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The Aegis
Harford County

Bel Air soprano to serve as cantor at papal Mass in Washington

Christina Massimei stood silent in the center of the living room, her shoulders squared, her eyes focused on the voice teacher seated at the Steinway grand.

The teacher played the introduction to Mozart's "Alleluia." Massimei opened her mouth. And a sound came out that was half voice-of-the-angels, half TNT explosion, climbing the walls of the modest practice space and all but shaking the windows.

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Massimei, an operatic soprano from Bel Air, was rehearsing for the biggest performance of her life: serving as cantor — the lead liturgical singer — for the historic Mass that Pope Francis will celebrate Wednesday afternoon in Washington.

She won't need half her power to reach the pontiff's ears. She'll be on the dais with him, 20 feet away. But it should help her connect with the tens of thousands expected to pack the grounds outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and the millions around the globe watching on TV.

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Massimei, 26, is well known to opera and musical-theater fans in the Baltimore-Washington area. She has used her rich, three-octave voice in productions of "West Side Story" and Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

She also sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" in an annual Fourth of July parade in Kingsville and serves as lead cantor at a Harford County Roman Catholic church, where parishioners have a habit of flocking around her after services — much to her embarrassment.

"My mission in life is to serve others," she says. "If [the congregants] are happy, I'm happy. I don't need to be the center of attention."

Those who know her say that contrast between Massimei's quietly spiritual manner and the size of her voice makes her an apt choice for a Mass that Francis has made a focus of his first visit to the United States.

"[A cantor] has to have a great voice, but he or she must be much more than that," says Tom Stehle, musical director of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington and the producer of the Basilica Mass. "The cantor must be a person who embodies what she is singing.

"Christina is that rare person who has the poise, the presence and the voice … to engage the assembly and to encourage the most timid congregants in prayer," he says. "She's exactly what we were looking for."

A voice from above

Massimei doesn't remember a time when she didn't love to sing — or a time when she was impressed by a natural ability in the craft that was obvious to everybody else.

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At 3 years old, when her parents, Ralph and Joan Massimei, put her in the shopping cart at the grocery store, she couldn't help belting out commercial jingles — the Mattress Discounters theme, the Oscar Mayer song — and doing it so loudly, and so well, that strangers rolled their carts over to marvel.

"I could never understand why people did that," she remembers. "It was just something that made me happy."

Her parents, practicing Catholics and music fans, encouraged her gift. They homeschooled their three children, making classical music, show tunes, church music and jazz part of the regular curriculum.

"Better than plopping them in front of the TV," Ralph says.

She fell in love with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!," Schubert's "Ave Maria" in several languages, the musical "1776" and more, and learned to play guitar and clarinet along the way. She also developed a worldview that found a strong blend between her family's cheerful Catholic devotion and a broad curiosity about music.

It took a while for her voice to take shape. When she joined a middle-school school chorus, it was warmer and more lilting than the belt-it-out variety high school directors often seek in lead performers.

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That's common for nascent operatic singers.

"Very often the voice that's going to be big takes years to mature," says Liz Daniels, the nationally known instructor who rehearsed Massimei last week, as she has done about once a week for seven years. "It usually comes well after the higher voices. I knew from the minute I heard her [in 2008] she was going to be a big voice."

The family never imagined that Massimei had talent that would set her apart, her father says. Then came a performance in which she sang a "small gospel solo — nothing we thought much about," he says — and drew the attention of an audience member who knew some of the top music educators in Harford County. He urged the family to make connections.

Once she began training, her reputation spread. By her mid-teens, she was singing at weddings, funerals and other events across Harford County. And at 19, she scored the gig that would change how she viewed her music — and her faith — without even trying.

When a friend invited her to perform at a wedding, she learned she'd have to audition at the church of the bride-to-be. She sat down with Robert Hott, the music director of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Bradshaw.

Unbeknownst to her, Hott was searching for a new principal cantor to replace one who had served the church for 40 years but was about to retire.

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Hott says he didn't know what to expect of this "cheerful, bubbly teen." But she was a few notes into her solo when he cut her off.

"Where in the world have you been?" he asked, and offered her the job.

She has worked at St. Stephen ever since, performing in several Masses a week, winning hearts within the 7,000-member parish with what Hott calls a "rare gift — the kind you run across once a career, if you're lucky."

Parishioners often applaud Massimei's singing or flood around her at the end of services.

"They say things like, 'I want you to sing at my wedding,' or 'I want you to sing at my funeral,'" Hott says.

She so dislikes the attention that when the church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013, she chose to perform "Alleluia" from the choir loft, not the cantor's spot by the altar.

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She brought down the house anyway. As Hott tells it, one listener said he'd pray Massimei would end up on the opera stage.

Hott says his cantor has the talent to do whatever she wants in music, but he's ambivalent on that idea.

"I've told Christina she can't leave us until after I'm dead," he says, and laughs. "I'm only 51. I don't expect that to happen for a long time."

Into the heart

Massimei studied in the widely respected music program at the Catholic University of America in Washington. The campus stands adjacent to the Basilica of the National Shrine. She graduated in 2011.

Her work at Catholic University was a springboard to roles with several opera companies in the region, a direction she hopes to pursue as a career. For the past four years, she has woven voice lessons with Daniels and her musical performances around a full-time job as a receptionist in a chiropractor's office.

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She was as thrilled as any local Catholic last November when Pope Francis announced his intention to visit Washington, even more so when she learned he'd preside at a Mass at the Basilica.

Still, she figured it was so unlikely she could get tickets that she figured she would drive up to Philadelphia for his final Mass in the United States, a public event expected to draw more than a million people this Sunday.

Her thinking changed one day in late July.

As she was getting ready to head home from work, Massimei says, an email arrived from Stehle: "Would you like to audition to sing at a Papal Mass?"

Massimei was on a short list of area liturgical performers Stehle and his colleagues were considering.

He says they wanted "someone with a great voice who also understood the liturgy, who would be comfortable in front of 30,000 people, who will be able to look at a monitor to see the orchestra I'm conducting while she sings."

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Massimei says she had a panic attack.

"I was hyperventilating so hard my boss had to come in and bring me to my senses."

She collected herself and wrote back. She practiced the assigned music for three days. And Stehle says Massimei's audition in early August convinced a panel of liturgical musicians that she was the right person to do what a great cantor does: interpret the music in a way that "makes it come alive, that gets it off the page, that brings it into the heart and makes it into something significant."

The qualities are hard to describe, he says, but when they're on display, they're evident.

"Does everyone agree that the Mona Lisa is beautiful or not?" he asks. "There's something about it that is simply remarkable."

A time for joy

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As Daniels put Massimei through her paces last week, it was possible to sense the outlines of the challenge the vocalist faced.

Daniels offered direction in everything from how to lift her arms in a more spirited way to enunciating Spanish vowels in the "brightest" possible manner.

"Pope Francis is coming!" Daniels exclaimed. "If I had to choose one word that describes this whole Mass, it would be joy! I want you to project that in everything you do."

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Massimei roared through the final moments of a solo. Her eyes seemed to light up as the notes resonated through the room.

"You're doing great, honey," Daniels said.

When rehearsal ended, Massimei plopped on a sofa. She described the Mass as "the blessing of a lifetime" — but added she was still feeling plenty anxious.

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"On a nervousness scale of 1 to 10, I'm a fifteen," she said. But she was doing what she always does — maintaining her balance by framing things within the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Francis, she said, is a pope who has shown the way by making sure he does the little things right.

"I'm focusing on the fact that [this Mass] a prayer, and it's meant to glorify God," she said. "I know Pope Francis is a gentle, forgiving man. Even if I crack somehow, I know he'll realize my spirit is strong and I'm doing the best I can."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com


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