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Wine, women and arias

Sex, drugs, women and the oh-so-beautiful singing. The August 1989 profile of opera singer Gino Quilico illustrates the kind of play we were able to give feature stories in our weekly, "The Hampstead Herald."

Two full pages, brimming with details of the handsome Montreal-based baritone’s life, loves and peccadilloes, including driving stunts and police busts after high-speed car chases. Ah, but what a voice!

Page 5 - The Weekly Herald, April 3 - 9, 1990

Wine, women and arias — the passions of opera star Gino Quilico

As Don Giovanni, Gino plays opposite his father, Louis, who portrays Leporello.

Both on stage and off, opera star Gino Quilico's life is divided into scenes.

Jump back to his teenage years and the bizarre images of this 34-year-old operatic prodigy flash before your mind's eye with kaleidoscopic regularity — the pop music era, the hippie gig, the hard rock, the soft drugs, the fist fights, the chimney sweeps, the summer work as a coal miner, the stunt driving, police busts after high-speed car chases, the wine, the women and the oh-so-beautiful songs.

Ah yes, the voice. That magical, clear, rich baritone — the kind one imagines emanating from the archangel Gabriel as you enter the Pearly Gates. Or picture a bucolic setting by some far-away ocean at dawn as Helios, the sun god, comes into view on the pink-tinged horizon at the helm of his mythical four-horse chariot.

Who is that angel? Who is that sun god? If judged solely by the voice and persona, they could well be Gino Quilico. However, if judged by the adolescent-era deeds, he could be a distant relative of Lucifer's.

Attired in a turquoise polo shirt, white pants and braided, Italian-style, brown shoes, Quilico looks like a vision chiseled in marble by one of the Great Masters as he relaxes in the comfort of his Sherbrooke Street apartment. If God ever does a casting call for an ethereal stage production, Quilico will be first on the list of potential leading men.

He looks like a star — even features, dark wavy hair flecked with premature grey, a slim torso and long elegant fingers distinguished by two gold rings, one of them set with a diamond cluster.

The New York-born Quilico, who calls Montreal home, has appeared in major opera productions around the world since launching his professional career 12 years ago. London's Financial Times recently described him as "elegant and credible." The Guardian used the adjectives "splendid, noble and fine." The Times of London says his voice is "growing stronger each year."

It should come as no surprise that Quilico has all the natural attributes of an opera star. He comes by it genetically. His Montreal-born father, Louis, is an internationally-acclaimed Verdian baritone and his Montreal-born mother, Lina, is a world-class pianist and singing coach. "Pure, artistic people," in the words of their son.

He is also an artist, albeit a little less pure.

"My problem has always been that I have to try everything," Quilico said in an interview a few days prior to his performances this Wednesday and Thursday (Aug. 9 and 10) at the Maurice Richard Arena. "That is still my problem today, but I'm a lot calmer."

Calmer for him means he no longer terrorizes weak-knuckled violinists wearing Coke-bottle glasses by threatening to punch them out for disputing the seating arrangements on the orchestra bus. Although from time to time, he is still consumed with a burning desire to "kick the crap" out of the occasional boor who might have the audacity and poor judgment to boo him during a performance.

This wild side of his nature began to manifest itself at age 13 when his family, including a sister who is four years older, moved back to New York after spending the previous 10 years in Europe, mainly Italy, following the singing career of his father.

"When we returned to New York, I was clean-cut," Quilico recalled with a laugh. "I used to bow to visitors. What a cultural shock coming to America. Sex, drugs, long hair and bell bottoms. It's kind of tough for a kid to make that transition."

The transition he managed to make was from a sweet little boy to a rough, long-haired trouble-maker who ran in a gang and had an eye for good-looking girls and a yen for pop rock music.

Considering that he had been trained in classical piano as a 7-year-old in London and had grown up in a home where Vivaldi, Mozart and Chopin were constant after-dinner listening companions, the transformation of young Gino was a shock to his parents.

When they moved from New York to Toronto four years later, Gino continued to find himself on the wrong side of the law.

"The Toronto police got to know me really well," he said. "I was at the 53rd division several times. One time, I had two police cars on my tail."

When they finally managed to apprehend him, the police charged the youngster with dangerous driving and possession of a dangerous weapon — a knife and toy gun, which authorities claimed looked real enough to be used in a heist.

Many times, Gino's parents were awakened at 1 or 2 in the morning to pick up their son at the police station.

"My parents were great," Quilico recalled. "They really understood. I didn't abuse their love; I was just kind of wild. My parents recognized this. My father didn't try to kill this instinct in me."

They also didn't try to stop their 1 8-year-old macho monster from working for two months in a coal mine at Wawa, Ontario.

"Everyday, after the coal mine, we'd get a bottle of whiskey, go back to the one hotel in town and polish it off," he recalls. "It was an experience. I loved it."

But when he started experimenting with soft drugs a short time later, his parents were "hurt and mad," Quilico said. "But they didn't have to deal with it very long because I got myself out of it. I wanted to try the drug scene, but I didn't like it."

PHOTO: Allan MessierQuillico, resting at his Sherbrooke Street home, says acting is almost as important as singing for an aspiring opera star.

Quilico, whose hot temper often catapulted him into fistfights during those years, began to calm down at 19 when he met his future first wife, Anna, a Quebec ballerina six years his senior. A year later, he decided it was time to grow up and find a real career. He turned to his father for guidance and singing lessons.

"He was a great teacher and I was an excellent student," Quilico said of the two years he studied with his father in Toronto. "I was like a dry sponge absorbing everything he could give me. He taught me how to bring my inner energy out."

At the same time, he enrolled in the opera school at the University of Toronto. While there, he traveled to New York for an audition before Curt Adler, then-director of the San Francisco Opera House.

"I thought I did really well, but he said to me: 'You have a beautiful voice, but go home and come back in four years.' He said it in a very arrogant way. I was crushed, destroyed. I must have been in tears."

Gino's father, Louis, a veteran of the world stage, knew better. His assessment of Adler's appraisal? "He's an idiot. Don't worry about it."

Gino took his dad's advice and went on to appear in a University of Toronto production of Don Giovanni. That performance taught him how to take control of the stage. It also brought raves from the local Toronto papers.

He even found time to give singing lessons to other students, but that didn't last long "because I couldn't teach without getting very involved with the ladies and getting into trouble."

A short time later — in 1978 — he made his Canadian professional debut in a televised production of The Medium by Menotti. Shortly after, he made his American debut with the Milwaukee Opera as Papageno in The Magic Flute (Mozart).

In Montségur, he plays the leading role of Gauthier (1985).

The biggest break came when Bernard Lefort, director of the Paris Opera, auditioned him in Montreal and offered the recently divorced 24-year-old a three-year contract doing lead roles. Quilico headed to Paris with his second wife, Kathy, a York University music graduate (she studied viola and plays piano) whom he met and married just after the audition for Lefort.

He received $2,000 a month and lived with Kathy in a 5th floor Paris apartment — "no elevator, three minutes of trickly hot water in a shower that was in the closet and only one heater and sink."

Aside from learning to live with frugality, he learned about the political side of opera — the mind games that colleagues and directors can play, the power trips and alliances that are negotiated over intimate dinners and at stylish parties.

"I almost had a nervous breakdown after that first year because of the games and power trips," he recalls. "You have to know the right people. I was disillusioned, but I learned to stand up for myself."

He also gained international recognition for his many roles including Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus (Strauss) televised by Eurovision, Oreste in Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck), Silvio in I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) and Figaro in The Barber of Seville (Rossini), also televised by Eurovision.

By 1983, he was performing in major theatres throughout Europe and North America, establishing himself as a prominent interpreter of both French and Italian opera. He has recorded 12 albums.

Ironically, it is in Canada that Quilico has received the least recognition. After this week's performance at the Maurice Richard Arena, where he will sing popular French, Italian and Broadway musical extracts, Quilico's only scheduled performance in this country for the next three years is at Place des Arts next month.

The Montreal Opera production of Faust at Place des Arts in September will cast him in the fourth role down after the tenor, bass and soprano. As the baritone, he will sing one aria and will then disappear after a death scene.

Quilico, who has a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York through 1992, is bitter at the lack of Canadian parts offered to either him or his 64-year-old father. who lives in Toronto.

"This man (his father) hardly sings in Canada. Here is a man who has been one of the top Verdian baritones in the world during a 35-year career and he has to go to New York, France and Germany to sing. He should be singing at least once a year at the Montreal Opera and the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. What's being done is so wrong."

Quilico, who holds dual American and Canadian citizenship, has only praise for the Montreal audiences who give him "wonderful ovations," but he wonders why Canadian opera houses don't have annual festivals featuring Canadians, much as European countries do.

He is also critical of the Canadian government for not promoting Canadian artists performing abroad through their cultural centers scattered around the world and for not making funds available to repatriate native sons who have become stars on the international scene, but can't afford to take the pay cuts entailed in performing in Canada.

Even foreign observers are keenly aware of the lack of institutional support accorded the Quilicos in Canada. After Gino won rave reviews for his performance in Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera last February, a New York radio commentator told his audience listening to Live From The Met that "Gino Quilico is the finest Canadian baritone ever produced by New York, London and Paris."

Oozing drama and blood as Oreste in Iphigenie en Tauride.

When Quilico moved back to Montreal two years ago, it was due to a desire to see his two young children — Enrico, 6, and Sofia, 3 — educated in a multilingual center which is secure from the terrorist violence of Europe and because of his feelings for Canada and Quebec.

His Quebec roots can be traced to his Italian-born grandfather who immigrated to Montreal at the turn of the century and went on to invent the three-wheel bike used by most delivery boys. A bike store bearing the Quilico name still stands on St. Denis Street, where it was founded in 1915.

Despite the decision to return, Quilico says he may move back to Europe as part of a career move in the near future unless more choice Canadian opera roles are offered to him. Such a move would also cut his commuting, which involves eight or nine months of the year on the road.

It would also place him, once again, in the European social swirl where he is a frequent guest at raucous parties and royal balls. Apart from exercising his vocal chords, the Mephistopheles in him loves nothing better than to exercise his wit and exuberant sense of humor on snotty aristocrats who hand out cards listing their title "Count So-and-So" and address — "No. 1, The Palace."

But before he returns to Europe, he is scheduled to give several performances this week and next month in Montreal — a chance for local audiences to hear their world-class star who is considered one of the major rising opera figures, just a notch below the Big Three of Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.

When opera aficionados talk about the younger stars (30s to early 40s) destined to eventually supplant the three superstars, they frequently mention Quilico, Neil Shicoff, Francisco Araiza and Barbara Hendricks.

In fact, all three superstars are tenors, which makes Quilico, disputably, the best baritone extant.

But the fiercely ambitious Quilico wants to be known ultimately without any qualifiers — as the best male opera singer in the world.

Such status cannot come before he reaches his 40s, he says, when the timbre of the male singing voice reaches its apex.

Meanwhile, he seeks challenging roles and continues to train diligently, watching his weight (5 foot 11 inches, 175 pounds), diet and living habits — lots of sleep, no tobacco products, little alcohol ("I have a passion for wine.") and no dairy products before a performance. ("They cause mucous to form in the throat.)

To relax, he plays tennis, watches sci-fi movies and tinkers with his four vehicles — a Jeep, BMW, TR-6 and 1965 Austin Healy.

And then, of course, there is his sultry, red-haired wife, Kathy — affectionately nicknamed Dooby after the clutzy cartoon dog character known as Scooby-Doo — who travels with him on most of his worldwide tours and who helps keep him in line with her fire and charm.

As Quilico himself is wont to say translating from Don Giovanni, one of his favorite opera characters: "Beautiful women. Fine wine. This is what sustains the glory of living."