Marisa Balistreri is a former professional opera singer whose career brought her to Italy (among other places). She has since turned her talents towards jazz singing, and specifically “gypsy jazz”, and is now based in Wisconsin.

Marisa is our Communications Manager here at Musical U and she also runs our Easy Ear Training social media, as well as helping to promote our new articles each week and help us make connections with other music education providers online.

Musical Beginnings

Musical U: Tell us a little bit about your musical background.

Marisa Balistreri: I studied piano privately for seven years from the time I was five. I was very lucky to have an incredible school music program from elementary through high school in Madison, WI, where I grew up. I was always involved with choir, orchestra, and musicals. In fact, as a singer, musical theatre was my first love and that’s how I got started.

I went on to study theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and music at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and was involved in apprentice programs through Oberlin Conservatory in Italy. I eventually moved to Italy and studied with a Tenor who was a student of Franco Corelli, and there began my career.

Marisa Balistreri

Marisa as Mimì singing the Fourth Act of “La bohème” at the Cairo Opera Company 2009. The tenor with her is Walid Korayem.

MU: Who are some of your most influential or favorite musicians?

MB: I have a deep love of all kinds of music, so I don’t have one person that really inspired me. (Except for maybe Olivia Newton-John! I wanted to be her so badly when I was a kid!)

When I am preparing music, though, I find that I gravitate to the “old school” performers, regardless of genre. Maria Callas is my first and sometimes only go-to when preparing opera.

Lately, as I’ve been getting into jazz, I find myself listening to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone. If I’m just enjoying music I tend to listen to alternative rock. I’ve been a huge fan of Muse for a long time.

MU: What initially drew you to opera music? Jazz music? How did these genres influence you as a musician?

MB: I wish I could say that I was drawn to opera, but frankly it found me! Once I was convinced by my mentors in Madison to give it a try, I discovered that my voice was very well suited to opera – more than musical theatre – so I followed that path.

The same is true of jazz. Jazz found me and so far, it’s the most rewarding genre of music I’ve sung. Musical theatre taught me how to perform, opera taught me vocal technique and how to communicate words, and jazz allows me to do both of those things with freedom.

Musical Development and Career Path

MU: Tell us more about “gypsy jazz.” It sounds interesting!

MB: I would defer this question to my bandmates who know more about gypsy jazz than I do, but they’re not here, so here it goes!

Gypsy jazz – or “jazz manouche” – is a style of jazz music credited to Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt, who played in the clubs of 1930s Paris. He famously played guitar with only two fingers after his hand was injured in a fire in his caravan.

gypsy jazz

Marisa’s Gypsy Swing group called Mulatság playing in July 2016 at the Bremen Cafe in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Gypsy jazz swings hard! Reinhardt combined the popular swing rhythms of the era with the chromatic sounds of gypsy traditions. It’s an earlier form of jazz, so as someone just starting out in jazz with a classical background, it was good to start with a slightly simpler jazz form where I didn’t have to improvise over complex harmonies and rhythms right away. There’s still a fairly solid structure there.

Now I’m moving into later jazz forms with my new jazz ensemble “Trio Del Mare”, and the harmonic and rhythmic structures we’re playing are more complex.

MU: Did you ever think about quitting in the past? How did you handle it? Why didn’t you quit?

Truthfully, I never felt that I “made it”, but “making it” is relative. To some, I “made it”, to others I’ve not gotten anywhere. It’s where you set the bar for yourself, I think, that determines whether or not you’ve “made it”.

MB: I think about quitting all the time. In fact, I go through periods where I actually DO quit. Being in the entertainment industry is not always secure and sometimes security becomes more interesting than performing. I have found, however, that it’s precisely during those “lulls” – when I try to settle down and be a “normal” person –  that I grow the most as a musician and my career path takes me to places I never imagined I would go.

Again, I didn’t seek to be a jazz singer. The opportunity presented itself to me when I was focused on a different career entirely. It never crossed my mind to pursue jazz, yet jazz is the natural next level in the evolution of being a singer, I think, after the rigors of classical training. (Cue Godfather quote: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”)

MU: What’s the hardest part about staying motivated to practice?

MB: Well, I don’t practice anymore! I’m older now and my vocal technique has settled, so it’s not as important for me. I’m at a point where “tune-ups” are necessary to make sure my technique doesn’t go off track but daily practice isn’t really necessary. When you’re young and learning a technique, it’s vitally important, though.

Practicing should be guided by your teacher as much as possible so you don’t train bad habits into your muscle memory. When I first started, I practiced three hours a day and frankly, that’s overkill for a singer. I believe that twenty minutes a day (or twenty minutes at a time paced throughout the day if you need to prepare something), is a better approach for a singer.

The most general thing I can say is this: Follow your own path. Your path will be very different from some else’s.

I guess what used to motivate me to practice was the sheer terror of making mistakes. Obviously, that’s a terrible reason to practice. Practicing should come from the love of music and the love of doing what you’re doing, not fear of mistakes. Sure, I rehearse with my band, but that’s my moment of zen.

MU: When did you feel like you really “made it” as a musician and a singer?

MB: Truthfully, I never felt that I “made it”, but “making it” is relative. To some, I “made it”, to others I’ve not gotten anywhere. It’s where you set the bar for yourself, I think, that determines whether or not you’ve “made it”. I had the bar set pretty high for myself as an opera singer and I never really achieved my goals, which made for existing in a constant state of frustration.

It’s really important to remember that we evolve constantly as musicians and being a commercial or financial success should never be our goal. We should stay true to whatever music we are serving at the time.

As I grew older, I changed the placement of that bar to singing just for pure joy because I’ve come to understand that “making it” has nothing to do with money or titles – it’s all about how much you enjoy what you’re doing. If that’s success, then I’ve found it.

It’s really important to remember that we evolve constantly as musicians and being a commercial or financial success should never be our goal. We should stay true to whatever music we are serving at the time. I will say this, though: When I was hired by the Rome Opera to sing a contemporary opera, that was turning point for me and it opened a lot of doors.

Words of Wisdom

MU: What advice would you give aspiring singers?

I’m sure everyone has heard this before, but you have to really want it. Be prepared to fight hard for what you want and get used to handling rejection. You will be rejected. A lot. You just have to learn to take it as “not being a good fit” and keep going. People will try to stop you. Don’t let them.

MB: The most general thing I can say is this: Follow your own path. Your path will be very different from some else’s.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given is that you have to go through this business with blinders on, like a horse. You have to look forward and not look around at what everyone else is doing because it will make you crazy. Some people will have breaks, others will not.

This is a very unfair business and you have to accept right off the bat that success in the industry has very little to do with talent. “Success” has a lot to do with money, connections, and a willingness to play the industry “game”, which, frankly, I was just never willing to do. Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right or makes you unhappy.

I’m sure everyone has heard this before, but you have to really want it. Be prepared to fight hard for what you want and get used to handling rejection.

You will be rejected. A lot.

You just have to learn to take it as “not being a good fit” and keep going. People will try to stop you. Don’t let them. If someone in your life doesn’t want you to be successful, then they don’t belong in your life and you must find the strength to cut them loose. I believe, though, that if you stay true to yourself and serve the music, the rewards are great! I’ve had some really wonderful times in my career. I would never discourage anyone from music, you just have to be prepared for the realities of it and be prepared to have a second career. (Unless you happen to catch a big break, which is like winning the lottery.)

MU: What is your favorite part about working with the Musical U team?

MB: First of all, I have great colleagues. It’s a pleasure to be able to “talk shop” with Andrew and Stewart, who are accomplished musicians, and read all the wonderful daily articles and interviews by other musicians who know their craft.

Most importantly, though, Christopher really has a great vision for Musical U and he knows precisely what he’s doing. He’s a very smart bloke. I’m very excited to see where this company goes!

Thanks, Marisa, for sharing your story!

If you’d like to learn more about Maria’s musical projects you can check out her Facebook page and her band Trio Del Mare.

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