Alessandro Brustenghi is spoken of as the next Italian tenor, and he’s about to release his next album. Faith Today went to Assisi to meet the ‘singing friar.’
As a teenager Alessandro Brustenghi was sure of two things. First, he was an atheist. And second, though he loved music, he definitely wasn’t cut out to be a singer: his voice, he thought, was terrible.
Two decades later I am meeting Alessandro for the first time. We are in Assisi, where he lives, and he is wearing the brown robes of a Franciscan friar; and the reason we are talking is because he’s promoting his latest venture as a singer, his Christmas album.
It is, he readily admits, all a bit of a surprise. ‘This absolutely isn’t how I expected my life to turn out,’ he says. But God, he now knows, works in mysterious ways. ‘I don’t always understand why my life is going in a particular direction, but I’ve learned to trust in God’s grace to guide me.’ There is something almost angelic in his demeanour: and his singing on the album, it has to be said, is sublime: he’s talked of as the heir to Pavarotti, and he’s being booked for tours and concerts across Europe and the US. And all this for a 35-year-old man who hadn’t even travelled outside his native Italy until last year, and who joined the Franciscans anticipating a life of calmness and simplicity.
That all changed when record producer Mike Hedges, who worked with U2 and The Cure, heard him sing in 2011, and Decca records offered him a contract. But before that there had been many years of anguished soul-searching and it was only in trying to work out whether he truly had a future as a friar that Alessandro found his voice at all.
He was born in a village outside Perugia, the son of a civil servant: his clarinet-playing grandfather, he says, helped instil in him an early love of music. Not, though, singing: as a child his passion was drumming, and he went on to study piano and organ-playing.
He became a music scholar, with the church taking a backseat as he grew up. ‘My family were nominal Catholics, but we didn’t really practice our faith,’ he explains. ‘After confirmation I stopped going to Mass and stopped believing in God. ‘I studied philosophy and I was convinced everything, including God, was just a product of my own thought.’
But music, he says, always linked him to something outside of himself. ‘Music always made me believe in something else,’ he says. ‘My biggest musical influences were Bach and Michael Jackson, who seem very different, but both took the view that God was the inspiration for their music. And that was a problem for me, because music didn’t fit into my world view I was never able to explain it. It was the doubt in my atheism.’
Eventually, struggling, he decided to ask God for a sign. ‘I went into a forest and lay down on the ground and said ‘God, show me you’re there’. And inside myself I began to feel a kind of communion with nature and with the creatures around me. It was a very spiritual experience. I wasn’t at the centre of myself any more, I was at the centre of the heart of God.’
A few months later, a trip to the cinema confirmed the path his future would take. ‘I saw a film about St Francis, and I realised I wanted to live as he lived.’
But doubts set in: Alessandro had girlfriends, and had always anticipated he’d get married and have a family. Also, he had ambitions to be a professional organist and composer. ‘The idea of living in a friary was a strange one, it didn’t fit into the view I had of how my life would work out,’ he says. And so he waited: but then, at the age of 19, he decided to ask the friars of Assisi if he could join their congregation.
His family, he says, were appalled. ‘For them it was a tragedy. My parents thought my life was going so well, and great things were expected of me. I was going to be a professional musician; I was going to get married and raise children. When I told them I wanted to enter the friary they were very angry. My father told me I was just a child, and this was a fantasy.’
But there was another problem as well: the friars said he couldn’t become a postulant until he completed his studies and he couldn’t complete his studies because he couldn’t pass his singing exam. ‘My teacher had told me my voice wasn’t good enough, that I’d never be up to the mark,’ he says. But his desire to enter the community spurred him on.
‘I thought, I can do this I have to do this. So I decided to devote myself to improving my voice. For three weeks, I concentrated on it full-time. I did lots of exercises, lots of practice. I realised that if you are a singer, your body is your instrument; and I realised that is very like prayer, because in prayer too you are an instrument, the instrument of God. And after three weeks of hard work, my voice suddenly burst out of me. I took the diploma and I passed it with top marks.’
Life as a Franciscan wasn’t always easy, says Alessandro, but he very much values the role of prayer. ‘Prayer is really central to this life; our day is built around prayer. We have morning prayer, Mass, midday prayer, afternoon prayer, evening prayer. It is a very privileged life, to be able to devote so much time to God.’
There were blips along the way, at one point Alessandro left the community to try life as a hermit. He discovered, he says, that it wasn’t the way forward. His parents, meanwhile, had rediscovered their faith, his father is to be ordained as a deacon next year. ‘That was a wonderful change in their lives,’ he says. And eventually, after much thought, he returned to the community and took up where he’d left off.
Like all Franciscans, he was allocated work to help support the friary. In his case, he does woodwork and also acts as a tour guide for visitors to the basilica but he also had lots of opportunity as an animator at mass to continue with singing. Which is how, one day in 2011, someone who knew a record producer heard his voice and within weeks, Alessandro was being offered a recording contract. ‘I was really astonished,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t ready for fame I’m still not. Sometimes these days, when I’m travelling to London or another part of Italy or Europe for a concert, I ask myself: how did this happen to me? I’m just an ordinary friar and a singer, and not even a very good one. But then I think: this isn’t actually about me. This is God’s work, He is the guiding force.’