Milan is the New York City of Italy. Italy’s main stock exchange, the Borsa Italiano, and largest national banks are located in the heart of the city. Milan is the design and fashion capital of Europe, and is an international center for culture and commerce. In the hub of this sprawling and vibrant city is the Unicredit Tower building. At a height of 231 meters, it is the tallest building in Italy and the audition site for Italy’s popular TV talent show, the X Factor.
From their small village of Reggio Emilia, Italy, the Zironi family is traveling to the preliminary auditions at the imposing Unicredit Tower in Milan. Violetta Zironi is one of the many hopeful young Italians trying out for the show. However, unlike most teenagers, eighteen-year-old Violetta is not competing as a pop-star contender. Violetta is not the type to wear high fashion or even heavy make-up. With sundresses and flowers in her hair, Violetta looks more like a poster child for the Summer of Love in San Francisco, than a fashionable teenage contender in Milan. Growing up playing music alongside her father Guiseppe, her musical influences are unusual for her age: folk, country, and blues. And her instrument: the ukulele. Violetta is both nervous and excited. She exudes a palpable innocence, and is determined to perform with all her heart. Over 60,000 people auditioned for the X Factor. Violetta has advanced to the televised celebrity judge round, at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme.
Two weeks later, Violetta is waiting patiently for her turn backstage at the Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme for the Judge’s Round of auditions. This round is different from prior performances. Now she has to face a live audience and the critique by music celebrities. As terrifying as this sounds, Violetta is not thinking about anyone except her father, Guiseppe, and all the times they have performed music together. This performance is for him. All she wishes is to make him proud. Holding her ukulele close to her chest, she steps on the stage, blinded by lights and television cameras. Confidently she strums her ukulele, takes a deep breath and her voice rings out, “Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin’, mama’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread”.
The judges are completely disarmed. Their eyes widen and jaws drop. This is not what they had expected. The music they are hearing is a breath of fresh air, bringing smiles to their faces. After her performance, they unanimously praise her for her originality and expressivity saying, “Violetta, you have the X Factor”.
Unfortunately, Violetta was not the only one with the X Factor. The next week begins the “Boot Camp”-- a two-day event where the judges choose individual teams of six contestants who will work with a celebrity mentor. Violetta is competing for a seat in the “girls under 25” team at the Mediolanum Forum, a 12,500 seat sports arena. In front of the roaring crowd and television cameras, Violetta continues to awe the judges with her performances. With glowing comments, the judges select Violetta to work with British pop star Mika as her celebrity mentor.
At the Slane Castle in Ireland, Violetta and her team are coached to sing in a variety of styles and genres. Three of the girls are deemed as unworthy of continuing on and are cut from the team. Violetta is not one to be cut; she goes on to represent Mika in Season 7 of The X Factor.
The next few months prove to be a musical trial-by-fire. Violetta has just graduated from high school and has become a television celebrity overnight. Every very bit of Violetta’s strength, creativity, and resilience are tested during this time. She is expected to show the range and depth of her musical skills by performing songs by such varied artists as Passenger, Jovanotti, The Cure, Asaf Avidan, Lorde, Dolly Parton, Bon Iver and U2.
The formal competition consists of eight episodes and a € 300,000 Sony Music recording contract as the grand prize. Violetta’s family drives to Milan each week to be in the audience while the township of Reggio Emilia watches and cheers for her from their home televisions. Violetta proves herself to be a flexible artist, beautifully performing a diverse array of repertoire and looking glamorous in gowns, make-up and flashy background settings. Violetta makes it to the finals, but she does not acquire enough public votes to win.
But this story has a happy ending. Because of her exposure on the X Factor, Sony Music was so impressed with her talent, they offered her a recording contract. Today Violetta’s career is exploding. She is recording, touring and performing throughout the world and looking forward to a long and rewarding musical career.
Excerpts from my Interview with Violetta Zironi, August, 2015
Violetta’s Early Childhood Experiences at the Diana School in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Those years were wonderful. Each day we arrived and immediately started to play. Some kids played with construction bricks or drew pictures, some played chess, checkers or card games, and others would play hide and seek games or dress up in costumes. Then mid-morning we would have fruit for a snack. Then again back to playing. Teachers always proposed to us many activities and I remember lots of moments of group discussion when the teachers suggested a topic and encouraged us to express our ideas about it. The suggested topics appeared simple, but now as an adult, I’m not so sure I could handle them as easily now as I did then. But at the time, with the ingenuity of us children, we always managed to think through every problem and find solutions. At mid-day was lunch when we all dined together. I remember a boy from Sri Lanka, he did not eat pork and had a special menu different from ours. He was Muslim but at that time I did not understand what that meant. After lunch, the teachers placed mattresses on the floor and we were asked to sleep but I never did, I was always disturbing my neighbor with chatting and the teachers reproached me for not sleeping. After the nap we had a snack and went out to play and run until 4:30 pm when my grandmother came to take me home.
Violetta recalls one of the art projects she did at Diana School
The project I remember the most was the “picture of light”, which is still on display at the Malaguzzi Center. I remember one day the teachers divided us into groups of 5 or 6. I was in the group of the "subject". We got around a table and we made up a story about strange animals in prehistoric times that were hit by a meteorite. Then we drew the images that came out from our story. After that we made enlargements of the drawings and placed them on a light table. Then we cut the outlines with scissors and hole punches, so that the light was filtering where we wanted. We also painted our cutouts with colored inks. The result was breathtaking. I still have the “sheets of light” that we painted with watercolors.
Violetta remembers her atelierista, Via Vecchi
I remember Vea Vecchi, who was our atelierista at the Diana School. She was an exceptionally distinguished lady and was always full of activity in the atelier. She was always very nice and continually encouraged me to see myself as an artist. Vea Vecchi was a great teacher who stimulated all the children’s creativity. I remember spending a lot of time in the atelier, especially painting with temperas and watercolors. We also played with clay a lot and we baked what we made in the oven and painted it. I always had fun in the atelier.
Violetta explains how her formative years in the Reggio preschools may have helped to shape her artistic talent
I think there is a strong relationship between the artistic experiences I had in the atelier and my musical vocation. My teachers at Diana school always tried to stimulate our artistic talents and our creativity, with drawing, music, and dance. I remember that teachers made us listen to all kinds music, including folk Italian music. Still today, when I meet some of my former teachers, they say that at that time I was already showing great interest and aptitude towards music and I could easily discriminate the various genres. The teachers pushed us to use all five senses to examine things. This was, I believe, fundamental to making me the person I am now. Unfortunately, after leaving the Reggio preschools, it all went plummeting down. The elementary and high schools were not very good at inspiring creativity; rather they tended to suppress any interest not related to standard academic studies.
When Violetta was a very young child in the schools she recalls a particular incident reflecting the freedom and care giving to children in the school settings.
I remember a large fish-tank (probably it was not so big, but since I was small it looked huge to me) containing some turtles. I climbed on the table where the tank was placed to gain a better view of the turtles, and as I clung to the edge, it toppled over, spilling everything all over me and on the floor. The teachers and my father were terrified, believing that the tank could have crushed me.
Violetta recalls her parents influences on her artistic growth.
My parents had a huge influence on my artistic development. As a family we always listened to music. My father, as well as being a musician, is a cartoonist and though I have always been attracted to drawing, it has never been a passion of mine. My dad made me take piano lessons at the age of 6. At first I did it reluctantly, as I saw it as time stolen from games. Later on, however, I begin to love my music studies. I also started singing with a children’s choir and my sister and I took acting lessons. These experiences greatly influenced my artistic development.
Violetta looks towards the future.
My dreams for the future are mainly related to music. I dream of performing many live concerts and to play everywhere, including America. I think that paying my dues is the most important thing for the apprenticeship of a professional musician. After I have done that I will be ready to record and publish my own records, composing my own songs and taking them around the world so that I can share them with people. What I want the most is to have a variety of experiences and to meet many different people.