In 2009, the global phenomenon of Susan Boyle—who rose to fame after her stunning audition appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent”—tapped deeply into the world’s fascination for wonderfully inspiring human interest stories.
But it wasn’t simply the 40-something Scottish singer’s voice and charm that drove hundreds of millions to tears watching clips on YouTube and made her debut recording the year’s biggest selling album in the world. To borrow from the song that made her famous, it was all about her daring to dream a dream before our eyes. And reminding us that the only expiration dates those dreams have are the ones we put on them.
Long before Boyle took the stage and shocked Simon Cowell, Tonia Tecce was living her own dream, embodying the exciting truth that it’s never too late. The Philadelphia based crossover soprano was captivating thousands of fans everywhere from the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philly to Carnegie Hall with her powerful, soaring vocals and the tale behind the amazing journey which led her to center stage.
Anyone who thought Tecce was crazy to start pursuing her singing career in the early 1980s after deferring her lifelong dream to raise six kids might think she’s madder yet to launch a recording career at an age when most people are settling into retirement. The singer, who also has 12 grandchildren, has two responses for them: What A Wonderful World, her 2006 independent debut and Smile, her glorious new, ten-track collection of uniquely selected secular and spiritual songs that, like Tecce herself, can’t help but lift us during these uncertain, troubling times.
While Tecce may be a new name to those outside her regular performing base on the East Coast, her collaborators on both projects are world renowned. Grammy nominated arranger/accompanist/conductor Byron Olson has worked with legends of opera (Placido Domingo), pop (Gloria Estefan, Johnny Mathis), jazz (Carmen McRae) and folk rock (Richie Havens) and The London Symphony. Repertoire consultant Ettore Stratta has conducted The London Symphony, The English Chamber Orchestra and The Royal Philharmonic.
John Vanore, producer of both What A Wonderful World and Smile, was a featured trumpet soloist with the Woody Herman Orchestra and has accompanied everyone from Tony Bennett and Sammy Davis, Jr. to Nancy Wilson. He also earned a gold record for producing Michael Crawford’s 1998 inspirational album On Eagle’s Wings.
With a set list that includes Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” the Disney classic “When You Wish Upon A Star,” “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” “Amazing Grace,” “On Eagle’s Wings” and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child,” Vanore is helping Tecce tap into the same emotional longings and spiritual aspirations as the Crawford project. A reviewer from Midnight Jazz once compared Tecce’s voice to that of Julie Andrews, which makes the artful medley of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Climb Every Mountain” all the more appropriate and poignant.
Tecce says, “For me, this is about uplifting people and I truly believe in the sentiment that we can always find a way to ‘Smile’ through the hard times. My hope is that listeners who hear my interpretation will experience a positive moment that makes them feel better. The album can work on that level or simply be a nice afternoon of easy music to listen to. I wanted to keep it secular but spiritual, simply reflecting how we feel in times of trouble. I closed What A Wonderful World with just Byron on piano and we took the same route this time, wrapping Smile with Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep” from ‘White Christmas.’”
Speaking of Christmas, when Tecce was originally tossing around ideas for the follow-up to What A Wonderful World, her older daughter urged her to do a holiday album. “Needless to say,” Tecce says, “I would have loved to make a Christmas album and hope to do so someday. But I wanted to do more than that. I wanted to touch the hearts of my listeners in a very special way – to give them something that went beyond the music. Because so many wonderful people have drawn me into their lives and shared with me their personal stories, both happy and sad, I began to think of making a recording dealing with a wide range of emotions and feelings. I think Smile conveys the fact that I’m a very optimistic person at heart. I firmly believe if you want something badly enough you can get it. You may not always get the gold at the end of the rainbow, but it’s important to reach for your dream and passion.”
Tecce has told her story on local media and before live audiences throughout the Delaware Valley. Accompanied by her heart-filled renditions of favorites from Broadway and the Hollywood screen, as well as classical songs and arias, her story has captivated listeners and enhanced her reputation as one of the most popular –and beloved– performers in the region.
Lest anyone think her emergence as a popular song stylist was anything but a too-long-delayed destiny, it’s important to note that she began singing onstage when she was eight years old and planned to head to New York to pursue her career. But her family, including her father– a small town New Jersey doctor who came from an era when they still made house calls–placed greater value on education. So she went off to Rosemont College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Tecce employs the romantic imagery of Cupid’s arrow to explain how her dream got sidetracked for very worthwhile reasons—seven of them, in fact: her husband (whom she married six days after graduation) and the six wonderful children they raised.
More than 20 years after putting her dreams on hold, and as her family responsibilities lessened, Tecce auditioned for master voice teacher Florence Berggren (Julliard), who accepted her as a student and referred her to voice coach Martin Rich, conductor of the Metropolitan Opera. Maestro Rich was so impressed with her voice that he began working with her immediately. One of her fondest onstage moments was performing at Carnegie Hall with Rich in 1991; a few years ago, after he passed away, she sang there for the third time in tribute and was the only singer onstage who was not from the roster of the Met Opera.
To draw from an old showbiz cliché, the “practice” that got her to Carnegie Hall also earned her performances at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, where she made her debut as a headliner in “Tonia Tecce Sings!” She’s done eighteen seasons with the Ocean City Pops and has performed at the French Embassy in Washington D.C. and for the President of the United States (at a Presidential Salute and Inaugural Ball) and two inaugural ceremonies for the Governor of Pennsylvania. In addition to appearing onstage with leading operatic voices, Tecce also finds time to perform at benefit concerts and fundraisers for colleges, churches and hospitals. The Scleroderma Federation of the Delaware Valley awarded her its Humanitarian Award in recognition of her artistry and her dedication to this worthy cause.
The key philosophy she uses in all of her motivational talks is: “Living your dream takes determination and hard work, but if you want it badly enough, nothing can stop you. Life is not a dress rehearsal, so if you have a dream, follow it…”
“If the fact that I’m fulfilling my dream of being a recording artist at this age can inspire someone in their 60s, 70s or even 80s to live their life fully and passionately, that would make me very happy,” Tecce says. “One woman who read my story in the Philadelphia Inquirer went back to get her master’s in English, which she had begun pursuing long ago. So take that cover off your piano, pull that violin out of your closet, begin writing that book. When I auditioned for the Met, I didn’t let anything hold me back. If you’ve always thought you can do it, you can. If someone walks away from one of my performances or talks and thinks, ‘Well she did it, why can’t I?’ that’s the kind of thing that makes me truly Smile.”