After five months on the road, a weary-looking Gino Quilico conceded the obvious. "This time, I'm tired," said the 43-year-old baritone, slouched in a chair in his Montreal studio. He had spent an unusually long stretch away from home, juggling opera performances and recitals to promote his latest CD, Le Secret. But his respite was to be short-lived: last week, after a month-long break, Quilico was back onstage in Orange, France, singing the role of the swaggering toreador Escamillo in Carmen. Next, Quilico will make two rare Canadian recital appearances, in Kingston, Ont., and Ottawa, on July 28 and 30. Fatigue aside, when Quilico spoke to Maclean's, his good humor appeared intact. Recalling an April performance in Spain of The Barber of Seville, he described how a high fever had flushed his face and left him feeling slightly delirious. "I looked wonderful - I was actually having a good time, strangely enough."
Perhaps not so strange for a man who confounds the stereotypical scarf-around-the-throat image of a hypochondriacal opera star. In fact, with his love of scuba diving, sailing and antique sports cars, the singer seems to embrace life with the zest of the operatic characters he plays. The son of renowned Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, the younger Quilico is one of Canada's most successful opera singers, performing regularly at the world's top concert houses. To his enduring chagrin, he almost never sings at home. His last Canadian opera performance was in Montreal in 1989. (The Toronto-based Canadian Opera Company blames fluctuating government funding for not being able to book as far in advance as Quilico requires.) But the Montrealer may pop up more often on Canadian stages now that he is devoting more attention to the recital side of his career. Le Secret, his first solo recital recording - a collection of French art songs - has met with generally favorable reviews since its release last fall. Although he likes the intimate contact with the audience, Quilico finds recitals more taxing in some ways than opera performances. "You're nude," says Quilico. "It's Gino Quilico standing in front of an audience and there is nothing else to look at but the piano and the singer. In an opera, you can hide somewhere."
Quilico can hardly be accused of being a shrinking violet. With his lyric baritone voice, striking good looks and dynamic stage presence, the man commands attention. "He's one of the new generation of opera singers that combines terrific acting ability with vocal talent," says Philip Boswell, artistic administrator at the Canadian Opera Company. Congenial, with a lively sense of humor offstage, Quilico has been known to show flashes of temper in his professional life, once putting his fist through a piece of scenery. "I don't stand for laziness," says the singer, who acknowledges that he can be demanding.
Quilico started his singing career in a rock band, but by age 19, he had won a minor role with the Canadian Opera Company and was hooked. He turned to his father and late mother, Lina Pizzolongo, a gifted concert pianist, for two years of intensive vocal training, and enrolled at the University of Toronto's faculty of music. Unlike most baritones, Quilico achieved early success, landing a contract with the Paris Opera when he was 25. "In that way, his career is an anomaly," says Boswell. "He got started very early and has maintained a very, very nice career." He has appeared in films and videos and made more than two dozen recordings, including the 1995 Les Troyens, which, featuring Quilico as the principal soloist, won a Grammy Award for best opera recording.
Quilico has also appeared several times with his father, including a memorable1988 Toronto production of Don Giovanni. Rumors abound of a rift between the two since his father - now semi-retired at age 69 and living in Toronto - remarried after Gino's mother died in 1991. But the younger Quilico downplays any estrangement. "It's not a rift," he says. "It's just that there comes a point in life where you have to go your own way. It's part of growing up." Following in his father's footsteps has not been easy, Quilico claims, explaining that he has had to work that much harder to prove himself.
There are notable differences between the two singers: Gino Quilico is a lyric baritone and his father, with his darker-toned voice, is a dramatic baritone. But Gino Quilico has slowly begun to venture into Verdi territory, familiar ground to his father. He hopes to one day tackle his father's signature role, Rigoletto. "I want to do it when I feel that I can bring something different to it, without touching his," says Quilico. "Because for me, his is perfection."
Quilico shares a house in Westmount with his second wife, Kathryn, 39, and their two children. When he is in Montreal he often wanders over to his makeshift studio in a nearby apartment, where he keeps electric guitars and a synthesizer for composing songs with a World Music bent. Meanwhile, his opera calendar has dates pencilled in until 2002, including performances this fall at New York City's Metropolitan Opera and a return to l'Opéra de Montréal in 2000 for Othello. He is also booked for a recital next spring in Toronto - his first appearance there in 10 years. For Quilico's fans, the homecoming is long overdue.
Maclean's July 20, 1998