Since developing his unique voice building system over 30 years ago, LA-based vocal coach and ‘maestro’ Gary Catona has tutored Hollywood’s stage and screen elite and counts Andrea Bocelli, Seal, Usher and Katy Perry among his many disciples. Most famous for restoring Whitney Houston’s damaged voice to its former glory, the 62-year-old Italian-American recently visited Berlin with his Venezuelan protege Aneeka to promote his new online talent show The Ultimate Diva.
What originally drew you to singing?
In high school I was on the wrestling team, and to the chagrin of all the other wrestlers I joined the choir. As it turns out I had a really gifted voice. I began taking voice lessons from a variety of teachers, but ironically the more I studied the less attractive my voice became. I was battling myself, because it made no sense that 14 different voice teachers were hurting me. I felt as though it was a conspiracy. Later I found out that that’s a typical experience for a lot of people who study voice.
How did you begin developing your technique?
I began doing experimentation on my own voice. At the time I was living in Texas and doing research at the University of Texas library in Austin. I learnt that the voice is a muscular phenomenon, but most voice teachers completely ignore that. Being a wrestler, an athlete, I thought, why would you want to ignore the very area of your body where the muscles are? Through a series of experimentations I lost my own voice, damaged it to the point where I could barely talk. I came across a kind of exercise called isokinetics that is the most effective way of building strength in muscles. As my voice came back I became confident that what I was doing was correct.
You moved to LA in 1985 with no money or contacts. How did you get started there?
My major breakthrough came when my publicist put me in touch with an LA Times journalist called Michael Wilmington, who suffered from spasmodic dysphonia. I was able to fix his voice and a short while later he went to celebrity publicist Dale Olsen’s party. Dale couldn’t believe the improvement in Michael’s voice. The next day I was sitting in my apartment twiddling my thumbs and Dale called and asked me to lunch. I had no idea what he was up to and all I could think about was the free meal [laughs]. He asked me about my technique and I was very intrigued – I knew he was interviewing me for something. The next day the phone rang. “Gary Catona? This is Shirley Maclaine. What are you doing in one hour?” She drove from Malibu to my apartment in Hollywood. I gave her a five-minute lesson and she said “Gary, you’re coming with me.” That’s how I went on my first tour with Shirley Maclaine in 1992 and later with her and Frank Sinatra.
When did Whitney Houston first come to you?
She was referred to me by Stevie Wonder in 2005, and she was having vocal difficulties for reasons that I don’t need to go into. I met her in Atlanta and she had nothing left, nothing but hoarseness, but it began responding very well to the exercises and her voice came back about 85-90 percent, to the point where she did a new CD. She was rediscovering the beauty of her own voice, like a little child, and even in its debilitated state it was the most remarkable voice I’ve ever taught. But then everybody got so excited with her voice coming back. They were like, “Let’s go out and do a tour and make money! She’s ready!” I was like “Guys, she’s not ready yet, she still has a way to go vocally and emotionally,” and they were like “No, no, it will be good for her to go out.” What could I do? So that’s what she did and it turned out to be a mistake.
Did she also feel that touring might be a mistake?
She felt a lot of pressure to do it. She was fragile and everything else. But you know, I can only go so far. I was hired by her people, and I could only go so far to try to keep her alive, keep her awake, so to speak. Her people had good intentions. They just made a strategic mistake
Who are some of your more interesting clients?
I worked with Steven Tyler for a couple of years. He runs around the room when I’m teaching him. He’s a wild guy, and who he is on stage is who he is in real life. He comes to his lesson all dressed up and he’s crazy. When you think about what a rock star is, he really lives that. It’s not an act. But then he takes what he does very seriously.
How do you deal with stroppy behaviour from celebrities?
I beat them down until they give in! No but seriously, when you teach somebody you gotta take over. I’ve had that with a number of my famous students, where I was a fan and then their teacher. But you know, you have to be domineering because that’s what they need. You have to go against the person sometimes, you have to yell at the person sometimes, you have to click your fingers and say, “Look! Why are you looking out of the window? I’m trying to show you what to do!”
What originally sparked the idea for the show?
After teaching Whitney I got to know her on a personal level and saw that authentic diva part of her, this conviction in what she was doing, it struck me after she died that there was nobody left to replace her. The show is about that exactly. The idea of it is to sort of cause a revolution. I believe there are potential divas living in the world today. We’re going to find them and bring them to the highest level possible by teaching them the meaning of being a diva. What I want to do is produce as many of them as possible to the point where we’re reorienting ‘diva’ in the mainstream world, where great singing becomes a priority again.