When he showed up to study voice at San Jose State University, dragging a thick accent from the streets of Naples, Italy, Pasquale Esposito didn’t make much of an impression on his professors.
He’d eked out a living crooning partisan-pleasing Italian standards such as “O Sole Mio” in popular Bay Area Italian restaurants since landing on U.S. soil in 1998, with a lucky lottery green card in his pocket and the wide-eyed wonder of another foreigner chasing the American dream. In this case, to be a great singer.
But the handsome young immigrant with his broken English, irradiating smile and Enrico Caruso hero worship was all but dismissed by voice teachers who dreamed of discovering new opera megastars. Except for one.
“Pasquale auditioned with one voice teacher who didn’t think he was teachable,” recalled professor Joseph Frank. “And I said, ‘Hell, I’ll take him, and so that is what I did.’”
That was about 15 years ago; the rest is Italian-American history.
Frank, now 68 and a gifted teacher and sought-after professional opera singer, turned the self-proclaimed baritone into a tenor—his natural voice—taught him proper breathing and worked for years with Esposito (pronounced Es-POS-eeto) on vocal technique, phrasing and English pronunciation until the raw, street-corner talent from Caruso’s home town blossomed slowly into a bouquet of smoothly sweet, evocative emotion that touches the hearts and souls of audiences and dazzles music critics.
The mentor and pupil became fast friends, and to this day, Frank still attends every Esposito performance he can.
And there are many. Esposito made his opera debut in San Francisco in 2015. He has become an internationally recognized entertainer in the rarefied crossover genre of pop-opera, alongside the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, and Il Divo.
His inspirations have been as diverse as Pavarotti and Lady Gaga, and he has studied with Michael Jackson’s voice coach. He’s also a fan of Frank Sinatra and Michael Buble, and he loves jazz and the blues.
Esposito counts among his mentors opera icon Placido Domingo and last year created and produced a PBS special, what he calls a “docu-concert,” about his fellow Neapolitan and idol Enrico Caruso. Filmed in Naples, Sorrento and San Francisco, it’s called Pasquale Esposito Celebrates Enrico Caruso.
That turn-of-the-century Italian operatic tenor—a superstar in his day on the scale of Michael Jackson or the Beatles—defined what it is to be a tenor. His embrace of audio recording in its infancy put him on the cutting edge of technology and preserved the mesmerizing magic of his extraordinary voice for Pasquale and posterity.
Esposito—who grew up a stone’s throw from Caruso’s childhood home, attended the same Naples church, and sang, like his idol, in its choir—is carrying on what to him is almost a sacred tradition—the Italian tenor.
His wife and manager Samira Ghazvini, who grew up in Los Altos Hills, married the singer in—the Duomo di Napoli—progressing from his manager to girlfriend, fiancé, wife and now the mother of their two children, Vittorio, 4 and Roksanna, 2.
She said he is a very humble artist who still takes voice lessons and has come a long way since coming to America.
And yes, they say it was a surprise when, as manager and client both dating other people, they came to the same realization: Why keep looking when what you are looking for is right in front of you? Now, they travel the world together for his performances.
Everything Esposito does, his wife says, including regular trips to Italy to visit his elderly parents and four sisters, comes from a devotion to his Roman Catholic faith, his love of family and a profoundly felt responsibility to share with the world what he believes is the God-given gift of his voice.
“I have seen him evolve, and over the years he has found his comfort zone and his love for the stage,” she said. “He looks at every show and sets his mind on how that evening he is going to move people.
“He is now who he wants to be; he carries his own weight on stage and really focuses on his goal of connecting with the audience,” she said. “For him, that means taking them, for a moment, away from everything else that is going on in their lives,” she said.
“There is a place where you are incredibly comfortable and for me it’s the stage,” said the broad-shouldered, hazel-eyed 5-foot-10-inch Esposito, whom critics have described as charismatic and who one called, “One of the most captivating tenors” of today.
“When I get on stage and have musicians behind me and I know the song, I am at home. I can be there forever,” he said.
If audiences see how much he enjoys what he is doing, “they will enjoy it, too,” said Esposito, who has a degree in music from San Jose State and teaches voice.
And while Frank said he continues to work with Esposito so that he can sing, when he wants to, without the Amalfi Coast that lingers charmingly in his speech, that accent is also one of his assets as an entertainer.
Soon after arriving, Esposito set out to learn English and took a job at a coffee shop in Palo Alto to interact with customers and help him learn the new language.
But the boss soon determined his talents were not being best used and relegated him to the kitchen washing dishes. Instead of learning English, he learned the Spanish of his Mexican kitchen co-workers, he told a Morgan Hill audience earlier this month—and added another language to his repertoire.
Esposito credited Frank’s coaching with getting him where he is today.
Part of it, he said, was switching to a “professional state of mind,” which he said is “much more complex than just reading the music.”
He honed his skills and ability to connect with audiences by singing in restaurants, including Aldo’s in Los Gatos and Café Fino in Palo Alto, for years before breaking into the real professional ranks, which has lead to other opportunities.
About 14 years ago, the couple became business partners in Notable Inc., an entertainment production and management firm. Ghazvini is also a practicing family law attorney.
Esposito has upward of 70 singing engagements a year in the U.S. and abroad, she said, both public and private performances.
He is also hard at work in his home recording studio in the Silver Creek area of San Jose, on a second Italy-inspired public television special, he said.
Its theme centers on his homeland’s favorite gathering places for families and lovers, the neighborhood piazza, or square. It’s called Pasquale Esposito Celebrates Italian Piazzas.
Earlier this year, Esposito began a 12-month engagement at the Granada Theatre in Morgan Hill. It’s the Bay Area’s newest dinner club and one of the few where audiences can dress to the nines and dine on fine culinary creations while sipping award-winning wines and being entertained by top-tier singers, musicians and comedians.
The former movie house turned upscale entertainment venue is the dream of vintner Frank Léal, a devoted Esposito fan for years.
“He is more than just a great singer, he’s a wonderful entertainer,” said Léal, whose Granada Hotel, now under construction, promises to take that Los Gatos-like downtown, already home to great music venues, to a whole new level of sophisticated dining and entertainment.
Léal, who owns the Léal and Sycamore Creek vineyards, as well as hotels and banquet facilities in South Santa Clara and San Benito counties, said Esposito’s legion of fans have followed him to Morgan Hill, and with good reason.
“He gets into your soul,” said Léal, who still recalls Esposito singing during performances at Carmel Mission.
At his Morgan Hill premier, the tenor sang a touching version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” tucked in among favorites such as “O Sole Mio” and “Funiculi Funicula,” which, by the end of the evening, had gowned and suited diners dancing with the joy of wedding goers.
People with deep roots in Italian culture seem to connect with his music, and for many of Italian descent who do not speak the language, his accent evokes memories of their childhoods and their parents and grandparents.
That is vintage Esposito, according to Helen Marchese Owen of Los Gatos, 68. The daughter of an old-time Santa Clara farm family whose parents came from Sicily and Tuscany, she’s a well-known supporter and fundraiser for many causes.
Owen met Esposito when he first came to the U.S. and still remembers hearing him sing at such landmark Italian eateries as Aldo’s.
With two sons about Esposito’s age, 44, she considers him her third, she said.
Owen says she’s so close to Esposito and Ghazvini that she predicted their marriage five years before it happened—when Ghazvini was only his manager. She attended the Naples wedding and is godmother to their daughter.
“Pasquale is so passionate not only about teaching young students but [also] for his love of Caruso, his love of Italy and about really being a community; he has given a lot of his time to different charities,” she said. Both are members of the Little Italy San Jose Foundation. And Ghazvini and Esposito have their own nonprofit Notable Music and Arts Organization, that promotes music and singing.
As his family, friends, mentors, teachers and fans see it, Esposito is a man who has found and is living the American dream and his passion—one born not only of his Italian heritage and his faith but also out of his desire, indeed his need, to touch the lives of others in a meaningful way.
Léal says he saw it during Esposito’s first performance at the Granada Theatre when his friend departed from his planned repertoire to acknowledge the turmoil around the country.
Without taking sides, he instead offered a prayer for his adopted country, a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria.”
“When he did that, I was in tears,” Léal recalled.
Learn more about Pasquale Esposito at his website www.pasqualeesposito.com, or his Facebook page www.facebook.com/Italianmusicman. For more information about Granada Theatre, go to: www.lealgranadatheatre.com.