Interview with Adolfo De Santis, Toronto Opera Repertoire pianist and music director
As well as the numerous cases of “brain drain,” Italy has for several years also been experiencing a disturbing “artistic talent drain” phenomenon – predominantly musical. The parallels and analogies are inevitable: An intense training path, years and years of study, only to then not be able to find any worthwhile professional opening. The story of Adolfo De Santis, pianist and orchestra director, is testimony.
Born in Mississauga, he moves to Italy at age five for family reasons. He begins playing for fun, but that toy piano soon has a strong appeal for him. His teacher also takes notice, which intuits his innate talent, his predisposition to music likely inherited from his grandparents – huge music lovers. After a series of failed attempts searching for a course and teacher, at age nine De Santis begins studying music and piano, and with the passing of time he realizes that this is to be his path in life. His commitment and talent allow him to overcome, without difficulties, the tough admission exam to the exclusive Conservatory of Pescara, where he attains a diploma in piano and composition.
He is then admitted to the Conservatory of L’Aquila, where he studies and graduates in orchestra directing. His parents – especially his mother – are always alongside him, supporting and encouraging him to continue on despite the enormous personal and especially financial sacrifices that the family finds itself sustaining. “Those were very difficult years, which I don’t have fond memories of,” says Maestro De Santis, who we meet during rehearsals for one of his upcoming performances. “In those days, in Italy, the integration between secondary school and conservatory courses hadn’t yet taken place. As a consequence, I was forced to take, in parallel, both the high school program and lessons, and the conservatory lessons. For my entire adolescence, I spent afternoons practicing at the piano, and immediately after, on into the night, studying and doing school homework.”
After about 15 years of conservatory, De Santis is ready to enter and be part of that world of music he had dreamed of so intently, for which he had accepted sacrificing that precious adolescence period and part of his youth. Unfortunately however, “all one can find, once finished conservatory in Italy,” Maestro De Santis continues, “is only part-time work, some private lessons, but no possibilities as far as regarding teaching posts at the numerous conservatories and public music schools. Let alone the possibility of finding opportunities in opera circles or symphony orchestras to embark on a concert pianist career, in as much as they’re completely saturated or subject to red tape and very particular and exclusive admission procedures. These entities,” De Santis continues, “no longer turn to the conservatories as in the past, before the ’80s, and they increasingly prefer foreign musicians to Italians, considering them better prepared and ready to perform. In fact, in many countries, especially Europeans one, during the training period, they are given opportunities to get stage experience – something that does not take place in Italy. Analogies can be made with what happens in sport or in the world of soccer where, to attain the best results and considering the farm system available as not being adequate, they search (for players) abroad.”
What expectations in Italy can a youth have coming out of one of the 80 conservatories across the national territory?
“Very little, at least if one doesn’t have the fortune of being able to count on the right connections and friends. The only possibility of being able to undertake work that is somehow related to the studies complete, is that of giving private music or specific instrument lessons – in my case the piano. But even accessing this private teaching isn’t very easy and here too one needs some luck to be able to find the right channels. Most of my piano or conservatory colleagues are abroad, for example in France and Germany, on contract.”
You too decided to leave Italy and come to Canada?
“It was all quite by accident. In 1997 I decided to return to Toronto for a vacation, and while I was here I observed this great interest from the community, especially the Anglo-Saxon one, for operatic music. I didn’t have much experience in this field, but I thought I’d be able to add another notch to my professional training. Having Canadian citizenship, I decided to stay. It wasn’t easy at first. I tried to get myself known, supporting myself in the meantime with lessons in private schools that had some excellent music programs both in the choral as well as instrumental field. These courses also gave me the opportunity to make some very interesting acquaintances, which helped me along my career. I’m referring especially to Maestro Giuseppe Macina, artistic director of Toronto Opera Repertoire and musical director of Coro Verdi. This helped me further develop my repertoire, in as much as piano accompanist which I was – today I’m musical director of the same Opera Repertoire group.”
You also tried to be part of the much more wide-ranging world of professionalism related to Canadian Opera Company (COC)?
“I’ve tried in the past and maybe I’ll try again in future. The importance in this field is to get yourself known, study to continuously improve and increase one’s repertoire, get to understand how this country’s recruitment system works, and hopefully succeed in eliciting someone’s interest and therefore entering to become part of this elite of classical and operatic music.”
If you were to be asked for advice by a young person wishing to undertake your same educational and musical path, what would you say?
“To start on this career only if strongly motivated because many sacrifices are required, and also a good dose of luck in meeting the right people at the right time. Here I’m referring to ‘fortunate’ encounters with music impresarios or maestros who are well connected in this environment and are able to help in the progress of one’s career. I must say that looking back, many times I found myself alone having to search for a way and opportunities for ‘knocking on the door’ for potential opportunities for work.”
What are your upcoming commitments and which concerts are you preparing for?
“I recently ended the musical director function with Toronto Opera Repertoire, for Gaetano Donizzetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoo’ and of Franz Lehár’s ‘Vedova Allegra’. For the month of June, with Coro Verdi, we’re preparing the Giuseppe Verdi opera ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’. Again in April, Friday the 20th to be more precise, I’ll have a soloist role at Columbus Centre, playing famous melodies and arias on piano. In the month of November, finally, I’ll play at Roy Thomson Hall. Along with these official commitments, I have a series of collaborations on occasion of community meetings and events, and recently I recorded a CD with soprano Beatrice Carpino of very well-know pieces.”
For more information, visit the Toronto Opera Repertoire website: www.toronto-opera.com/adolfo