In conversation with: Connor Baiano

Theo Elwell
Tuesday, July 9, 2024

The Italian-British Bass on his introduction to opera and how a shoulder injury changed the course of his life

British-Italian Bass Connor Baiano
British-Italian Bass Connor Baiano

Photo credit: Marco Borelli

Q. Tell us about your journey into opera - did you have a eureka moment when you were younger? 

I definitely have my parents to thank for my love of music and my musical education. They’re both music lovers (especially opera) and they took me to see concerts and operas from an early age - the first opera I saw was The Magic Flute on my 4th birthday - and encouraged me to learn instruments and become a chorister in a cathedral choir. Whilst I didn’t always appreciate it, these early experiences definitely had a lasting effect on me. When I was 16 with a mind to study medicine at university, I injured my shoulder playing rugby, which lead to me effectively losing the use of my left arm for 5 months or so. During this time, my piano teacher, rather than postpone lessons until I’d recovered, decided to give me 'music appreciation' sessions, where he would bring a CD of a classical work to our lessons, we would listen to it and then discuss it afterwards. I found myself leaving these lessons feeling so moved that, after a few weeks, I knew that I somehow had to dedicate more of my life to music. What I was able to continue with as normal were my singing lessons, and when I brought up my feelings to my teacher, she suggested that I could try to get into a conservatoire to study singing.

I remember leaving that lesson and plucking up the courage to call my parents to tell them about my change of heart. It was a difficult conversation, as they’d started to pin their hopes on having a doctor for a son, but they took the news that I would rather live life as an artist with love and support. Conversely, when I told my piano teacher of my decision, and that he was partly responsible, he was absolutely mortified. I expect he imagined two very angry parents coming to him to demand some answers! It all worked out well in the end, and I managed to receive a scholarship to study at the Royal Northern College of Music the following year, never looking back.

Q. You were born in Italy and grew up in the UK, eventually returning to Italy to study at the Fondazione Mascarade opera studio. What has your experience been studying and working in these different nations? 

It was always a dream of mine to move back to my motherland for a length of time at some point in my life, so I jumped at the opportunity to move to Florence to study and work in 2021. However, in a lot of ways, my time there wasn’t how I imagined it. As far as Fondazione Mascarade goes, I would describe it as international - the president is English, the director German, the head of music Scottish, and very rarely would they get Italian coaches in to work with the artists. A highlight of my time in Italy was getting to sing on the stage of La Fenice in Venice with full orchestra - an experience like no other in one of the most breathtaking venues in Europe.

The same can be said for my time in Florence in general. Whilst I enjoyed spending two years in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it didn’t give me many opportunities to improve my Italian. Whilst Italian is the language most spoken at home for me, I do speak with an accent, and, Florence being such a touristy city, upon hearing my accent and seeing my distinctly non-Italian appearance, most Italians would reply to me in English. Even after insisting on Italian and carrying on my side of the conversation in Italian, the replies tended to remain in English. I probably spoke more Italian when I worked for Wexford Festival Opera last season, where the CEO is Italian, and Italian conductors, directors, wardrobe managers, and even stage crew, are plentiful. It’s funny that I had to go to Ireland for my Italian side to feel truly at home!

Q. You’ve recently performed as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Longborough Festival Opera, a work and opera company on the bucket-list for many. What was your experience performing there?

Longborough will always have a special place in my heart as it has been a place of many ‘firsts’ for me. In 2017 I sang chorus and covered Sarastro in their production of The Magic Flute for my first professional opera contract, then in 2018 I performed in my first Wagner opera as chorus in The Flying Dutchman, and this season I performed my first Wagner role where, as the cover for Fafner, I jumped in on short notice to sing Das Rheingold on the opening night of their 2024 Ring Cycle, where I am also singing in the chorus for Götterdämmerung.

When I was asked to cover the role of Fafner, which appears in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, I was extremely excited to learn it. We had one week of cover rehearsals on Das Rheingold back in March, and then the covers observed the principals in stage rehearsals for a week in May. I received the message that I was needed to step in for the opening show on the morning of the previous day, so I had time to go through the recording one last time to make sure that I was absolutely confident on all of the staging. On the day of the show itself I had to turn up a couple of hours early in order for wardrobe to adjust the costumes to fit me, to run through the staging for the first time on the stage with the associate director and my stage brother Fasolt, and have a quick musical run through with the assistant conductor. And just like that, it was time to go on!

Q. What advice do you have for young opera singers (or musicians in general) thinking about embarking upon a career as a performer?

For me there are fewer things more important than finding a teacher who really knows their stuff, who will be honest and up front with you about your needs, potential and progress, and someone who you get on with and who is prepared to understand you as a person. A teacher who you trust and feel comfortable making a fool of yourself in front of, for me is a must.

Something that I would say is to remember why you do it. Remember why you are following a career in performing, how it makes you feel, and what offering a part of yourself to an audience really means to you. It’s easy to get bogged down, especially when you spend so long in institutions. At one point I had spent two rather unhappy years without setting foot on a theatre stage, and I remember so clearly all the feelings that came flooding back when I smelled the very specific, slightly dusty smell that all backstage areas have, that first time back in a theatre - it was everything I’d ever wanted, and totally rekindled the desire I had to be a professional opera singer.

Q. If you weren’t an opera singer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

That’s a difficult question to answer. I’ve never been someone to have a plan B, and since I decided to be a singer I’ve struggled to picture myself doing much else. I think I would really enjoy being a sports physiotherapist. Having seen lots of physios during my rugby days, and still having a keen interest in the human body and working out, I’ve grown to love all things biomechanics, and there’s a lot of crossover into singing. You hear a lot as a young singer that opera singers are athletes that need to use their bodies to the extremes of their capabilities. I was a bouncer for a few years during my time at university, and as long as I don’t have to go back to doing that, I’d be relatively happy!

Q. What are your plans for the future?

I’m still playing with the idea of doing a young artist programme at an opera house either here in the UK or in Europe, as that would be a great way of gaining experience, getting my name out there, and having stable employment for a couple of years. But it would have to be somewhere nice as I set a pretty high bar when I moved to Florence and my fiancée followed me to live out there! And speaking of the future and my fiancée, we’re getting married later this year, which I really can’t wait for. I’m really lucky to have such a special other half who has tirelessly supported me in my career and my dream. Other than that, it’s a question of getting on with auditions and seeing what comes my way. As I’ve seen this season, it can take timing and good fortune for something to come together, as well as hard work.

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