Leyna Gabriele Pisa - whose career in opera spanned a musical spectrum, from performing and studying through Europe and the U.S., to running Chez Vito, a supper club featuring strolling opera singers in an opulent setting, to directing operas and teaching voice– died on October 14, 2019 at Brightview Assisted Living in Tarrytown New York. She was 95 years old.
Leyna was born on March 25, 1924 in Fairmont, West Virginia to Costanzo and Michelena Gabriele. Costanzo was a recent immigrant from Italy who met his future wife “Minnie”/Michelena at a boarding house for Italian immigrants in their little West Virginia town. Leyna was the oldest of three daughters and grew up in a small house owned and inhabited by her father and grandfather and their families. Though the house was cramped with the dynamic brood, it had a bustling backyard garden and homemade wine in the basement. The great food, great wine and great company helped the family barely notice the Depression.
After graduating Fairmont State College Leyna moved to New York to pursue her passion – singing. That her parents not only recognized her talent, but fully supported her move emotionally and financially (to the extent their meager resources allowed) was extraordinary at that time. While most parents in the 1940s hoped that their daughters married well and lived close by, Leyna’s parents encouraged her to make the brave move to The City. That support, encouragement and love nurtured and defined Leyna for the rest of her life.
In 1950, Leyna received one of the first Fulbrights awarded, and went off to Italy to study and perfect her craft. When she returned a year later she was an accomplished singer and fluent in Italian. Along with opera performances, she joined the supper club scene popular in New York City in the 1950s, singing at the most glamorous clubs in a glamorous era. She ultimately landed at Chez Vito where she married the owner, Vito Pisa. The New York gossip pages announced:
After a somewhat tempestuous relationship with Miss Gabriele, who had started working for him at $40 a week, and left the club several times, he married her. Now, as Mme Vito, she is in a position to veto anything that she doesn’t like.
Leyna continued to balance her obligations to Chez Vito and her other career accomplishments. In 1956, she was the first person to perform in The Ballad of Baby Doe which premiered in the Central City Opera House in Colorado.
After Chez Vito closed in 1973, Leyna focused her boundless artistic energies on teaching. Joining Walt Witcover at Masterworks, they refined the art of teaching opera singers to combine their musical talent with true acting. Bringing classical opera to life with energy and dramatic acting transformed classic opera from static to alive. She leaves behind many students whom she nurtured through a combination of rigorous vocal and acting training and love.
But perhaps the most important aspect of her extraordinary life was Leyna’s unadulterated devotion to her family. Nurtured during her formative years in West Virginia with her boisterous family, Leyna’s core principal was love of family. She was a trailblazer for her nieces and nephews both professionally (a woman who left her safe home for a career in the big city when that was unheard of) and personally (she had the audacity to live with a man for 25 years without marrying him so her sisters could not protest if their daughters ventured into that territory). And more than that she was a devoted and loving – if somewhat volatile – member of the Gabriele clan. In 2005, she took the extended gang back to their homeland in a small hill town in Molise -- Bagnoli del Trigno. When a big bus lumbered up to the square in the town and American relatives poured out, the villagers thought they were being invaded. But they soon grew to enjoy the lively crew, and the family grew to understand and love the village of their ancestors. The week was an experience of a lifetime for her family. My l
In her autobiography, My Life and Music: From Chez Vito to Baby Doe, published shortly before her 91st birthday, Leyna noted: “My life has been rich with family, friends, and music. All in all, it’s been a pretty wonderful journey.”
Leyna will be sorely missed by 6 nieces and nephews, 5 great-nieces and nephews, myriad cousins, a generation of devoted and grateful students and friends, and the resident aides at Brightview who have been such an important part of her life since 2016.
Funeral services will be held on Saturday, October 19 at 10:00 am at Cromwell Funeral Home, 506 Main Street, Cromwell. Burial will follow in Indian Hill Cemetery in Middletown. Leyna was a lifelong lover of animals, especially cats. Instead of flowers, please send any donations to the ASPCA at https://secure.aspca.org/donate/ps-memory-sl-p1?ms=MP_PMK_GooglebrandMemorialSL-T4&initialms=MP_PMK_GooglebrandMemorialSL-T4&pcode=WEBMEMORYSLPPC&ds_rl=1066461&gclid=Cj0KCQjw3JXtBRC8ARIsAEBHg4mbnjbm0HRIbXZTrmXwvjFpsSVMMiaCLen65rbmy7RtRcGiY0lkBjoaAmwwEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds.
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