Stefan Zucker interviews Carlo Bergonzi
Each one of these great tenors at the apex of tenors,
Bergonzi, Pavarotti and DomingoI dont think you can find defects.
He who doesnt have one thing has another. They are all worthy of the
names that they have.Carlo Bergonzi
We offer Luisa Miller with Bergonzi in the Bel Canto Society Store
THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW took
place on Opera Fanatic, on WKCR, October 12, 1985. Carlo Bergonzi
spoke in Italian (I translated). Also present in the studio were Dr. Umberto
Boeri, pediatrician, a close friend of Bergonzi; Robert Connolly, writer,
a frequent collaborator on the show; Kenneth Rapp, accompanist; Annamarie
Verde, Bergonzis New York concert producer; and other friends of Bergonzi.
Throughout the evening, we interspersed records of Bergonzi in songs and
SZ: With whom did you study?
CB: I first began to study as a baritone, beginning at the Parma Conservatory
with Maestro Ettore Campogalliani.
SZ: Campogalliani is still active. Americans sometimes go over to study
with him. Even at an advanced age, he chases sopranos around the piano.
Did he think of you as a baritone?
CB: That was not the maestros mistake but perhaps mine. At 15, I was
too young. I had a strong will to sing, to study, to go on stage: that had
always been my aspiration. My voice hadnt changed yet. Since boyhood
I had always had a rather dark voice, so the maestri were misled. I continued
to study as a baritone and made my debut in 48, in Barbiere, as
Figaro. I continued to sing as a baritone, until October 12, 1950. I performed
Figaro, Germont, Don Pasquale, Belcore, Enrico in Lucia, and one
performance of Rigolettoa turning point. We were on tour in
Puglia (Bari, Molfetta, Barletta). Tito Gobbi was to have sung the performance.
But as suddenly happens to singers, owing to a banal draft, my late, dear
friends voice deserted him. This was at eight in the evening, with
the performance scheduled to start at nine. The maestro asked me if I knew
Rigoletto and wanted to sing it. I had studied it to the point that I was
musically secure and, carried away by enthusiasm, said yes. During that
performance I began to understand that I was no baritone, for I didnt
succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments,
that the part demands, particularly in Act III. Still, I saw the performance
through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave
me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.
Kenneth Rapp: Who were the Duke and the Gilda?
CB: Gilda was Signora Baruffi, a singer with a beautiful voice, of whom
I heard nothing further. The Duke was Sinimberghi, who made a good career,
including several films. I went on to further performances as a baritone
and, since the maestri said I was very musical, they signed me for parts
for baritono brillante. Indeed, as a baritone I sang with some great
maestri: Serafin, De Sabata, Votto, Gavazzeni. No one ever said I was a
tenor instead of a baritone. I am much indebted to my wife, Adele, for my
career. One evening she was present at a Butterfly performance. The
tenor was Galliano Masini, the soprano was one of the first Japanese to
come to Italy, Tosiko Segava. In the dressing room that evening I sang C
naturalthe famous C from the chest (I dont know what C
from the chest means)at the end of Act I. Masini had sung it
badly, so I did it in the dressing room. Perhaps it was a stroke of fortune
or because I didnt know what it really meant to sing high C: to me
came perhaps the most beautiful C of my career. From that point, I really
began to think of changing register. Three months laterJanuary 12,
1951when my eldest son, Maurizio, was born, I made my tenor debut
as Andrea Chénier at the Petruzzelli in Bari. From then on, I sang
as a tenor. Nineteen fifty-one fortunately was the 50th anniversary of Verdis
death, and RAI signed me to sing the tenor leads in I due Foscari, Giovanna
dArco, Oberto, conte di San Bonifaccio, Aroldo, La forza del destino
and Simon Boccanegra.
SZ: Are there any tapes of you as a baritone?
CB: Unfortunately not. If they existed, theyd be something to laugh
about, but at least wed spend some happy moments.
SZ: Did you experience problems in switching to tenor?
CB: Since my voice really wasnt a baritone, in the three years I sang
as one I had to force my voice, in order to fatten it. For my first 15 days
as a tenor, I had some difficulty in lightening the sound, especially on
low notes. But I quickly found the right way, vocalizing on the breath,
lightening the voice and concentrating on legato.
SZ: As a baritone, what was your range?
CB: Not very high. I went up to F-sharp or G, but on G I was forcing, because
I wanted to fatten it, to make myself a baritone by strength.
SZ: When you began to retrain as a tenor, did your range change quickly?
CB: Over three months. When I was studying, I listened to recordsnot
to imitate themof four great tenors of the past: Caruso, Gigli, Schipa
and Pertile. Caruso, for the inimitable purity of the sound. Gigli, for
a vocal technique that sang on the piano and carried the note, linking it
to the forte. Schipa, for his inimitable technique, achieved by no one else,
that allowed him, without having a beautiful vocal quality, to become a
great tenor. Pertile, for vocal technique and technique of interpretation.
I tried to steal a little of this technique. Imitation is never good and
in the end is impossible. But I tried to understand the vocal position and
the way in which they emitted sound. I sang Belcore in Elisir and
Marcello in Bohème with Gigli and a tour of Elisir with
Schipa, and I learned a great deal.
SZ: As a baritone, what was your lowest note?
CB: My voice really wasnt made for low notes. The lowest you could
truly call a notenot a half noisewas B-flat.
SZ: After you switched to tenor, what was your lowest note?
CB: For a tenor, as you well knowfor I know that you are one and they
tell me you sing quite wellthe lowest note is a C. They say you are
an artist, and therefore you must know that a tenor must never force the
low notes but sing them lightly. They are called for, but theres no
need to exaggerate them. Today is October 12. At this hour 35 years ago
my elder son was born, and it was a pleasure to receive the telegram announcing
that, right after Act I and the Improvviso. That night a career
also was born thatwith some sacrifices on my part and on the part
of my wife, who has participated in my careerwe have carried on for
35 long years of successes, and that is the greatest merit that we can honor.
SZ: What sacrifices?
CB: We sacrificed everything. My wife and I have travelled around the world
perhaps three times. The satisfactions have been few. We have gotten to
know New York a little in recent years, but in the other cities we have
known only two things: hotel and theater. And my wife has prepared the luggage
many, many times.
SZ: What happened after your emergence as a tenor and those first Verdi
CB: Radio was then the most effective system of propaganda and today is
still very effective. Impresarios and agents took an interest in me, and
I was able to begin my career.
SZ: When did you make your Scala debut?
CB: In 1954, with a modern opera by Jacopo Napoli, Masaniello. I
have 71 operas in my repertory, including works by unknowns: Bianchi, Napoli,
Rocca, Pizzetti, Rota and Franchetti. That was before I began my great career
with repertory operas.
SZ: Did you study music as a boy?
CB: No, I went to elementary school, and then I worked with my father, making
parmesan cheese. At 14, I entered the conservatory, studying piano for five
years. In making the switch from baritone to tenor, I was self taught. I
also learned the 71 operas entirely by myself.
SZ: You have no coach or repetiteur?
CB: No. But Im not suggesting to young singers not to have a maestro,
for they are needed. Since no maestro told me I was a tenor, I studied on
my own and went ahead on my own.
Bill DiPeter: Was it a help or a hindrance to begin your career as a
CB: Without doubt, it was an advantage. Singing as a baritone gave me the
fundamentals, helping me to gather together the sounds, and to have a base
from which to build that which I built as a tenor.
Rosina Wolf: Whats the Due FoscariIm not speaking of
CB: Youre speaking of my restaurant and hotel in Busseto at the Piazza
Verdi. Travelling around the world, I found restaurants named after every
other Verdi opera, from Oberto to Falstaff, but no I due
Foscari; hence I chose the name.
Bill Masterson: You and Di Stefano caress phrases. But Raffanti, Pavarotti,
Raimondi and Ciannella dont phrase well. Is that because of their
voices or because of their techniques?
CB: The questions a little mischievous. Mr. Mastersons is a
personal opinion of the sort made by all opera fans. Pavarotti has his personal
singing that reaches the summit, and he is the most famous tenor in the
world today; thus I dont believe that he doesnt even know how
to phrase. In the time of Caruso, Schipa and Gigli, some liked the way one
phrased but not the others, and today nothing is changed. Someone may like
Bergonzi, someone else may prefer Pavarotti, someone else, Domingo. Each
one of these great tenors at the apex of tenorsI dont think
you can find defects. He who doesnt have one thing has another. They
are all worthy of the names that they have.
Michele Simone: The name of Bergonzi has joined those of the centurys
greatest tenors: Pertile, Gigli, etc. Will you ever again sing at the Met?
CB: Its up to the Mets administration to sign Bergonzi. I cant
intervene in these things, first of all because Ive never asked anything
of any theater. In 35 years of career, Ive never forced a maestro
or a theater to hire me. Ive always been signed for my natural gifts,
and thats my great satisfaction. For a season or two, a theater can
do without a particular tenor, because they havent appropriate repertory
and thus have no need of him.
Irwin Petri: Why is your upcoming concert a tribute to Gigli?
CB: That was my thought that I transmitted to my dear friend Eclesia Cestone
[who put up the money]. Having sung with Gigli and being a great fan, I
wanted to have the satisfaction of transmitting to the Carnegie Hall public
the songs and arias that he sang in his films. Gigli is the tenor who gave
me the greatest satisfaction.
Michael Tortora: What about Wagner, Lohengrin, in particular?
CB: Ive only sung Lohengrins arias.
Howard Hart: Are there roles youd like to sing?
CB: By now Im on the threshold of a long road. I still have the pleasure
of singing and of diverting myself, and I am happy that the public that
comes to hear me diverts itself. But theres no point in speaking of
Peter Wilson: Who are the great sopranos and mezzos with whom youve
sung, and what made them great?
CB: I have the misfortune that the years have passed and now we are heading
into old age; but I have the good fortune to have taken part in the period
of great sopranos. Ill tell you some names but may not remember them
all: Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov, Albanese, Kirsten, Scotto, Freni, Sutherlandwith
whom I sang Lucia at Covent Garden in April, where I had the great
satisfaction, still, at my age, of having an optimal success.
Bob Rideout: You are the great tenor stylist of recent years. What did
you think of Callas as performer and singer?
CB: I think about Callas as you perhaps do, as everyone does: she was unique
in singing and on stage.
Greg Gregory: You are the tenor of the world. I want to hear you sing
all my life. When I die, I want you singing in the background.
CB: I thank you. It would be a great honor. But I hope the occasion is far,
Eclesia Cestone: For a young singer, whats the most important thing
in pursuing a career?
CB: First and foremost, you need great discipline to never tire of vocalizing,
to do exercises for diaphragmatic breathing, to work on vocalizes by Concone
and on sung solfeggios.
Barbara Travis: Why do singers burn out early? Could it be because of
the pace of life today or because of their impatience to make careers?
CB: Youngsters want to do, to arrive quickly, to get to the finish line
before the right time, and they burn the candle at both ends. As a result
they tire themselves out, ruining their vocal qualities. A recommendation:
When you are young, time seems to go more slowly. Never tire of waiting.
Wait until the right moment to decide repertory. Its of no importance
if you make a career as a tenore leggero, for there is a vast repertory
for tenore leggero, as for lirico, lirico spinto and drammatico. Later,
if nature takes you from being a lirico to being a drammatico, youll
gradually get to do the entire repertory. But never tire of studying.
Anthony Frezola: What is required to be a Verdian singer?
CB: First of all, you must listen to the repertory a lot, to understand
the composer. For you to transmit what he wants, the music has got to enter
into your blood.
AF: Why is there a paucity of Verdian voices today?
CB: I have a contest at Busseto for Verdian voices and can assure you that
they still exist. But they dont get ahead because young singers are
in a hurry and accept roles unsuited to their voices. Hence they are constrained
to force, and the voices lose enamel and velvet instead of acquiring Verdian
SZ: Wasnt it ever thus?
CB: I have two authentic Verdi letters, given to me by Bussetos Carrara
Verdi, one dated 1872, the other from 86. Verdi laments the lack of
voices for his operas. Verdi is very difficult to interpret, and its
also difficult to get to the point where you can emit the sounds he wanted,
particularly for tenor parts, because the music tends to sit in the passaggio,
and to sing on F-sharp, G and A-flat for an entire aria is very difficult.
Thats why there have always been few Verdi tenors.
SZ: When was Verdian singing at its peak?
CB: If an appropriate tenor, soprano and baritone came forward, it would
be at its peak today. But the material is lacking. Sometimes you cant
play around and must tell the truth: if theaters would begin to hire young
singers for the right repertory, I assure you that Verdian, Puccinian and
Wagnerian voices would still come forward. Today, when a tenor with an easy
high C comes on the scene, they dont consider the colorwhether
its of a lirico leggero, a lirico spinto or a drammatico. He has the
C, so they quickly hire him for Trovatore, for only the Pira
is important. In Verdi, high notes are important, for he wrote them, even
though in Pira he didnt put in a C but a G. However, the
C is a beautiful tradition and thus one should do it. Phrasing, portamento,
tonal velvet and the bronze of the colorthese things are Verdian singing.
Not just the high C. Thirty-five years ago, when I began my career, there
were the following kinds of tenors: leggero, lirico leggero, lirico, lirico
spinto and drammatico. Today theres no difference: they have a Barbiere
tenor sing Rigoletto and Rigoletto tenor sing Otello.
Thus the categories are lost.
Russ Tyser: Is there a tenor now singing Otello who should be singing
CB: I dont know one.
SZ: Are there interesting singers in Italy we dont know of here?
CB: I dont know which young singers are appearing here.
SZ: Did any careers start as a result of the Busseto competition?
CB: Yes, Aragall, Malaspina, Gulin, Cappuccilli and others. Today theres
a truly good lirico-leggero tenor, Vincenzo La Scola.
SZ: Has he already been engaged to sing in the States?
CB: No, but he sang I Lombardi with the contest and has been engaged
by the Paris Opéra for La Fille du Régiment and La
sonnambula and by Lisbons São Carlos for Rigoletto.
Stewart Manville: Carlo Bergonzi, I adore the caressing quality of your
singing. Is that quality what is meant by slancio?
CB: No, slancio is something felt in the person.
SZ: Slancio applies to interpretation, not vocal quality.
Would you care to define it?
CB: When you interpret a phrase, putting in that vocal expression, that
signifies slanciogiving expression to the words.
SM: Id like to listen to you forever. Dr. Umberto Boeri: Slancio
may best be defined as oomph, propulsiveness or
a springing forward.
Miguel Nicoletta: I heard you sing with Leontyne Price some years ago
at the Teatro Colón. Please reminisce about those performances.
CB: I remember them with great enthusiasm. I also remember the enthusiasm
of the public, the management and the press. Thank you for calling the experiences
Now, Stefan, I have to ask you a question: tell me something about your
career. Ive heard a great deal about you but have never head you sing.
What repertory do you do?
SZ: I specialize in Bellinis high tenor parts. For example, I sang
the actual world premiere of Bellinis last setting of Adelson e
Salvini. My repertory includes Fernando in Bianca e Fernando, Puritani,
Sonnambula in the original keys, which are as much as a third higher
than those in scores published in this century. I also sing stratospheric
parts by Rossini and Donizetti, as well as music written by the 19th-century
tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini.
CB: Well, in bocca al lupo (into the mouth of the wolf), with
my very best wishes, because having gotten to know you, Ill tell you
the truth: Ive gotten to know someone of notable intelligence regarding
drawing distinctions and speaking of vocal technique. [For particulars about
Bergonzis voice placement, see Opera Fanatic magazine, Issue
1, p. 34 and Issue 2, p. 11. Issue 2 is still
available from Bel Canto Society for $3.95.]
SZ: Crepi il lupo (may the wolf croak). On behalf of the listeners
and myself, let me wish you in cullo alla balena (up the asshole of
CB: Yes, thats very important. Very good. Che non scorreggi (may
he not fart). (Bergonzis entourage applauds.)
Bob Connolly: Its almost as much a pleasure to hear Grande Uffiziale
Bergonzi speak as to hear him sing; the speaking is so beautifully produced,
it makes me realize that most of us Americans speak and sing in the throat.
SZ: For me, its a diction lesson. Were all high as a kite
CB: I thank you all for listening and phoning. For me it was a real treat.
The time flew. Arrivederci.