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How Roberto Alagna learned to sing in bars

There is so much material that we cannot squeeze into next Sunday’s BBC Radio 3 documentary on Barbara that I have decided to share some of the surplus by way of a taster.

The opera tenor Roberto Alagna, who started out signing in a Paris pizza bar, confessed to a huge admiration for Barbara and said he learned from her how to perform in small spaces like L’Ecluse, which seat no more than 60 people, most of them eating their dinner through a performance.

How, I asked him, does a singer get the full attention of a munching crowd.

‘You look for visiting groups,’ he confided. ‘I would have an Italian, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hebrew song, which I would open with if there was a group from the right country. One night, a man who looked like big mafia came up to me with a huge 500 franc note, demanding that I sing The Prisoner. “But I don’t know The Prisoner,” I said. “You do, you do,” hissed the band, their eyes on the big note. You see, we were paid very little so the tips really mattered.

‘The band played the introduction to this song two or three times so I got the tune. Behind me, they whispered the words, line by line. I sang. At the end, the mafioso stood up, tears pouring down his cheeks and came over with another 500-franc note. “Sing The Prisoner again,” he begged, ‘that was the most beautiful performance of my life….”‘ Here’s the link to Sunday’s programme

photo (c) Lebrecht Music & Arts

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