Q & A: Tony Bennett

Last month, Tony Bennett became the oldest recording artist to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Album charts, thanks to "Duets II," featuring his collaborations with the likes of Lady Gaga, Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Michael Buble and the late Amy Winehouse.

The chart-topping is just one more remarkable credit for the 85-year-old Bennett, whose six-decade career has been marked by a consistently high artistic standard.

The singer also made news last month after saying some controversial things about 9/11, but those remarks were quickly recanted, and Bennett bounced right back into a concert tour that brings him to the Patricia & Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on Saturday night.

You recently sang at the Metropolitan Opera House and you will be singing in Baltimore at the Lyric Opera House. Did you hear any opera as a kid, and were there any opera singers you found inspiring as you developed your own craft?

I grew up in the Depression, and one of the very first recordings I ever bought was an Enrico Caruso record, not just because I loved Caruso, but I knew that the whole family enjoyed his music. And back then. if you were going to spend your money, it had to be on something that everyone would enjoy, not just yourself. …

My older brother, John, had a beautiful operatic voice as a young boy … and was known as the "Little Caruso." I have to say I consider performing at the Metropolitan Opera House the absolute pinnacle of my career.

A lot of singers, in opera and pop music, have not managed to keep their voices healthy into their 40s or 50s, let alone 60s or 70s. Do you follow any sort of vocal regimen to maintain your technique?

When I returned home from World War II under the GI Bill of Rights, I was able to study with some marvelous teachers. And through the American Theatre Wing, I worked with Pietro D'Andrea, who taught me bel canto technique. I still do the exercises that I learned back then every day. … If I skip a day, then I know it; if I skip two days, the band knows; and if I skip three days, the audience knows it.

Are there any 'chapters' of the Great American Songbook you missed and would like to explore?

It's not so much exploring new songs, because I have done so many recordings — in fact, there is a vault somewhere with recordings that I have done over the years that have still not been released. But what I love to do now is take a song and record it in a different way, maybe with just piano instead of a big band or change up the tempo.

I still love the records I did with the late Bill Evans, where it was just piano and voice, and I find I like working with that kind of minimalist arrangement even more. It really allows you to get the essence of a song.

What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about collaborating with other singers, and have you thought about who would join you if there is a 'Duets III'?

I definitely won't be doing a "Duets III," but I truly enjoyed this second round of recordings for "Duets II." This time we traveled all over the country and to London and Italy to record with a new collection of artists, and I was very impressed with some of the younger artists that we worked with on this project. Many of them have studied music, and they all were very prepared and professional in the studio. ...

I record live in the studio with the musicians in the room, which is not the way most records are made. For a lot of these artists, it was the first time they recorded that way, but they handled it very well, and they all gave beautiful performances.

You did some dynamic acting in the much-maligned 1966 film "The Oscar." Do you look back on that effort now with pride, and do you ever wish you had done some more acting?

I asked Cary Grant once about acting. He told me it was the most boring profession in the world and it is so much better to be performing live on stage in front of an audience. So except for a few cameo roles, which are always fun to do, I stick to music and painting.

How much time do you devote these days to painting?

I always sketch and often take watercolors when I am on the road, so I try to paint or draw every day. I actually started to study the art of sculpture, which is very ambitious. But if you can master it, then it really becomes a very strong foundation for drawing and painting.

If you get a chance to drop by Little Italy this trip, are there any dishes you would like to have waiting for you?

I love the Little Italy section of Baltimore, and I never need an excuse to eat pasta. I hope I have a chance to have a great meal when I am there!


If you go

Tony Bennett performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Patricia & Arthur Modell Perfroming Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. $55-$135. Call 410-685-5086 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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