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Press About Conversations with Corelli

Encore (the magazine of BMG classical music service) reported:

Franco Corelli, known as “golden thighs” to opera audiences, was one of the world’s leading tenors from his La Scala debut in 1954 until his unofficial retirement from the stage in 1976. His matinee-idol looks coupled with his thrilling high notes earned him cult status during his singing career. A recent survey by the magazine Opera Fanatic [the radio program, really] named Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, out-polling even Björling (second), Caruso (third), and Domingo (nineteenth, tied with Jacques Urlus).

Jeannie Williams wrote in USA Today:

Look out Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti: Italian tenor Franco “Golden Thighs” Corelli, the Mel Gibson of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1960s, may be back. Corelli, who left opera in 1976, made a rare weekend appearance on a New York radio show, “Opera Fanatic.” He said he quit too soon, he wants to sing Verdi’s Otello and do recitals. His reappearance would sell out Carnegie Hall in hours….” (“Starwatch”)

Michael Redmond treated the same story in the Newark Star-Ledger:

Last week’s big buzz had to do with a live radio interview given by Franco Corelli to the irrepressible Stefan Zucker, host of “Opera Fanatic.” During the interview, Corelli indicated a clear interest in returning to the stage to perform and record the title role of Verdi’s Otello, the brightest jewel in the Italian tenorial crown.

Corelli never sang this role during the years that he was the most brilliant and exciting tenor alive…. Well, this was news,…It is also a matter of public record (i.e., listeners heard Corelli say it), as well as a matter of on-tape record. By early this week, Corelli was waffling about the whole thing, saying that he had been mistranslated. The interview had been conducted both in Italian, which Zucker then translated, and in English. A difficulty with Corelli’s explanation is that he had said it in English. Hmmm. So why all the fuss? Simply because a return by Franco Corelli to sing Otello, or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” for that matter, would surely become a candidate for “hottest operatic ticket of the 90s”…. I had had the privilege of overhearing Corelli sing while he was teaching in Newark. The tenor sounded fantastico, high notes and all….(“Corelli Comeback: Yes or No?”)

Audrey Farolino wrote in Page Six of the New York Post:

Will he or won’t he? That’s what opera fans are wondering about Franco Corelli, considered the world’s best and sexiest tenor during his heyday from the 1950s through the 70s. Corelli worked music lovers into a fever pitch earlier this month when he suggested on WKCR’s “Opera Fanatic” program that he would still like to perform in Verdi’s Otello, something he never did during his career. Since then, “the phone here has been going wild,” says Stefan Zucker, the show’s host….(“Corelli: Coming Back?”)

On one of the programs Corelli described his diet, which Jeannie Williams then reported in USA Today:

Sixties superstar tenor Franco Corelli says he’s eating nothing but bananas and yogurt daily, plus water and coffee—and it works.

Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News also made mention of the Corelli shows and the prospect of a comeback.
Listeners having voted Corelli Favorite Tenor of the Century, Stefan Zucker booked a date at a concert hall for him to be interviewed by the audience and me and be presented with an award. Marylis Sevilla-Gonzaga in Opera News, Bill Zakariasen in the New York Daily News, Iris Bass in Sightlines, Jeannie Williams in USA Today and Tim Page in Newsday all noted the event in advance, while Albert Cohen in the Asbury Park Press described the audience’s reaction:

Zucker arranged for a fascinating evening when he brought Corelli to the stage of Merkin Hall in New York City for an evening of talk. Part of the fun was the capacity audience. Talk about fanatics! Whenever someone recognizable entered, the applause would erupt. Jerome Hines, the Scotch Plains basso, was greeted warmly.
Pandemonium took over when Corelli appeared. Everyone was standing, whistling and shouting “Bravo.” The fans really went crazy when he was given his “Tenor of the Century” plaque during this unusual evening. (“Fans Go Wild over ‘Tenor of Century'”)

The Honorable David N. Dinkins, Mayor of the City of New York, proclaimed January 7, 1992 “Franco Corelli Day.” On that occasion Stefan Zucker interviewed Corelli in Gould Hall, taking a microphone into the auditorium à la Phil Donahue so that the public could speak with him as well. After intermission mayoral representative Dr. George Seuffert presented Corelli with the proclamation, which among many things cited his “thoughtful expertise and delightful sense of humor” in interviews.
Joseph Li Vecchi wrote about the event in Gramophone:

When Corelli walked out on stage at Florence Gould Hall the audience reacted as if Caesar had just returned from the conquests in Gaul….Corelli was interviewed by Stefan Zucker and he answered questions from the audience. We were also treated to a number of his recordings….Corelli fans are devoted to the great tenor and one lady even drove in from Cleveland for a chance to meet him. [Another came from Raleigh, another from Miami.] After the interview there was a reception….

Li Vecchi then described Corelli’s vocalism, citing high notes and diminuendos, and maintained:

There is no voice before the public today with Corelli’s combination of power, range and color….


Ann E. Feldman, wrote in Sightlines

I know for a fact that Edward Rothstein, chief music critic for The New York Times, was not at the Corelli Master Class sponsored by the Bel Canto Society on Monday night, May 2. (He was instead at some Marilyn Horne or Hermann Prey thing, I can’t quite remember which.) Given that I think someone should cover this event, I happily fall into the breach. The reason I know Mr. Rothstein was not present is that I met him for the first time while paying a condolence call on the Tuesday evening following, at the home of a couple to whom I had once expressed the opinion that I did not agree with Mr. Rothstein’s criticisms and that he did not appear to have a true grasp of the Italian repertory. These two people are old fiends of ours and have two lively, precocious, and somewhat mischievous daughters, the elder of whom chose to greet Mr. Rothstein at the door with “You can’t talk to Andy Feldman, she doesn’t like you.” (There goes my career!) Actually, I may not always agree with him, but, upon meeting him, I did like him.

Anyone who has never attended one of Stefan Zucker’s (the moving force behind the Bel Canto Society) “Corelli” events has no idea of the fun they are missing. Abbott and Costello could learn from these two, and the audience itself is worth the price of admission, given that it is composed almost entirely of lovingly hysterical Corelli groupies.

 For those of you who have never attended a master class, the format is basically this: a young singer enters, is introduced, and sings an aria, after which the Maestro comments on various aspects of the voice and technique. The singer then repeats various parts of the aria as prompted by the Teacher, who meanwhile demonstrates how he or she feels it should be done. It is actually a very interesting and instructive process, both for the audience and the student, and frequently you notice the improvement right then and there as the young singer attempts to follow the veteran’s promptings. As far as Mr. Corelli is concerned, we had witnessed him in this role once previously, at an evening sponsored by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation a year or so ago, and in our opinion he has a great deal to offer.

The latest event took place at Florence Gould Hall. Up front as usual sat Loretta Corelli, Franco’s still very attractive spouse, and the legendary soprano Licia Albanese. The stage of the hall was set up with a small dais upon which three chairs were lined up, at stage right, floral arrangements to its right and rear. In the center was the piano, and at stage left was a lectern with a microphone, which as it turned out no one ever used. After somewhat of a delay, Mr. Zucker was wheeled out in a wheelchair, pushed by Mr. Corelli and the accompanist with Stefan himself giving assistance by sort of rowing with a pair of crutches. For those of you who are not regular listeners to the “Opera Fanatic” show on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM on Saturday nights at 10:30 PM, Stefan has been in a wheelchair since falling ten feet through an open trapdoor in a health food store a couple of months ago, and it is only recently that he has been able to get around even in the chair. Mr. Corelli was greeted with the usual standing ovation and cheers from the sold-out house, followed by the usual sound system glitches (mike feedback, not being able to hear anybody onstage) that we “regulars” have come to expect on such evenings.

Things finally got more or less straightened out, and our first singer of the evening, a young Mexican tenor, made his appearance to sing Federico’s Lament from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana. (In fairness to the participants, I have chosen not to mention names, with one exception, so I can be freer in my remarks.) Our primo tenore bore a strong resemblance to José Carreras, and the voice, also, was similar in timbre, if a trifle bleaty. The legato was decent, the phrasing somewhat idiosyncratic, and the upper register more like a falsetto than a head tone, but still there was something there worth hearing. Mr. Corelli began his comments by saying that the young man had “a really beautiful voice.” I am afraid that I missed a good part of what he said after that because all of a sudden I was distracted by Stefan, in obvious discomfort, attempting to uncurl himself out of his wheelchair with the aid of crutches (the New Testament text of Jesus curing the paralytic and Lon Chaney, Sr. in “The Miracle” both flashed before my eyes). Well, Mr. Z was not “taking up his pallet” and walking, but simply getting himself into a upright position in order to be able to hold a wireless microphone for Mr. Corelli so that we might hear him better. Why someone else could not have been recruited for this task is beyond me. The odd thing is that anytime Franco would begin to sing a few bars in order to demonstrate how a phrase should be sung, the microphone was quickly withdrawn. One senses some prior arrangement had been reached concerning this. As usual, however, I digress. Back to the subject at hand. The Maestro pointed out the need for more legato, rounder tones in certain areas, and requested that other parts be taken more softly. He suggested that the interpolated B-flat not be taken, saying that only Gigli did it in Italy, and that he, Franco, preferred the ending the way Cilea had written it! (He’s right. Everybody tries the B-flat now, often with crude results, just to show off a high note frequently not worth showing off.) In the end, after the gentleman had left the stage, Corelli also commented on how the color of the voice reminded him of Carreras.

Our next tenor (four out of five of the evening’s participants were tenors) was a very handsome fellow who chose as his aria “Che gelida manina.” For some reason Stefan and Maestro Corelli were both hanging on to the microphone in a chummy fashion at this point so I may not have heard correctly, but I could swear that Stefan, in introducing Tenor Two, said that he had recently sung SEVENTY performances of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Sweden. If so it is a wonder that his vocal cords weren’t in vapor lock. In any event, although he was very cute (in spite of his oddly oversized shirt collar and his scuffed cowboy boots), he sang stiffly, with indifferent pronunciation, no inflection (all those Hoffmanns?), and off pitch. He did nail his high C and pulled off a nice piano on “vi piaccia dir.” Mr. Corelli was kind, saying that “it was not so easy to do this right away,” telling Tenor Two to begin more sweetly, with more legato and with care for what he was saying. He demonstrated by crooning the phrase “e i bei sogni miei” and I melted into a puddle…such memories! Tenor Two tried again, and was somewhat better, though one was still jarred by such things as “yew SA tee” (“usati”), “pa ROLL lay,” and “sin YORE ay.” Still, there is a voice there, and one must make allowances for the circumstances which could have given anyone a case of nerves and have affected performance.

Stefan took the opportunity during the space between Tenor Two and the next performer to comment on the “dreamy” quality of Mr. Corelli’s own “Che gelida manina,” to which he replied that Puccini’s music “goes inside” for him. He added that he would have done more Bohèmes at the Met, but that they needed him for heavier roles.

 Our next singer was a pleasant surprise (there was no printed program so we had no idea who or what was coming next): neither tenor nor novice, but a baritone and consummate professional, Theodore Lam-brinos. Mr. Lambrinos was one of the principal singers in the US premiere of Verdi’sJérusalem at Carnegie Hall this past season. He is covering the Met’s Boccanegras next season. On the present occasion, he sang the Prologue from Pagliacci, while the Maestro beamed his approval. After, Mr. Corelli praised the voice: its size, color, legato, and easy high notes. He did suggest again more “roundness” and a discussion centering on the passaggio of baritone voices ensued. Mr. Lambrinos repeated a large part of the Prologue with the approval of the enthusiastic audience, after which Mr. Corelli, commenting on the difficulty of the aria, said, “he does it easy and he laughs…he’s happy!” (recalling to mind this tenor’s own legendary stage nerves). The two artists then shook hands warmly.

Meanwhile, the pianist had trotted off to tell Tenor Three that he was next (we had a feeling that someone had not shown up). After a few more minutes of interesting repartee between Stefan and Franco, he arrived. Originally from China, he related a story of how, when he was growing up back in the days of Chairman Mao, his oldest brother had borrowed a tape of opera featuring, as chance would have it, Franco Corelli. (At that time, even opera was disapproved of as a symbol of decadent Western civilization.) When our young singer had heard it, his reaction was, “A god is singing here!” Tenor Three’s selection for this evening was “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller. This is a voice we are going to hear from: a big easy sound produced with the aid of a long breath line and a nice ring. His face is wide across the mask, perfect for resonance. Apparently he has already begun to be noticed, having won a major competition recently. Roles performed include Calaf and Don José. He studies with a 90-year-old Italian singer born in Rome.

Maestro Corelli praised the beauty of the voice, the legato, the “heart.” He commented on the squillo and the brilliance. He suggested a different ending to the cadenza (again preferring the one written), and wanted the “quando le sere” more mezza voce. There was one incident that will give you a better idea of the nature of the crowd in attendance. Tenor Three was having trouble with the sequence of notes in the phrase “amo te sol dicea” and Maestro Corelli kept trying to correct him without success. Finally, the entire audience hummed in unison!

Intermission followed, and then a second Chinese tenor, very tall, with dimples, also with an excellent, somewhat lighter voice and very good technique. He sang “Addio fiorito asil” from the third act of Butterfly. Mr. Corelli suggested broadening the tempo, which made it sound even better when the young man repeated the aria.

Mr. Lambrinos appeared again, giving us “Il balen” from Il trovatore, and this in turn was followed by a brief question-and-answer session which touched on such subjects as Mr. Corelli’s sense that vocal technique began to decline after 1963, and on his personal favorites among operatic greats (Gino Bechi for his charisma and command in spite of a faulty technique which caused his voice to begin failing at a fairly early age; Gigli, Lauri-Volpi, Masini). When Mr. Corelli was asked his advice for young singers, a member of the audience answered first, saying “Study plumbing.” The evening ended with an autograph session, for which we did not remain. On the sidewalk outside Florence Gould Hall, a tenor who had been sitting behind us in the audience was serenading Licia Albanese with a section of the duet from Butterfly, and for a brief moment she joined in. When out-of-towners ask us how we can stand living in New York, these are the things we remember. (“Maestro Corelli Does a Master Class”)


 

Speranza declared,

“Stefan Zucker is a bel canto singer and radio host of ‘Opera Fanatic.’ His program airs each Saturday at 10:30 PM on WKCR (FM) in NY. He too is a great lover of la cultura italiana. Notable are his wonderful interviews with the great tenor Franco Corelli.”

On one of the programs Corelli described his diet, which Jeannie Williams then reported in USA Today: “Sixties superstar tenor Franco Corelli says he’s eating nothing but bananas and yogurt daily, plus water and coffee and it works.”

Jeannie Williams also published about the Corelli shows in New York magazine: 

The Phantom of the Opera Returns

“An event of ‘Garbo talks!’ proportions is unfolding in a cluttered little radio studio at Columbia University.

“As Warren Beatty once baffled Barbara Walters, and Marlon Brando fired hardballs at Connie Chung, so another media odd-coupling has set New York opera fanatics to frothing and sobbing. Stefan Zucker, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the world’s highest tenor,’ has bagged for his WKCR show the reclusive Franco Corelli, Italian dramatic-tenor god of the Metropolitan Opera’s golden 60s.

“Corelli quit the stage in 1976, leaving vivid memories of glorious high Cs, movie-star good looks, and stratospheric duels with sopranos. Those are the days mourned by the cognoscenti.

“After retiring, the still-elegant Corelli hunkered down, teaching young singers and dividing his time among his Carnegie Hall vicinity apartment, Milan, and Rome.

“Enter the knowledgeably eccentric Zucker, whose audience thrives on debating the merits of booing and the diversities of divas. For years, he begged Corelli to appear; now the tenor, in his mid-sixties, has done four guest spots. He and pal Jerome Hines, the famed bass, stuck it out for five hours of call-ins during the first appearance, in February. And the tenor has been revealed as ‘an intelligent, analytical, shrewd man,’ says Zucker, ‘giving the lie to the idea he was a stud with a fabulous larynx but no brains.’ Corelli’s English is better than he thinks, though he sometimes reverts to Italian, with Zucker translating. His feisty little red-haired wife, Loretta, sits silently in the studio, restraining Zucker from asking personal questions (one female caller wanted to know what it was like to lie in Corelli’s arms).

“Corelli has dropped bombshells on the show. He said that he quit too soon, and admitted he would like to record again perhaps Verdi’s Otello and to do concerts. Offers flooded in from promoters; fans sneaked past the Columbia security to see the great Corelli again.”

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Francisco Araiza

by Stefan Zucker

After declining for 150 years, vocal virtuosity is on the upswing. In particular, 25 years ago few tenors sang roulades or high Cs. The number who do is steadily burgeoning, though their singing sometimes lacks personality, passion and charm.

The differences between Nicola Monti on a Melodram recording of a Naples performance of La cenerentola in 1958 and Francisco Araiza on a CBS studio recording of the opera from 1980 are representative of the typical differences among tenors—I’m tempted to say singers—then and now. Monti is sunny and ingratiating, his mezza voce caressing. But he omits the trills, smudges the coloratura at conductor Mario Rossi’s fast clip and sounds uncomfortable upstairs. The technical demands are beyond him and his range is simply too short: had the more difficult and high-flying passages not been cut, he probably would have been unable to sing the part.

Araiza sings it uncut, hitting all the notes—except the trills, which he too avoids. He has marvelous agility and velocity, and the high Cs hold no terrors. But, however proficient, he is charmless and mechanical. I have found no evidence that anyone in Rossini’s day produced his tone like Araiza, with the locus of resonation far forward in the face.

Compared to such turn-of-the-century interpreters of Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia as Fernando De Lucia and Alessandro Bonci, Araiza is uninspired in his treatment of rhythm. Their singing abounds in rubato; his is comparatively four square.

Until recently, the music of every composer was interpreted in accordance with the performance practices not of the composer’s time but of the interpreter’s. De Lucia came of age musically around 1880, at the height of the Romantic era. His liberal use of rubato suggests Barbiere or, even more, La sonnambula had been composed then. His recordings, “Son geloso” in particular, challenge us to decide how literal one should be in construing Bellini’s tempos and rhythms. Did Bellini assume that a singer would use rubato so extensively? Did Bellini intend him to? Is De Lucia simply emphasizing romantic tendencies in Bellini’s music or is he adding something extraneous? Does the music benefit from his approach? Is he inspired or wayward? Where are the boundaries? De Lucia is inquiry stimulating. Bonci, no less sensitive to the music, is less extreme in his liberties—as is his successor Dino Borgioli.

Araiza is probably the best recent Belmonte, in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. At a 1984 performance at The Metropolitan Opera, he hit most of the notes dead on, with big, bright tones so well focused as to make intonation lapses more noticeable. In the notoriously florid “Ich baue ganz,” he was accurate in the stepwise passages, less so in the arpeggiated ones. He interpolated both a small cadenza before the repeat of the main theme and some ornamentation in the repeat itself—as well as a few extra breaths. He pronounced German well (unusual in an Hispanic singer) and acted energetically. But his singing was more impressive than beautiful. And he wasn’t very interesting: His dynamics were sometimes random, sometimes inert. He failed to emphasize melodic climaxes and to distinguish melody from ornamentation through volume or accentuations. He sang with little tenderness and was boring in tender passages. He hardly ever shaded his tone and managed to be vigorous yet dull.

To obtain precise articulation of florid passages Araiza aspirated. Many listeners—and some reviewers—find aspiration unendurable, yet musicologists and performers point to period writings suggesting that in the 17th and 18th centuries aspiration, or at least “detached” singing, was accepted practice. My own experience is that the clarity of articulation achievable with aspiration can prove useful in certain contexts. In special cases aspiration is highly desirable. For example, in the quartet in La scala di seta the tenor has triplets against the other singers’ duplets. I aspirated the triplets so as to differentiate the rhythm of my part from that of the others (Aspiration can be a crutch, and I am not advocating it be used promiscuously.) In Entführung, Araiza, for my taste, aspirated too heavily. [Araiza and I discuss aspiration in our radio interview, rebroadcast on this Website. The interview took place subsequent to the writing of this article.]

Singers sustain interest in many ways, interpretation and temperament among them. Luciano Pavarotti does so through charisma; Tito Schipa, through charisma, charm and musical sensitivity; Giuseppe Di Stefano, through passion and feeling for words; Enrico Caruso, through warmth and emotion. Araiza isn’t endowed with an extraordinary supply of these qualities. On a recording of lirico-spinto warhorses made in 1986, he relies instead on musical effects, such as contrasting soft singing with loud. His interpretations of the album’s two Puccini pieces, “Che gelida manina” and “E lucevan le stelle,” are satisfying, for in addition to alternating dynamics, he does sing with some tenderness and fervor. But in the aria from Eugene Onegin, one misses Dmitri Smirnoff’s plaintive quality, his wistful yearning. In the Arlesiana aria, Araiza lacks both bitter melancholy for the opening and desperation and slancio (surge, oomph) for the end—as well as vocal punch and core on the high As, where the voice is unassertive and veiled, particularly on dark vowels (ah, oh, oo). Perhaps the recording’s most underinterpreted selection is “Ah! fuyez, douce image” (Manon), where he sings as if he hadn’t considered the importance of the notes in relation to each other or thought about which leads ahead to which. In the middle voice he produces a strong round tone, but he doesn’t imbue the high B-flats with longing, pleading or desperation, nor is he able, in the alternative, to trumpet them forth; however, on higher notes, such as the Bohème aria’s C or the interpolated high D at the end of “Possente amor,” the voice takes on brilliance. Stylistically he is an anomaly: a latin singer with a German sound who achieves legato in the German manner since the 30s—almost without portamento. The music on the record, mostly from the late 19th century, was first performed by singers who used portamento generously.

Araiza is never tasteless. At his worst he is earthbound, offering conscientious observance of interpretation markings in the score without going beyond them. At his best he is an excellent singer who just misses striking sparks.

Since 1983 he gradually has undertaken more dramatic repertory although he has said it may force him to abandon high parts. Having already performed Rodolfo, Faust and Lohengrin, he is scheduled for Chénier and wants to do Alvaro, Carlo, Manrico and Max. He succeeded in florid repertory by virtue of technical prowess. In dramatic parts, however, his relatively bland vocal personality probably will tell against him. Further, he might produce a more heroic sound at the expense of vocal gleam. On a recent recording of Maria Stuarda, his tone is brassier but also thicker and coarser—the classic tradeoff.

Araiza has said that Neil Shicoff and Luis Lima are at the same point in their careers as he and are performing much of the same repertory. Of the three Shicoff has the prettiest middle voice but is the least expressive and musically secure, Lima has the greatest emotional intensity and Araiza the most proficiency. (Update: in La Juive at The Met, in 2003, Shicoff’s voice was untrue in pitch and coarse—but he finally found his soul. The tradeoff was worth it.)

This article, written in 1990, is reprinted from The International Dictionary of Opera and The St. James Opera Encyclopedia, with additions and minor changes.

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Erna Berger

As Violetta in Ave Maria
As Violetta in Ave Maria

Born October 19, 1900 in Cossebaude, outside Dresden, Erna Berger traveled with her parents to Paraguay after WW I. In 1924 she scraped together enough money to return to Germany, where she studied voice with Herta Boeckel and Melitta Hirzel, in Dresden. In 1925 she was engaged by Fritz Busch for the Sächsische Staatsoper there, making her debut as a Knabe in Die Zauberflöte. In 1928 she appeared there in the world premiere of Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helena and in 1929 made her debut in Berlin’s Städtischen Oper (now the Deutsche Oper Berlin), in Hans Pfitzner’s Christelflein. Toscanini engaged her for the Junger Hirt in Tannhäuser, for the 1929 Bayreuth season, after which she sang the Erste Blumenmädchen and Waldvogel there. In 1932 she debuted in Salzburg, as Blondchen. In 1934 she joined the Berlin Staatsoper, where she continued for 30 seasons. Making her Covent Garden debut in 1934, where she returned in 1938 and 1947, in 1949-50 Berger sang at the Met, opening the season as Sophie, also appearing as Gilda, Der Königin der Nacht, Rosina, Woglinde and Waldvogel. After the war she gave concert tours in North America, South America, Australia and Japan. In 1960 she became a professor of singing at Hamburg’s Musikhochschüle and published her autobiography, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges. Erinnerungen einer Sängerin.(1) She died June 14, 1990 in Essen. A street in Dresden was renamed in her honor.

Her recordings include the Shepherd, in a Tannhäuser recorded by Columbia at Bayreuth in 1930, a 1938 Königin der Nacht, under Sir Thomas Beecham, two Gildas, respectively for RCA and Deutsche Grammophon, Hänsel und Gretel, Martha and Hoffmann’s Erzählungen for Urania, a live Ariadne auf Naxos from 1935, on BASF, and a film of Don Giovanni in 1954. She recorded songs and arias for Columbia, HMV, Polydor and Bellaphon and sings in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the Bel Canto Society DVD D0052, Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil

–Stefan Zucker


1. Erna Berger, Auf Flügeln des Gesanges. Erinnerungen einer Sängerin (Zurich: Atlantis Musikbuch, second edition, 1989)

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Fernando Corena and the Basso Buffo

by Stefan Zucker

The basso buffo tradition began in Naples in the early 18th century with the Casaccia family, who dominated buffo singing there for four generations, generally performing in dialect. Some members went in for broad comedy. Stendahl had this to say of Carlo Casaccia in connection with his appearance at the city’s Teatro dei Fiorentini in Pietro Carlo Guglielmi’s Paolo e Virginia in 1817:

[T]he famous Casaccia . . . is enormous, a fact that gives him opportunity for considerable pleasant buffoonery. When seated, he undertakes to give himself an appearance of ease by crossing his legs; impossible; the effort that he goes through topples him onto his neighbor; a general collapse. This actor, commonly called Casacciello, is adored by the public; he has the nasal voice of a Capuchin. At this theater everyone sings through his nose.

During the 18th century two types of buffo emerged: the “buffo nobile,” or noble comic, and the “buffo caricato,” or exaggerated comic. The same singers who undertook “basso cantante” or non-comic lyric bass roles also frequently sang those for buffo nobile, for they are similar in vocal demands, often requiring virtuosity. Buffo caricato parts, on the other hand, were a specialty, calling for falsetto singing in imitation of women and, above all, patter singing or chatter. Beauty of tone is of small consequence for a buffo caricato, mastery of comic effect essential. The part of Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia is for buffo nobile, that for Don Bartolo in the same opera for buffo caricato. The florid passages for Mustafà in L’Italiana in Algeri are not very different from those for Assur in Semiramide, and in fact both roles were written for Filippo Galli, who moved comfortably between the nobile and cantante genres. On the other hand Taddeo in L’Italiana is a patter part.

Fernando Corena had wonderful flair as a buffo caricato, his best role: Bartolo—at first grand and expansive, exuding self-importance and pomposity, then sputtering with outrage. He invariably stole the show. But when he crossed over into parts for basso cantante, such as Il conte Rodolfo in La sonnambula or those for buffo nobile, such as Mustafà, he sounded ungainly—labored in coloratura and spread in pitch. Still, his voice was truer than that of Salvatore Baccaloni, his immediate predecessor. Corena was able to swat out Mustafà’s Gs, beyond the range of many basses; however, particularly in later years he sounded effortful in the high tessitura of the L’elisir d’amore entrance aria, with its many Es. His voice retained substance no matter how quickly he chattered. And he was masterful at caricaturing women in falsetto, for example, at the interpolated words “sul tamburo” in Barbiere. In recordings of arias from Le Caïd and Philemon et Baucis, although he lacks the coloratura facility, impeccable legato and pinpoint accuracy of intonation of the legendary Pol Plançon, he sings with more personality, exuberance and variety of tonal inflection. Plançon dazzles, but Corena’s more fun.

On stage, Baccaloni, a comedian, was never out of character. He claimed to have prepared five ways to play each moment, once remarking, “I choose. Only a fool improvises.” Corena, a clown, often improvised—and frequently amused himself by playing pranks on other singers. He was better at expressing extroverted feelings than deep dark emotions. Portraying Falstaff as a clown, he failed to capture the character’s reflective side. As Leporello he was a delight in the “Catalogue” aria, somewhat of a disappointment toward the opera’s end. As Don Pasquale he was a triumph—except in those passages calling for pathos. Above all, Corena excelled at detailing foibles and pomposity. He was pre-eminent in his repertoire from the mid-50s until the late 70s.

This article, written in 1991, is reprinted from The International Dictionary of Opera and The St. James Opera Encyclopedia, with additions and minor changes.

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Franco’s Big Break

A letter from Marina Boagno, author of Corelli: A Man, A Voice

According to the Tosca film credits, Sciarrone is one Aldo Relli. This is the stage name of Ubaldo Corelli, Franco’s brother. One might think, here is a typical case of nepotism: the famous tenor bringing in some family. Instead, it was the other way around. Ubaldo, a good baritone, had graduated from the Santa Cecilia Conservatory and was taking his career rather easy. He had been comfortably singing small roles for a number of years when he was chosen for Sciarrone.

Ubaldo heard that Carmine Gallone was looking for a good-looking young tenor to act Cavaradossi. The director’s intention was to have Ferruccio Tagliavini record the music. Ubaldo, who was friendly with Gallone, showed him a photo of his “baby brother.” Not only was Franco handsome, but, Ubaldo insisted, he also was very good at singing. Gallone met the young tenor—and that is how Franco Corelli came to be cast as Cavaradossi.

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Robert Merrill

by Stefan Zucker

Gifted with a powerful, resonant and biting voice, Robert Merrill is supposed to have quipped, “When in doubt, sing loud.” In fact, he almost never sang any way but loud. He had a plangent sound but frequently sang as if by rote, failing to communicate rhythmic pulse, much less musical ebb and flow or feeling for drama in music. For him the basic unit of utterance was the note, not the phrase. The notes themselves stayed more or less at the same volume and thus lacked dynamic direction. As a result he couldn’t prepare emphases with crescendos. This, combined with his tendency to treat legato passages as if they were declamation and to substitute bluster and cliched snarls for emotional substance, caused much of the music he sang to sound jagged. Nevertheless, his legato was excellent, for he was able to join notes together seamlessly (unlike many Americans who habitually disrupt legato passages with sudden, quick diminuendos before the consonants d and t).

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Gianna Pederzini

“Gianna Pederzini had personality and charisma and was a great artist. Her voice was beautiful: round and dark. When I sang Carmen with her, in 1953, she was no longer young, but she still had an exceptional figure. She had strong eyes, green, the color of steel. She was a beautiful woman—beautiful face, beautiful nose, the most beautiful legs in opera. She knew how to be beautiful and to impose her beauty in the theater. She was a real woman. I was lost in her arms.”—Franco Corelli, discreetly, in the presence of his wife, on the radio program “Opera Fanatic,” July 20, 1991

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Gertrude Pitzinger

Gertrude Pitzinger (1904-c. 1996), contralto, was born in Mährisch-Schänberg (Krásná Hora), in what became Czechoslovakia. After teaching school, in 1926 she received a diploma from the Vienna Music Academy, in music teaching. She studied lieder with Julia Culp. Pitzinger sang her first concert in 1929, in Olmütz (Olomouc), Czechoslovakia. From 1935 until World War II she gave concerts in Austria, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Holland and Belgium. In 1937 she sang in Beethoven’s Ninth in London under Furtwängler, and she appeared in 1938 at Carnegie Hall and The Town Hall, New York. In 1937 and 1941 she performed in Prague; 1941 brought her to Holland. Until 1940 Pitzinger could be heard regularly in concerts and lieder recitals in Berlin. At the Salzburg Festival she sang, among other things, Dvorák’s Stabat Mater, 1934, Mozart’s Requiem, 1951-1959, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, 1955-1957, and Handel’s Judas Makkabäus, 1953. She particularly was known as a Bach interpreter.

The Czechs viewed her as a collaborator, so in 1945 she had to leave her homeland and lived at first in Landsitz, in the Black Forest. After 1959 she was a Professor at the Musikhochschule, in Frankfurt am Main, and continued to give concerts. She was married to the Danish concert singer Otto Dupont. Later in life she became a personal friend of the American right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche and his wife, the German Helga Zepp-LaRouche, heads of the German political party Patriotten für Deutschland.

Pitzinger’s recordings are on Amadeo, Quadrigafon, DGG (Mozart’s Requiem, Bruckner’s Te Deum, lieder) and on BASF (Brahms lieder).
–Stefan Zucker

The above essay was excerpted from the booklet to Great Conductors of the Third Reich: Art in the Service of Evil.

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Giovanni Battista Rubini: Last of a Breed

Excerpted from The Origins of Modern Tenor Singing

Giovanni Battista Rubini Ruled as the Paragon of Virtuoso Tenors, King of the High Fs
by Stefan Zucker

Rubini was Bellini’s favorite tenor. In a letter to his friend and confidant Francesco Florimo, the composer observed, “You have good reason to say that at the entrance of Rubini [in Il pirata] it seemed to you as if you were seeing an angel, for he said it [the music] with an incomprehensible divineness….” At the time of his death, Bellini was about to refashion Norma for Rubini for the 1835-36 season of the Théâtre-Italien. Specifically he was going to replace the tenor aria and the Pollione-Adalgisa duet, add a second tenor aria and rework most of the tenor lines. Though Bellini died before he could make these revisions, Rubini went on to become the most famous Pollione of his day. When he was unable to appear in a series of Norma performances at the Italien in 1837 because of illness, the Parisian audience became dispirited and could take no pleasure in Norma or any other opera. Continue reading Giovanni Battista Rubini: Last of a Breed

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Tito Schipa

Tito Schipa’s was the most lyrical sensibility of them all, the most elegiac, sublime and endearing (with the exception of Giuseppe Anselmi). Schipa’s singing was conversational in its intimacy. He reconciled the conflicting demands of legato and diction so as to excel at both. No Italian tenor on records has imbued words with more significance. Since Fernando De Lucia, Alessandro Bonci and Dino Borgioli, no Italian tenor has equalled Schipa’s expressive use of rubato (taking time from one note or group of notes and giving it to others). He composed songs and an operetta, conducted orchestras, spoke a number of languages and wrote an autobiography.

Schipa was one of the last tenori di grazia, an anomaly in the age of the verismo tenor, in a century with a mania for heavy voices, voices with volume. If anything, as an interpreter he understated. Like Anselmi and Borgioli, to be truly appreciated he first had to leave Italy. In this country he was lionized like a Hollywood matinee idol and, although married with children, made love to a legion of women. His obsessively jealous wife became an alcoholic. They separated. At 57 he had a second family, with a woman 35 years his junior–and continued with what his son describes as his “incorrigible don-juanism.” (It later emerged that Schipa had had a daughter by still another woman.) His fees were the equivalent of any opera star’s ever, but he squandered much of the money and because of his ex-wife and bad business deals lost the rest. After the war he was dogged here, in Europe and South America by accusations by Walter Winchell, among others, that he had been “Mussolini’s tenor.”

I studied with Schipa but subsequently took my singing in a different direction. His real legacy is his records and films, of which I Sing for You Alone is the first of ten full-length features. (The film also was released under the title Three Lucky Fools.) Particularly before dubbing was introduced, in 1935, it was not unusual to shoot several versions of the same film, each in a different language, with many variations in detail, including supporting casts. Schipa also made I Sing for You Alone in Italian as Tre uomini in frac (of which no prints appear to survive) and in French as Trois hommes en habit (#655). He sings some songs in French in the French version that are in English in the English version.

In both versions he is at his most caressing and works his magic on eight songs including “Marechiare.” The plot: He breaks on a high note because of stage fright. They boo him savagely and run him out of town, but in the end he sings a concert and subjugates them. Lovely print.–Stefan Zucker