An Old World Proponent, Intellect, and Artist of Italian Music: Commendatore Aaron Caruso
By Mary Kovach, Ph.D.
Originally published in ItalyUSA Magazine
Aaron Caruso shares his love of the Italian and Italian-American culture through song. It’s his passion. He studied opera in both Italy and New York, and as a result, he performed on some of the biggest stages around the world. Caruso is genuinely proud of his Italian heritage, truly cares about music and is a tireless proponent of Italian song.
Learning about his Italian musical heritage by rummaging through his grandparents’ record collection, some of his fondest memories are enjoying Italian street festivals as a child, breaking bread with family and close friends, while sharing laughs along the way.
Caruso, determined and independent, first departed for Italy at the young age of 19. Other than his stint at Interlochen Arts Academy (the famous arts high school in northern Michigan), he had never been away from home. He left the United States to study and perfect his Italian language skills in a summer study abroad program in Urbino, Italy. He resolved to fulfill his dreams, even if it meant he had to sleep on church steps (which he did one time), in Rome when he had to choose between a voice lesson or a hotel room. After that, his career began. In time, Caruso was awarded the Rocca d'Oro premio in Italy for promoting the Italian culture in America, through song. In the last 20 years, he’s become a multidimensional artist. He sings the high C like no other; he composes music and directs short films.
In this interview, Caruso talks about how he met and worked with Italian-American entertainment legends Phil Ramone and Sonny Grosso, where he’s enjoyed performing most around the world, what he loves about his career, how he became a vocal coach and a Commander in a Vatican Order, and what’s next on the horizon.
You were hand-picked by the 15-time Grammy award winner Phil Ramone and film producer Sonny Grosso to sing the role of Mario Lanza in a Broadway show. How did that happen?
Growing up I was a big fan of the movie actor Danny Aiello. When I lived in New Jersey, I had the opportunity to go to his restaurant. Danny actually reminded me of my dad. I had a great conversation with his restaurant partner, Fortunato, and the next thing I know I was singing for him, in Danny Aiello’s restaurant! A few days later, I was at work and got a call to meet both Danny and his business partner at the restaurant. When I walked in, the first thing Danny said was that I looked just like Mario Lanza. My favorite movie is 29th Street, which I later learned was the personal license plate on Danny’s car. Long story short, I sang for Danny. Danny called Sonny Grosso, who was in the middle of conducting a nationwide search for someone to play Mario Lanza on Broadway, and yelled “He’s sitting right here!” I later went to Sonny’s office overlooking East River (in New York), got to know him and sealed the deal. Through that experience, I had the pleasure of meeting the great Phil Ramone.
What was it like working with Phil Ramone?
It was an honor to work with Phil! Here’s someone that had worked with everyone in the business from Billy Joel to Bono to Barbara Streisand and Ray Charles. A true icon, although that word is trite. He was a genius and one of the best. One night at dinner, he paused to listen to the background music, which sounded like Sinatra. He told me emphatically it was not Sinatra. When I asked how he could tell, he said to listen to the phrasing. He said this guy was a hack because he was right on top of the beat. Sinatra would never do that. He was always a few beats behind. I learned something that day, over calamari, about phrasing! His vision surpassed his time. It was Phil who conceptualized idea of virtual duets. He could visualize what needed to be done before we had the technology to do it and was a pioneer in the recording industry. His recording studio released the very first CD, incidentally. I remember one story he told me in particular. Phil said that he knew his mother was always proud of him, but it wasn’t until he won his very first Grammy with Sinatra that his mother called and said “son, now you’ve made it.” He told me I shouldn’t be so nervous about portraying Mario Lanza because I deserved the role and then recounted some first-hand anecdotes about how Pavarotti calmed his nerves down before performing. That, of course, only made me more nervous! He said I should believe in myself and just do my thing because I have the talent. I’ll never forget that.
You performed all over the world with audiences up to 10,000 people! Do you have one or two places in particular where you love to perform?
There are a couple of places that immediately come to mind. The first is Sorrento, Italy, outside of Naples. The very first song I learned to sing was Come Back to Sorrento. The audience there is so appreciative. The other place I love to perform is Brooklyn, New York, because they have a deep appreciation for Neapolitan music and really, are some of the most enthusiastic audiences. There are many places I enjoy performing all over the states like (Boston) Massachusetts, Connecticut and all over world, including Canada.
What do you love most about your career?
One of my favorite components of performing is connecting with the audience while I’m on stage. And of course, meeting everyone afterwards. I’m a people-person. I always have been. I believe there is this beautiful exchange of energy when you’re singing, and it really is a high. After years of experience on stage, you sometimes look forward to a cold audience, simply because it’s a challenge to win them over. I want to touch people through the music. I feel it is our goal as performers to serve the music. I also love singing Italian and Neapolitan songs – it is what I’ve loved doing my whole life. One could make the argument that Neapolitan songs are Italy’s most famous exports. A lot of people mistake the classic Neapolitan songs as folk music but these are songs of great artistic substance. I’ll give you a quick metaphor. Think of a really great pasta sauce; it will always stand on its own. You don’t need to dress it up with anything else. Similarly, the lyrics, which are actually poetry, will stand on their own; the Neapolitan melodies are so accessible they truly have become a part of the world songbook, if you will think of O Sole Mio or Funiculi Funicula, for example. They are known around the world. If you travel to Tibet, they have never heard of Happy Birthday but they know O Sole Mio!
You were elevated to Commander by the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. How were you given this great honor?
In 2010, I was actually nominated for the Order, and later knighted through a lengthy selection process which included involving my local parish, bishop, and even the Vatican. A friend of mine took notice of what I was doing specifically for Roman Catholic churches and various organizations for handicapped children. There was a strict vetting process where I submitted what felt like everything I’ve ever done. It’s a service-based Order. I was raised with this simple concept: Do good and forget about it; do wrong and think about it. It was a challenge at first, but then I realized how many places I was blessed to contribute my talent - weddings, churches, Catholic festivals, saints festivals, etc. Like I said, I was knighted in 2010 then elevated to Commander in 2018. I’m required to keep a record of service since each prior elevation, and I need to go to Holy Land in Jerusalem.
You are also a vocal coach. What motivated you to start teaching and how many students do you have working under you at any given time?
I was first introduced to the great tenor Mario Lanza in 8th grade. I was actually sick with pneumonia, and my cousin gave me Mario Lanza cassette tapes to listen to while I convalesced in the hospital. I was inspired by Lanza, and since that experience, I guess I associated singing high notes with flying and getting out of the hospital room, I don’t know. I studied and perfected it, and it became life-long obsession to sing the high notes! I wasn’t born with this gift. I had a great mentor from Italy named Luigi Veccia who taught me this craft. He was “old school” in every sense of the phrase. One of Luigi’s teachers was from the 1800s. This is pre-microphone, so you know it is the true Italian technique from the original source. After many years of performing, I learned that the stage is also your teacher. I then realized I could share it with others! I like to maintain a small studio of 12-15 select students. It has been very fulfilling to help cultivate the talent of the students and at the same time to pay homage to my teachers by passing on what I have learned.
What’s next for Aaron Caruso?
I recognize that less is more. I enjoy the art of singing. I would even do it for nothing because I love it so much! I vocalize every day. The voice is a mystery and as we change so does the voice. My perspective has also changed since I’ve grown older. I realize the blessings given to me and want to give back, not only locally but internationally. I plan to produce another album of all original music. Outside of singing and songwriting, I want to compose music and continue to direct short films. I intend to enrich my world and that of others through various types of creativity and collaborate with high-quality creators and talents. Oh, and (of course) sing lots of high notes! ;)