Over his 53-year, rarely-a-dull-moment life, John Tenaglia has nourished lasting love for opera and wife Joan. Eager to sing the praises of each amazing influence, he will pull double duty Saturday through “Tutto Verismo,” a gala concert through which he will laud Italian masters and perform with his pride of nearly 29 years.
“She has taught me so much, including perseverance and vocal presentation and preservation,” the product of the 2700 block of Dudley Street said from John’s Custom Stairs, 2115 S. Eighth St., his family’s 85-year-old Lower Moyamensing-based business. “Having this opportunity will be another stop on what has been a wonderful ride.”
The baritone and his soprano spouse will take to the Perelman Theater of The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m., joining seven other standouts and accompanist Richard Raub for a tribute to works teeming with a concentration on realism. Through pieces by Giuseppe Verdi and verismo pioneers Umberto Giordano, Pietro Mascagni, and Giacomo Puccini, the Grays Ferry native and his peers will show not only their appreciation for the selections but also their gratitude for their livelihood.
“You can never take anything for granted in this line of work,” Tenaglia said of his vocation, making a particularly powerful point as his partner struggles with hearing deficiency. “I am humbled and honored to do what a composer asks, and I am happiest when I put my feet on a stage because I’m hoping to sir emotions within audience members and help them to see the significance of this art.”
The indebted interpreter noted that no endeavor ever finds him falling for the belief that he is anything more than a conduit for the greatness of others. Enamored with the possibilities present within each offering, he will belt out his signature aria, “Nemico della patria” from Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” and will team with Joan for the Alfio/Santuzza duet from Mascagni’s timeless “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Having considered holding the celebration within his establishment, where he also encourages budding voices through studio work, Tenaglia hit a crescendo when pondering what the Center City-situated gathering could yield.
“It’s easy to shy away from or completely ignore opera,” he shrugged. “I fear that America is becoming a cultureless country, and there are many casualties because of that, with opera being a heavy one. How can you hear the fat lady or, in my case, the fat guy sing if there are chances drying up all the time? These are truly great works of art, so I’m all about promoting them. Having a show at The Kimmel Center goes a long way, I hope, toward doing that. Music is vital, especially to the youngest among us, and these are great composers who will forever inspire me to give thanks each time I open my mouth.”
Tenaglia touts his passion as “something that gives me a place to ponder what’s beyond our immediate sense of awareness.” He found his fascination fomenting at age 14, familiarizing himself with the work of tenor and South Philly staple Frank Munafo and soon joined the choir at South Philadelphia High School, 2101 S. Broad St. He enjoyed great exposure in his early years, yet he lacked an immensely important component in acquiring constant confidence.
“I needed a sense of maturity,” he confessed. “There were times where I think I was minus much direction, and I’d say I didn’t really learn to sing until I was in my 30s. It was during that period where I gained a little finesse.”
Much like commended actors and actresses, the Bridesburg resident refuses to dub himself “good” at his craft, contending “You’re never satisfied because there’s always something that you can improve on.” Dually deeming his skill a gift and a curse, the latter because of its frequent separation of him from his family over the years, he has accumulated an undeniably stunning list of credits, no matter how modestly he esteems them.
“Titles and awards are great, but I’m mainly about the interactions because I’m a people person,” he said. “I feel that too often, singers become more focused on themselves and not the material. We really need to scrap the selfishness for the sake of the sanctity of our calling.”
Not electing to approach his track record with a dismissive wave of the hand as its owner might do, this writer highly regards Tenaglia for handling, among many other embodiments, the roles of Rigoletto in Verdi’s opera of the same name and Count Almaviva in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa “The Marriage of Figaro”; for performing with the New York City Opera, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and the Pennsylvania Opera Theater; for contributing to oratorio pieces; and for emerging as either a victor or a finalist in numerous competitions, including ones named for Luciano Pavarotti and Mario Lanza, the latter a fellow South Philly son.
“It’s really all about the music,” Tenaglia mused. “The Kimmel Center is a terrific location, and we’re exceptionally fortunate to be there, but I can sing anywhere because the music is the same. Geography isn’t important in the least. I’m happy just to sing.”
No matter the age of the ears that will hear him wherever he heads, the booming baritone, whose background also includes a teaching stint with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a 26-year haul as the music director and conductor of the adult choir and orchestra at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Merchantville, New Jersey, aims to exalt the creators of such endearing masterpieces, tabbing his participation in their veneration as “an intense joy.” Blessed with a loving life partner, with whom he and brother Frank traveled across the country years ago as the Tenaglia Trio, children Richie and Francesca, a polished career that has led to his christening as “Johnny Stairs,” and a ripe reputation as a winemaker, with ample Vendemmia honors as proof, he has certainly kept his life in tune and is definitely eager to encourage literal and figurative encores. “There’s much more to say musically and more obstacles to address,” Tenaglia said. “I haven’t lowered the curtain on anything just yet.” ■
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