ART AND PHILANTHROPY ARE THE TWO DRIVING FORCES OF THIS ENDURING SINGER/ACTRESS, WHO’S BEEN A SPARKLING STAGE AND TV PRESENCE FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES
BY LAURA D.C. KOLNOSKI
In the rarified world of performers who can sell out Carnegie Hall, it helps to have an award winning set of pipes. Meet Cristina Fontanelli, that is if you haven’t already had the pleasure of seeing her numerous appearances on television, in nightclubs, at concerts, and starring in her annual “Christmas in Italy” musical extravaganza at the fabled Manhattan concert venue. By the time Fontanelli takes the stage on December 8, she will have sold out that show for the 16th consecutive year.
The entertainer, who also produces many of her own shows, can simultaneously engage, captivate, and thrill. Accomplished in classic opera, Broadway tunes, standards, and international songs, she sings in nine languages and packs them in at regular gigs at Michael Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York City. She sang “Happy Birthday” to Mickey Rooney at his 90th birthday party before a star studded crowd that included Tony Bennett, Nathan Lane, and Regis Philbin a performance that made it into the 2015 biography, The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney (Simon and Schuster), by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes.
On television, Fontanelli is a host of PBS specials helming programs like Andrea Bocelli’s 2011 Live in Central Park and Il Volo Takes Flight, along with the popular Michael Bublé specials. She dressed in German opera singer regalia for a Kevin James commercial for his CBS sitcom, and was the voice of Lidia Bastianich’s “Nonna” (grandmother) for the famed chef’s PBS Christmas special. She was also the voice of Domino’s Pizza on a nationally heard radio commercial, and was recently invited to audition for the coming Mad About You television revival, but had to decline due to logistics and prior commitments.
“I got the Mickey Rooney party through a connection at Feinstein’s,” Fontanelli recalled. “A PBS producer saw me perform and said, ‘We need her energy.’ ”
One thing leading to another is a recurring theme throughout Fontanelli’s career.
Born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, to Rocco, a borough native, and Francesca, of Hoboken, Fontanelli lived in the latter city before moving to Manhattan. Her parents, she laughed, met on a group date to Coney Island.
Her grandfather’s Little Italy business Fontanelli’s Italian Food Center at the corner of Mulberry Street and Grand (now occupied by the restaurant Gelso & Grand) kept her immersed in Italian culture, food, and music. Years later, she would perform at the neighborhood’s annual Feast of San Gennaro.
“As a child, I saw Gone with the Wind and wanted to be an actress,” she recounted. “In my senior year in high school, I was cast as the mom in Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing! During rehearsals, the teacher played records of Enrico Caruso performing Tosca. I read the libretto [the opera’s dialogue] and saw it at the Metropolitan Opera. I thought to myself, ‘This opera is acting, singing, and eating lasagna all things I loved!’” Fontenelli went on to attend New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was named one of its “Most Notable Alumni,” along with Robert Redford, Danny DeVito, and Edward G. Robinson.
She began her professional career singing popular and Italian songs at festivals and resorts, and soon found herself on world tours with the Mantovani Orchestra. She has also been a guest artist with the Boston Pops and the St. Louis Symphony and has performed at Lincoln and Kennedy Centers, as well as venues throughout the Far East and Canada. Forbes magazine likened her to an amalgam of Maria Callas and Ethel Merman, and critics from the New York Times, New York Daily News, and New York Sun have all sung her praises.
Marquee appearances over the years have included St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a 9/11 Memorial Concert at Rockefeller Center with the NYPD Concert Band (televised on CNN), and the Columbus Day Parade on 5th Avenue. She was also signed by a platinum record winning producer to record 1997’s Cristina Fontanelli Sings Great Italian Favorites.
Fontanelli’s soprano voice has taken her to the White House for President Bill Clinton’s holiday celebration, and the opening ceremonies at the 2005 Stars and Stripes Inaugural Ball for President George W. Bush. She has sung title roles with the Palm Beach Opera, the Cairo Opera, Opera of Hong Kong, the New York Grand Opera, New Jersey State Opera, and the Opera of the Hamptons. She performs frequently in the Hamptons at events and concerts, and at the opening ceremonies for the prestigious Hamptons Classic Horseshow, inviting high school and college students to participate.
“It’s great to be out there where the movers and shakers are,” she said.
“You can make a difference. The arts are so important. They benefit society, and there is scientific proof the arts help people’s health and wellbeing. And I love giving children opportunities that help them do better in life.”
In October of 2018, Fontanelli was awarded “Best Actress in a Comedy Film” at the Cutting Room International Film Festival for her role in the short film, Santino, a National Italian American Foundation grantee funded by the Russo Brothers, best known for their Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers films.
“[Santino] Writer/Director David J. Higgins is smart,” she quipped. “He wrote the part for me because he knew my fans would watch it.” In the script, Fontanelli, who also took a Best Actress award at the Venus International Film Festival in Las Vegas in July for the role, plays an opera singer who comes to Sunday dinner with a decidedly Italian Staten Island family.
Her long running Carnegie Hall show began with another quirk of fate that became a maximized opportunity.
“I sang at an event attended by a New York Times reporter who listened to me sing “Torna a Surriento” (“Return to Sorrento”), a famous Neopolitan folk song. He came up to me and said he loved it, but didn’t know it. That was a light bulb moment for me, and became the catalyst for creating an annual concert to keep the songs alive and teach new audiences about them.”
The show started small but grew over time, including adding children to the performance. This year, Italy’s top mandolin player is coming, Santa Claus will attend, and youngsters from schools in Brooklyn and Staten Island will join her on stage. The show raises funds for children’s causes, including St. Jude’s Hospital.
Fontanelli’s office is filled with awards and recognitions, including “Woman of the Year” from the Italian Charities of America, with other plaudits from the NYC Transit Authority, the New Jersey Federation of Italian and Italian American Societies, a “Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts” from the Order of Sons of Italy in America, the “Entertainer of the Year” Award from the Schnepps Communication Network, as well as from various opera and music organizations.
Always on the move, Fontanelli is planning to produce and star in a new international program in 2020 The Great International Songbook, preserving premier songs of the world. Rumba, cha cha, and Flamenco dancers will take the stage, as will a Chinese violinist and performers from Spain, Germany, France, Israel, and other nations. A gospel choir will close out the cavalcade, in a celebration of Americana.
“We are now a 501c3 organization,” she added. “My goal and mission is preserving the great songs of Italy while raising money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, an orphanage in Naples, and the New York City Food Bank. I would love to do more film and television projects that are uplifting, inspirational, and promote family values, but that takes a lot of support.”
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