Multi-genre singer Diva Montell

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From arias to anthems, standards to stadium rock, Diva Montell takes almost any musical style and makes it her own. Blessed with a powerful soprano voice, Montell’s talents brought her to a crossroads early in her career when she had to weigh what was in her heart against the expectations of others. That journey began at birth.

“Yes, I was born with the name Diva,” Montell says.

“My mother, Concetta Ferreri, was an opera singer who performed with the Apollo Opera Company, The Midwest Opera and other venues,” she continues. “After she was married, she had four children but continued to sing at Mass at Our Lady of Pompei, St. John Cantius and Santa Maria Addolorata. My father, Freddie Montell, made his living as an entertainer performing in places like Mr. Kelly’s, the Starlight Lounge and Chez Paul. Our surname is Montalto, but Dad took Montell as a stage name and I did the same.”

Montell was born in the Chicago Italian enclave around Grand, Ogden and Racine, spending time in her grandmother’s eight-flat apartment building. “There weren’t many green spaces in the neighborhood, but our homes were filled with family, friends, food, faith and, above all, music,” she recalls.

“When I was 6, mom was singing ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ as she was cleaning, and I started singing it with her,” Montell says. “At that point, she realized that I had a talent for opera.”

With the old neighborhood changing, the family moved to Western Springs when Montell was 7 years old. During middle school, she was reluctant to take the lead and fully express herself as a singer. One day, her choir teacher gave her an ultimatum, stating, “With a name like Diva, you had better learn to sing, or else you will amount to nothing!”

Montell’s talent was evident, not only to her parents and middle school teachers, but to the larger educational and musical communities, as well.

“I was awarded a scholarship to DePaul University, where I studied under Dr. Frank Little,” Montell says of the tenor who performed with the Metropolitan Opera and once gave a private, command performance for Pope John Paul II. “I was one of only three students, and when Dr. Little moved on to New York, I continued my studies at the American Conservatory of Music at his urging.”

With talent came enormous pressure, and Montell began to feel she was being corralled into a career that was not entirely of her choosing.

“Studying opera was so intense. The commitment was just mind-boggling,” Montell says. “I love all kinds of music, but I couldn’t sing anything else but opera. Then, I began to learn more about Renata Tebaldi.”

One of the great opera singers of the 20th century, Tebaldi performed in more than 1,000 operas and was a favorite of both Arturo Toscanini and Riccardo Muti. Her fame, however, came at a price. “She never married, couldn’t be a mom. She had no personal life. Everything was career, career, career,” Montell says.

So Montell took off — literally — as a flight attendant for American Airlines. After returning to the Chicago area, she opened her own business, Montell Personal Staffing. “Business was booming, and the job was very fulfilling,” Montell says. “I was able to help thousands of people and shape many careers.”

Montell also achieved one of the goals that Tebaldi could not, becoming a mom. As her children grew and were more independent, she started singing again.

“I performed what I liked at the time, pop and disco, at Al di La in Oak Brook on Tuesday nights,” Montell says.

More gigs followed at places like Volare’s, Capri’s Steakhouse and Onesti’s Supper Club. “Ron has been a friend way back from the days when he worked with me and my aunt, Mary Scalera, doing fundraisers for the Villa Scalabrini,” Montell says. “One night, I was opening for The Drifters when he came in. It was a great show, the crowd loved it and we reconnected.”

Onesti has since featured Montell in shows opening for K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Michael Bolton; at the Chicago Italian fests on Taylor Street and Oakley Avenue as well as in Milwaukee; and at the Des Plaines and Arcada theaters.

The community has showered her with accolades, including a da Vinci Award from the Order Sons of Italy, a Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Humanitarian Award from the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans and an Impresa Award from the JCCIA Women’s Division.

Meanwhile, she has taken advantage of opportunities to explore her musical options and expand her repertoire. “I love the jazz and scatting of Ella Fitzgerald, the disco of Donna Summer, the ballads of Barbara Streisand or Celine Dion, the pop of Madonna,” Montell says. “That’s just what I can think of offhand. There’s a lot more.”

The music of Etta James and Frank Sinatra are also within her musical reach, as are the modern pop sounds of Jennifer Lopez, Norah Jones and Alicia Keys — and her covers of Cher will leave you speechless.

Montell performs solo and with her longtime collaborator in opera shows, Jeorge Holmes. But she’s really able to cut loose with the band EZFM Yacht Rock.

“We do music from the ’70s and ’80s, by artists like Christopher Cross, America, Pablo Cruz,” Montell says. “I generally do the female parts, singing songs by Carly Simon, Carole King and Linda Ronstadt.”

While covering the classics of both Ronstadt and King requires some pretty diverse vocal chops, Montell turns the heat up even higher with another vehicle, Heart to Heartbreaker. The group takes audiences back to the ’80s, performing the hits of hard rockers like Heart and Pat Benatar. Montell’s unique range of talents propels the group to heights rarely achieved by other tribute bands.

At a recent performance at Rosemont’s Parkway Bank Plaza, Montell took to the stage as Heart’s Ann Wilson. While many can mimic the sounds of pop superstars like Wilson, Montell is one of the very few who can match Wilson’s range and power.

Performing in front of a crowd of thousands, Montell delivered renditions of “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man” that were more than just notes. They were musical lightning bolts that flashed across the plaza, inspiring a combination of amazement and applause.

As she ended the show with more vocal pyrotechnics on “Barracuda,” Montell looked over the crowd, all with their arms held high in the air clapping in unison. As she walked off the stage, the applause echoed across the arena.

Meanwhile, her father’s words echoed through her mind. “Dad said, ‘Sing what you love, what is in your heart, and your soul will connect with others,’” Montell recalls. “He was such a wise man.”

The above appears in the October 2022 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About David Witter

David Anthony Witter is a Chicago public school teacher and a freelance writer and photographer. Along with William Dal Cerro, he is the author of "Be-Bop, Swing and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience." He has also written "Oldest Chicago" and "Chicago Magic, A history of Stagecraft and Spectacle." His work has appeared in Fra Noi, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Living Blues, New City, Chicago Reader, Bay Area Music Magazine, Primo, Ambassador and Italic Way. He also has entries in "The Italian-American Experience, an Encyclopedia," and "BluesSpeak, The Best of the Chicago Blues Annual."

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