Ballerini, an audiobook narrator to seek out

Audiobook narrators are a gem to be cherished. I have narrators that can take you thru even the most turgid book with enthusiasm. I have not yet listened to Ballerini, but I’m thinking of checking out his “War and Peace.”

Not so long ago, at a time when it was still socially acceptable to gather for all kinds of nonessential reasons, including the love of a good book, about 50 people congregated on the second floor of a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. They had come that evening, sat side by side on folding chairs, for an event with the writer Andrew Gross. A best-selling author, Gross is a man of many talents, but on this occasion, last fall, it seemed that orating was not chief among them. As he spoke about his latest historical thriller, “The Fifth Column,” his voice, a touch nasal and accented with a New York twang, was just gravelly enough to distract.

Gross, formerly a businessman, apparently had the self-awareness to accept a suggestion that his publisher had made: Let someone else do the reading at the reading. This is how he found himself welcoming Edoardo Ballerini, the man who recorded Gross’s most recent audiobook, who stood off to the side wearing a beige T-shirt and dark jacket.

In his introductory comments, Gross noted that this was the first time he had met Ballerini, despite the actor’s having also narrated three of his previous novels. Gross recommended that his fans listen to one of the recordings, if they had not done so already. “They make whatever I do just absolutely come alive and sing,” he said. It was clear that a substantial portion of the crowd, which applauded loudly and even whistled for Ballerini, was already familiar with his work. Afterward, many in the audience, talking among themselves, shared their fondness for Ballerini’s narrations; one woman claimed that were it not for his delivery, she wasn’t sure she would enjoy Gross’s books at all.

Gross spoke for a minute or two more about his latest novel, which starts in New York in the run-up to World War II, then Ballerini replaced him at the lectern and, without pause or words of his own, began: “Suddenly I heard a loud crash from the front of the bar. … ”

Over the course of the next seven minutes, Ballerini told the tale of a brawl that goes very wrong for the narrator, a drunk who tries to take out some Nazi sympathizers but accidentally brutalizes a young bystander instead. Ballerini went in and out of accents: the narrator’s midcentury tough-guy tones, the bar owner’s Irish brogue. Soon, it was as if Ballerini all but disappeared, and the story took over. The audience was rapt. Standing nearby, Gross nodded appreciatively, almost possessively, as Ballerini read. Somehow it was clear it was his own work he was admiring, like a composer who toiled alone for years but was now hearing, at long last, his concerto performed by a great pianist.

The audience was, in fact, enjoying a master in his increasingly influential field. Ballerini could be considered the Vladimir Horowitz of his cohort, famous within his profession — among devout audiobook listeners and the ever-expanding industry itself — as a go-to voice for intelligent, subtle but gripping narrations of books. Some listeners will buy whatever he narrates, which might help explain why a collection of Albert Camus essays from the mid-20th century suddenly found itself on the audiobook best-seller list last year. When the publisher Recorded Books needed someone to narrate all five volumes of Robert Alter’s new, acclaimed translation of the Hebrew Bible, Ballerini was chosen to read it (the audiobook was released in December). After years spent giving voice to novelists ranging from Dean Koontz to Ha Jin, Ballerini was now also the voice of God.

When the applause for Ballerini subsided, Gross stepped back up to the lectern. “I knew I could write a little, you know?” Gross told the audience. “But that was spectacular.”

At 50, Edoardo Ballerini enjoys a particular kind of stardom. He is rarely asked for his autograph; fans do not wait outside his recording studio to catch a glimpse of him, and many would not recognize him if they chanced to pass him. And yet he sits at the forefront of a new form of celebrity, like that of the YouTube or podcast star. He is paid at the top range of his field, celebrated in reviews and with honors — he has won his industry’s top awards — and his name is one that might as well appear in italics for an avid portion of audiobook listeners.

The audiobook “star,” an invisible yet intimate voice in the reader’s ear, is an artist who helps to create the experience of what it means to “read” a given book. The oldest form of storytelling has been rendered salient once more by technology: the smartphone, the app, AirPods. Before coronavirus, according to audiobook publishers, the peak use of their product came during commuting hours; more recently, they have seen consumption shift to post-dinnertime, when people are trying to wind down before bed. While sales of digital audiobooks have grown steadily over the past seven years, by an average of 27 percent, e-book sales have experienced significant declines.

When the reading was over, a few audience members approached Ballerini to tell him how much they admired his narrations. He seemed almost ambivalent about the attention, his head slightly bowed. It both was and was not his moment. “I’m there to serve the book,” he said.

Edoardo Ballerini started out hoping to be a screen actor, a great one. His father, Luigi Ballerini, is a renowned Italian poet, one of the most lauded of his generation. An academic who raised his son in New York, he has also been an interpreter of others, having provided the Italian translations for authors ranging from Melville to Vonnegut. In college, at Wesleyan, in Connecticut, Edoardo majored in English, the kind of student who recorded albums of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas onto cassettes so he could walk around campus with his Walkman, hearing their voices in his ear. He won a fellowship to study Latin in Rome after graduation but, soon after arriving, started acting with a local theater troupe. When he returned to the States, he gave up his plans for graduate school and began auditioning.

Ballerini tends to macho up his delicate features with facial hair. He does not look especially like a casting agent’s idea of an Italian, but his name seemed to give producers an excuse to exclude him from some parts and to cast him in others. In 2000, he played a self-absorbed star Italian chef in “Dinner Rush,” a critically praised independent film starring Danny Aiello; after that came recurring roles as Corky Caporale on “The Sopranos,” a none-too-bright heroin addict whom Ballerini plays with degenerate lassitude, and Ignatius D’Alessio, one of a band of low-dealing brothers on “Boardwalk Empire.”

In 2007, shortly after he appeared in several episodes of “The Sopranos,” he recorded his first book: Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” a project he accepted as a favor for a friend who was breaking into the audio-production business. Reading and recording for hours was harder than he expected. Sound booths are small and airless; before too long, a reader’s throat grows parched, and the need to swallow becomes increasingly hard to ignore. “I used to have to go home and pass out,” Ballerini told me, recalling his first foray. “It’s exhausting. The best comparison I can think of is to long-distance running. It’s easy to say you just put one foot in front of the other for a long time. You actually do it, it’s difficult.”

As he described the beginning of his current career, Ballerini was sitting in the living room of his airy Arts and Crafts home, in a small town a commuter’s distance north of New York. If the street was unremarkably suburban, the house was not without its theatrical airs, perched up a short but steep flight of stairs, with a grand covered porch. Its pedigree had won him over: David Manners, a silent-movie actor who starred alongside Bela Lugosi, lived there in the 1910s. Not long after moving in, Ballerini converted what used to be the wine cellar into a small recording booth, which is where he has done all of his recording since New York’s quarantine began, in March. “I love the idea that the house of a silent actor is now occupied by one who uses only voice on projects,” Ballerini told me by email. “What a century will do.”

When he started narrating audiobooks, Ballerini saw the job as a convenient side gig while he pursued onscreen stardom. Audio narration entailed no travel, no memorization and little preparation. The assignments came easily. Even before the pandemic, audiobook publishers have employed, collectively, thousands of actors a year. A major studio might put out no more than 35 films a year, while Audible would churn out thousands of titles in the same period. Ballerini reports that even now the narrating jobs have not slowed down for him and his colleagues.

Ballerini had recorded fewer than a dozen books when, in 2012, he took on the one that would change his career: Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins,” a novel set in 1960s Italy and modern-day Los Angeles. To an array of characters of diverse eras and geographies — an aspiring actress, American soldiers, Richard Burton, an opinionated Italian aunty and her pet nephew, a cynical film producer, a slacker aspiring to be a screenwriter, a stoner boyfriend and his ambitious girlfriend — Ballerini gives specificity and depth, while somehow maintaining a consistent tone throughout. The critic Laura Miller, writing in Salon, named it the year’s best audiobook narration, with a tribute acknowledging how much Ballerini’s reading enhanced the source material: She called him a “true collaborator” who added a layer of warmth to what was already outstanding storytelling. He won the Oscar equivalent of best actor in the awards field for audiobooks that year, beating out stars like Dustin Hoffman and Colin Firth for the male solo narrator award; the Audio Publishers Association nominated “Beautiful Ruins” for audiobook of the year. “It was like I’d been shot out of a cannon,” Ballerini says.

The audiobook’s success also marked a turning point in the industry, and insiders took note: Although “Beautiful Ruins” was a best-selling work of fiction, audio sales outstripped its hardcover sales. The timing was right for this sort of breakout success. Audible, by then owned by Amazon, was aggressively marketing its app, and rapidly expanded its library that year.

Before recording the book, Ballerini had spent an evening or two watching Richard Burton in some of his better-known films — Ballerini’s version of the actor’s voice, in “Beautiful Ruins,” is recognizable without veering into easy parody — but beyond that, he did not exactly devote hours of work to character development. Reading out loud, he would eventually realize, was easy for him: He could skim a book ahead of time and think about it while looking after his young children. (Ballerini’s partner, Genevieve Futrelle, is director of program management for The New York Times.) Some narrators make charts of the various characters, listing their qualities for easy recall; research regional accents; or flag passages where they want to remember a certain tack. Ballerini’s approach is looser: He tends to cast the characters, as he puts it, associating them with people he knows or actual public figures, and then lets the author’s descriptions — fast-talking, hesitant, alluring — give them individuality.

Ballerini could invest the authorial voice with suspense and engagement, and yet, for someone who spent most of his adult life aspiring to be seen, he was surprisingly good at stepping back enough to avoid becoming an overbearing presence. He had, it turned out, a specific, perfectly suited set of talents that might never have been rewarded had he come of age professionally at any earlier moment.

Until about a year ago, Ballerini continued to pursue roles on television and in film. But since “Beautiful Ruins,” his steadiest source of income has been audio narration — his work has included recordings for the subscription service Audm, which The New York Times bought in March — and he takes great care to master the small choices that help keep his most profitable instrument in form. On recording days (most weekdays), he avoids foods that make his mouth pasty (like cheese or yogurt) and passes up drinks (like espresso) that make his stomach noisy. He takes regular sips of water, during breaks, to keep saliva at optimal flow. He soothes his vocal cords, some nights, with a small amount of whiskey; his children run little risk of being yelled at by their father, as he protects his voice from that kind of stress. About a year after “Beautiful Ruins,” he temporarily lost his voice, so much so that he sounded, he says, “like a dying frog.” To make sure that did not happen again, he sat in on a workshop taught by another well-admired narrator, Robin Miles, who helped him learn to take small, subtle intakes of air through the nose as he exhales, so that he is never entirely without breath; the approach resembles, he says, his own past experience with meditation, which also helped him with the focus he needs for the long hours of sometimes monotonous reading — not every book is to his taste.

Even when the subject fails to intrigue him, though, the play of the language itself serves as a point of engagement. As the child of a poet who was always hosting spirited dinner parties with other poets, Ballerini grew up among conversations that were not just wordy, but were about the sound of words. His fascination with prosody frequently carries him along; when he reads aloud, he often appears to be conducting with one hand. “I’ve always heard language in terms of sound as much as meaning,” he says. “A phrase like ‘A bird flew through the window’ is as much about the internal rhyme, ‘flew through,’ as it is about the action described, and I pay attention to both.”

Authors as well as listeners seek Ballerini out. Jess Walter says Ballerini is the only narrator whose reading of one of his novels he has heard in its entirety. “It’s so strange to have your work read by someone else,” Walter says. “It’s like watching a video of someone making out with your wife. No matter how good their technique is, it just doesn’t seem right.”

Ballerini recognizes the responsibility involved in interpreting others’ words, so much so that he almost declined to narrate Alter’s translation of the Bible. “I really had to think about it,” he told me last fall. “It’s a serious undertaking.” He had made it clear to the producers that if he took on the project, he would not orate it, James Earl Jones-style; nor would character sketches drive his performance. His goal was simply to read it with the natural incantation of storytelling, as best he could, even when just listing dozens of multisyllabic biblical names. His one predetermined decision was that he would slow down when he read as God. “I’m God,” he said. “I’m not in any hurry — no one’s going anywhere when I speak.”

He would avoid theological interpretation, and yet even a wholly neutral delivery would be a choice of consequence. While inside the recording booth at Recorded Books that day, he read the story of King Solomon, whose ruling would mean cutting in half a newborn baby being claimed by two mothers. “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other,” he read, his right hand conducting at waist level. His delivery offered no hint of wrath; he sounded like a parent testing two children, not playful but not threatening either, so that the moment was never truly terrifying. And when one of the mothers insisted that the other take the child, rather than see the baby slain, he delivered his pronouncement gently, uttering each word as if setting down a fragile, beloved object: “Give her the living newborn, and absolutely do not put him to death. She is his mother.”

Ballerini had been recording for hours, sometimes reading dry, repetitive passages with few discernible subtleties, and yet now, finally stumbling unexpectedly upon one of the greatest hits of that great book, he was struck by its power, and his eyes were wet.

Recently Ballerini finished a labor of love, a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” for a small audiobook publisher called Dreamscape. He himself proposed the project. “I wanted to do something quintessentially American, but also something personal,” he says. “And poetry, which lives in my core, offered that outlet.” Just before taking on “Leaves of Grass,” he read “War and Peace” for AmazonClassics Edition. The project provided the kind of fulfillment that he doubts would have come his way had he still been chasing parts, he says, like “Character No. 5 on some NBC procedural.” It took him a month of recording 20 to 25 hours a week to complete, but the characters came together quickly in his mind over the course of several days. Prince Andrei, powerful and full of ego, always spoke, he imagined, with a half-empty wine goblet in his hand. The awkward, ungainly but endearing Pierre Bezukhov would be the love child of Hugh Grant and Gérard Depardieu. Napoleon would sound a little like Silvio Berlusconi. In the recording he ultimately delivered, Ballerini has the charisma to carry the novel, with its cast of larger-than-life characters, while delivering a performance that is reassuringly understated. The book, rather than the narrator, remains the star.

Ballerini considers a project he started in 2014 to be the most ambitious of his career, as well as the most emotionally resonant: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume autobiographical opus, “My Struggle.” The audiobook, essentially a 135-hour monologue, ultimately took him more than 200 hours over the course of five years to finish. Knausgaard’s exhaustive, confessional work resonated deeply with Ballerini.

“I felt such an affinity,” he says. “His struggles were my struggles. Maybe that’s the mark of great literature — it makes you feel like it’s you, the way a great love song makes you feel it’s been written for you.” But Ballerini also felt a particular biographical kinship to the work — he, like Knausgaard, bore a level of responsibility for child-rearing that would have been unusual for male artists of earlier generations, and so he related to the way Knausgaard wrestles with his ego, with disappointment, with the need to take himself seriously as an artist while also engaging with family life. Ballerini says he was often the awkward dad at the birthday party, or the one at the park with a 2-year-old, begging moms for a diaper and some wipes; Knausgaard is the frazzled dad juggling three children at the supermarket, or placating them with ice cream and facing the judgment of other adults around him whose kids eat fruit instead.

When he started the series, Ballerini had recently discovered his knack for audio narration but was still yearning for a breakout role on the screen. By the time he finished the sixth volume, he says, the book had taught him some level of self-acceptance, had insinuated itself into his life, into his dreams. He sometimes woke with the sense that Knausgaard was outside his home, smoking; every memory of Knausgaard’s — burying beer in the snow, as an adolescent, to hide it — triggered one of his own. “Suddenly, I’m not ‘reading,’” Ballerini told me in an email, trying to capture the feeling he had. “I’m performing, I’m living the books.” It was the role of a lifetime — and yet it was one he was recording in a small studio, with only a sound engineer for an immediate audience.

He felt, when he finished, as if he’d been through six volumes’ worth of therapy; he appreciated that his career had changed, for the better, just not in the direction he’d anticipated. “I can’t pretend that there wasn’t frustration,” he said, recalling the opportunities that got away, including, in 2017, a canceled HBO series in which he would have had a significant role. “It was very depressing.” He cited the Vietnamese poet and monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “From mud, we have flowers. Out of that, I have this.” Or, as Jess Walter wrote in “Beautiful Ruins” — a book that turns on the story of an aspiring movie star whose life swerves away from that goal — “The smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” Ballerini was the lucky ambitious person who could see himself, by midlife, as a successful something, instead of a failed something else. Rather than fighting to be seen, he’d become an invisible star, disappearing just enough to let someone else’s story come through.

Audio of “The Fifth Column” courtesy of Macmillan audio. Audio of Alter’s translation of the Bible courtesy of Recorded Books.

Susan Dominus is a staff writer for the magazine. She last wrote about New Jersey’s first coronavirus patient.

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