'I liked certain teachers who were sweeter'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 September, 2005, 12:00am

I was in my late 20s when I reached a turning point in my life that led me back to singing and eventually to become an opera singer at the age of 33.

It was a terrible time. My father, Giuseppe Patane, a conductor, died in 1989 of a heart attack in the middle of a performance in Munich - he was 57.

Not long before, I'd decided that I was going to end my marriage to a very domineering, Italian man. I think the death of my father, who I adored and with whom I was very alike, was the last straw. It somehow gave me the strength to begin afresh and start my life again.

Looking back, it's been an interesting life. I was born in Italy and we moved to Berlin with dad's job when I was two in the 1960s.

I went to an international school there where I learned French, English and German when I was six, which felt completely natural. At home, of course, we spoke Italian.

When you're a child I don't think learning anything is hard. In fact, I think kids should be taught to learn languages at a young age. I even picked up Japanese because I had friends from there.

I also remember from that period that if I liked certain teachers, it was usually because they were sweeter. I teach these days and I find if you're nicer and patient, people open up far more than if you're strict. Those who are not patient find their pupils just hide within themselves.

At the age of 11, we moved back to Italy and it was a big shock. For a start I discovered that although I could speak Italian, I had no idea about grammar or how to use it formally.

Milan was also very different to Berlin. Berlin is wonderful in that it's green and has lakes and forests, while Milan is an urban city. I didn't like Milan as I didn't feel as free. I became very unhappy and retreated within myself - a very typical Cancerian trait, I think.

Gradually I adjusted although the effect of it was that I studied a lot. I was very much into languages, history, geography painting and music.

I remember one teacher in particular - Renata Comi - who taught Italian, was a little strict but also kind and I stayed in touch with her. As Italian was a new language for me in the technical sense, she opened up a whole new world for me.

I was also involved in ballet, dancing, roller-skating and ice-skating.

There was another major upheaval at the age of 17, when the family moved to New York where dad was working with the Metropolitan Opera.

Just as with the move to Milan, I found it difficult for the first year but it became better and I started going out with a boy.

I enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music where I trained in voice and it was really the first time I truly became involved with music. I'd worked previously as a stage director's assistant on Wagner's Lohengrin and realised I wanted to be on stage instead of behind it.

I also became involved in modelling and acting but it was at that point I met my husband, married and settled down, having a child, and being a wife and mother. In a sense it was the end of my dream which was to go to Hollywood.

After my father died, and I split from my husband, I returned to singing. I enrolled on a course to help get me started again and gradually parts started to be offered to me. It didn't happen overnight and took several years before I was established.

My advice is never to make plans. Whenever I've tried to do that they've never turned out. You should also go with the flow and learn from hard experience. It's no use being told not to do something - find out by making your own mistakes.

I didn't enjoy my teens as such but I think I enjoyed school and now I'm finding myself in the happiest period of my life.

Funnily enough, last year we had a school reunion from my days in Milan. Many had separated from their spouses, some had children and had married twice, like me.

It was incredible really. The strange thing was we didn't really look any different from the way we were in our teens ... in fact it was as if we'd never been apart.

Francesca Patane is appearing in Puccini's Turandot at the Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, from September 29 to October 3. She was talking to David Phair