming role. She simply stands there, a cup of tea in her hand, arid her effortless soprano voice soars, leaving you weightless.

It is easy to understand why Ferrante, winner of the prestigious Mario Lanza vocal competition, is receiving rave reviews all over the East Coast for her operatic ability.  Her Mechanics Hall performance was described as "thoroughly sensational." Critics from important newspapers have lavished praise on her glorious voice using phrases such as "Ferrante's soprano shone!" (The Boston Globe) and "Ferrante gave a beautifully focused performance ..." (The Washington Post).  She has also been a star on stages in Japan and the United Kingdom.

Ferrante's recent successes include a portrayal of Liu (Turandorf) in Jordan Hall with Concert Opera Boston and a performance of operatic arias with the Queens Symphony Orchestra. Her large operatic roles includes such roles as Violetta (La Traviata), Mimi (La Boheme), and Rosalinda (Die
Fledermaus). Her sacred and oratorio repertoire includes Handel's Messiah, Haydn's The Seasons and Gounod's St. Celia Mass.}

Not bad for a girl from Shrewsbury who didn't take a voice lesson until she went to college. The daughter of an Italian father who grew up on Shrewsbury Street ("He has the joy of song in his heart," says Ferrante) and a Dutch mother from Westboro, Ferrante first thrilled to the sound of opera when a neighbor brought her to a private party. "Mary Ann Horner (current patron of several opera organizations in Worcester) sang at a private party when I was a little girl," says Ferrante. "I just remember being in awe. The sound of Mary Ann's voice just grabbed me deep down inside."

When she was a student at Worcester's Notre Dame Academy, Ferrante had dreams of hitting it big as a classical guitarist, "I used to sing, but only as an accompaniment to my guitar-playing," says Ferrante in the cozy house she shares with her husband on the shore of Worcester's Indian Lake. After graduating from Notre Dame, she headed for Temple University in Philadelphia to Study classical guitar. It was in a voice class she had taken on a whim that her extraordinary voice was unveiled.

"The professor asked if anyone in the class knew how to Sing Schumann's Dichterliebe," says Ferrante, her huge green eyes bright above an expressive mouth - Maria's high cheekbones are perfect for a diva. "No one would sing it. I said I knew it and then I just sang. When I finished, the room was quiet. And then everyone just said 'You should sing!' "

Ferrante's professor urged her to start taking voice lessons. She started studying with "great teachers at Temple," performing operatic roles like Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro and winning as she puts it, "dinky local competitions."

After her performance as Gretel in Hansel and Gretel, Laura Abbey, a drama coach at New York City Opera came backstage to find the young singer. "She grabbed my hands and she said 'You can do anything you want to do!' " says Maria. "It really inspired me."

Soon Ferrante would be training in New York City with Franco and Loretta Corelli. Franco is one of the world's greatest tenors. "I was so unbelievably fortunate to be a student of Corelli's," says Maria. " He truly is one of the best tenors in the world."

Ferrante, after receiving a bachelor of music degree (with honors) from Temple, returned to Worcester and worked at four jobs to afford her lessons with Corelli. "I was teaching at Burncoat High, St. Mark's, PASOW (the Performing Arts School of Worcester), and Clark," says Ferrante. "All my money went for train tickets and voice lessons."

Ferrante accompanied the Corellis on extended training trips to Cortina d'Ampezzo in Italy and to Vienna. Corelli, who stopped singing unexpectedly at the height of his career, had a pivotal effect on the soprano from New England. "I once heard Corelli sing while he was shaving," says Ferrante, her eyes filling with tears, "His voice had such strength, drama, and passion. I am so fortunate just to have heard him sing that little bit."

This is an emotional woman who pours her personality into every role. The critics frequently make note of the expressiveness and drama of her performances with such comments such as "[Ferrante] creates powerful, isolated effects" (The Boston Globe), and "... Ferrante sang the slave girl Liu ... with warm tones, delicate high notes and emotional urgency (The Boston Phoenix)."

Ferrante is one of those people whose artistic nature colors her very surroundings. You see her personality everywhere in her house: in huge pots of flowering narcissus; in giant plants crowding the dining room floor; in the green tea served in china cups sweetened with honey "from our own hives," and in the toast covered with "homemade jam."   While she sings, she is slicing a fresh pear which, she serves covered with cinnamon.

In addition to performing, Ferrante is a teacher at Clark. She says that to relax, she does yoga, plays with her cats, and watches the Merganser ducks on Indian Lake. These days she is busier than ever marketing a brand new CD titled Christmas in Worcester, an exhilarating collection of Christmas Music featuring Ferrante and Marjorie Ness, minister of music at Wesley United Methodist Church. Ness, a resident of Clinton and a winner of the National Women Organists Competition, has also received kudos as an accompanist for several academic and cultural performances.

The CD, which was recorded by Mechanics Hall recording engineer Joseph Chilorio at Wesley Methodist, features Ness on the church's Skinner organ, a treasure built in 1927. "Maria and I really work well together," says Ness who has a doctorate in organ performance from the University of Iowa.

The taping of the CD in the church presented unique challenges for both soprano and organist. "Maria had to sing to fill the room," says Ness. Ferrante says that Ness is a truly accomplished organist. "There is a whole mechanical side of playing the organ that a pianist just doesn't have," says Ferrante. "There are all those stops. You have to know how to make all these choices. Marjorie is just so experienced, so good."

Christmas In Worcester, with a stunning black and white (duotone) photograph of a snowy Worcester street scene by talented local photographer Stephen DiRado, features such traditional songs as What Child Is This?, Ave Maria, Away In A Manager, and several unique selections.

"I picked many of the songs because they have a Worcester connection," says Ferrante. "I sang the Coventry Carol when I was 12, during a PASOW performance with my guitar.  For the benefit of St. Joseph's Church (recently saved from destruction) I sang Jesu Bambino. Ave Maria is a tribute to my Latin teacher at Notre Dame. Ding Dong Merrily On High was written by a Worcester composer, David Lasky. The CD is a coming together of the old and new."

To hear one of Worcester's most talented artists in person, check out her busy calendar of performances both near and far. Better yet, buy several copies of Christmas In Worcester - for your family, your friends, and, most of all, for yourself. It is especially wonderful to listen to - at full volume - while you're driving around the city. Just be prepared to breathe deeply.