Tenor Santiago Ballerini comes ‘home’ to The Atlanta Opera for ‘Penzance’

Santiago Ballerini (left) with Glynn Studio Artist Sankara Harouna as Samuel in "The Pirates of Penzance."

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Santiago Ballerini (left) with Glynn Studio Artist Sankara Harouna as Samuel in "The Pirates of Penzance."

For Santiago Ballerini, performing with The Atlanta Opera is more than another stop as an in-demand tenor — it’s a homecoming that will reunite him with old friends. Ballerini returns to the company this week as Frederic, the hapless hero of “The Pirates of Penzance.”

Ballerini’s road to becoming a favorite in Atlanta was a fascinating, and rather unusual, one. A musician to his fingertips (literally, as he was a pianist for nine years before turning to singing) the young Argentinian/Italian tenor originally trained as a music therapist, earning a masters degree in addictions treatment.

While using his voice in clinical work he began to suspect that his true destiny lay in singing. He began intensive vocal training and subsequently won a slew of important competitions, one of which awarded him a scholarship to study with the legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes.

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Santiago Ballerini

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Santiago Ballerini

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

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Santiago Ballerini

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

His operatic background was limited, but as Ballerini observes, “Sometimes you look for something, and things start appearing.” In this case, the opportunity to polish his vocal performance package came with an invitation to join the roster of young singers in the Atlanta Opera’s studio artist program. The studio allows emerging performers to gain the necessary experience to transition into an operatic career.

“I was learning from zero.” Ballerini explains. “I was a therapist. I was playing piano, but I was not so familiar with opera. Something special happened for me. They were doing “Don Pasquale” and the tenor singing Ernesto got sick before the premiere. I had sung Ernesto in Argentina, so they asked me to jump in.”

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Santiago Ballerini as Ernesto in "Don Pasquale." This image was from a dress rehearsal staged for school children at CEPAC, though Ballerini sang the role on opening night as well when the planned singer fell ill.

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Santiago Ballerini as Ernesto in "Don Pasquale."  This image was from a dress rehearsal staged for school children at CEPAC, though Ballerini sang the role on opening night as well when the planned singer fell ill.

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

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Santiago Ballerini as Ernesto in "Don Pasquale." This image was from a dress rehearsal staged for school children at CEPAC, though Ballerini sang the role on opening night as well when the planned singer fell ill.

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Opera

That was Ballerini’s opportunity to show that he had the talent to sing in a professional production. “They invited me back to sing ‘The Daughter of the Regiment’,” he says. “It is so helpful when people trust in you, especially someone like me coming from another country.”

“The Pirates of Penzance” will be staged through Jan. 30 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Due to the spike on COVID-19 cases, the opera will offer a livestreaming option for ticket holders who don’t feel comfortable seeing the production in person. All ticketholders will receive an email 24 hours prior to the performance offering the streaming link.

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Santiago Ballerini as Tonio in "Daughter of the Regiment," with the chorus.

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Santiago Ballerini as Tonio in "Daughter of the Regiment," with the chorus.

Credit: Jeff Roffman

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Santiago Ballerini as Tonio in "Daughter of the Regiment," with the chorus.

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

For the live audience, the opera will require proof of vaccination or a negative test taken within 48 hours of the performance.

In addition, the production will be filmed and offered in that format through the opera’s Spotlight Media later this year.

Since his time in the Atlanta Opera’s studio artist program, Ballerini has carved out a formidable international career as a specialist in the high-flying tenor roles of the Italian bel canto. Ballerini is a regular visitor to the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro’s Municipal. He made his European debut at the Opéra National de Bordeaux and has appeared at the Opéra Comique in Paris and many theaters in North America, including Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company, the Kennedy Center in Washington and New York’s Caramoor Festival.

Ballerini’s therapeutic acumen has proved helpful in his intelligently crafted vocal development. “I never just sing whatever I want, I sing what my instrument tells me to sing,” he says. “You may have an instrument when you are 20, but when you are 40 your body has changed, your muscles change. I mostly sing high tenor bel canto now. My voice is moving to a heavier place, not getting bigger, but it is getting more muscle, a bit beefier.”

It is impossible not to ask the tenor what it is like to jump from the romantic bel canto repertory to the jocularity of Gilbert and Sullivan. “It was really interesting when I received the proposition,” he says with a big laugh. “I speak English, but you will always hear my accent. But Frederic is a pirate, and a pirate could come from anywhere.”

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Santiago Ballerini with Glynn Studio Artist Susanne Burgess as Mabel.

Credit: Raftermen

Santiago Ballerini with Glynn Studio Artist Susanne Burgess as Mabel.

Credit: Raftermen

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Santiago Ballerini with Glynn Studio Artist Susanne Burgess as Mabel.

Credit: Raftermen

Credit: Raftermen

For Ballerini, every role is a learning process and with Frederic, he is getting a taste of performing in an opera that is close to a musical. “Musicals have a lot to teach me,” he says. “The orchestration permits you to use a lot of colors that you cannot do when you are singing with an orchestra of 70 or 80 players. The character is fresh and the writing is not super high, so I can have fun.”

Those who are curious about Ballerini’s artistic soul can check out his first album, “Per Lei” (“For her”) on most major streaming platforms. Released in 2021, the album finds Ballerini in collaboration with pianist Natalia González Figueroa. It is a fascinating program of music by composers from Liszt to Ariel Ramírez, with texts that span the output of Renaissance poet Petrarch to the modern Argentinian historian and lyricist Félix Luna — all focusing on the worldwide struggle for equality among women throughout history.

Ballerini said the album was inspired by work he has done over the past four years with a girls’ orphanage in the neighborhood where he was born. “I came up with the idea of recording my first album to talk about the challenges the girls there were having,” he says. “That is why it is called ‘for her.’ It explores women’s rights and the movement of women to find their equal place in the world. I am so proud of it.”

Ballerini is excited to be returning to one of his formative artistic homes. “Atlanta was my first big thing,” he says. “It was my beginning, so I have always felt this stage was a good place to be. I really feel that every time I come back, it is a great thing. I love the city.”


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ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

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ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

Working closely with the American Press Institute, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is embarking on an experiment to identify, nurture and expand a network of news partnerships across metro Atlanta and the state.

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You can reach Managing Editor Mark A. Waligore via email at mark.waligore@ajc.com.