OAKLAND -- Alessandro Brustenghi is a small man with a big smile and an even bigger voice. He also happens to be the first religious brother to sign a recording contract with a major record label.
On Wednesday, Friar Alessandro of the Franciscan order demonstrated his tenor before 1,400 children from Oakland and San Francisco at Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light and a squadron of watchful chaperones.
"It got me to reflect about myself, how beautiful everything is," said Tyler McCown, an eighth-grade pupil at St. James School in San Francisco.
Some of the mothers had pulled out their cellphones to record the performance and many of the usually fidgety children craned their necks to see Brustenghi on stage.
Listeners in the back of the cathedral had a hard time hearing the "Voice from Assisi," as Brustenghi's record label, Decca/Universal Music Group, calls the 35-year-old Franciscan monk.
He hates microphones and does not even like his hearing his own voice.
"What is beautiful is the sensation of singing. It's a gift of natural creation," said Brustenghi, who wears the earth-brown robes of his order, Birkenstock sandals and his black curly hair closely cropped. Singing, he said, "I'm in Heaven. I'm connected with God."
The microphone, he added, is necessary sometimes -- such as when he records music for his label -- but he eschews the use of one because they are "not natural."
"He screams goodness and wholesomeness," said Gene Yraola, of Universal Music Group.
"Imagine if Andrea Bocelli was a friar," Yraola said, referring to the Italian tenor and disciple of opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
Although he is the first monk to make a best-selling recording, Universal signed two groups of nuns whose recordings have hit number one. "The music is therapeutic," Yraola said.
After the concert, men and women in pastels and flowers escorted Brustenghi and the children to Lakeside Park. There hundreds of volunteers had set up tents and ribbons to give it the theme of a Renaissance fair in Umbria, Italy.
The program was sponsored by Francis in the Schools.
With 2,000 attendees, this was the largest production since the program began in San Francisco in 2010. So when the Christ the Light Cathedral offered to host the concert, "we didn't hesitate," the program's founder, Carol Weyland Conner, said.
It took 38 buses just to everyone to the cathedral.
This is the first year Oakland schools -- St. Elizabeth Elementary School and Saint Martin de Porres -- were invited to the event.
"We're blessed that we were chosen," said Sister Regena Ross of the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose as she watched a group of her St. Elizabeth students dancing in the park with children from other Catholic schools.
Otherwise, they would never have experienced watching a friar singing opera, combining his gift for music with the gospel of St. Francis, she said. "It's beyond unreal."
Unreal is how Brustenghi might describe the journey that brought him to the Bay Area for a series of concerts, including two in San Francisco this weekend at the National Shrine of Saint Francis.
The music student was told by instructors at the State Conservatory of Francesco Morlacchi in Perugia that his voice wasn't good enough. He kept singing, training himself, and by 2012 he was on an airplane to London to record "Tenor in Sandals," at the Abbey Road Studios with Mike Hedges, producer for U2.
Since then a half-million viewers have watched him singing 12th-century songs on YouTube, and on Tuesday the recording company released his second CD, "Voice of Joy."
The money goes to charity, and instead of five-star hotels on his tour of the United States he will stay at the local friaries.
Brustenghi said he resisted the journey at first. Now he said he looks at as a mission.
"This is the power of singing. This is the power of art."