Ornella Vanoni: the Courage to be Unique

SGP Stefano Guindani Photo

The tour of Ornella Vanoni, protagonist of the recital “Women and Music”, ended a few days ago at the Teatro Politeama Genovese. Accompanying the Lady of the Italian songwriting, a virtuoso ensemble of five musicians: Sade Mangiaracina (piano and arrangements), Eleonora Strino (guitar), Federica Michisanti (double bass), Laura Klain (drums), Leila Shirvani (cello).

The concert was an excellent opportunity to listen again – in addition to the most recent ones – to the reasons that have decreed the success of the Singer in the world, enjoying, between one song and another, her frank way of telling herself.

ph. Giovanni Gastel @Rolling Stone Febbraio 2015
ph. Giovanni Gastel @Rolling Stone Febbraio 2015


Ornella Vanoni, today, is a clear expression and compendium of a life lived with audacity to discover herself and her extraordinary, multifarious Talents. Her human and artistic journey, exceptionally rich and long-lived, is dotted with destinations reserved for the few. However, in almost seventy years of career, everything has been written and said about her. I wonder how it is possible to pay homage to her, keeping readers awake until the last line of the umpteenth article dedicated to her.

Well: revisiting some moments of her life in the light of Vogleriana’s “Journey of the Hero”, I have identified three of the ingredients of her Success: Courage, Love and Self-irony. Values that are anything but obvious, which can also inspire us to make the most of the experience we call “life”.


In any self-respecting Hero’s Journey, it’s not easy at first. Extremely shy, insecure, unaware of her own potential, Ornella doesn’t know what to do with herself. She speaks five languages but she feels “ignorant”. Yet she is already endowed with all the necessary resources to fully realize herself in her truest Identity. Everything is already there! You just have to take note of it. “I had no fire – she says in an interview – I was unaware of any talent… I was a girl to invent.”

“You have a beautiful voice, why don’t you be an actress?” she tells her one day a friend of her mother. If life is a tangle of roads all virtually practicable, at every intersection there is a sign and it’s up to us to interpret it and take the right direction. Ornella prepares a piece of Elettra and takes it to the admission exam to the Piccolo Teatro school. She has “giants” in front of her: in addition to the director Giorgio Strehler, there are the theater impresario Paolo Grassi and the actress Sarah Ferrati who, behind the embarrassment and interruptions of the aspiring pupil, perceives “something”. Indeed, she is taken.

It is with Strehler that Ornella embarks on the journey of self-discovery. “Girl to invent”, in him she finds a master, a mentor, a man in whose embrace she feels safe. To use a metaphor dear to her, it is a piece of wood which, in the hands of her Geppetto, lets itself be transformed into Pinocchio.

The Piccolo Teatro is a breath of culture for the young Ornella. She speaks very little. She listen. Observe. She attends the rehearsals of the “grown-ups”, stealing their gestures and intonations. She learns. She grows up fast.

But the biggest test to face is the inner conflict between her shyness and a “mission” that wants her in the spotlight, exposed to the attention, curiosity and judgment of the public.

Strehler is aware of this right from the start: “Love, you have a great talent, but if you get on stage it’s a miracle, because you don’t have the nerves to do this job.” The director has a brilliant idea: to create a bespoke character for her. She was born the “girl of the underworld” and a repertoire of fake traditional, in one of the most famous fake historians of Italian song.

The image of the intellectual singer, with aloof manners and a slightly snobbish air is constructed, of course, but functional to cover her insecurity. On the other hand, the intrigued public lets itself be captivated by her natural charm, by this modern beauty of hers and above all, by a timbre of voice that is unique in the world. (It reminds me so much of the soprano sax).

In the years to follow, the cliché of the underworld singer is close to her. Our heroine leaves the safe harbor of the Piccolo Teatro, her “creator” and her excesses. Are you afraid? Probably yes. But the desire to try new things is stronger in her: songwriting, jazz, Brazil…

Years of anxiety, sleepless nights, three depressive crises follow. In the end, Vanoni surrenders to her destiny as an eclectic Artist. “At one point I said to myself: ‘Maybe I’m good'”. It is surrender that precedes victory.

The sensational results she obtained in the theatre, music, television and cinema fields are all online.

What I would like to highlight about her here is that she has resolved, over time, the inner inconsistency between being and appearing. The duel between fear and courage that absorbed so much energy is now a distant memory. No more anxiety, insomnia, depression! There is no longer any reason.

Ornella Vanoni, concerto, teatro, Padova, gran teatro Geox


It was probably her father who inspired her first idea of love.

Of him she retains, indelible, the memory of the hero who, in her gray coat, takes her by her life and brings her to safety by shielding her with her body, in a Milan under the bombing.

That of the father for her daughter is the purest form of love. There are, however, various forms of love, as various are the characters who interpret it.

Strehler is the mentor, the guide, the beacon in the fog. “You are twenty years old, your teacher arrives who is an absolute genius and declares his love for you. What are you doing, don’t you fall in love?” Raise your hand who has never fallen in love with their teacher at school!

Gino Paoli is the unattainable love to fight for. “It was a mess, a very troubled love and perhaps I loved Paoli so much for this very reason. I didn’t own it, I didn’t have it” – Ornella confesses to journalist Malcom Pagani for Vanity Fair – “When you don’t have a person, you are led to believe that the greatest love is the one that makes you suffer the most. But damn it, it should be the other way around. You should love whoever makes you happy.” Have any of us been through this?

Lucio Ardenzi is the mistake of the path which however gives you a gift, indeed, two: the theatrical debut and a son. In 1960 Ornella marries in yellow (at the time her favorite color). She is twenty-six years old, the right age to start a family. But it’s not true love. The truth is that she is still in love with Paoli. When Cristiano was born, she and her husband were already separated.

Hugo Pratt is platonic love. Even if there was never anything physical between them, the Singer remembers him as the most fascinating man she has ever met. When she talks about her, her eyes light up. “I would have liked to follow him all my life and die near him,” she says in an interview. “And then when he spoke, when he wrote, when he told stories … he was a bit like Borges … you never understood which was truth, which was fiction, which was invention … Then this curiosity of his … You sat down in front of him and the world was there.”

Pino Roveredo (recently deceased writer) is intellectual, poetic, virtual love. “A true friend – he confessed to Alex Pessotto for “Il Piccolo” – but how many fights! His was a creative intelligence. Talking to him was a pleasure.”

Francesco Leto is unconventional love. Despite the almost forty-year age difference, the two spent whole nights chatting in the same bed.

In the years of maturity, love takes on beautiful shades. It is Love that embraces everything and becomes sweet like a ripe fruit. It is the unconditional love that Ornella feels for her son Cristiano and her grandchildren Matteo and Camilla. It is to them that her fiftieth album is dedicated: “Unica”.

Jesus is the love that marries, of the Artist, the soul part. He fills, mitigating them, the moments of solitude and melancholy. Hope rekindles in his heart. Ornella likes to imagine him tired, in the evening, from walking so much. She welcomes him and chases him around the house. She licks his feet in the certainty that she won’t be able to get sick: after all, however dirty and dusty, they are her feet!

And then there is the love for friends, few but true. Love for the least, the vulnerable, the suffering. The love that is expressed in the embrace of someone who holds you tight. “Because a hug unties all knots. And it’s the most beautiful thing that exists.”

The love for Ondina – her black poodle – inseparable companion of evenings as “girls alone” spent playing, eating, watching TV.

And then there is the Love for Art, for Beauty in all its forms and modes of expression, for Culture, Poetry, Music. Regarding the latter, Vanoni is not in love with a specific genre: she loves quality music. And she loves Talent, especially when it’s rare and extraordinary.


Ornella defines herself as “shameless”. Of course, she always has been to a certain extent, but the time is over when the excess of frankness served to mask the terror of judgment or of not being good enough. Today Ornella talks about herself without taboos, highlighting her human weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, disappointments… sometimes dwelling on the funniest or most embarrassing episodes in which she is the protagonist. And here her self-irony, which is the result of a full acceptance of herself and her own intrinsic value, is her master.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to know her, to hang out with her for a while or even just to run into her in the center of Milan walking with Ondina, knows very well that she is “unique”: unique in her coherence, because she is the same person in public and in private.

Today she is calm, serene, fully satisfied with herself and with the things she has done. She has no regrets. “I am free, I am light. I care more about others than myself.” Less egotic, more generous, the Artist feels much happier than she did when she was young. Indeed, she likes her “old age” very much.

The secret of her enviable freedom? Perhaps having found the courage to be herself and, above all, not taking herself too seriously. Perhaps it is precisely self-irony that makes life a “light” experience – not a superficial one! – fun and bearable, even in the most delicate moments.

To conclude in Beauty, I have gathered some ideas which, put into practice on a daily basis, can help us all. I summarized them in an imaginary letter written by Ornella and dedicated to each of her admirers.


Dear* You,

I’m your favorite (and only!) Singer: Ornella.

As you can imagine, my schedule is jam-packed with things to do. So, between an interview, a trip and a concert, I am writing you a letter. It’s my way of thanking you for the affection with which you continue to follow me. If you like, you can imagine hearing my voice as you read it. You’ll feel like you have me right next to you. You can also print the letter and take it with you, just in case: a sort of vademecum for not making a drama of life – even if you would have good reasons – but a brilliant comedy.

You can’t imagine how much I suffered to do my job and to bring it to levels of excellence. Therefore, if you’re shy like I was and life is calling you to her big stage, in the spotlight, you better treasure my advice. You will save yourself a lot of pain and keep yourself away from insomnia, anxiety and depression.

Of course, in love I have done everything wrong. In fact, I don’t have a partner. But after so many experiences and disappointments, I discovered that love exists in a thousand forms and expressions. It’s the unconditional love I sing about in “A smile inside crying”. It’s the most stubborn love, the one that resists time and moods. It’s the love I feel for my son, for my grandchildren, for Ondina, for my true friends. It is the love for people who are suffering, that makes me want to embrace them even if I don’t know them…

Dear  Te, it took me a long time to become young, but in the end I did it: today I am free, light, sincere to the core. In a word: “shameless”. People think what they want: I live and enjoy myself, finally. I want to live happily the time I have left and die laughing!

But to arrive at this state of bliss, how much effort it took me!

The effort that I would like to spare you, if you have the patience to put my Orni-Decalogue into practice.

  1. Find out who you are and what makes you happy: everything else will take care of itself.
  2. Go beyond your fears and you will be free !
  3. Be with someone who loves, respects and makes you feel good. Ignore the respectable, the opportunists and those who bore you.
  4. Learn to manage your business on your own: in this world, if you want to win, you have to get tough
  5. Learn to say “no” when needed.
  6. Be curious, travel, get educated.
  7. Give way to your childish side.
  8. Fall in love with life, for life.
  9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  10. In writing and speaking be simple and direct. You will avoid unnecessary misunderstandings by treasuring your time and energy.
  11. Surprise eleventh commandment: “Adopt a dog: it will change your life (for the better)!”

With Love, Ornella.

Jasmine Laurenti courtesy of betapress.it

N.d.A .: I sincerely thank the Lady for having inspired me, with her example of hers, to become more “me”, to depend a little less on the judgment of others and to be a little happier. JL




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