Is nothing sacred? Meet the friar with the X factor

Decca's latest classical signing is far from heavenly

Jessica Duchen
Wednesday 12 September 2012 00:45
In with a prayer: Alessandro Brustenghi has a record deal
In with a prayer: Alessandro Brustenghi has a record deal

A singing friar? Maybe stranger things have happened in the bizarre universe of so-called "crossover" recordings – but not many that have made me feel quite so uncomfortable.

Decca's latest signing is a 34-year-old Franciscan friar from Assisi named Alessandro Brustenghi. His duties normally include welcoming tourists to the legendary Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, plus a spot of carpentry. Then the record producer Mike Hedges, looking out long-term for "the next Italian tenor", heard him sing. Now his first album, Voice from Assisi, is about to be released.

Friar Alessandro comes over as a sweet, warm, unassuming personality. He won't make any money from his recordings, having taken a vow of poverty (along with obedience and chastity). The proceeds will go to the Order of Friars Minor for its charitable work.

His singing sounds untutored: some coaching wouldn't go amiss to help open up his top notes. He has one of those inexpert, enthusiastic voices that it's easy to identify with. He exudes a vulnerability that kind of makes you want to look after him.

But the problem with the entire concept of a holy man as tenor runs deeper. Friar Alessandro's vow of poverty makes him an all-too-perfect choice as a new star for the Age of Austerity. Just when the vast inequalities of society are bothering us more and more, here comes someone who stands to benefit not a jot from his record sales, but can use his prominence to raise money for a good cause instead. The surface idea has appeal for a world jaded with the preponderance of ridiculously overpaid (and often talentless) "celebrities". But this isn't a charity disc. This is mass-marketing. Is it maybe also a double twist of the knife: the exploitation of the public mood?

That's not all. Like it or not, tenors have traditionally been sex symbols. A friar cannot be a sex symbol. For a singing Friar to be marketed on his looks might push the last remaining boundaries of good taste a little too far. So, too, would any attempt to have him sing anything beyond faith-based repertoire.

He isn't the first person to combine a religious vocation with a musical one – but past experience is less than happy. In 1963, a Belgian nun named Jeanine Deckers, from a Dominican convent, released a record, encouraged by the sisters of the order. One song, "Dominique", was a smash hit and she shot to fame as "Sister Sourire" (Sister Smile). A movie, The Singing Nun, was made about her in 1966. It was only through the film that she learned of her own celebrity.

She left the cloister to join a lay order, questioning her dedication, but never reconciled herself to the clash of fame and vocation. "Life is a struggle, and I struggle," she told an interviewer. She struggled further when tax collectors demanded a massive cut of her recording profits, which had all gone to her order, but seemingly without the necessary paperwork. She and her female companion took their own lives in 1985.

How can stardom ever be compatible with an existence that is necessarily unworldly? Friars, unlike monks, don't live a cloistered life, but interact with the wider community – still, given the lessons of Soeur Sourire, this is cold comfort. Decca insists that Friar Alessandro's day-to-day life will not change, but if he is a success, then what of travelling, publicity pushes, public performances?

The bottom line is that it seems even the sacred is no longer sacred in the everlasting scramble to create new, mass-marketable musical tat. And I'm not religious. If this notion makes me squirm, what will it do to believers?

'Friar Alessandro: Voice from Assisi' is out on Decca on 15 October

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