From Middle Island to Milan

The lighthearted hijinks that high school students engage in between classes appears to often serve as a kabuki-like mating dance that is only decodable by peers, or perhaps, simply as a way to blow off steam. On one such occasion, the adolescent banter proved to be the primordial spark that led a singularly exuberant student to a highly successful career as an international opera star. The student was Jeanette Vecchione. The place was Longwood High School (Middle Island). The time was her late-junior year, 2001.

Entering her perfunctory chorus class on a nondescript spring day, Ms. Vecchione (Miss Baxter at the time) was primarily known as a three-time all-county basketball player with a killer three-pointer. Being actively recruited by such hard-court powerhouses as Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania, her future path appeared set. Upon leaving her class, Ms. Vecchione crooned a short tumble of words in an over-the-top operatic fashion. This improvised aria was intended solely as high-spirited fodder for her friends’ amusement. Unbeknownst to the charismatic teen, her much-beloved chorus teacher, Ms. Levine, was listening. Ms. Levine requested that Ms. Vecchione return to the music room, and essentially told her preternaturally gifted student that she was an opera singer above all else. Dissecting her initial disbelief and reticence regarding the implications of her teacher’s words, Ms. Vecchione said, “I thought it was a joke… I was unsure, but I was slowly being enticed through listening to cds… Trying to imitate Maria Callas ignited my competitive spirit.”

Astonishingly, within a year of this synchronistic moment and only five months from when she began formal training in voice, Ms. Vecchione was pre-enrolled at Juilliard—and on a full scholarship, no less. Here, she engaged in the incremental alchemy that transmuted her identity from a shooting-guard to a serenading soprano. The acquisition of the skills and techniques intrinsic to success in the slowly demystifying world of opera was a hard-fought battle. While commenting on her nascent experiences at Juilliard, such as movement class and Italian diction class, Ms. Vecchione said, “The challenge didn’t intimidate me. It made me more excited to move forward.”
Ms. Vecchione’s six years at Juilliard (she also completed her Master’s degree there) were punctuated by a succession of unforeseen and galvanizing milestones. In her junior year, she was one of two female students selected for a tutorial with Luciano Pavarotti. While discussing the intoxicating experience of singing with the great master in his Manhattan apartment, she said, “He was so nice and modest…his apartment was all windows…he told me to look at Central Park and to imagine that it was my audience…It was amazing!” The vigorous demands of her Master’s program did not prevent her from simultaneously winning a bounty of prestigious competitions, including the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation’s Annual International Vocal Competition.

“Juilliard prepared me for a professional career,” is how Ms. Vecchione modestly explained her rapid ascent into opera’s equivalent of the big leagues. In recounting the venues and roles she has played since turning professional in 2009, one could easily surmise that there is a benevolent opera god opening doors while maintaining a humble averted glance. Over this brief time, she has performed in the ornate and storied opera houses of Paris, Vienna, Cologne and Buenos Aires. The “press” Ms. Vecchione has received for taking on such iconic works as the famed aria sung by The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, has been stellar. Reviews from around the world have lauded her beautiful timbre, ease with high notes and wonderful acting ability. In January, she will perform in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, and cover the role of Olympia, a mechanical doll. The venue will be La Scala, the hallowed ground of opera, located in Milan. Of this, Ms. Vecchione said excitedly, “More than anything else, this is my ultimate dream.”

This past January, Ms. Vecchione, 27, married her “precious” Breno. If traveling the tributaries of the international opera circuit was not enough, together they own and run Piccolo Gelato Bar & Cafe in Ridgefield, CT. When asked about her seemingly endless zeal for life, she said, “I was always very eager…I always wanted to do everything.” Until Ms. Vecchione succeeds in “doing everything,” we’ll have to settle for her sinking game-winning three-pointers in pick-up games and hitting the high notes that leave opera fans around the globe stunned and breathless. for concert dates, recordings and booking inquires.

michael block

When roused from his frequent reveries featuring himself as a Beatle, Mike Block is happy to resume his daily pursuits of providing occupational therapy for children with disabilities at Eastern Suffolk Boces and writing about the local music scene for Long Island Pulse magazine.