He is perhaps best known as an opera singer, having headlined at La Scala in Milan, the Royal Opera House in London, the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and, until 5 February, in the New York City Metropolitan Opera’s production of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. But the Italy native is also a platinum-selling recording artist; a Grammy nominee; a featured presence on reality-television franchises The Bachelor and Dancing with the Stars; and, most relevant for this column, a former racing driver.   

Grigòlo took time out from his frenetic schedule to discuss wrecked karts, broken ribs, smoking Ferraris and his desire to play Formula 1 immortal Ayrton Senna on stage.

Brett Berk: You have quite a diverse resume. How do all of these diverse activities connect?

Vittorio Grigòlo: If we have to draw the line between music and opera, and fast cars and engines, I think there is a relationship between all of them. Not only talking about sound, but there is something very special about the wave and the vibration. When you have an opera singer singing close to you, you feel all your body moving. Same when you have a big engine on a car, and the car is very light, so you feel the vibration all over the car.

What drew you to racing cars and why did you stop?

If you go backstage at an opera, the sound engineers, with the headphones on their head, it looks like a pit box.

I was driving a kart when I was four or five years old, and then I did the competition for under 18 years old. I did the National ICA [a sanctioned youth-oriented motorsport division]. I was already performing in opera, but I had an accident with the kart and I broke my ribs and I couldn’t sing. I couldn’t sing [Rossini’s] Petite Messe solennelle. I was almost 18, and it was my debut, and I had to skip this for three months until I recovered. I had to make a decision, and I left my chance to test drive for F1. Basically, I put aside that dream, and decided it’s better I think of something else. The other passion of mine has always been singing. These two things, singing and trying to find speed, has always been part of everything I do.

Do you still like to drive, or is it too risky for you now?

I shouldn’t say it, but I’m still speeding from time to time, when I am in the mountains, I do speed. I love turns, and I take risks when I’m on my own. And when I finish the turns, and I arrive where I have to be, I feel like everything is floating. Like there are no hard surfaces. I feel like everything is floating waves of energy.

What do you drive these days?

I have a Mini Cooper, 1962, the real one. I have a Mercedes CL 55 AMG. It’s incredible: the engine is amazing, it looks like a boat, it looks like a convertible but it’s not. And I have a Porsche that I built by myself on the chassis of a Porsche Boxster. It has 400 horsepower. It’s like a jet. And then I have a Ferrari F430.

If you could play a role onstage of someone from the automotive industry, someone you admire, who would it be?

It would be Ayrton Senna. Because he’s very keen, but also he’s crazy. He takes risks. He’s like me. And I love the fact that he was so close to God, and he was really every time thanking God for what he achieved. I also like the fact that, even though he was a prima donna – in the car, on the job – he had no mercy for anybody. You have to be like this. If you want to reach perfection, you have to be strong and sometimes you have to be tough. But the way you have to be tough, it doesn’t mean you are a bad person. You just want to have the best team, because your life is always at risk.

Opera is very connected to driving. When I go onstage today, and I put all these people together, it always reminds me very much of a racing team. If you go backstage at a certain point in an opera, all these guys, the sound engineers, with the headphones on their head, it looks like a pit box. I feel like sometime I’m still on the racetrack. The only thing I’m missing on stage is the smell of tires and gasoline.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you in a car?  

I had just gotten my Ferrari 430 out of the shop. I mean, Ferrari is a racecar. You never know what is going on. But that’s why I love it. It’s like a female, you know? Like a woman. I was in Switzerland next to the lake in Lugano, full of people. And everybody was looking at the car, and they were all like wow, wow. And suddenly I see all this smoke coming out of my trunk. The lake was totally full, packed with people, and I was the main attraction. I had kids pointing, “Oh, look at the smoke.” I had people saying, “Oh now she’s gonna go on fire.”

What was wrong?

I opened the trunk. And you know what happened? The tubes of the air conditioning are close to the engine on the 430, and on the left side, the AC tube broke, and all the fluid went on fire on the engine. So basically it started smoking all white smoke – incredible, like a burnout. I had it inside my cabin. I couldn’t drive. So I had to stop because all the inside of the cabin was smoke. That was a bad thing. I felt very bad.

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