Peter De Sotto

Maireid Sullivan. Can I ask you, Peter, how you felt when you first read the lyrics to George Meanwell’s song, Words That I Want?

Peter De Sotto. It worked so well with my voice. It was a song that I felt I could ‘speak’, without being constantly aware that I was singing. The words are sullen and thought provoking. I feel when I am singing this song that time stands still. It is a wonderful feeling – very different from when singing grand opera where one is concentrating on where one is going to reach the peak of the phrase. In opera a singer must have a plan on how to pace oneself so that you are saving the voice for the climax of the song. With this song the feeling is very natural. I am almost talking.

MS. Many singers would be interested to hear you talk about singing a song which gives a sense of time standing still. I feel a lot of the old traditional songs have that quality in them.

PDS. I think so. They are designed for story telling, whereas in grand opera the story is often a vehicle for the incredibly beautiful music that is being produced.

MS. That sense of standing still is really special. It is almost like a trance. Do you feel that?

PDS. Absolutely. In this song I don’t feel myself singing, but in opera you certainly do. It is a completely different thrill. The thrill goes from your toes to the top of your head. This song is thought provoking and a little darker. It is introverted. I have a strong sense of my personal space during this song.

MS. Since you are the singer with the quartet, as well as a superb violinist, I might add, I’d like do discuss the ancient traditions of singing before we talk about the art or the skill that was developed for classical singing styles. Looking at singing as a primordial expression, when you can sense the timeless stillness in the introverted thought that is expressed in a song, I’d like to share a thought with you from an Irish singer of the Sean Nos Gaelic songs. She sang a very old traditional song in the Gaelic/Irish language, translated as nature expressing itself through the song. Eg. In her song the singer is expressing anger. It is considered to be not the anger of the individual, but the anger of nature expressed through the singer. That kind of singing is bound up with the sense of people feeling they are one with nature.

PDS. That is a beautiful concept. It really depends on what the words mean to the singer. Sometimes the words have a very obvious meaning that everyone is supposed to be able to relate to somehow. When you blend the text with song, the message has more clarity. For me, as a singer, I feel I am able to communicate much more through singing than I can verbally. It comes from such a deep level that when people hear a thought sung, each person gets his own personal message. It hits them in a way that they cannot 'doublethink' themselves. Whenever we hear someone talking there is always ‘doublethink’ – there is always interpretation. Through singing, the experience is personal. You are getting a message that is just for you.

MS. When did you start singing?

PDS. I started in my late 20s.

MS. You actually began to sing in your late 20s?

PDS. Yes. I was twenty-six when I took my first singing lesson and I was twenty-seven when I took my second lesson and when I was twenty eight when I took a whole lot of lessons! (laughter)

MS. Didn’t you do any singing at all in your earlier life?

PDS. No.

MS. I am stunned!

PDS. The reason was because, basically, I wanted to be in the Hell’s Angels.

MS. I see! That makes sense. Your indicating that you didn’t have the success you wanted as a Hell’s Angel so you had to change course.

PDS. I didn’t think I’d be very successful as an opera singer in the Hell’s Angels. (more laughter)
MS. When did you finally decide that you had to sing?

PDS. This happened while I was already a professional violinist playing in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Singing came to me late in life because, although I knew that I had a voice, I also realized that with a violin you could keep to yourself. You can hide your personality while you are playing the violin. But when you are singing, the people know who you are. You are completely naked. I guess I really wasn’t looking forward to that as a youngster – people seeing me completely naked.

MS. You went on a crash diet and then it was okayto be seen completely naked while singing? So, now you just don’t care at all.

PDS. (Peels of laughter) Quite the opposite. I ended up gaining 40 pounds and then it didn’t really matter!

MS. You are so funny!

PDS. Anyway, I was twenty eight when I started fooling around with Quartetto Gelato, and then I realized I had to start taking my singing seriously. What led me to my voice studies is that at the beginning I felt I knew how to sing. I could just get up and I could hit all the high notes and I had stamina, I felt really good. When I started my lessons I felt I couldn’t sing at all. Then I took many more lessons and I could sing as well as when I first started. With a few extras of course!

MS. I suppose that would have been similar to aquiring a classical technique for playing the violin when you were twenty, after playing by ear for so long before.

PDS. Yes, ...I went through that a little with the violin. It wasn’t quite as severe as with the voice.

MS. I read that you began to play the violin by ear.

PDS. That’s correct.

MS. You played the violin very well before taking on the classical repertoire.

PDS. Yes, I had a pretty good natural technique.

MS. Tell us about your first moments of hearing your own voice and loving it.

PDS. I started singing for the first time when I was strolling around tables playing the violin in an Italian restaurant. I was taking requests from people for songs. The Italians are not content to just listen, you know, they want to get up there and they want to be part of the act and they all want to start singing. I couldn’t compete with my violin, it just wasn’t loud enough, and so, to get their attention I just started singing the melody without the words.

MS. You were singing Italian songs without the words?

PDS. Yes. I had a big loud voice – louder than my violin – so people could hear me clearly. I had a natural vibrato. People started applauding and saying, “Sing something else,” and so I sang something else, fooling around, still without words. People were disappointed when I didn’t sing more.

MS. That is such an unusual story. That is really surprising.

PDS. Yes. It came as quite a surprise to me as well.

MS. How long have you been singing now?

PDS. It’s been about ten or twelve years I suppose.

MS. You worked with the Toronto Symphony for ten years as well.

PDS. That’s right.

MS. Was that after you started singing or before?

PDS. It was before. I joined the Toronto Symphony when I was twenty four.

MS. And so they knew you when you made the transition to the voice? How did they first find out that you could sing?

PDS. I remember going backstage after hearing some singers and I started imitating the singers – honking out a few high notes, everyone turned around and couldn’t believe it. And I got the same reaction as I did in the restaurant, “Why aren’t you out there singing? You should be singing. You are in the wrong end of the stage. You shouldn’t be in this section, you should be up front,” etc. etc.

MS. I have never heard such a fine violinist and such a fine singer in the one person.

PDS. Well, I like to think of myself as the only one singing and playing at this level. I’ll be really upset if I see others. Actually, I once saw my nightmare come true when I went to Disney World and I saw a troop of Mariachi musicians playing violin and one by one putting down their violins and each singing a song.

MS. The Irish do it too – sing one verse then play a verse on the violin. But all of that is on a very different technical level. So, when you began, did you learn the Italian repertoire because you were working in an Italian restaurant?

PDS. I am half Italian. So I was brought up on these tunes.

MS. What is the other half?

PDS. My mother is Estonian.

MS. That would have been the source of the Gypsy violin songs, I suppose.

PDS. Not exactly. I am Italian Estonian but I was raised with Hungarians. My father’s best friend was George Szabo. My father and he looked exactly the same. They used to say they were twin brothers – that was their big joke. They both played violin together on jobs. He was my uncle George. I have no immediate relatives in Canada. We got together every Sunday and we would play Gypsy pieces and Italian pieces around the piano. That’s what actually got me interested in the violin.

MS. So you started off playing that repertoire?

PDS. Yes, it was a fun thing to do.

MS. Are your family first generation emigrants.

PDS. My father came here from Italy and my mother came here from Estonia.

MS. They met here?

PDS. Yes. They met in Lake Louise, in the Rockies. My father was playing in the orchestra and my mother was selling tickets. It’s quite a romantic story.

MS. How many brothers and sisters do you have?

PDS. I have one sister. She was a singer also and played piano. She is taking care of her children now.

MS. When they have all grown up she’ll probably get back into the fray again. I would like to learn more about your musical, intellectual and cultural influences -- the broad picture of your life story.

PDS. The strongest influence in my life was my father, because he taught me how to play with people’s emotions musically. He also played around tables. It means nothing if you just stand there playing, like a fixture. My father had the ability to bring tears to the people’s eyes or to leave them in laughter or with a big smile on their face. He played to people on such a personal level that I rarely see other musicians achieve. I think this is what matters when you sing or play. If you are not communicating with people, you are not doing your job. My father, when he was describing a musical phrase, would say, “This is the point where you are really going to milk this note and this is what makes the girls cry.” He was wonderful that way. He was a great teacher.

MS. You’ve brought tears to my eyes with this story. Do you have your own sense of a personal mission out of all of this? Now that you understand this psychology and have developed your skills, do you have a sense of what you want to achieve with it?

PDS. I just want to embrace everything that life brings to me. I listen to as many different styles of music as possible and I love people. Life experiences are my tools. I live with no regrets for having been too afraid to try something new. I believe life works for you if you keep a really strong positive attitude and never look back. I feel I am where I am because I have an incredibly strong love of life. Savor every moment like it is your last.

MS. I’d love to hear how you explain that in your inner musings. What word you would use to best describe your life?

PDS. Excess.

MS. That’s the word you like?

PDS. That’s the word I like. If you have to correct a problem you have to go far in the other direction. If you want to make a statement, you want to get through to somebody, especially in this world where people are completely desensitized by the constant white noise in our environment, by music videos and the ability to travel around world, not to mention our incredible new communication network. If you want to get through to people today, you have to scream it. I do it emotionally. You have to go so far to make your point. At one point in history this would have been considered melodrama, now it is just a means to an end.

MS. That is extremely interesting. Then again, you have the formula with the operatic singing style. That is what that does.

PDS. I think so. I think that is what has made opera great. Especially the people who are really great opera singers, like, Gigli or Bjoerling, the older style opera singers.

MS. Would you like to talk about your experience of being mentored. How important is it to have a mentor?

PDS. I have a new teacher, Angela Hawaleshka, here in Toronto. I love her. She is involved in every aspect of my singing. It is not only the voice she is involved in, but the health of the voice. She is involved in the psychological aspect of the voice and she is involved in the drama of the song. I just love her and I have become completely dependent on her. When I am home, which is very rare, I can go for up to four lessons a week with her. I have been to many, many teachers, some of them very prestigious, and I have studied all over the United States and Canada. I’ve found her to be perfect for me. I just hit it off with her and I trust her. You have to be completely trusting of your teacher.

MS. How has that experience liberated you, if that’s the right word?

PDS. I sing better (laughter). I feel better about myself. And I feel better about the communication on stage. I get much more out to the audience because of her.

MS. What about selecting the repertoire?

PDS. It is a democracy in Quartetto Gelato. If everybody is not completely happy with whatever we choose, then we choose something else. Many of the pieces we do perform come from our separate backgrounds. I was brought up with Italian songs and Gypsy music, George brings the folk influence, Cynthia is classical and Joe brings the accordion repertoire. We try to not stretch out to the point where we are just doing things for the sake of what ever the fad is at the time. I think our success is because we are not doing anything that is not really ‘us’.

MS. It is unusual to have an ensemble of classical musicians who can improvise as well.

PDS. Yes, although I do it in very few pieces, everything is rehearsed to the ‘nth degree, so that doesn’t leave much margin for improvisation on stage.

MS. What interests me too, is that you have a mixed repertoire of the classical and the traditional Neapolitan music and other roots style music. Do you find when you go to perform in a classical concert hall that the audience is generally familiar with your range of styles?

PDS. We are a very eclectic group. Even people who are familiar with Quartetto Gelato are still surprised by what we might throw in during a recital.

MS. Well, would that be part of the fact that you had such incredible freedom earlier in you musical life, when you were younger, that you would not be willing to confine yourself to a narrow way of expressing yourself now.

PDS. I think so. In the old days, my idols, Fritz Kriesler, Jascha Heifetz, in a concert program, first did their ‘meat and potatoes’, the expected classical pieces, Brahms and Beethoven, etc. and then at the end it was Bon Bons, it was dessert. They would take songs of the day and make their own arrangements of them. That’s where you would really get to see the character and true artistry of the soloist. Kriesler was the greatest at this although Heifetz also had his share of brilliant encores.

MS. Going back into your own personal life again, you have told us a little about your own personal philosophy. How do you define your inner philosophical code, if I can use that word?

PDS. I believe life is precious. You have to live every minute, as if it is your last and your music has to express that. You have to play like every time you play is going to be you last performance.

MS. In your interaction with people – do they demand that you be one way or another in terms of the way you express yourself. Do you feel you are quite free to be yourself?

PDS. That is the privilege of being on stage. You can’t be making apologies for who you are when you are on stage.

MS. You have to be all things to all people, I suppose.

PDS. You have to be yourself. If your are successful most people will love you, but at the same time there will always be people who don’t like what you are doing.

MS. How does your constant traveling around the world effect you?

PDS. That’s the hardest part. We give 80 to 100 concerts every year. The travel is very taxing on the voice. If your body isn’t in top physical form and you are not completely rested, the voice shows it. In fact if you are depressed the voice shows it. The voice is such a mirror to your soul. And that is what I was afraid of as a child. That is why I waited so long to begin singing. The voice shows all.

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Interviewer's Credits:

Mairéid Sullivan is a singer, poet, writer. She was born near Bantry, in County Cork, Ireland. She has lived in the US, Europe, Asia and Australia and currently resides in California. Her work is dedicated to researching and interpreting the gifts of Celtic culture and to blending the evocative feeling and beauty of ancient Celtic melodies with new expressions of poetry and music.

Mairéid's first album, "Dancer", produced by Donal Lunny, and her second recording, "For Love's Caress - a Celtic journey", are available on-line and in mainstream and alternative music stores, under Celtic/Irish, in World Music, New Age or International recording sections. Her book, "Celtic Women in Music" was published by Quarry Music Press in 1999. Mairéid is also a featured artist on Clarity Sound & Light's live concert recording "A Celtic Evening", with The Chieftain's Harper, Derek Bell. Her songs are featured on compilations by Narada Records, "Celtic Voices - Women of Song"; and Hearts O'Space Record, "Celtic Twilight 3 Lullabies". For further information see Mairéid's website at .

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