Born and raised in Milan, Italy, Chiara Capobianco’s earliest musical memory finds her at ages 3-5 attending the Puccini Festival in the charming hamlet of Torre del Lago in Tuscany, where the famed composer wrote classic operas like “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.” Her early passion for classical music, her natural wanderlust – and her later love, as a child of the 80s, for the pop magic of American icons like Michael Jackson and Madonna – laid the foundation for her emergence as a true musical citizen of the world.
In the 20-plus years since she performed her first professional gigs as last minute fill-in harpist in orchestras everywhere from her home country to Switzerland, Poland and England, the multi-talented musician has performed for thousands of people across the globe – in settings ranging from cruise ships, hotels and weddings to clubs and concert halls. Since 1990, she has gigged as a solo harpist (with both classic and Irish harp), in duos with fellow harp players and also with violin, flute, cello, piano, voice and full ensembles.
“I didn’t have a grand vision for what my career was going to be,” says Chiara, who relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina in mid-2017 after living and working for many years in Thailand. “I was playing as part of with the orchestra at my school, the Conservatorio di Milano, and our band leader would recommend some of us for outside gigs – local events, openings, different events, which through networking soon led to other opportunities in places far from home. I was 15 and starting to get paid for playing, and as the money kept rolling in, I realized that this was a real job, not just a hobby, and it eventually became my life and career. I prided myself on being versatile, like an actor playing different roles.”
Describing herself as a “rebel, a bit of a gypsy” who wanted to travel and see the world, she moved to London after graduating with a degree in musicology from the University of Cremona in Milan. She found a solo lunchtime and teatime gig at a fancy hotel restaurant, where a classical music booking agent took notice and urged her to audition for the Cunard Cruise Line. The call of the sea was irresistible, and from 2004 to 2010, she was the resident harpist on such prestigious ships as the Queen Mary II, Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. While most of the cruises were Transatlantic, the ships also sailed to Hawaii and the South Seas, New Zealand and Australia.
Aboard those ships, Chiara enjoyed the freedom to create her own arrangements of songs and pieces ranging from classical, opera, pop and jazz to movie themes, musicals and folk music. “Because these were solo gigs,” she says, “I could express and change things the way I wanted to, which was a far different experience than the restrictive, stressful environment of an orchestra, where you are serving the conductor’s vision and playing the exact notes of the composer.”
During this time, she also took the occasional job on land. In 2008, she was hired to play at the opening of a luxury shopping mall in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, performing huge concerts every night for audiences that had never been exposed to the harp – and were enthralled and enchanted by Chiara and the way she introduced her instrument to them.
Leaving the cruise line, the next stamp on her musical passport was India, where she played her own harp renditions of Bollywood music and popular Indian love songs at what she calls “big fat Indian weddings” and other grand events. While based in Mumbai, she also toured the country and performed in Delhi, Goa, Hyderabad, Pune and other locales. Chiara says, “I connected well with the fantastic spirit of the Indian people, who are, like my native Italians, very warm and welcoming and love to celebrate the big events in life. Every day, I would learn something new about their lifestyle.”
Chiara’s global network of connections next led to an opportunity to relocate to Thailand, where she secured a regular gig at a French restaurant in the five-star Plaza Athenee Meriden Hotel. Her repertoire expanded to include Thai music, including Western classical compositions composed by the King of Thailand. She later became resident harpist at the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas HuaHin.
Complementing the whirlwind of gigs, residencies and special performances across the globe over the years, Chiara has enjoyed some truly transcendent moments – including performing for HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwell, and the former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. In October 2011, she was the first Italian musician ever invited to perform at the prestigious Vedicion de Festival Mundial del Arpa in Asuncion, Paraguay.
In addition, Chiara has developed a successful career as a private music teacher, instructing students in harp, piano, music theory, music history, musical composition and musical analysis. While in Thailand, she became an adjunct professor of art and music at the Thailand campus of Webster University and a taught music at Halio school in HuaHin.
Though Chiara has long maintained that playing the harp was always her musical destiny, her first instrument was the flute, which she gravitated to at age seven because her older sister played the instrument in their neighborhood marching band. After playing flute herself in that band, she learned how to read music and began piano lessons. Noting her natural gifts, her teacher quickly recommended that her parents enroll her in the conservatory. The school’s application had three spaces to list instruments a student wanted to learn, and Chiara was told that listing a third instrument would help her get accepted, in case flute and piano instruction should be unavailable.
“I chose the harp and immediately found that I had a strong connection to it, both physically and emotionally,” she says. “I loved the way you touch a harp with so many parts of your body – the knees, shoulders, hand, and of course, feet – and the way it reverbs so powerfully through you. I found that the more I started loving the harp, the less I enjoyed playing piano. Beyond the deep physicality and resonance, when you touch the strings, a magical combination of harmonies and melodic and harmonic possibilities emerges that compares to no other instrument.
“Playing for audiences across the world for so many years,” Chiara adds, “I’ve seen how fascinated people are when they hear these amazing sounds coming out while watching my fingers flying over the strings and my feet hitting the seven pedals. Whether I’m playing a wedding or a large concert, I’ve observed that the harp’s elegance, soothing strains and emotional power truly lifts up any environment and gives any occasion or show that extra ‘wow’ factor. I feel blessed to have shared its magic with so many people throughout my musical career.”