"My father saw me in the newspapers before he even picked me up," said Altamura, who remembered singing for all of the ship's passengers. "The captain told everybody that I was a Cinderella. I had captivated everybody on board."
Altamura then moved on to captivate audiences in opera halls around the world before opening the Altamura Conservatory for Music and Dance and later Inter-Cities Performing Arts, Inc., both in Union City, with her husband Attorney Leonard Altamura.
Today, the Altamura Center for the Arts in New York State and the Altamura/Caruso Enrico International Voice Competition have attracted talent from around the world. Many of Altamura's students and past competition winners are now performing with opera houses such as La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
"This is not something that was born overnight," said her husband, Leonard Altamura, recently. "Carmela's life has been in opera. She knows who is who in the opera world."
The center will also be hosting the first Romanian orchestra to appear in the United States in 20 years. The State Philharmonic of Bacau, Romania will perform at the center during this summer's season.
Altamura herself divides her time, spending six months at her Union City home and six months at her home in upstate New York.
Opening a school
After her early start, Altamura began formal study with the Filippini Sisters in Trenton and then the Dominican Sisters at Caldwell College before studying at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan.
Altamura, a soprano, then was invited to sing in opera houses all over the world including Italy, Israel and the United States.
"Wherever they invited me, I went," said Altamura, still living the Cinderella lifestyle sitting in the living room of her Union City home, which is decorated in Venetian Baroque style with pieces hand-made for her in Italy. However, Altamura's days of performances and travel were cut short after circumstances at home made it impossible for her to be away for long periods of time.
"[These circumstances] always kept me closer to home and the community," said Altamura. "So I used my energy to help others rather than bemoan my tragedy."
In 1972, the Altamuras opened their first school in Union City, the Altamura Conservatory for music and dance. While the majority of students that attended the school came from Cuba, South America and Puerto Rico, Altamura said that many expatriate citizens fleeing Communism in their countries also attended the school. According to Altamura, there were many Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Polish and Russian students at the school, but mostly Cuban.
"In order to keep myself occupied I opened the school," said Altamura.
After 14 years, Altamura decided to close the school and concentrate more on presenting the arts than teaching them.
"There were not enough serious students [to stay open]," said Altamura, who said that when the city's Cuban population began moving to Miami, many of her most serious students moved with them. "I didn't want to spend money on just costumes and frills."
Inter-Cities Performing Arts, Inc., the non-profit organization started by the Altamuras in 1986, now runs as the production company that produces the events that take place at the Altamura Center for the Arts in New York state and the annual Altamura/Caruso Enrico International Voice Competition.
"We found a need for a company that could serve all ethnic groups," said Altamura. "We wanted to improve relations [among all ethnic groups] socially, ethically and culturally."
Makes tails move
While Altamura's husband will not be spending the full six months with her in New York state, her cat Charlie will.
"Even the cat here is musical," said Altamura about her black cat. "He beats his tail to the music."
This summer, the center will hold an "Encounters with the Masters" program that will offer courses on performance, diction, language, operatic history, body movement and acting.
Representatives from the Metropolitan Opera, the Julliard School, and the New Zealand Opera will be teaching at the program.
On Sept. 1, the center will hold a benefit concert for Orphaned Children and infants in Romania.
For information about the summer schedule at the Altamura Center for the Arts, call (201) 866-4307 or (518) 622-0070.