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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

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Joseph Schmidt

Ein Lied geht um die Welt originally was to have been titled Der Sänger des Volkes (The People’s Singer), but the censors balked because Schmidt was a Jew. But popular he and his films were and this one, his fourth (out of a total of seven), was the most so. The press wrote that “the voice of Joseph Schmidt is recorded in its full clarity and natural warmth” and that the audience was “delirious” at the premiere, on May 9, 1933. Then and there, at the crowd’s insistence, he performed songs from the film. Even Goebbels applauded enthusiastically–he reportedly said he was going to have him declared an honorary Aryan. The film is noteworthy for, among other things, Schmidt’s sensitive portrayal of a man consumed by love. In the Buzzi Peccia song “Mal d’amore” his shadings and, especially, his rubatos are so subtly graduated that one has to listen again and again to fathom them. (I’ve watched this segment of the film about 40 times.)

In general, Schmidt’s virtues are tonal beauty, accuracy of intonation, plasticity of rhythm, seamlessness of legato, ease of emission and brilliance of trills and other coloratura. His high Cs and Ds come easily, without his having to resort to “covering” the tone. Critics at the time sometimes claimed his voice was small, the middle and bottom weak. More like a Björling than a Gigli, Schmidt, I think, is inclined to be monochrome; however, this is not true of his “Mal d’amore.”

Had Schmidt had his way Ein Lied geht um die Welt would not have been made, at least as it stands. He had objected to the plot, which revolves around his short stature (in reality, five feet), but the director, Richard Oswald, convinced him to go ahead.

Throughout Schmidt’s career his height was a discussion topic. When he sang in this country, in 1937, he was billed as “The Tiny Man with the Great Voice” as well as “The Pocket Caruso.”

The part of the film that deals with Schmidt’s radio career also is based on his life: When he came to audition for Berlin radio, in 1929, they looked with amusement at this “midget” and asked what he wished to sing. “Whatever you want,” he replied. The pianist plunged in with “Di quella pira”–and Schmidt obliged. Jadlowker (whom he admired) had become too expensive for a radio Idomeneo. Schmidt sightread the principal aria, “Fuor del mar.” The result: his radio debut as Vasco da Gama, in L’Africaine.

Prior to April 1, 1933, when Hitler prohibited Jews from appearing on the radio, Schmidt broadcast nearly every week, including 42 remarkably disparate operas: La Muette de Portici, Robert le diable, Guillaume Tell, Louise, Idomeneo, Dinorah, Dom Sébastien, Il trovatore, Jean de Paris (Boïeldieu), I vespri siciliani, Benvenuto Cellini, Bánk Bán (Erkel), Don Carlos, La fanciulla del West, I masnadieri, Salome (in which he sang Narraboth), Le Postillon de Longjumeau, I due Foscari, Mefistofele, Boris Godunov, Semiramide, Euryanthe, L’elisir d’amore, Un ballo in maschera, Der Barbier von Bagdad and others; all were sung in German. Later, on Vienna radio he performed Il barbiere di Siviglia and I puritani, again in German.

As in the film, his real-life ambition was to sing opera onstage, a goal he reached only in 1939-40 when he performed La bohème 24 times, in Brussels and on tour in Belgium and Holland. (He did not, as is widely believed, appear in La Juive.)

Fleeing the Nazis, Schmidt went to what soon became Vichy France. In 1942 he entered Switzerland illegally and was interned in a labor camp where he died of heart failure, at age 38. His complaints of chest pains had been ignored. “They take me for a malingerer,” he had said. An hour before his death he was singing.–Stefan Zucker

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José Soler: Among the Last Heroic Tenors

by Stefan Zucker

Heard on Pagliacci plus Guglielmo Tell Highlights in the prototypical heroic-tenor role of Arnoldo, in Tell, José Soler was one of the last of the breed. Heroic-tenor roles have more high notes than parts written for dramatic tenor and call for a leaner, more focused sound. Since Caruso and Del Monaco the world has thought of dramatic tenors as having thick, heavy voices and sounding like baritones. But baritonal tenors typically cannot undertake parts such as Arnoldo, with its 19 high Cs and two C-sharps, not to mention interpolated high notes mandated by the style. (In the trio “O libertade o morte” Soler sings a high C-sharp, without apparent effort.) In the 19th century and the early part of the 20th, such roles were sung by heroic tenors. Meyerbeer and his contemporaries wrote a number of roles for this voice type. Along with the works themselves, tenors suited to them have become extinct. They sounded like lyric tenors but with ultra-brilliant, penetrating high notes and sometimes, as is the case with Soler, weak lower-middle and bottom ones. Such tenors are ill suited to verismo repertory, where it’s the middle that counts, as well as to most Verdi. Although Soler sang Manrico, it’s hard to imagine he was successful in Acts II and IV, which lie in the middle. Continue reading José Soler: Among the Last Heroic Tenors

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Leyla Gencer 

 “When you sing, you have to feel what you are saying.”

“I actually cried on stage. Once in a while a note would issue forth that was not orthodox. That’s why the American critics don’t like me. But I don’t care. They want a music with water and soap.”

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Leyla Gencer told Stefan Zucker: “I gave more bad performances than good 
ones.”

Born October 10, 1924, near Istanbul to a Polish Catholic mother and a wealthy Turkish Moslem father, Gencer received a classical European-style education. Her mother pulled her out of a lyceum at 16 because she had fallen in love with a 34-year-old Polish architect with whom she read Plato. Her mother enrolled her in a conservatory. Initially her range extended to F above high C, but a French voice teacher soon shortened it to the A below. She entered a vocal competition in Holland without success and, in 1946, married a banker. She was temperamental and difficult, but he loved her. She left the conservatory to study with Giannina Arangi Lombardi, meanwhile singing in the chorus of the Turkish State Theater.

Her opera debut was in Ankara, as Santuzza, in 1950. Arangi Lombardi promised to launch Gencer’s career in Italy but died in 1951. Still in Turkey, she took lessons from Apollo Granforte and was accompanied by Alfred Cortot. She gave a recital, was noticed by the government and began singing at official functions, such as receptions for Eisenhower, Tito and Adenauer. Wrapped around her little finger were the President of Turkey and other high government officials. They interceded on several occasions so that her Turkish commitments wouldn’t interfere with her foreign offers. She had a much publicized affair with American Ambassador George McGhee. Her Italian debut came about on short notice—Santuzza with the San Carlo’s 1953 summer season. From 1957, she appeared at La Scala, including in the world premieres of I dialoghi delle Carmelitane (Poulenc) and L’assassino nella cattedrale (Pizzetti).

Gencer performed in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York (Carnegie Hall), Verona, Florence, Spoleto, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Brussels, London, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, Moscow, Leningrad, Buenos Aires and Rio.

In the 50s she sometimes had a mediocre breath span, inadequate breath support and a tendency to flat. Her middle voice didn’t really sound fresh. But she could be tender, plaintive and full of yearning. And she had ravishing high pianissimos, such as the C in “O patria mia,” and excellent coloratura. Her sound could be dark, almost husky, for heavy roles and limpid and lyric for light ones. As Lucia, in general she adopted a bright sound, reserving a darker quality for such moments as “il fantasma.”

Although it is not unusual for substantial voices to have good agility in general, I can think of few examples of their having good staccatos. (Sutherland, for instance, sometimes avoided singing them or sang them slowly.) Thus I was astonished on hearing Gencer emit the staccatos of a soprano leggero in “Regnava nel silenzio.”

In a 1957 film of Trovatore (BCS Video #5), she often sings with fragility and otherworldly inwardness. She supplicates beautifully, exhorts with wonderful urgency and conveys the pathos of the death scene more affectingly than any other Leonora on video or CD.

As both actress and musician her timing is exquisite. She adds some crescendo to impel phrases toward their most dissonant points, their harmonic climaxes. When there’s a tied note she supplies a pinch of crescendo at the tie so that you feel the pulse. (This last touch, not uncommon with instrumentalists, is rare with opera singers.) She has a good trill, also lovely fioritura, particularly in descending passages. Her voice has smalto (bloom, sheen, enamel)—which it lost ten years later.

In Italy, foreigners usually were engaged only for works that couldn’t be well cast with Italians. In 1957 the country was not suffering from a dearth of Leonoras. Perhaps Italy cast Gencer in Verdi because she knew how to valorizzare la parola (to give value to the word), to make every syllable count.

Her 72-role repertory included operas by Prokofiev and Mozart (also concert works and songs), but she is best known for Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi.

She didn’t have chest resonance by nature but developed it for interpretive purposes. A literalist, she rarely embellished the Donizetti scores in which she came to specialize.

In Roberto Devereux (1964) she sang with a thrilling white-hot emotional intensity and used chest resonance amply. Her sound was at moments a bit spread in pitch. But she packed such a wallop and sang with such sizzle that the recording is one of the handful of memorable opera recordings since W.W.II.

In a 1966 Aïda (BCS Video #610A), Gencer’s performance is distinguished by the vigor of her rhythm, created by a feeling for precise rhythm relationships, also by swiftness of attack. As with other singers, her consonants are positioned just before the beat and her vowels begin right on the beat. Other singers’ consonants, however, take up more time. Notice how quickly her notes reach peak volume. This quick rise time enables her to minimize loss of volume of short notes and make a great deal out of, say, the 16th note in an emphatic passage with a dotted eighth and a 16th.

Aside from the occasional scoop, her intonation is better than most singers’. Her scale is even in power without the weakness low in the staff, around G and A, characteristic of most sopranos. Her chest voice is strong. She has good control over dynamics, including a pianissimo. Her vocal personality is fierce.

A huge number of her live performances have been issued on LP and CD.

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At La Scala, in Opera Fanatic

SZ: What were the most difficult moments of your career?

LG: There were lots of them that were more than difficult.

SZ: For example?

LG: Well, the first time I sang at La Scala, in I dialoghi delle Carmelitane. I had auditioned for Maestro Victor de Sabata, singing “O cieli azzurri,” with the C pianissimo. He was enchanted and signed me up right away. He said, “You’ll sing Aïda. Unfortunately he fell ill that year. A new artistic director arrived, and you know that when the staff changes, everything changes. In any case, the new artistic director didn’t think it was wise to give a little-known, relatively inexperienced young singer the leading role in an opera di repertorio, and so he offered me Madame Lidoine. I wasn’t happy about the change, but I accepted. It was La Scala, after all, and I wanted to sing there at all costs. When I had begun my career I had said to myself, “Either I’ll sing at La Scala or I won’t sing at all.”

SZ: Why?

LG: Because this was my ambition. I was very ambitious. Either I’ll have a great career or none.

Then, during rehearsals, the director, Margherita Wallman, didn’t like my performance. She said I was too aristocratic—La Sultana—that the character was a warm, motherly woman of the people, not a princess. But that’s the way she had directed me, and that’s the way I played it. Well, she complained about me. I was called into the head office, where they said, “The composer and the director say you are not suited to the part.” I went back to my hotel and cried. I telephoned my friend in San Francisco, Kurt Adler, and said, “At La Scala they say I’m not suited to Mère Lidoine.” Adler, who was a musician, said, “What do they mean, you’re not suited? You’re perfect for the part. You have a contract; they have to honor it. Say to them, ‘I want to audition in front of you and have you show me why I’m not suited.’” I telephoned the directors of La Scala and said, “I want to have an audition, with orchestra, in front of the entire staff, to see if they think I’m suited or not.” Two days previously Francis Poulenc had attended a recital I’d given for RAI and told me afterwards, “You were wonderful. You are perfect for my Mère Lidoine.” Then, two days later, he and Wallman complained I was not suited to the role. That’s the theater for you. These are the bitter moments.

I called Poulenc and said, “Maestro, come and accompany me at the piano and tell me what you want—how you want the part sung.“ He came and said, “No, I didn’t say that, I didn’t mean. . . .” etc. He played the part from beginning to end, accompanying me. I said, “Was that all right?” He replied, “Yes, it was.” The audition was before the entire staff of La Scala, sovrintendente Antonio Ghiringhelli, artistic director Francesco Siciliani, Wallman, etc.—on this very stage. [Gencer had said she would only do the interview at La Scala. We were seated in a box.] The orchestra was directed by Nino Sanzogno, who had been very good to me and who had faith in me. I sang well. Ghiringhelli said to Wallman, “I’m sorry, ma questa è molto brava—she is excellent. If you don’t want to direct, you don’t have to.” And she [Gencer, in a high, whiny voice] “I didn’t know. . . . I didn’t think. . . . She was playing the Turkish princess. . . .”

It went very well. I made my Scala debut as Lidoine. But I shed many tears over this incident.

SZ: Have you ever acted the Turkish princess offstage?

LG: No.

SZ: Not even in New Jersey?

LG: I behaved like a Turkish princess in New Jersey?

SZ: According to Jerome Hines.

LG: Hines is a special case. He was acting like a barbarian.

SZ: How so?

LG: Because he was singing Attila.

SZ: He says you commandeered his dressing room.

LG: They gave me a dressing room in which the heating system wasn’t working properly; it was like a Turkish bath. I said, “I don’t want to stay in a Turkish bath. The humidity will ruin my voice.” So I went into another dressing room; I didn’t know it was his. And he was angry? I didn’t know that. He didn’t say anything to me.

SZ: He discussed the episode with me on the radio [see bottom of page for link to free Webcast of this program].

LG: He had a beard like yours. Why do you have such a long beard?

SZ: Would you like to cut it?

LG: Yes, I would cut it.

SZ: How come?

LG: All those curls there—it makes you look old. All the way around. The mustache, too—a bit smaller. You would look younger. You aren’t old; you’re young.

SZ: How did your interpretations compare to those of Italian singers?

LG: I had no tradition of opera, of singing, such as existed here in Europe, in Italy. Everything was new for me. When I studied, I remained very close to the score as written. I didn’t imitate anyone. I sang according to my own musical conception, according to my own musical understanding. My colleagues had grown up in the verismo era and believed you always had to sing forte. Perhaps because I hadn’t heard the others, I was untainted by any vestige of the infamous age of verismo.

SZ: Let’s suppose we are in the 1950s, and you are about to begin your career. What would you do differently?

LG: Nothing. Because that was a good period for me, vocally and technically. I prefer that period to the second period of Gencer.

SZ: Why?

LG: Because the singing was of a really extraordinary purity. They didn’t like it. When I sang pianissimo, for example, my soprano colleagues said, “Why are you singing pianissimo?” “Because that’s what’s written.” “No, this is Trovatore; you have to sing forte.” Where it was written pianissimo, I sang pianissimo. And so they assumed I had a small voice. They had grown up in the verismo era and believed you always had to sing forte, whereas I had the type of voice that would later become fashionable. I think I was ahead of the times. But there is an explanation for this.

The return to the school of bel canto singing was not without its problems. There was an emphasis on loud singing, on exaggeration. I sang with delicacy and nuance—a style that in a few years everyone imitated.

Eventually, some of them even went too far. I won’t mention names, but there were singers who sang so softly you could no longer hear them. If you’re singing piano, the voice should maintain the same overtones as when you’re singing forte. It mustn’t change colors. This way, even when you’re singing in a vast space like the Verona Arena, if the overtones are the same, even your soft singing will pass through the orchestra and go out into space. If you sing piano correctly, your voice can be heard even in the Verona Arena. It’s possible for a pianissimo note to be heard more than a forte note; I know this from my own experience. And so you see, I was ahead of my time, singing as they did in the 19th century.

SZ: Did your voice change over the years?

LG: Of course, the voice changes naturally. The repertoire a singer chooses influences it, just as do the unwise choices he makes. I’ve made mistakes, too. I didn’t limit myself to the lighter operas, but, given my penchant for the dramatic, I also sang highly dramatic ones, such as Macbeth, which I performed many times. I preferred to specialize in the 19th-century repertoire because I thought it most suited to my voice. I’ve always felt more at home in Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. I experimented with many repertoires and styles of singing and came to the conclusion that the 19th-century school was the best for me. And I continued in this repertoire. We should not force the voice. When a singer studies a work that he realizes is not suited to his particular vocal technique, he should drop it right there and go no farther. There is no point in trying to sing what you can’t sing well. Singers must be able to feel this. They have to be able to choose their repertoire wisely. Too often a young singer, eager for a career, will agree to sing anything, and after two years the voice is gone. This is what happens to young singers today. I sang for almost 40 years, don’t forget.

SZ: What were the mistakes?

LG: Mine? There were so many! (laughs) For example, I chose to sing a repertoire that was perhaps too strong for my voice. Naturally I had to force somewhat. With time the voice became wider and the basic color changed. Perhaps it acquired more dramatic force; before, it had been more lyric.

SZ: Did you still have a high F?

LG: (laughs) No, that disappeared after I left the conservatory. But I had a high E-flat for many years. But you have to be very careful. For example, in 1959, after singing Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, I realized that I could no longer sing a high C. That famous pianissimo high C in Aida had become difficult for me. And so I dropped Fiery Angel from my repertoire after two performances.

SZ: Did the high C return?

LG: For a while, yes. But it slowly disappeared again. After all, I had begun to sing Macbeth, Vespri Siciliani, some verismo, Gioconda, for example.

SZ: Why did you vary vocal color from role to role?

LG: You must always seek to adapt the voice to the score. The voice must not be of one color alone. It must be like an artist’s palette and have many colors. You cannot sing Lucia and Forza with the same voice. They have different ranges of color, they express different sentiments. You must find the right expression and the right color. When I began to sing the more dramatic operas, my voice became thicker, the color more burnished and perhaps also more interesting.

We artists are strange beasts, and sometimes we exaggerate when we wish to emphasize certain dramatic passages. I began to do that when I started working with maestros such as Gavazzeni [as early as 1958]. He demanded great intensity.

SZ: In the late 50s at La Scala you often were in the second cast. Callas was in the first. What do you think of her?

LG: She had the most imperfect voice in the world, but this doesn’t mean anything. She was full of flaws, but she had the sacred fire. She was wonderful. Where can you find her equal today? My magnificent colleague Price sang wonderfully, but could she transmit what Callas could?

SZ: Did the study of harmony inform your singing?

LG: Yes. Harmony teaches you something—not to read only the melody but to read everything—the orchestra as well. And so if you are a student, if you know harmony, you can also read the part of the orchestra, which will help you very much in your expression. It’s a great help because one hears how the part he is to sing is constructed.

SZ: I was afraid of you.

LG: Everyone is.

SZ: Why?

LG: Who knows? They say I have an air . . .

SZ: Yes.

LG: No, I’m very natural. That’s just my air, the impression I give.

SZ: Yes. I’ve heard that you are a donna imperiosa.

LG: Yes, I am imperious. That is, I say what I think.

LG: Con forza.

SZ: Still?

LG: Even now.

SZ: Examples?

LG: I’m never afraid of anyone.

SZ: I believe it.

LG: I am severe, yes; I’m demanding. But I’m not nasty or malicious.

SZ: Can you give examples?

LG: No, we don’t have time. Yes, I am severe. But I’ve grown a little sweeter with age—I think. Still, I say things I shouldn’t, yet I say them. It’s not a good idea, it doesn’t help things. I should be more diplomatic, more false. I’m not like that. At my age, I can’t change, can I?

Corelli and Hines on Gencer

Franco Corelli: I sang four performances of Poliuto with Gencer, when she finished the run, taking over from Callas. She was beautiful to work with, sweet and polite.

Jerome Hines: I worked with Gencer at the tail end of her career, and she was not quite so gentle and sweet. I don’t think she intended to be gentle and sweet. She had her dresser running out the door in hysterics, crying. When she walked into the theater she decided she wanted my dressing room instead of hers and I was bumped out even though we were doing Attila and I had the title role. The stage director told her, “Now please, don’t stand there after the end of the aria and pose 30 seconds, waiting for applause. You must go off.” She agreed, but when the time came did as she darn pleased. For the ballroom scene I wanted to come in with a cheetah on a chain and arranged for the opera company to rent one. They are gentle, more or less, and more tamable than other leopards. But came the dress rehearsal and they told me the cheetah had caught cold (I think they were just chickening out). I entered the ballroom scene and sat down next to Gencer. She said, “Where’s the cheetah?” I said, “The cheetah caught cold and when they get sick they get nasty.” She smiled and said, “Just like me!” From that remark I took it that we were witnessing her usual behavior.

FC: Where did this happen?

JH: At Symphony Hall, in Newark.

FC: When Italians come to America they always try to be temperamental.

SZ: Why is that?

FC: For publicity.

Stefan Zucker

(The Corelli/Hines exchange was excerpted from the “Opera Fanatic” radio show of March 3, 1990)

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:

Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish

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Magda Olivero

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“One has to find the exact facial expression for what one is saying and singing. If one just sings, without putting in any heart or soul, it remains just beautiful singing and not a soul that sings!”

Demonstrations: Adriana, Tosca

“She has no voice. She has no musicality. She has no personality. She has nothing. Change profession.” That was the verdict of V.I.P.s from Italian radio concerning the young Magda Olivero. Olivero had come with a recommendation from an important magistrate, so the radio staff felt bound, at her insistence, to give her a second audition. The result was the same—with one difference. Voice teacher Luigi Gerussi said, “I’d like to teach her.” “If you want to waste your time, waste it,” one of the others remarked.

Olivero, too, had her doubts. “I’ve already changed teachers three times, and I’d have to convince my father.” Her father had come to feel her voice lessons were futile and wanted her to study piano at the conservatory. He relented, however, and Gerussi took her on. He was so severe a taskmaster that he made her cry. “This is the last time you are going to say ‘I can’t,’” he screamed. “Those words must not exist. If necessary, I’ll see you dead to get what I want! Die afterward if you wish, but first you must do what I want.” Above all, they worked on breath support. Olivero already had studied piano, harmony and counterpoint with composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini. (In the days of the castratos, singers received thorough musical groundings. Since the Napoleonic Wars, however, most Italian singers studied voice but not music.) She also studied dance and, later, Dalcroze Eurhythmics. During her career she had occasion to put her dance background to specific use in the title role of Armando La Rosa Parodi’s Cleopatra: instead of allowing a ballerina substitute, she performed the ballet sequence, a seduction scene, herself.

Olivero was born March 25, 1910 in Saluzzo, near Turin. She was one of a handful of Italian singers who didn’t come from peasant stock; her father was a judge and she was educated.

She made her debut, in 1932, as a lyric soprano, her first lead role, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi. In 1933 she made her La Scala debut, in a small role (Anna) in Nabucco. During preparations for Favorita, Ebe Stignani told Olivero, who was of retiring disposition, “If you have to remain in this environment you’d better become a bitch”—advice Olivero didn’t heed. (According to her, neither did Stignani.) After a Gilda in 1935, following the advice of Tullio Serafin, she prepared roles for soprano leggero: Lucia, Norina, Rosina, Adina, Amina. Her range extended to F above high C. Serafin promised her the part of Philine in Mignon at the Rome Opera. When the contract came, however, it was not for Philine but for Elsa in Lohengrin. Olivero maintains that the maestro did this out of revenge because she had remained immune to his advances. To prepare herself for the challenge of Elsa, she decided to strengthen her middle voice by first undertaking Butterfly, Bohème, Manon, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Mese Mariano (Giordano) and I quatro rusteghi and Il campiello (both by Wolf Ferrari). Her Elsa was a success, likewise a Manon with Gigli in Modena, where a critic noted her “lively intelligence at portraying the contrasting aspects of the part.” Her career began to thrive.

However, prior to her marriage, in 1941, to industrialist Aldo Busch, she gave it all up. An innocent girl from a good family background, Olivero had been subjected to such episodes as this: The duet for soprano and tenor in Giordano’s Marcella concludes with an impassioned embrace and kiss. During rehearsals at La Scala, Giordano made her repeat the scene again and again. Schipa, the tenor in question, really threw himself into the action. Because of the august company Olivero dared not rebel.

For ten years after her marriage Olivero performed only intermittently, at concerts to aid charities. She had two miscarriages—and was brought back to life by Cilea. He wrote, “An artist such as you has obligations to the public and to art.” Olivero said he called her “the ideal interpreter of Adriana,” adding, “You have gone beyond the notes. You have grasped what I felt in composing the opera and have entered into the spirit of Adriana as I have felt it.”

In 1951 she made her comeback, as Adriana, and her career again took wing. In 1967 she made her U.S. debut in Dallas, as Medea. In 1975, at the instigation of Marilyn Horne, Olivero made her Met debut, as Tosca. She was then 65 years old. In 1983, upon the death of her husband, she stopped performing. Prostrated for a number of years, she’s since given several concerts and in 1993 recorded Adriana and sang on TV. Thanks perhaps to her vegetarian diet and practice of yoga, she is in good health.

Verismo sopranos were of two varieties: the fragile young girl with a slender shiny tone and the tempestuous mature woman with a large dark voice. (Sopranos today use an uninflected, charmless, all-purpose tone.) Over the years Olivero’s sound changed from the first variety to the second. In her rendition of Iris on this tape her sound is far more suited to the character than in her performances from the 60s; by then her sound had lost its youth and had darkened. Her Tosca here also is uncommonly gentle and feminine. Those who saw her only in the 70s could not know of her cuddly, girlish aspect, seen and heard on the first part of the tape. It is on the second part, however, that she provides me with catharsis. As she aged she grew still more intense emotionally.

Olivero’s reviews in Italy always were laudatory. One critic called her “more expressive and musical than Callas.” But in this country critics such as Alan Rich and Barton Wimble wrote of her with derision, regarding her vocalism as like Florence Foster Jenkins’s, her style as exaggerated and campy.

Olivero was coached by Cilea and a number of now-obscure verismo composers and is the last singer with such background. For me, she distils and exemplifies the tradition. From Gemma Bellincioni to Lina Bruna Rasa, the verismo era was transfigured by searing vocal actresses. Unlike Olivero, few also were consummate musicians able through rubato (lengthening or shortening notes or groups of notes) to convey the music’s tension and repose. More, hers is “il cantar che nell’anima si sente”—singing that is sensed in the soul. Her London/Decca Fedora, made in 1968, is the last emotionally important commercial recording of an Italian opera. Indeed, no other opera video ever produced is more emotionally important than BCS’s Magda Olivero: The Last Verismo Soprano (now deleted).

Given a choice between Callas and Olivero, I’d actually pick Olivero. She has greater warmth and depth and is more moving.

In 1984 the radio program “Opera Fanatic” held two favorite soprano contests: Favorite Soprano of the Century and Favorite Soprano of Our Time. In the former Olivero came in third, after Callas and Ponselle. In the latter she came in second, after Caballé. Olivero was the only one who placed well in both contests. Unlike the other major contenders, she had given only a handful of performances in this country. (Detailed results for these two soprano contests are reported in the first issue of Opera Fanatic—the magazine, not the catalog.)

On recording Fedora:

Fortunately I had a technique that enabled me to recitar cantando [to act or recite through singing]. And so, in death scenes I tried my utmost, through my technique, to render my voice disembodied, that is to say, no longer a palpable human voice, to convey a human soul. An example I like to recall is the death of Fedora, which I recorded for Decca. The entire opera had been recorded. The conductor, Lamberto Gardelli, speaking for the musicians and technicians, said, “Signora, we still have two hours at our disposal.” Del Monaco, Gobbi and all the others had left. “We would like to offer you an homage. Is there something you would like to repeat?” I said, “The death of Fedora, but with my eyes closed, so as not to see the mechanical apparatus in front of me, as though I were on stage.” Maestro Gardelli replied, “Sing just as you like, with your eyes closed. We are all here, ready to follow you, with all our love.”

And so we repeated the death of Fedora, with my eyes closed, and I think you can sense this on the recording. They inserted Loris’s brief phrase, which Del Monaco already had recorded. When I listen to the scene, I think young people who are prejudiced against the opera will feel such emotion that they can no longer say we can’t accept this, this voice singing on and on, with all those high notes, while the character is supposed to be dying. But I succeeded in making even those high notes ethereal, even if they weren’t written this way, because I had the good fortune to study with two exceptional maestros [Gerussi and Luigi Ricci]. They taught me the true technique, which enables the artist to go onstage thinking about acting rather than singing. This is something wonderful, because you feel emotions, sensations that are indescribable.

I remember, for example, the last act of Traviata, on an evening in which I had perhaps a particular physical and psychic equilibrium. It was as though for a moment I had gone beyond the barrier of the human, although just for an instant.

SZ: How many times did you repeat the death of Fedora in that two-hour session?

MO: Just once. From beginning to end it went very well.

Olivero on Mario Del Monaco:

When Del Monaco and I sang Francesca da Rimini together at La Scala he explained his whole vocal technique to me. When he finished I said, “My dear Del Monaco, if I had to put into practice all the things you’ve told me, I’d stop singing right away and just disappear.” The technique was so complicated: you push the larynx down, then you push this up, then you do that—in short, it made my head spin just to hear everything he did.

We recorded Francesca excerpts together. Francesca has a beautiful phrase, “Paolo, datemi pace,” marked “piano,” and then Paolo enters with “Inghirlandata di violette,” which also should be sung softly, delicately. Instead, Del Monaco was terrible—he bellowed the phrase [she imitates him and laughs]! When he listened to the playback he exclaimed, “I can’t believe it! After that soft poetic phrase I come in and what do I sound like—a boxer punching with his fists!” He recorded the phrase again, but the second attempt was more or less the same because he was incapable of singing piano. He was furious with himself because he wanted to. He tried everything, but his technique would not permit him to sing softly since it totally was based on the muscles.

On Galliano Masini:

Masini had the most beautiful voice of all tenors—a magnificent bronze sound. What a pity nature had not gifted him with a brain that corresponded to his voice! If he began a performance well, he would sing well throughout. But if he began with a cracked note, he would crack during the entire evening. In 1940 I sang some Adrianas with him at the Rome Opera. Offstage, he was appalling, so ordinary you could die. Onstage, he was perhaps the tenor who most resembled Maurizio, Il conte di Sassonia—regal, elegant, gorgeous. I remember his costume, embroidered with pearls. He also had a magnificent head of black wavy hair and a handsome face. Too bad he was a little slow!

On Giuseppe Lugo:

Lugo was another stupendous voice. I sang Bohème with him at the San Carlo. He was a handsome man with a beautiful voice. He has recently been reevaluated and his records reissued. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. The beauty of that voice! There again, he was another whose brain was not the equal of his voice. Imagine, at the peak of his career he suddenly stopped singing. Not even his wife—he had six children too—ever knew why he stopped singing overnight.

On Giuseppina Cobelli:

When Cobelli left, I inherited Adriana from her. She was intelligent, a beautiful woman with an exciting personality and a wonderful voice. And she’s never spoken of today.

Stefan Zucker

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:

Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish

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An Interview with Magda Olivero

From the Outtakes to the Film Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Stefan Zucker: At the beginning of your career, how was the sound of your voice different from what we know today?

Magda Olivero: Well, it was a very light voice, very, very bright. I was very young, almost a soprano leggero, and emphasized the highest notes. I had a considerable range–I could hit F above high C with complete ease. I had the tessitura of the soprano leggero.

SZ: How did you move on to a heavier repertoire?

MO: It was instinctive. In fact, after my first Gilda, the baritone Mario Basiola said to me, “Signorina, you will not stop here. With your temperament and that voice, you are going to go much farther. Your Gilda is beautifully sung and is warm and human, but you will not stop here.” And he was right. I instinctively was attracted to those roles that are based on a solid theatrical work–Tosca and Fedora of Sardou, for example. A character that could act, that I could live–that’s what I sought. A character that was static, that was primarily to be sung well, I could admire, but it wasn’t for me. Continue reading An Interview with Magda Olivero

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Fedora Barbieri

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Fedora Barbieri in Opera Fanatic and as Eboli

“You ask questions that are too difficult. I’m going to spank you!”
And so she does.

Demonstrations: Falstaff, song

Born in Trieste in 1920, Barbieri debuted in Florence, in 1940, toured Germany, Belgium and Holland in 1943, retired because of marriage but reemerged in 1945. She is perhaps best remembered for Azucena but in the 1960s turned increasingly to character parts, notably, Quickly. During a total career of 55 years she appeared in Milan, Verona, Rome, Salzburg, Buenos Aires, London, Paris, Vienna, San Francisco and New York in a repertory of 110 roles, including Cenerentola, Don Carlo, Carmen, Orfeo and Giulio Cesare. She made a great number of recordings, among them Ballo, Favorita, Gioconda, Suor Angelica, Aïda, Forza, Trovatore, Don Sebastiano, Medea, Eracle (Handel) and Linda di Chamounix.

As is evident in this film, Barbieri’s face is as expressive as her singing is gutsy.—Stefan Zucker

For charges and countercharges exchanged by Barbieri and Simionato, go to Simionato section.

For a performance with Barbiere, go to Il trovatore (CD)

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:
Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish

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Giulietta Simionato

“If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t become a singer. I suffered too much.”

Demonstrations: Samson, Trovatore

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Giulietta Simionato in an aria from Samson et Dalila, in Opera Fanatic.

Born in 1910 on Sardinia, Simionato won a singing contest in Florence, in 1933. From 1936 she was under contract to La Scala as a cover and comprimaria (performer of supporting roles) but was not thought to have the voice of a leading singer. After 11 years she was “discovered” there when she was assigned Mignon. Although the audience had come not to hear her but the new star, Di Stefano, her performance was thought a revelation. She emerged as a leading mezzo, appearing in London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Brussels, New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio, also at festivals in Holland and at Verona, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh and Salzburg. Her recordings include Matrimonio segreto, Cavalleria, Cenerentola, Barbiere, Italiana, Trovatore, Favorita, Rigoletto, Gioconda, Suor Angelica, Falstaff, Aïda, Adriana, Ballo, Forza, Carmen, Orfeo, Ugonotti, Norma, Bolena and Medea. Continue reading Giulietta Simionato

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An Interview with Giulietta Simionato

Simionato on Björling, Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli, From the Outtakes to the Film Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Stefan Zucker: Did you sing with Björling?

Giulietta Simionato: Yes.

SZ: What did you sing with him?

GS: Cavalleria, at the Metropolitan.

SZ: How was he?

GS: The voice was very beautiful. Too bad he drank. This is what ruined him. I don’t want to go into personal particulars, but he was a good colleague and a pleasant person. That’s how I remember him. Björling was a fine singer. He wasn’t much onstage; he didn’t enter into the role. But I managed to shake him up. In my Santuzza there was such emotional charge that it forced them to collaborate with me. [On Bel Canto Society video #12, Simionato and Corelli rehearse the Santuzza-Turiddu duet. Not only is the singing emotional but the acting is violent.]

SZ: How would you compare Björling’s singing to Di Stefano’s?

GS: Oh, they are two completely different things—like the sun and the moon. Di Stefano is the sun—impetuous, volatile, warm-blooded—a real Sicilian. Björling was Nordic. There was a composure in the man and in the singing.

SZ: Was he too cold for the Italian repertoire?

GS: Perhaps he was. But the voice was so beautiful, so well placed, that he could do anything he wanted with it, and you could forgive his being a bit cold.

SZ: Di Stefano made many mistakes in his performances with you in Mexico. How was it to sing with him?

GS: [Laughs] He just had gotten married. And for this reason he didn’t come to the rehearsals and didn’t know the operas. It’s not that I’m telling you something because he’s not here; he knows it. And he used to say to me, “You have to act more like a diva. Why do you bother going to the rehearsals if I’m not there?” “I feel I have a duty to be present; however, we can’t rehearse the scenes with the tenor.” “Well, you know how it is,” he said. “I just got married. I’m beginning with my wife.” Pir-ipi-p, pir-i-pi-r. “And so I have no time for rehearsals.” He didn’t know the operas. In Favorita I turned my back to the audience and whispered the correct words to him while he sang totally different ones. Barbiere no longer was the Barbiere of Rossini but the Barbiere of Di Stefano [laughs]. I define him as “genius and excess.” His was a voice of genius, but he was so intemperate, especially in his offstage life. He knows this is what I have labeled him.

SZ: What happened to Di Stefano’s voice?

GS: He never acquired a technique. He says he was supposed to use his voice just as the Eternal Father gave it to him. He opened his mouth, drew in a breath and out poured those gorgeous tones. That’s the way he was, and the public accepted him like that.

SZ: Was Del Monaco as unprofessional as…?

GS: He was very professional, very organized, very controlled, very, very serious, very determined in everything he sang. And he always had that trace of the glacial, as I called it. He was so secure. He was the last heroic tenor we have had.

SZ: Corelli wasn’t a heroic tenor?

GS: He wasn’t heroic, but it was a beautiful voice.

SZ: Was Corelli as unprofessional as Di Stefano?

GS: Di Stefano never was professional at all. Corelli always was professional. His problem was that he was insecure. He always was afraid he wasn’t going to make it even though his performances were stupendous. He seemed to feel guilty of flaws he didn’t possess. He worried about deficiencies that for the most part were imaginary. Often, right before the “Flower Song” in Carmen, he would say, “Signora, I can’t do it, I’m going away.” “No, don’t say that. Don’t be like that. Come on, come on.” And he’d begin the aria, ending it with that high note that would bring down the house.

SZ: What is your opinion of Del Monaco’s and Corelli’s vocal techniques?

GS: Del Monaco devised a technique of his own, for his capabilities, including vocalises and a study I would call inhuman, because to resist, given the manner in which he sang, is something that verges on the inhuman. I asked him, “How can you possibly sing like that?” “No, Giulietta,” he said. “You should sing the way I do; you should push the way I do.” I told him something I cannot repeat here. “If I pushed the way you do, I don’t know what might happen.” I can’t repeat it, but I said it to Mario, “No, my dear, you dig deep inside you, whereas I do it this way.” The truth was he wanted to dig down into his body for maximum resonance. I don’t know what that man was made of. Everyone said, “He’ll last for a year or two”—but look how many years he lasted, because he was able to resist, in a way that only can be called superhuman! We all were open-mouthed: “How can he resist, how does he do it?” And he was relatively slim—not a big man. He must have had vocal cords of steel. His breathing method was that of a man. They are constructed in a different way. And so while we women tend to do this [pull in at the diaphragm], they do this [push out at the diaphragm]. In fact they all are rotund, because with time they form a strong, powerful musculature around the midriff, on account of the fact that they push out in order to support. I can’t even speak if I breathe like that.

SZ: But how are men built differently, as far as breathing is concerned?

GS: Being constructed in a different way, they have organs we don’t [laughs]. They can’t breathe as we do, because they—you—are built in another way inside!

SZ: But not in the lungs.

GS: [Laughs] Yes, I know. The breathing, however, starts from here [demonstrates]. If you, instead of doing this, do that, you will understand that the respiration—the system, the technique—is turned upside down.

SZ: Del Monaco and Corelli both studied with a certain Arturo Melocchi, who went to China where he learned a particular mechanistic technique from a Russian and brought it to Italy. Corelli modified the technique. Del Monaco lowered his larynx a lot, whereas Corelli raised and lowered his larynx. Can you compare and contrast the approaches?

GS: They are two different ways of singing and two different mentalities, which means a lot. Corelli went up into the high notes—in Ugonotti, for example, he sang the high C just as I did. His was a very wide-ranging voice. But Del Monaco always had difficulty. Corelli also could emit a sweet, soft phrase. Del Monaco, no. Because rubber bends. Corelli’s was a normal respiration. His singing was all on the breath. Studying a little with Melocchi, naturally Corelli modified the technique to his particular capabilities, so that it worked well for him.

SZ: Can you compare the Don José of Corelli, Del Monaco and Di Stefano?

GS: They are three completely different things. Di Stefano, for example, was amazingly spontaneous. There was everything in that voice—the dramatic quality, the color, the expression! Corelli was more thought-out, more studied. He always was afraid. However, he could deliver when the chips were down. He could drive the audience wild. I remember his “Flower Song”: it was something unforgettable. So was Di Stefano’s. Also Del Monaco’s. They all were different. Corelli, for example, in performing the role, was careful never to touch me. He was too scared. “No, signora,” he said. He always called me “signora.” As a matter of fact I spoke with Corelli today [October 13, 1996]. He is a dear colleague and a wonderful person. Di Stefano, on the other hand, always managed to hurt me. I always was covered with bruises, scratches and cuts, because that’s the way he was—a real Sicilian. He did it unconsciously.

Del Monaco also was a highly passionate Don José, complementing my own portrayal. We didn’t talk much, but we understood one another. And yet he never hurt me—never a bruise, a scratch or anything even though he was a very physical Don José. He threw me to the ground, knelt down, bent over me. We were very effective together—an intense, passionate couple—and audiences were excited. Yet, despite his apparent violence toward me, his apparently brutal treatment of me, he never caused me any pain. So you see, they all were so completely different. It’s hard to compare them. No—each one acted according to his nature.

SZ: If an impresario were to ask you to perform Carmen, which would you choose?

GS: I would be equally happy with any of them. I admired them, loved them—as friends, naturally. We were very close, like a family. When we saw each other, it was a real pleasure. I hugged them since I’m very expansive. I always was insecure when I sang, because I always was worried about not being on a high enough level to satisfy the audience. This brought on a kind of anxiety. And then when it was over, I thought, “Perhaps I didn’t deserve this applause; I could have done better.” It’s just my character. If you told me the tenor was to be Di Stefano, I’d say “Benissimo”—wonderful, that’s fine!” or Corelli—”Benissimo!” There were others—I don’t remember all their names at this moment. I admired them all, I respected them—not all in the same way but each in his own way. I always was content, because I knew I worked well with them. Each one had his particular virtues. And I admired each one for his.

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Simionato and Olivero on Bruna Rasa

Giulietta Simionato on Mascagni and Lina Bruna Rasa,
From the Outtakes to the Film
Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Stefan Zucker: Did you sing Cavalleria under Mascagni’s baton?

Giulietta Simionato: I did Mamma Lucia once with him, in 1940, for the recording. I also did Lola with him, for Cavalleria’s 50th anniversary. I didn’t make it in time for Santuzza. I did L’amico Fritz near Rome and other things, not Cavalleria. But he heard me.

SZ: What is your opinion of Mascagni’s tempos as a conductor?

GS: One should not exaggerate with the slowness, because the drama suffers and the voices are only human. You can’t stretch out the score forever. Even with singers who have good breath spans it becomes too much. His tempos grew progressively slower until it no longer was possible to follow him. Singers took emergency breaths in the middle of phrases, trying to please him.

SZ: Did he accept the tempos of other conductors?

GS: Yes. However, he said, “I wrote it. I know what the tempos should be.” He was a little bit of a bully.

SZ: Can you compare your Santuzza with Lina Bruna Rasa’s?

GS: Bruna Rasa had a beautiful voice, but the poor thing soon became a little demented. She was a favorite of Mascagni because he had written Cavalleria for a soprano, and he didn’t like it sung by mezzos. So when he heard me sing it, naturally he had his doubts. But afterwards he said, “I didn’t believe that . . . I was wrong.”

SZ: Did Bruna Rasa use chest voice?

GS: Yes. She sang a [middle-voice] A with chest, for example, at “Io piango, io piango” [at the end of “Voi lo sapete”]. I couldn’t, but she did. It was ugly, certainly, but she was able to do it because she had an emission that allowed it. Mascagni permitted her to do it. Another thing—Mascagni in his music always resolved at the passaggio [change of register]. He had a strange fondness for that note. Unfortunately down there you can’t force or push your head voice. A singer with a long career in back of her might be astute enough to bring up chest resonance without damaging her voice, but most would not be able to do this. Without chest it just isn’t possible to resolve on those notes with enough force. Even in L’amico Fritz, all of Beppe’s arias finish on F-sharp, right in the middle of the passaggio.

SZ: Where is your passaggio?

GS: It’s F-sharp-for everyone, sopranos and mezzos alike. I don’t know about men, because I’ve never looked into that.


Magda Olivero on Mascagni and Lina Bruna Rasa,
From the Outtakes to the Film
Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Stefan Zucker: Was the part of Santuzza suited to you?

Magda Olivero: I studied it with Maestro [Luigi] Ricci, who was the last repository of all these composers—Giordano, Puccini, Mascagni. Maestro Ricci added a sheet of paper to every page in his scores, with the metronome marks and directions of the composer. In fact all the metronome marks of Cavalleria were changed over the years. Ricci gave me all the correct metronome marks. All the authentic suggestions of the composer, vocal and scenic, are there.

SZ: I am confused because the tempos are different in the two recordings of Mascagni conducting Cavalleria—one a studio recording with Gigli and Bruna Rasa, the other, live, from Holland two years earlier, with Antonio Melandri and Bruna Rasa.

MO: With the passing of the years Mascagni’s arms grew heavier, and therefore his tempos grew slower and slower. Toward the end of his life his tempos had grown so slow that it became a real problem for his singers.

SZ: Do you think one of the versions of Cavalleria has the correct tempos?

MO: I wrote down in my score all the metronome marks that Maestro Ricci gave me. They correspond exactly to what Mascagni wanted.

SZ: It would be of great importance to publish Ricci’s notes.

MO: Yes. I will have to talk to the Sonzogno music publishers, particularly to Mrs. Ostali, the head. You’ve given me the idea. I’ll have to ask her, “Does your Cavalleria have the correct metronome markings or those that have changed over time?”

SZ: Did you sing under….

MO: Mascagni? No. I met him. I was present at a dress rehearsal of Cavalleria, with Bruna Rasa. I believe it was one of her last appearances.

SZ: Did she use chest voice?

MO: The voice was bellissima! And she was a beautiful woman too.

SZ: I believe you sang Santuzza just once.

MO: Yes, at the San Carlo in Naples.

SZ: Why not more performances?

MO: I don’t know, my career always has been very strange. I took it as it came. I never tried to organize my career. I never was deadly serious about it. Artistically, perhaps, yes, but as a career per se, I took it rather lightly.

SZ: Was the part too heavy for you?

MO: No. If it had been, I wouldn’t have sung it even once. Maestro Ricci agreed I could perform it. I sang Medea—and if that isn’t heavy! [laughs.] Much worse than Cavalleria! Terrible!