- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) - Every so often, when his passengers get particularly unruly, First Student bus driver Philip Bologna uses a unique method to try to quiet the agitation: He bursts into song.

Bologna’s is no ordinary voice. At one time in his life, he was heard in opera houses and theaters across the country as a leading tenor. In 1984, he was one of 11 national winners at the famed Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, crowning him as one the elite young opera singers in the nation.

Today, Bologna, 63, deploys his singing talent in less august surroundings. His audience is no longer regally dressed music connoisseurs who he entertained as Papageno in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” but Rochester Public School high school and elementary students with special needs.

While he no longer sings with the power and range he once did, his passion for singing and the arts in general has not been dulled. And it doesn’t hurt in a pinch when trying to tame a busload of rambunctious students as you take them to school.

“Any arrow in the quiver is a good thing,” Bologna told the Post-Bulletin (https://bit.ly/1UcJbwc ).

It is often dark when Bologna arrives on his morning route at the farm home of 16-year-old Jonah Devine, a Century High School special needs student who uses a wheelchair.

Often, the first thing Jonah’s mom, Dawn Devine, hears as she wheels her son to the bus is Bologna singing a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin ditty, or a “cute little medley,” at the end of the driveway.

“Occasionally, (Jonah) wasn’t terribly excited about going to school,” his mom said. “So Phil would always sing. He has a really upbeat attitude, and he’d always distract and make it fun to get on the bus.”

Bologna’s journey from celebrated opera singer to Rochester bus driver was about as twisty as one of his morning bus routes. He discovered his vocal talent by accident. One day in school choir as an 11-year-old, he struggled to sustain the high notes in the soprano register, so he went down an octave and let out what he describes as a “tenor A flat.”

The fulsome sound surprised Bologna as well as his choir teacher, who demanded to know whose voice it was. Bologna says he sheepishly raised his hand and thus began his career as an artist.

Bologna, a native of Queens, New York, sang his first opera when he was 16 years old and sang professionally for a decade.

But even while occupying the rarefied realm of opera singing, Bologna felt the tug of other responsibilities after he married and began raising a son. Opera took him on the road for as much as nine months a year, and his son struggled with his absence.

When his career ended, it was almost a relief.

“I was fearless (on stage). I enjoyed it so much,” Bologna said. “But then there came a certain point. I did not enjoy it anymore. I became more fearful, and not only did I became fearful, but my voice became sharp.”

Later, Bologna moved to Anoka to become conductor of an opera company there. After it folded, Bologna used grants to write and produce children’s operas at Anoka schools.

One program in particular was presented to more than 75,000 school-age children and 40,000 seniors, he said. He also founded and became artistic director of the Lyric Arts Co. of Anoka as well as drama director of the Elk River High School. It was a time that coincided with what Bologna describes as his most fertile period as an artist.

“I think drama should be something taught in schools,” Bologna said. “Of course, it’s not going to happen because of the budgetary restrictions, but drama is so important because it involves all aspects of humanity.”

But artistic differences prompted him to quit Lyric Arts. When his wife lost her job as well, Bologna began looking for work, first for opportunities in the arts, and when that didn’t pan out, further afield. When he saw a sign advertising openings for bus drivers, he applied and became a driver.

In Rochester, where his son and daughter-in-law live, Bologna drives both a morning and afternoon bus and manages First Student’s videotaping system and archives.

Though his audience has shrunk, Bologna still finds ways to tap a lifetime of drama and opera experiences in his role as a bus driver.

One day, when his student passengers were driving him crazy making farting noises, he stopped the bus and arranged them in sections like an orchestra. He then proceeded to conduct them in what he called a “fart symphony in D flatulence major.”

All kids have virtuous qualities, he says, but sometimes an imagination helps to bring out the best in them. Although far from the opera houses where he once serenaded audiences, he said he’s content with life.

“Certainly, I try to enjoy everything that I’m doing,” Bologna said. “That’s my basic attitude. There are things that I’d rather be doing, of course, but I make the best of it. So far as the joy factor is concerned, it’s wherever I’m at and whenever I’m there.”


Information from: Post-Bulletin, https://www.postbulletin.com

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