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Growing up in Guilford, Robert Iovanna began formal vocal training as a child. He now shares his talent—and rare style of classical singing—in his work as a highly sought shoreline instructor and as a Branford police office who lends his voice to support charitable police causes. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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When Guilford native Robert Iovanna joined the Branford police force about three years ago, he brought 17 years of big-city law enforcement experience and his reputation as “The Singing Hartford Cop.”
Over the years, Robert has shared his beautiful singing voice to support many police functions and charitable causes. A classical dynamic tenor, Robert has been performing professionally for decades. He also teaches the rare vocal technique he employs, bel canto and appoggio, to advanced students at Wagner Ioavanna Studio Productions in East Haven.
Robert and his wife, professional vocalist Karen Wagner-Iovanna, are also the co-founders of a southern Connecticut non-profit youth theatre company, Wagner Ioavanna Studio Performances (WISP).
Getting His Start
Growing up in Guilford, Robert was surrounded by music.
“My father is a piano player, and I would go downstairs and mimic the opera singers on the records,” he recalls.
His dad also sang in a barbershop choir. By the age of seven, Robert was singing those numbers, too. He started training a few years later.
“I started training formally about the age of 9 or 10. At that age, it’s mostly technique, because there’s only so much you can do. The voice isn’t established, so you have to be careful. I had some really good training and kept ahead of the curve of what was going to be happening,” he says.
After Robert graduated with the Guilford High School Class of 1985, his music career began taking off, but not in the direction most might expect.
“The ironic thing was, while I was still studying classical music, I was also playing in a heavy metal band. So I was studying in [New York] city and playing at night with American Dream,” he says.
The band, which was picked up by Epic Records, toured the northeast in the 1990s, with Robert behind the drums and also serving as American Dream’s vocal arranger.
“We toured for close to 10 years,” he says. “It was a very vocally strong band—I sang mostly high parts in the background. I loved it. You’d be surprised how many singers in rock and heavy metal have studied classical.”
Together with Karen, Robert also performed with the United Service Organization (USO), joining talented singers entertaining America’s troops and veterans.
“We sang with Liberty Bells at USO events and we were part of the national ‘Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans’ tour,” he says. “One of the things that’s more memorable to me is singing for the veterans, and of course the police events—the graduations and, unfortunately, funerals—I would sing for those as well.”
Teaching the Craft
As vocal professional who started training as a child, Robert feels blessed to carry on teaching a traditional Italian vocal technique he polished as a hand-picked student of world class bel canto master and dramatic tenor “Rusty” Marshall Raynor.
“He’s a very famous tenor who’s also known as ‘Rusty the Clown.’ He was one of the great tenors of all time, and he sang with the best tenors that walked the planet,” says Robert, adding training with Raynor was “intense.”
“It’s a privilege to be able to learn from such a great talent. Having all that knowledge and passing it on to me—he’s an amazing man. He took me under his wing and we became friends,” says Robert.
Robert stays in touch with Raynor, who’s now in his 90s, adding he and Raynor continued singing together until a just a couple of years ago.
When Robert works with his advanced vocal students, he’s passing on much of what Raynor shared with him.
“Rusty, he passed the torch to me—‘You’re the go-to-guy now,’ so to speak. I was very flattered. He was a great mentor,” says Robert. “If you’re really singing opera, it takes years to develop. I still feel I’m getting better and better. You never stop learning.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of his work as an instructor is seeing past and present students go on to careers on Broadway and getting accepted and receiving scholarships to top U.S. music colleges and conservatories.
Robert says starting up WISP productions 14 years ago has also provided incredible opportunities for his students as well as those who may join in through open auditions for their shows.
One of the missions of the non-profit youth theatre is to offer a platform for exposure for performing artists interested in a professional career, while also giving them experience and providing valuable direction to them through rehearsals, performance process, workshops with industry professionals, and contacts with casting agents and managers.
In August, WISP presented the Broadway hit Legally Blonde on stage at Clinton Town Hall. From Friday to Sunday, Jan. 17 to 19 a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will take place at First Church of Christ in Old Saybrook. For more information, visit www.wisperformances.org or find Wagner Iovanna Studio Productions (@CTVOCALS) on Facebook.
“We’re doing some major productions which are doing so well, we’re affiliated with Talent America, which is a national talent agency. They call on us to bring talent to New York. People are getting signed for contracts [with agents], and what I really like is all our students who are in conservatories are doing really well,” Robert says.
Robert and Karen also entertain together professionally at many functions in the state and beyond, often bringing in past students, now professionals in their own right, to join the show.
While sharing his remarkable vocal talent will always be a fulfilling part of his professional life, Robert says he also loves working in law enforcement and being a police officer.
“It may sound corny, but I’ve always liked to help people, whenever I can,” he says. “It’s a very admirable field and I’ve always looked up to police officers. The field is tough now—we’re either loved or we’re hated.”
As a police officer for the city of Hartford, “I loved the action,” says Robert. “You’re going call to call to call. People might think, ‘But you’re a classical singer,’ and there I am going into the fires, but I loved the policing in Hartford. It wasn’t until I had my daughter that I started looking at other departments, and luckily, we found Branford.”
He says he’s very impressed with the department, and proud to be an officer on its force.
“Branford Police Department is some of the best men and women I’ve ever worked with, from the top down. I’m very lucky to be a part of it,” he says.
Robert has also already lent his voice to Branford Police Department for a couple of performances to help its charitable efforts supporting Connecticut Special Olympics.
Commuting one town over to Branford from his East Haven home of 15 years also gives Robert more time to share with his daughter, Ruby, now five years old. He says she’s already upstaging her dad—and his early start—as a precocious young voice.
“We just had a cabaret set with some of our students coming in to sing, and unbeknownst to me, she says, “‘Daddy I’m going to sing,’” Robert shares. “And she picked up the microphone and went out and said, ‘Hello, my name is Ruby!’ And I’m covering my face...and she says, ‘I’m going to sing ‘God Bless America.’ And she sang it, and the place went crazy. So I said, ‘Well, there it is.’”
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