RICHMOND, Virginia — Shopping at various grocery stores in the Richmond area the early 2000s, customers might have heard a toddler singing in the cart as her mother shopped for her family.
Little did they know that the young vocalist in the cereal aisle would one day be performing opera on the international stage and would release her first single recording, “Cinema Paradiso,” based on the closing scene of the award-winning 1988 movie.
“I’ve always had a love for music and an ear for it,” said Hannah Magnelli. “I was taking voice lessons at a young age, and, of course, it was very basic singing that was appropriate for someone of that age group.”
The second oldest of James and Raquel Magnelli’s four children — she has an older brother, Phillip, and a younger sister and brother, Olivia and Benjamin — she played the violin for more than a decade before singing became her greater interest.
“I started taking classical voice when I was about 13 and slowly doing Italian art forms, Latin music used in church,” said Magnelli, whose family belongs to St. Joseph Parish in Richmond, where Mass is celebrated in Latin. “Then I did a little more in the classical, musical theater side of things.”
As a student at Blessed Sacrament Huguenot High School, Magnelli was involved in the performing arts. She sang “Time to Say Goodbye” at the senior talent show, and at graduation, she and Olivia sang “The Prayer.”
Following a semester at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, and a private internship at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, under the tutelage of German conductor Sebastian Weigle, Magnelli entered Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in 2008, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in voice performance.
“When you go to the university, whether or not you want to sing pop music or Broadway, classical singing for that is the basic technique, so you’re required to sing and learn more operatic classic technique,” she said. “It’s kind of the baseline to go into other genres you desire.”
Magnelli, who speaks fluent Spanish and is a Spanish-English interpreter contractor, minored in German.
“Everybody said when I was going into opera, ‘You need to learn and know German.’ The reason is that it’s a very popular language in the classical music world, not just the singers and musicians, but it’s a language that’s very universal in the European countries,” she said, adding that she speaks some Italian and would like to learn Arabic.
While Magnelli finds inspiration in the works she has performed, such as “La Clemenza di Tito,” “Carmen” and “Così fan tutte,” she is inspired daily by the practice of her faith and takes to heart St. John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists,” in which he wrote: “In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God.”
“Knowing that it is a gift that I have been given by God, and it’s something that I know brings people joy, it is something I am very passionate about, something I love doing,” she told The Catholic Virginian, Richmond’s diocesan newspaper. “So when I’m singing, I know I’m sharing God’s gift. I get the feeling I can make someone’s day or communicate a message somebody could easily relate to.”
Magnelli knows that when she sings, she might inspire someone or elicit a “wonderful memory” for them.
“Sometimes when you’re listening to music, and it’s very beautiful music, you feel as if God is speaking to you, and it just shares the beauty that God has created,” she said. “You really feel like your spirit is dancing inside from what it’s hearing, depending on what exactly you’re singing.”
Noting that in her profession and other performing arts, there is a lot of pressure “to be perfect,” which, Magnelli said, some artists handle with drugs and alcohol.
“I, for one, have never had to do that. I want to have this confidence on my own without having to do that, and being decently grounded with my Catholic faith has helped me to be able to deal with these things,” she said, adding that praying the rosary daily is one of the “little things” that keeps her grounded.
Magnelli said that it is easy to “get influenced by a very secular world” when one is in the entertainment field, but she has been able to deal with it.
“When I am traveling on my own, I still go to Mass on Sundays, and if I need to, I’ll try to find a place where I can go to confession, even in foreign countries” she said. “I’ve been able to stay on track with my Catholic faith.”
Magnelli said she doesn’t “put my faith on anyone,” taking a lead-by-example approach.
“Be the light in the darkness. If you want to influence somebody and hope they convert or come back to God, the best thing to do is absolutely nothing,” she said. “Do what you do, be yourself, be that light, and if they see that influence, then you can talk to them about it and give them resources if they ask.”
She recalled how she formed a bond with another Catholic.
“I met one other Catholic girl, a new roommate, when I was singing for ‘The Sopranos,’ who was a devout Catholic,” she said. “I had no idea she was Catholic.”
“I was studying music and she saw the brown scapular hanging out of my shirt and she literally said, ‘Oh, my God! Are you wearing this?’ And she pulled hers out. I did a double take like, ‘What! You’re wearing one?'”
One of the most popular devotional scapulars, the brown scapular is associated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
“I was kind of shocked,” Magnelli said. “That’s just not something you see. It’s a very liberal and secular field. A lot of them are cradle Catholics who don’t practice and don’t go to Mass.”
“It was really nice to connect with her,” she said, “and we still keep in touch to this day — to meet someone that believes the same as you do because that’s really hard in this field if you’re devout with your faith.”
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Editor’s Note: Learn more about Magnelli at www.hannahmagnelli.com, or find her on Facebook (Hannah Magnelli, Mezzo Soprano) or Instagram (@hannah_magnelli). Visit https://modernclassicalx.lnk.to/CinemaParadiso to order her single.
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Olszewski is editor of The Catholic Virginian, biweekly publication of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia.