On impressions and Diva Moments: Christina Bianco
When Christina Bianco received acclaim among the theatre community for her Broadway impressions a few years ago, she never dreamed that touring the world with her talents would be possible. Armed with only YouTube analytics in the beginning to guide her toward an international audience, she has continued to grow in popularity and will soon perform her material to audiences in both Melbourne and Sydney. We sat down with Bianco and covered a lot of ground, learning the secrets to her warm up technique, her love for the people she impersonates, and why being known as an impressionist has enhanced her career but will never take away her own voice.
Is impression what you set out to do at the start of your career, or did your career evolve into this after you realised your talents?
This is not what I started out to do at all, it has been something that has evolved and has been a wonderful addition and an asset to my career, but still it’s not even my entire career.
When I was little, I was always, always singing, I wanted to sing all sorts of music that I could in various genres, and my parents tell me (now they tell me), that they would occasionally hear me singing along to, let’s say, Judy Garland’s ‘Over the Rainbow’, and they would hear me take on the tone and the style of Judy. Sometimes I would inadvertently mimic the style of whoever I was listening to. I do recall my mother saying to me, “honey, don’t sing it like the recording, sing it like you.” That was something that was a natural tendency, but I did it inadvertently.
I always had my own voice and I sang all through school and college, and all my performing arts work prior to being cast in Forbidden Broadway, all of it was in my own voice. Impressions weren’t something that I took very seriously… […] The impressions really came into my life quite quickly and strongly. I grew up listening to and watching Forbidden Broadway. I would always sing along to the recordings, essentially impersonating the impersonators… I loved the show, so when I was finally an adult working in the business in my 20s, I saw that they were doing auditions and told myself that it wouldn’t be embarrassing, I take direction well and can change my voice around… Although I wasn’t quite an impressionist, it wouldn’t be embarrassing. So I locked myself in my apartment for two weeks preparing for the audition, trying to do all these impressions with the actual intention of doing an impression for the very first time in my life. So I auditioned, I got a call back and I got the job, and all of a sudden I was hired for impressions and reviewed well by the New York Times, and I received a Drama Desk award nomination. When someone hires you, reviews you well and applauds you for doing impressions, it certainly made me want to do more and want to pay more attention to it, to work out what I could do with it to do more, not just to do what I was hired to do with impressions, but how to make it my own, and a part of my career.
Because you perform as a chameleon, do you have a personal singing voice or do you find that it is a blend of the technique you use in impressions?
I don’t want to sound full of myself, but I wouldn’t be able to do the impressions that I do if I didn’t have good training, and if I hadn’t been singing many different styles from a young age. I think that it’s one thing to take on someone’s voice for a song or two and sing what they sing, but I really try to push the envelope and bring impressions to a different place. Particularly having them sing material they haven’t sung before, and it’s not as easy to mimic an impression when you do that, because you’re trying to get into the mind of that particular artist. “How would Cher sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?'” It’s something that I have to be really comfortable doing… I guess what I’m saying is that if I had to be thinking about technique the whole time, I don’t think I would even be able to do the impressions. I couldn’t do it without the work I’ve built up as a singer throughout my life.
When you introduce performances, there’s an obvious reverence in your words for the people and songs you’re performing. Are your impressions a way to celebrate the female artists you admire?
I truly believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I always do it with love and respect, because if you’re not honouring them truly from your heart, it can be funny for a while, but if there’s cruelty in there, and you’re poking fun for the sake of fun… That’s not something I like to do, I think it’s only funny for the first five minutes and then it wears off. Particularly if I’m doing a show, a concert that’s either 60, 75 or 90 minutes, I need to present a varied show, and if I don’t key into what the audience love from particular artists, then you’re missing out and I think it’s going to affect your show negatively.
You parody musical theatre performers and shows within the theatre community do you ever worry that an impression will offend someone within your industry?
Yeah, I do worry about that! I worried more when I was in Forbidden Broadway because I sang parody lyrics that were very cleverly written, but some of those lyrics could be a bit biting… Again, [they were written] with love, but you have to put on a show and make people laugh.
I’ll tell you the one in particular that really gets me… One of my greatest heroes and idols is Bernadette Peters, and one of the songs that I do as Bernadette Peters, ‘See Me on a Monday’, which is a parody of ‘Tell Me on a Monday’. Obviously, even the title is telling you that it’s not the nicest sentiment, because it’s saying that her voice has become a little weaker and you should see her on the first couple shows of the week, and not the later shows. Now, I don’t agree with that because I love her and I’ve seen her a million times, and she’s always wonderful, but I now have some success doing that song and people like it, so I have to perform it. My way of sort of dealing with that is to perform a little love letter to her, so people know that I really adore her… That covers my end of it, my mind is at ease that the audience leaves knowing I love her, but yes, I have a fear that maybe Bernadette would hear that and think “oh my god, what an awful thing to say and do”. She’s recently said that she absolutely loves my impression of her, so I just have to hope that my fears about it are just fears and that imitation is meant to be flattering.
You run the gamut of techniques within your show, sometimes performing as a heap of people in one song – what does your warmup look like to accommodate everything you do in a performance?
Okay, this is where you’re going to get a really brutally honest answer from the Italian New Yorker that I am… Most voice teachers would probably kill me, because I don’t do the most complete warmup in the universe. Because the show is so vocally demanding (and I do it to myself, I build a demanding show where I’m singing Kristin Chenoweth coloratura soprano and then belting Whitney Houston), I do a very slow warm up that’s not so lengthy, but it’s very thorough. Lots of round open tones, from belt to soprano, up and down, and I do that and not too much more, because I try (and this is a little bit of a secret), to craft the show so that the beginning of the show is almost a warmup. […] I used to be worried when I was younger about covering so much ground in warming up that I would tire my voice out before I got to the end of the show.
Are you surprised that this career form has taken you travelling around the world?
I have always said that from a very young age, if I had all the money in the world I would spend it on travel and getting to see the world, and the only thing I ever wanted to do as a profession was perform, primarily sing. So the fact that I get to do both of those things as an occupation is just fantastic, I really count myself lucky. We all know incredible performers who don’t get to do what they love, so I’m so appreciative and amazed at how the internet and YouTube sort of catapulted me in the way it did at exactly the right time. […] I think that it all happened at the right time because I was ready to make the most of it.
A lot of people might say that they don’t want to be known as an impressionist… I want to be known as a singer in my own right, I don’t want that to get lost, but I was sort of in the business long enough that I know that no-one is ever going to take that away from me. My voice is my own voice, and as long as I am diligent about balancing out my work opportunities and doing my live concerts the way I do (they are pretty much fifty/fifty impressions and my own voice), I think that it would have been so foolish of me to not see this as an opportunity to expand my career. It didn’t change it and take away the other things that I can do, still do and am learning how to do further, but it’s important to find your niche and if you have it, make the most of it.
Diva Moments will play the Alex Theatre in Melbourne on 8 and 9 March, and the Hayes Theatre in Sydney on 12 March. Covering “Edith Piaf to Ariana Grande in one evening”, Bianco’s shows promise to be an extravaganza of references and entertainment for the whole theatrical community to enjoy.