An accomplished jazz/opera/contemporary vocalist with a unique talent for song interpretation Etta D’Elia has made an indelible impression in Perth in the decade since she moved here from her native Italy.
And with a new fringe show in the works, this spirited performer and teacher is looking to expand on all that she has done before. It’s taken hard work but in so many ways it’s about destiny.
From an early age, it seemed that Etta was naturally theatrical, so much so that by the age of five visiting relatives would pay her money to tell jokes and stories. It wasn’t all for laughs, however, the power of music was also taking hold.
“I always wanted to sing and perform,” Etta states. “My mother says that since I was basically three or four, I wasn’t really walking, I was dancing and performing all around the rooms in the house and out in the street. My games were always to create shows to perform for an audience. I was pretending to be Liza Minnelli singing into a duster. So really, it’s always been in my blood.
“My grandfather, my very beloved Nonno, was an opera lover and he used to play piano for me. It has always been basically clear to me since I was a baby that I would become a musician and a singer and a performer in general.”
By the age of six, Etta was taking piano lessons, a dedication to craft that was complemented by her enrolment at The Conservatorio to learn classical singing followed by a Master’s Degree in Music Education. Her academic focus had been strictly classical but encouraged by a lecturer to branch out musically she discovered a love for jazz and was soon performing with Italian pianist Gianni Lenoci and his jazz quartet, featuring the French double-bass player, Joelle Leandre.
It was the first page of a musical love letter. A truer calling.
“I felt that that was really my dimension because I felt free, really free to express myself,” Etta explains. “I’m not the person that writes music, but I love the freedom of improvising and scatting. That’s my creativity.”
Even so, at 23 Etta won first prize in an international opera contest, so work and further success opened up in that environment. But, she says, “still there was something missing.”
In 2012 Etta moved to Perth, Western Australia. It was a bold step and a big change.
“The impact that living in another country has on an artist is huge,” she says. “It’s a huge transformation that can happen.
In Perth, there is not a huge demand for opera singers. I got more involved with the language, with the expression, and I felt a stronger connection with English and everything that is related to English expression.
“So, I want to go back there, and I decided to start slowly putting some more jazz songs in my act.”
Etta worked for several years with popular accordionist Nikki D’Agostino as a duo called Prima Donna. “It was a bit of classical music and a bit of jazz and a bit of pop all coming together,” she says. “We did a lot of work together. It was all based on Italian music and Italian humour.”
In 2021 Etta made a conscious decision to focus on jazz, adopting her grandmother’s nickname with a nod to Etta James. “It’s less aristocratic than Antonietta D’Elia and more direct,” she notes. “It’s more who I am now. It’s my jazz identity.”
She has pursued jazz performances all around WA as a guest vocalist and as the featured performer in duos, trios and quartets at venues such as Perth Concert Hall, The Crown, Pan Pacific, Ritz Carlton, Duke Of George, The Volstead Lounge, Velour Lounge, Kalamunda Jazz Club and more.
What jazz also offers for Etta is a sense of fun. The six-year-old jokester is still very much present, and even in her opera days – specialising in Mozart and Puccini – her voice and demeanour saw her cast in the more comedic roles.
“I would never be the big romantic, dramatic character,” she recalls. “I would always be the one that makes people laugh. So I decided to bring all that experience and knowledge in theatre into my shows, and that’s why they’re probably in between a jazz singer and a comedian, a stand-up comedy person. I always make a lot of jokes and try to interest people. That’s the other big component of it, the fun.”
With that in mind, Etta is working towards her Fringe Show to be staged in early 2023, a humorous melange of Italian music and jazz.
“There will be all the popular Italian songs,” she says, “love songs that belong to our culture that are not necessarily very popular here in Australia, but still very representative of our culture and our customs. This is a show where I explain a lot of curiosities and things about Italian culture through the songs.”
Going forth, Etta feels stronger than ever as a performer by acknowledging her past experiences and taking them with her as she evolves constantly as an artist.
“I believe that making a stylistic choice when you are an artist reflects who you really are, and I believe that I’ve been through different phases of my life because I was discovering myself,” she says.
“I’ve reached this point where I’m happy to call myself a jazz singer and this is the point in my life in which I understand who I am. I like this dimension and I want to be here because I want to be free to use everything that I’ve got from my past to create something new.”