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Frank Porretta III sings the famous "Nessun Dorma" in Virginia Opera's "Turandot."

The Fourth Tenor


He's tried rock 'n' roll. Done Broadway. But nothing gives Frank Porretta III as much joy as singing opera.

"I've got the best job in the world," the tenor mused from the Virginia Opera complex in Norfolk recently. Porretta will be singing the lead role of Calaf in the company's production of Puccini's "Turandot" opening in Richmond Wednesday, March 29.

As the oldest son of distinguished tenor Frank Porretta Jr. and soprano Roberta Palmer, Frank III always knew he wanted to be involved with music and the stage. Growing up, he was in theater productions and chorus groups. And his childhood as the oldest of five similarly artistically inclined children afforded him plenty of practice and performance time.

After dinner most nights, his father, who sang on Broadway as well as at New York City Opera, would teach the kids to sing barbershop quartet. Porretta family togetherness typically involved lots of vocalizing and acting together — usually under the direction of Frank Jr.

"If he wasn't teaching us music he was reading us Poe's 'The Telltale Heart' or reciting something from Chaucer," Porretta fondly recalls of his father, who "was an exceptional musician, and still is. He was a very immediate, improvisational kind of performer for his children."

Young Frank's focus was transformed, however, when he hit his teens. "Then I met some guys who had electric guitars," he says in a mock sinister tone. "We started going to basements and garages, and making lots and lots of noise. The bug bit me, I got serious about it, sunk some money into some equipment and became lead singer in a rock 'n' roll band."

Eight years of assorted band breakups and makeups left Porretta less than satisfied creatively, though. He decided to explore the world of classical music.

"I thought, 'Well, all right, I'll go to school and I'll learn what music is about. When I graduate I'll either have decided to go into classical music, or I'll go back to rock 'n' roll with a good solid background in music.'"

So he attended Julliard School of Music — on an unprecedented full scholarship. Two years into his studies he discovered the magical power of opera.

"I thought, 'Jeez, this is incredible!'" he recalls. "I'd always liked the music that was around the house, but I just never pictured myself doing it. I began to do it and I thought, 'Shoot, I don't have to fight with the guitar player or the bass player.'"

Like his father, Frank III tried his hand at Broadway, starring in a two-year tour of "The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber."

"It was enough for me to make my decision about what I wanted to do — and it was not that," he recalls. "When you're onstage, you've got to do something you love. I just did not love that. It was exciting, but that faded very quickly. It didn't speak to my heart the way that opera does."

So the tenor opted to dedicate his artistic efforts exclusively to opera. He sang minor roles in a couple of Virginia Opera productions in the late '80s and has since appeared all over the world. This season, he has appeared with Cleveland and Eugene Operas, as well as the Eugene Symphony Orchestra.

Virginia Opera's production is the singer's first "Turandot." According to Virginia Opera artistic director and conductor Peter Mark it's a lavish production featuring four "international-class" singers in the lead roles, a 40-voice chorus, a 20-voice children's chorus and the original Chinese gongs used in the opera's 1926 premiere,.

"Turandot" also features the famous "Nessun Dorma," the signature piece of the Three Tenors, which Porretta will be singing.

So how does he approach the aria knowing that everybody will have Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras in the back of their heads?

"I open my mouth and sing," he says. "I don't bring those boys out on the stage with me. I can't, that would be so silly. That moment is not about them, it's about me. When I'm out there I'm Calaf, I'm that role, and I'm in that moment."

Those three tenors will figure in Porretta's future, though, if he has anything to do with it.

"I don't want to be one of them, I want to be the fourth," he says with a laugh, then turns serious. "My goal is to be the very best I can be and if that measures up to those guys, great. If it doesn't measure up to those guys, great. The only yardstick that I can have is my own perception of myself. It's my triathlon, decathlon — it's my competition with myself to achieve more than I have

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