Voice to the Stars
As a woman known for her ability to morph into many different divas, it's hard to know what to expect when you're about to meet the real Christina Bianco. But what you do find, behind the sweet New York Italian facade and bubbly persona, is a woman as creative and complex as any prima donna of old. One who has single-handedly forged a career in a notoriously temperamental industry without the crutch of large-scale shows or celebrity status. Christina's story is one of big dreams, an uncanny ability to impersonate, a lot of drive and the business-savvy to utilise one very viral YouTube video.
“I did my first play at 7,” she begins. “A production of the Wizard of Oz. I wanted to be Dorothy, but I got cast as a munchkin. However, they gave me a solo singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end. How spoiled was I? That was it. It was the only thing I only ever wanted to do and, growing up near New York, it didn't seem impossible. But I very much wanted to sing as well as act, so I began going to concerts and cabarets– jazz and rock along with theatre. My idea was that when I couldn't act I'd pay the bills with singing in bands and other things.”
Determination, as many a stage performer will know, often plays as much a part in a successful career as talent. Christina's led her down a rather unconventional path, into creating her own work, rather than just giving voice to other people's. Does she think this spark of entrepreneurialism is now essential to the modern performer?
“It depends on the person,” she muses. “I will say this: In no way can it hurt to present the public and the industry with something that is your own creation. Because a lot of people just wait to be told. And a lot of casting people, especially in theatre, they'll go online and see who this person is. But it's not about having lots of fancy videos, they just want to get to know you a little bit.
“For me, the YouTube thing took me outside the world of theatre. Even though I do a lot of musical theatre and it's my base. But the video opened doors for me in TV, commercial, film. Those connections happen. And even if it doesn't help you get other work, it helps you as a performer and as a person. It's so easy to create your own product now and it's so immediate; the possibilities are seemingly endless with what you can do and how you can make a name for yourself. It can never hurt to be creative, take the initiative and see where it takes you.”
“Taking the initiative” is one of Christina's most inspiring qualities, in an industry where, famously, actors spend more time out of work than in. But waiting by the phone was never for her – perhaps because her voice and ear were always eager for more than just the 4 walls of the theatre. With a father working in radio, she was exposed to all genres even before they officially hit US shores (“I knew Shakira when she had brown hair, know what I mean?”). And as a woman who can leap from coloratura to contralto in a breath, who inspired her on the road from aspiring Dorothy to Broadway diva?
“A bunch and they were all over the map,” she laughs. “I love the band Heart. I wanted to be Ann Wilson, to sing and scream like that. The swing singer Nancy Wilson is also a big influence of mine, in fact that whole swing era – I've often thought I was born in the wrong time period and that's where I should have stayed. So I always loved old school singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Eydie Gormé. I looked up to Linda Ronstadt because she was always touted as someone who spans genres. Celine Dion was one of the first times I heard a voice and thought 'that's the greatest singer ever!' I was always listening to these different singers, but I went out of my way to go to a lot of concerts and loved when performers would really put on a show. So Bette Midler was a huge influence on me. She's not a stand-up comic, but she can deliver those really funny lines with a big band behind her and really gives her audience everything.”
But the desire to “give the audience everything” doesn't always translate well into the rigid regimentation of the music classroom.
“Some people have one way and one method, but I never did. I think that's because from a young age I was interested in so many different forms of music. When I went to a voice teacher, I'd learn classical training. But I'd take that and apply it to rock 'n' rollor country, which obviously the teachers didn't like. But I like to think that's one of the reasons I can sing so many different styles of music comfortably and safely. It's not for everybody, but that's how I was excited to learn and led me to where I am.”
And Christina's road to success has been anything but conventional. While she's quick to praise the training she's received, striking out on her own was a natural part of her development. While freely admitting that she “never aspired to be a technician,” she retained the utmost respect for practitioners of classical voice, while knowing that her own instrument was leading her down a rather different path.
“I was always a big belter and I finally developed a soprano, discovering I could go quite high. So my teachers put a lot of work into developing me there. But I was also good at that pop-rock sound which was becoming very trendy, so I really wanted to work on my mix. Teachers just wouldn't help me. They figured if you could belt and soprano, that was enough. But I was determined to learn. I knew where it was supposed to be and it just wasn't there yet. I'd listen to Susan Egan on Beauty and the Beast going from belt to mix on the song 'Home' and I'd drill the bridge of that song over and over again and one day, finally, it came out the way I wanted. A lot of it was just going for something I knew my voice was capable of that it hadn't done yet. A teacher couldn't have done that. I feel that there are certain things where you have to do your own work. But I'm sure Susan would be horrified by how many times I listened to that recording!”
She laughs again at that, a sound so infectious you can't help but laugh along with her, as any viewer at one of her many live shows will attest. But behind the giggles lies the steely creative determination, coupled with a self-given freedom to explore, which has left Christina with a slightly alternative career compared to many of her contemporaries. While she is now comfortable with the road she's on, she does take a moment to regret missing out on the more conventional path; confessing that her refusal to conform to a set theatre “type” makes it difficult to get some of the opportunities she wants.
But when it comes to the realities of the industry, she's pulling no punches as to how tough it can be.
“For the typical actor, getting an agent, going on auditions – it's incredibly hard. The business is – I guess the word is 'fickle' – but there's just not enough work to go around. If you're be-all and end-all is to do Broadway shows then you have to know how short-lived a lot of those productions are, because of the way the industry is run. But we do what we do because the positive parts win out. What I have liked most is the surprise. Doing one off-Broadway show got me a concert in a very reputable venue, which got great reviews, which spawneda YouTube video, which went viral, which got me on TV, which got me to London, and now I get to perform all over the world. It's the fact that people in all of those different areas have been so accepting that I don't just do one thing that makes me love this industry.”
While she may regret not being attached to some of the big name shows, it's perhaps even more impressive that she's built her own name from the ground up. A name which may not have graced the Playbill of Hair or Wicked (yet), but has moved from the mega mainstream of The Ellen DeGeneres Show to niche off-Broadway plays. Her difference and refusal to compartmentalise are the very reasons she has rightfully earned her own recognition. Yet while becoming known online for being able to imitate Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and more has opened up doors, does she ever have trouble losing her own voice amongst all the great divas she impersonates so well?
“Not at all,” is the short answer. “My voice can sound very different from style to style, genre to genre. But it's my voice and I've lived with it far longer than I've been doing impersonations, so there's no problem in keeping it separate. And the audience who come to see me live also like hearing me sing as me, so I get to do everything I love in one show.”
And who are her favourite divas to impersonate?
“Bernadette Peters and Celine Dion, for two reasons,” she states. “One, they are truly favourites of mine. I feel like I know their '-isms' better than others, as I grew up listening to them. When I impersonate, I also try to get my head into their phrasing and vocal choices. The other reason is that Bernadette and Celine's vocal tone is similar to mine. The speed of our vibratos are similar, so it doesn't require as much manipulation as others. They also have very distinct speaking voices and moves when they sing. So it's a full package performance.”
At a petite 4 ft 11, Bianco may lament her lack of Celine's statuesque legs, when it comes to sharing a diva's headspace for a day she'd go back to Bette Midler.
“She has a career that I'd die to have. Someone who's recognised and respected in so many areas. I'm trying to do it on my level, so it would be interesting to be inside her head and see how she does it. She's a very smart businesswoman as well.”
And Christina's next business venture will bring her back across the pond for a full UK tour, taking her to new cities, and new fans.
“I'm way too excited to see more of the UK,” she exclaims. “The architecture, the countryside, but mostly just the people. It still boggles my mind to think that there are people in Manchester or Leeds who want to come and see my show. I'm really doing this show for the fans, and that's not part of an ad campaign. I'll have lots of tweets and questions for my UK followers on what they'd like to see, and each show will have different unlikely interpretations from people in that audience.
“I love that sort of performance because there's an engagement that isn't always there in other forms of theatre; looking out there and seeing how that live audience is different every night from show to show. They affect me and I affect them. There's something about the spontaneity of it. I see each show as a conversation and, in my own show, I have full control over how much I interact with them and our shared experience. I won't just be singing at them, and that's my favourite thing about it.”
Yet while her voice and talent have garnered her over 20 million views, Christina remains grounded about how her stroke of success came about – but it's what she did with the opportunity which re-wrote a story of musical success.
“It was just luck to have that Total Eclipse of the Heart video go viral,” she emphasises. “But what you can do with that 15 minutes of fame is very tricky. Most people who are popular from a YouTube video can't do a concert tour off of it. I had a show ready. When I got the call I had a million options to give them. I worked to make the most of it. And so far, so good.”
Hear Christina live as she tours the UK with her triumphant new show “Me, Myself and Everyone Else”. Don't miss theatre's most diverse diva: Book your tickets today!