Interview by Andrew Preston
Last summer Carly Paoli was just another fan fighting for a ticket to see José Carreras perform live, while on holiday in Marbella. She even hung around afterwards for a picture with him. But now the 26-year-old lorry driver’s daughter from Mansfield is preparing to share a stage and sing duets with the legendary tenor at a gala concert. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ she says, wide-eyed and starstruck. ‘I never imagined we would actually be singing together.’
At the concert this summer, set against the stunning backdrop of Northumberland’s Otterburn Castle, she’ll also perform with American soprano Cynthia Lawrence (‘one of Pavarotti’s favourite singing partners’). The Italian tenor Alessandro Safina, flautist Andrea Griminelli and our own Russell Watson will appear too.
It’s been an extraordinary six months for the classically trained mezzo-soprano, who received a standing ovation when she performed at a charity concert in October put on by Canadian producer David Foster.
‘He’s a musical icon,’ she says, ‘a 16-times Grammy Award-winner who’s written songs for Whitney Houston, worked with Celine Dion and has produced for Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban. I was singing and I turned round and there was Foster at the piano. I remember thinking, “Is this really happening?” It’s an experience I will never forget.’
She’s also recorded tracks with a sweeping orchestral backing at London’s Abbey Road Studios, and the day we meet she’s just back from Rome, from recording with the Orchestra Italiana del Cinema. ‘We’re a good match because my music is very theatrical, cinematic and I always want to tell a story.’
The Italian connection is hugely important to Paoli, as her mother is half-Italian, and the family have a house in Spongano, south-east Italy. ‘As my nan used to say, I’m an English rose with Italian roots,’ she laughs. She admits that her sudden success has been ‘quite a jump’, but she’s clearly relishing every minute. ‘I absolutely love the dressing up, too,’ she says. ‘The bigger the ballgown, the better. I’m a fan of the designer Oscar de la Renta, but really I love anything that’s feminine, especially the classic Forties look of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn – those lovely slimming bodices and feminine gowns. Not many women get to wear them except on their wedding day, so I’m blessed.’
It’s a love of music that drives her, though, and she says she’d never have got where she is without the support of her parents. ‘My mum had a full-time job as a travel agent, but the rest of her time was dedicated to taking me to dance and acting classes,’ she adds.
Paoli won a scholarship to study musical theatre at the Arts Educational School at Tring Park, whose alumni include Downtown Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, then her parents remortgaged their house to put her through four years at the Royal Northern College of Music. Her mum and dad also drilled into her the importance of hard work. ‘My dad gets up at 4.30 most days, so I get up early, too’ she says. ‘It’s not been very nice for my brother, bless him, listening to me practising at 5.30am, but I like to sing and work when I’m fresh.’
Paoli always knew what she wanted to do. ‘Music’s in my blood,’ she says. ‘Most of my family in Italy are musicians, including my uncle Luigi who made over 40 records singing folk songs and playing the accordion. In videos of me as a child, I’m drawing and singing along to Beauty and the Beast or some other Disney music. Then my mum bought me all the MGM musicals. I think I wore out Singin’ In The Rain I played it so many times.’
It was when Paoli was eight that a teacher at a performing arts class pulled her mother aside and told her that her daughter had ‘a very special voice’, and asked if they had thought of sending her to singing classes. They had no idea how to go about it, so eventually the teacher took her on herself and they’re still together. ‘She always used to laugh at me because I had a bigger voice than my body, but I’ve grown into it now.’
Since studying classical music she has added mezzo-sopranos Anne Sofie van Otter and Frederica von Stade to her list of female singing role models, alongside Judy Garland and Julie Andrews. ‘I’ll never be able to pull away from my true passion, the musicals, I love them,’ she says. ‘I mean, the idea of tap-dancing in the middle of a sentence is just great. Later on in my career I’d love to appear in an opera to keep that theatrical side going, but I don’t know of any tap-dancing operas, sadly.’ In the meantime she wants ‘an international career’, travelling round the world singing new music.
In just the past six months she’s sung in the piazzas of Southern Italy, as well as Los Angeles, Kuala Lumpur and Canada. Now this summer she can add pictures to her collection of her singing with one of the original Three Tenors, so it looks as if that dream is already coming true.
Concert At The Castle is on July 12.
Carly Paoli is an ambassador for Swiss watch brand Bedat & Co.
Follow her on Twitter @CarlyPaoli