International singer Carly Paoli’s Chesterfield connections
- Credit: Archant
She’s a rising international star who has topped the classical music chart, duetted with Carreras, shared the bill with Bocelli, performed for a prince and now Carly Paoli has released her much anticipated debut album, ‘Singing My Dreams’. Penelope Baddeley went to meet her at her former stage school in Chesterfield
I’m in a drama studio with 20 young talented performers, all wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with the name of their idol: Carly Paoli.
They are about to take part in a musical masterclass and there’s a frisson of excitement when the international rising star, known to millions of opera-loving Italians as ‘The Princess’, quietly walks in.
Wearing her hair tied back in a simple ponytail, a cute little Dior scarf, tiny waisted capri pants and designer white loafers, Carly Paoli looks every inch like a gamine Hollywood star from a much gentler, more golden era.
She’s demure and the class is so disciplined that without much ado the magnificent mezzo soprano and the students get straight down to warm up vocal exercises with Carly’s childhood coach – and current – musical director, Liz Hetherington, at the piano.
We are at Directions Theatre Arts in Chesterfield, the musical theatre school which will soon be celebrating 25 years, and where Carly attended after-school lessons for no less than six years before going on to study at two of the UK’s most prestigious performing arts and music conservatories: The Tring Park School for Performing Arts and the Royal Northern College of Music.
‘She first came here when she was twelve-and-a-half years old and from the moment she arrived it was apparent she had a beautiful voice,’ said Geoffrey Cox, who is a joint proprietor of the DTA and remains a close friend of Carly.
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‘She was without doubt one of the special ones.’
A film crew – ‘Carly’s social media people’ – is manoeuvring round the drama studio, capturing the class performing the backing to two utterly beautiful tracks on Carly’s much anticipated debut album, which launched worldwide this week (July) in a blaze of media publicity.
Carly’s mum, Tina, who was born in Chesterfield and formerly worked at the Thomas Cook travel agency in the Derbyshire town of the crooked spire, is also filming this special event on her iPhone.
As students are singled out to perform solo lines from Carly’s album track ‘Mystery of Your Gift’ (from the film The Choir) this new Princess of Opera gives each performer a generous supportive smile and even a heartfelt hug for one nervous 13-year-old girl.
It turns out that this talented artist, who is taking audiences round the world by storm, is more than happy to be going back to her roots, taking youngsters under her wing – in fact she taught at DTA for two years after finishing her BA in vocal studies at the Royal Northern College and it’s like a second home.
She said: ‘My happiest memories are being here with my friends when I was 13, they really are. I love coming back because here feels like home.’
During her teenage years this talented artist whose quiet demeanour belies her commanding stage presence, spent most of her time either at the DTA or performing on stage at the lovely Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield and when she wasn’t singing she’d be with her beloved late maternal grandmother Marlene, who lived in Bolsover.
So, this classically-trained singer and lyricist, who recently gained the Premio Barocco award in Italy in recognition of her achievement in art and culture, is still remembered in Derbyshire as Carly Hopkinson – for her teaching, her appearances in local musical theatre shows and also as the girl who helped put together and participated in road shows for local radio Peak 107 FM.
The 28-year-old singer was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, the second child of proud parents Paul (a lorry driver, who now runs a fleet of vehicles) and Tina (who is half-Italian) Hopkinson. She took her stage name, Paoli, from the Italian side of the family which had a strong musical streak. Her late maternal grandfather Apollonia, who came over to the UK after the war, was from Puglia in Southern Italy – a place where Carly has spent many summers.
‘All that side of the family were extremely musical. My grandfather could sing very well and all his brothers made a living writing folk songs and playing the piano accordion. All the brothers could harmonise fantastically.’
Carly’s first memory of singing was being in a nativity play at primary school, where she says with remarkable unconscious irony, that she was ‘a star’. It makes you wonder if that was the moment that Carly aged five or six determined her fate as an artist.
From the age of nine Carly took singing lessons, after being talent spotted by opera singer Liz, the vocal coach of today’s master class. Liz took Carly’s mum Tina to one side and told her that Carly had a really good voice. From then on, once a week after school, Tina duly took Carly to Liz’s home in Tibshelf for singing lessons.
‘She’s still my coach today and travels all over with me. She’s not just a coach. More of a musical director and has even written a song on my album.’
The track is entitled ‘One Bright Star’ and is inspired by the charity for terminally ill children ‘Wish Upon A Star’, which Carly has been supporting since the age of 13 and of which she has been an official patron since 2014.
Mum Tina, used to arrange holidays for children supported by the charity – organising special levels of oxygen on board flights and checking that a pilot could fly below a certain altitude when carrying the ill passengers.
DTA proprietor Geoff was also involved and would garner a group of singers, including Carly, to perform Christmas carols when the young poorly passengers returned from a trip of a lifetime to see Santa at Lapland.
At the DTA Carly took classes in tap, ballet, modern jazz and musical theatre as well as undertaking lead roles in musical theatre shows at the now defunct Rodney School where she had won a scholarship.
‘My whole life has been singing and dancing and I love acting just as much,’ said Carly. ‘I adored Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds from a young age and from about the age of six or seven I had stacks of videos and I knew every word of the films, I’d watch them on repeat.’
(Her mum will tell you she was also a huge fan of Disney films and sang along with all the female leads.)
Carly’s default voice was always operatic but at the DTA she felt as if she had been given permission to experiment. Dressed as a punk she sang songs from We Will Rock You and from the musical Rent.
‘It was completely not my voice type but they always let me do things I wouldn’t otherwise have got the chance to sing and discover what kind of singer I really am.’
At 16 Carly won another scholarship, this time to the independent performing arts school, Tring Park at Hertfordshire, where her contemporaries included Lily James who went on to play Cinderella in the Disney movie and Lady Rose in Downton Abbey. (‘She was lovely!’ said Carly.)
But boarding school and an extended school day was to prove a difficult challenge for a home-loving girl, who still managed three straight As at A level, in English, Music and Drama.
‘I was sixteen years old and had to be there throughout the whole week and I was still a mummy’s girl so my mum would come and pick me up every weekend. I found it difficult but that’s just my personal character. Most of the children there were happy.’ Now Tina goes everywhere with her daughter in a kind of managerial role.
‘My mum’s my best friend,’ said Carly. ‘And wherever you are in the world it doesn’t matter what hotel room you are in it feels like home if your mum and dad are with you.’
There have been hotel rooms all over the world since her big breakthrough in 2014 when the 16-time Grammy award winner, David Foster invited Carly to sing at his Miracle Gala in Calgary. Composer and arranger Foster has produced artists including Bublé, Bocelli, Madonna, Streisand and Celine Dion and Carly admits she was initially captivated by his fame.
‘When I was studying, this was someone I had learned about, whose name came up on the internet all the time so when I got the chance to work with him I was star struck.
‘It was my first big international performance and I was so nervous in the run up I got tonsillitis but it was all right on the night and now we are friends.’
Carly’s newly-launched CD ‘Singing My Dreams’ took three years to complete and is a classical crossover album, with a cinematic feel. It features a rare duet with José Carreras, the classically iconic ‘En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor’, and by way of contrast a track ‘After Loving You’ with lyrics by the Academy Award-winner and Grammy Award-winner Don Black who penned pieces such as Matt Monroe’s ‘Born Free’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘Ben’.
‘One of the things I’m happiest about with the album is that I have found my own niche. My voice is a classical voice but I’ve always had such a love for musical theatre and the way the lyrics are very much connected to the modern day world and there are some incredible musical theatre writers.
‘It’s nice to share a story that’s not in Italian or expressed in an archaic way.’
Does that mean this opera singer doesn’t like singing in Italian?
Carly, who is fluent in the language said: ‘I love to sing in Italian. It’s the easiest language to sing in because it has lovely open vowel sounds but English has such fantastic consonants, which you can make onomatopoeic – for example with the word cold you can emphasise the “c” sound and give colour to the word.’
She has written lyrics to two tracks on the album so it is particularly personal and significant for the artist. ‘Memory of You’ is about Carly’s grandmother Marlene, known as ‘na-na’. She hugely encouraged Carly in her career path but she died four years ago – a loss which deeply affected both Carly and the entire close knit family.
Lyrics to this personal song are set to James Horner’s theme written for the film Legends of the Fall – a soundtrack Carly had always adored.
But how can you sing something so personally affecting and hold it together?
‘I’m always very careful on stage. I say this was written about someone who influenced my life. But on stage I never say Na-na because it could tip you over the edge at the wrong time. I do think performances should be full of emotion but expressed through the music and sound of the voice. People have come to hear your music. They don’t want to see you fall to pieces.’
Carly has adapted and written English lyrics for Se Tu Fossi (Cinema Paradiso) – which means she shares writing credits with Italy’s most iconic composer, Ennio Morricone (‘a dream come true!’). She originally adapted these lyrics for a show ‘Music For Mercy’ which she headlined at Rome’s Forum in 2016 – a concert that was staged in honour of Pope Francis’s Jubilee (yes, she’s met him). At the Roman Forum concert – the first time in history the site had been used for a gig – she also sang a modern ‘Ave Maria’, which can be heard on the album.
What was it like performing there?
‘It felt a bit epic at the time and my dressing room was in this old palace that Caesar had owned. It was this big old marble building in the centre of Rome.’
The video footage which accompanies the album track is rich with religious iconography and although Carly is not Catholic (like the Italian side of the family) she is resolutely Christian. She said: ‘My faith is extremely important to me. I always pray before I go on stage and it gives you a great sense that you are not on your own out there. That there’s always someone with you.’
She does get nervous, especially the night before and tries to settle down by watching Netflix. The evening before and day of the concert Carly goes mute to save her voice and communicates with her mum, who accompanies her across the globe, via a kind of sign language.
It’s not surprising she gets the odd butterfly, her performances have included a duet with Three Tenors legend José Carreras. This took place at Windsor Castle in 2015 for guests including HRH the Prince of Wales, and she was invited back to perform for The Prince and the Duchess of Cornwall at St James’s Palace the following year as part of a fundraising event for The Prince’s Trust. She’s also performed at the O2 Arena in London, as a guest of Andrea Bocelli (October 2016).
Tina suffers badly from nerves on behalf of her daughter prior to and during shows. She said: ‘My stomach churns morning to night, my hands are clenched and everything is crossed. I can’t relax until the end of the show. We travel everywhere with her and the day before she goes into her silent mode and we laugh and use nothing but sign language. You have no idea how annoying it is! We stay in the (hotel) room. She sits in bed with her ’jamas on and I have to watch Disney films. I’m 56 years old. When will this stop? I’m in bed at 9pm watching The Rescuers!’
Just now Carly, who is being lauded as the English Rose with Italian roots and whose professional image is fresh, young and glamorous, is excited about the launch of her album. It took three years to complete and was recorded at Abbey Road Studios and at the Forum Studio in the heart of Rome. Impressed, I raise my eyebrows. ‘Yeah, I know,’ she laughs.
She said: ‘It feels fantastic to hold my album in my hand and I do feel old enough now for all this and can stay level headed. All I’ve ever wanted was this.’
Tina adds: ‘She believed this was what she was for. She needed to be on stage and to sing. It was what she was made for. She has always, always believed it and so have I. But she is very grounded. We believe she has been given a gift and it’s her duty to use her gift right and not get above herself.’
Carly doesn’t drink or smoke and was never one for clubbing and she still lives with her parents – they have rented a second home to be nearer to London. Her main vice is clothes (Ellie Saab and Catherine Walker are her hot favourites) and these days she is courted by haute couture designers anxious to see their creations worn on stage by this beautiful young English woman.
She’s making waves in the UK but is already adored in Italy. Tina said: ‘In Italy, they wait to see what she is wearing. She’s known as The Princess. She was on TV yesterday in Italy and five million people were watching.’
It wasn’t always easy to get the perfect dress for a performance, though. Carly said: ‘When I was still coming up the ranks and needed nice dresses to perform in I must have sent off 50 emails to different designers. No one took any notice.’
Determined, Tina and Carly headed down to London, checked into a B & B and began knocking on doors, showing designers a video clip of Carly in performance. One celebrity designer joked rudely that Catherine Walker’s atelier was up the street and they should try there. They did.
‘I had to press a bell to enter and someone called Laura came to the door. She gave us five or six dresses, at the time worth £20,000 and she didn’t know us from Adam,’ said Tina. Laura has since flown all over the world to hear Carly sing and they are the best of friends.
The story sounds like an object lesson in how to combat rejection and difficulty – a determined attitude and a refusal to be defeated pays dividends. Carly says: ‘It’s important never to give up on your dreams. It only stops when you stop believing in it yourself.’
Most of the pupils at the DTA have dreams of their own. Back in the drama studio masterclass students are putting the finishing touches to the beautiful uplifting song, ‘Mystery of Your Gift’.
A diminutive 13-year-old called Ellie has a two line solo ‘Lending your voice to the warmth of your song/ There is strength in a choir of one’. It’s moving to hear it. I look over to her father Darren, who has driven his little girl all the way from Wirksworth, to take part.
‘Carly is her inspiration,’ he says reverently.
Carly, who can count the Pope and Prince Charles amongst her fans, has a busy schedule. Coming up is a BBC Radio 2 recording for ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ at Lichfield Cathedral and then she will be special guest of Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro during their tour from 24th October to 2nd December (21st November at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall). So what on earth is next for Carly ?
‘Well my ultimate dream would be to play a Disney voice once in my life. It would be so nice to inspire other children to sing in the way I was inspired.’