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Stefan Zucker interviews Carlo Bergonzi

Bergonzi as Radames
Bergonzi as Radames

“Each one of these great tenors at the apex of tenors, Bergonzi, Pavarotti and Domingo—I don’t think you can find defects. He who doesn’t have one thing has another. They are all worthy of the names that they have.”—Carlo Bergonzi

We offer Luisa Miller with Bergonzi in the Bel Canto Society Store

THE FOLLOWING INTERVIEW  took place on “Opera Fanatic,” on WKCR, October 12, 1985. Carlo Bergonzi spoke in Italian (I translated). Also present in the studio were Dr. Umberto Boeri, pediatrician, a close friend of Bergonzi; Robert Connolly, writer, a frequent collaborator on the show; Kenneth Rapp, accompanist; Annamarie Verde, Bergonzi’s New York concert producer; and other friends of Bergonzi.

Throughout the evening, we interspersed records of Bergonzi in songs and arias.

SZ: With whom did you study?

CB: I first began to study as a baritone, beginning at the Parma Conservatory with Maestro Ettore Campogalliani.

SZ: Campogalliani is still active. Americans sometimes go over to study with him. Even at an advanced age, he chases sopranos around the piano.

Did he think of you as a baritone?

CB: That was not the maestro’s mistake but perhaps mine. At 15, I was too young. I had a strong will to sing, to study, to go on stage: that had always been my aspiration. My voice hadn’t changed yet. Since boyhood I had always had a rather dark voice, so the maestri were misled. I continued to study as a baritone and made my debut in ’48, in Barbiere, as Figaro. I continued to sing as a baritone, until October 12, 1950. I performed Figaro, Germont, Don Pasquale, Belcore, Enrico in Lucia, and one performance of Rigoletto—a turning point. We were on tour in Puglia (Bari, Molfetta, Barletta). Tito Gobbi was to have sung the performance. But as suddenly happens to singers, owing to a banal draft, my late, dear friend’s voice deserted him. This was at eight in the evening, with the performance scheduled to start at nine. The maestro asked me if I knew Rigoletto and wanted to sing it. I had studied it to the point that I was musically secure and, carried away by enthusiasm, said yes. During that performance I began to understand that I was no baritone, for I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands, particularly in Act III. Still, I saw the performance through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.

Kenneth Rapp: Who were the Duke and the Gilda?

CB: Gilda was Signora Baruffi, a singer with a beautiful voice, of whom I heard nothing further. The Duke was Sinimberghi, who made a good career, including several films. I went on to further performances as a baritone and, since the maestri said I was very musical, they signed me for parts for baritono brillante. Indeed, as a baritone I sang with some great maestri: Serafin, De Sabata, Votto, Gavazzeni. No one ever said I was a tenor instead of a baritone. I am much indebted to my wife, Adele, for my career. One evening she was present at a Butterfly performance. The tenor was Galliano Masini, the soprano was one of the first Japanese to come to Italy, Tosiko Segava. In the dressing room that evening I sang C natural—the famous C from the chest (I don’t know what “C from the chest” means)—at the end of Act I. Masini had sung it badly, so I did it in the dressing room. Perhaps it was a stroke of fortune or because I didn’t know what it really meant to sing high C: to me came perhaps the most beautiful C of my career. From that point, I really began to think of changing register. Three months later—January 12, 1951—when my eldest son, Maurizio, was born, I made my tenor debut as Andrea Chénier at the Petruzzelli in Bari. From then on, I sang as a tenor. Nineteen fifty-one fortunately was the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death, and RAI signed me to sing the tenor leads in I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco, Oberto, conte di San Bonifaccio, Aroldo, La forza del destino and Simon Boccanegra.

SZ: Are there any tapes of you as a baritone?

CB: Unfortunately not. If they existed, they’d be something to laugh about, but at least we’d spend some happy moments.

SZ: Did you experience problems in switching to tenor?

CB: Since my voice really wasn’t a baritone, in the three years I sang as one I had to force my voice, in order to fatten it. For my first 15 days as a tenor, I had some difficulty in lightening the sound, especially on low notes. But I quickly found the right way, vocalizing on the breath, lightening the voice and concentrating on legato.

SZ: As a baritone, what was your range?

CB: Not very high. I went up to F-sharp or G, but on G I was forcing, because I wanted to fatten it, to make myself a baritone by strength.

SZ: When you began to retrain as a tenor, did your range change quickly?

CB: Over three months. When I was studying, I listened to records—not to imitate them—of four great tenors of the past: Caruso, Gigli, Schipa and Pertile. Caruso, for the inimitable purity of the sound. Gigli, for a vocal technique that sang on the piano and carried the note, linking it to the forte. Schipa, for his inimitable technique, achieved by no one else, that allowed him, without having a beautiful vocal quality, to become a great tenor. Pertile, for vocal technique and technique of interpretation. I tried to steal a little of this technique. Imitation is never good and in the end is impossible. But I tried to understand the vocal position and the way in which they emitted sound. I sang Belcore in Elisir and Marcello in Bohème with Gigli and a tour of Elisir with Schipa, and I learned a great deal.

SZ: As a baritone, what was your lowest note?

CB: My voice really wasn’t made for low notes. The lowest you could truly call a note—not a half noise—was B-flat.

SZ: After you switched to tenor, what was your lowest note?

CB: For a tenor, as you well know—for I know that you are one and they tell me you sing quite well—the lowest note is a C. They say you are an artist, and therefore you must know that a tenor must never force the low notes but sing them lightly. They are called for, but there’s no need to exaggerate them. Today is October 12. At this hour 35 years ago my elder son was born, and it was a pleasure to receive the telegram announcing that, right after Act I and the “Improvviso.” That night a career also was born that—with some sacrifices on my part and on the part of my wife, who has participated in my career—we have carried on for 35 long years of successes, and that is the greatest merit that we can honor.

SZ: What sacrifices?

CB: We sacrificed everything. My wife and I have travelled around the world perhaps three times. The satisfactions have been few. We have gotten to know New York a little in recent years, but in the other cities we have known only two things: hotel and theater. And my wife has prepared the luggage many, many times.

SZ: What happened after your emergence as a tenor and those first Verdi performances?

CB: Radio was then the most effective system of propaganda and today is still very effective. Impresarios and agents took an interest in me, and I was able to begin my career.

SZ: When did you make your Scala debut?

CB: In 1954, with a modern opera by Jacopo Napoli, Masaniello. I have 71 operas in my repertory, including works by unknowns: Bianchi, Napoli, Rocca, Pizzetti, Rota and Franchetti. That was before I began my great career with repertory operas.

SZ: Did you study music as a boy?

CB: No, I went to elementary school, and then I worked with my father, making parmesan cheese. At 14, I entered the conservatory, studying piano for five years. In making the switch from baritone to tenor, I was self taught. I also learned the 71 operas entirely by myself.

SZ: You have no coach or repetiteur?

CB: No. But I’m not suggesting to young singers not to have a maestro, for they are needed. Since no maestro told me I was a tenor, I studied on my own and went ahead on my own.

Listener calls

Bill DiPeter: Was it a help or a hindrance to begin your career as a baritone?

CB: Without doubt, it was an advantage. Singing as a baritone gave me the fundamentals, helping me to gather together the sounds, and to have a base from which to build that which I built as a tenor.

Rosina Wolf: What’s the Due Foscari—I’m not speaking of the opera?

CB: You’re speaking of my restaurant and hotel in Busseto at the Piazza Verdi. Travelling around the world, I found restaurants named after every other Verdi opera, from Oberto to Falstaff, but no I due Foscari; hence I chose the name.

Bill Masterson: You and Di Stefano caress phrases. But Raffanti, Pavarotti, Raimondi and Ciannella don’t phrase well. Is that because of their voices or because of their techniques?

CB: The question’s a little mischievous. Mr. Masterson’s is a personal opinion of the sort made by all opera fans. Pavarotti has his personal singing that reaches the summit, and he is the most famous tenor in the world today; thus I don’t believe that he doesn’t even know how to phrase. In the time of Caruso, Schipa and Gigli, some liked the way one phrased but not the others, and today nothing is changed. Someone may like Bergonzi, someone else may prefer Pavarotti, someone else, Domingo. Each one of these great tenors at the apex of tenors—I don’t think you can find defects. He who doesn’t have one thing has another. They are all worthy of the names that they have.

Michele Simone: The name of Bergonzi has joined those of the century’s greatest tenors: Pertile, Gigli, etc. Will you ever again sing at the Met?

CB: It’s up to the Met’s administration to sign Bergonzi. I can’t intervene in these things, first of all because I’ve never asked anything of any theater. In 35 years of career, I’ve never forced a maestro or a theater to hire me. I’ve always been signed for my natural gifts, and that’s my great satisfaction. For a season or two, a theater can do without a particular tenor, because they haven’t appropriate repertory and thus have no need of him.

Irwin Petri: Why is your upcoming concert a tribute to Gigli?

CB: That was my thought that I transmitted to my dear friend Eclesia Cestone [who put up the money]. Having sung with Gigli and being a great fan, I wanted to have the satisfaction of transmitting to the Carnegie Hall public the songs and arias that he sang in his films. Gigli is the tenor who gave me the greatest satisfaction.

Michael Tortora: What about Wagner, Lohengrin, in particular?

CB: I’ve only sung Lohengrin’s arias.

Howard Hart: Are there roles you’d like to sing?

CB: By now I’m on the threshold of a long road. I still have the pleasure of singing and of diverting myself, and I am happy that the public that comes to hear me diverts itself. But there’s no point in speaking of new parts.

Peter Wilson: Who are the great sopranos and mezzos with whom you’ve sung, and what made them great?

CB: I have the misfortune that the years have passed and now we are heading into old age; but I have the good fortune to have taken part in the period of great sopranos. I’ll tell you some names but may not remember them all: Callas, Tebaldi, Milanov, Albanese, Kirsten, Scotto, Freni, Sutherland—with whom I sang Lucia at Covent Garden in April, where I had the great satisfaction, still, at my age, of having an optimal success.

Bob Rideout: You are the great tenor stylist of recent years. What did you think of Callas as performer and singer?

CB: I think about Callas as you perhaps do, as everyone does: she was unique in singing and on stage.

Greg Gregory: You are the tenor of the world. I want to hear you sing all my life. When I die, I want you singing in the background.

CB: I thank you. It would be a great honor. But I hope the occasion is far, far away.

Eclesia Cestone: For a young singer, what’s the most important thing in pursuing a career?

CB: First and foremost, you need great discipline to never tire of vocalizing, to do exercises for diaphragmatic breathing, to work on vocalizes by Concone and on sung solfeggios.

Barbara Travis: Why do singers burn out early? Could it be because of the pace of life today or because of their impatience to make careers?

CB: Youngsters want to do, to arrive quickly, to get to the finish line before the right time, and they burn the candle at both ends. As a result they tire themselves out, ruining their vocal qualities. A recommendation: When you are young, time seems to go more slowly. Never tire of waiting. Wait until the right moment to decide repertory. It’s of no importance if you make a career as a tenore leggero, for there is a vast repertory for tenore leggero, as for lirico, lirico spinto and drammatico. Later, if nature takes you from being a lirico to being a drammatico, you’ll gradually get to do the entire repertory. But never tire of studying.

Anthony Frezola: What is required to be a Verdian singer?

CB: First of all, you must listen to the repertory a lot, to understand the composer. For you to transmit what he wants, the music has got to enter into your blood.

AF: Why is there a paucity of Verdian voices today?

CB: I have a contest at Busseto for Verdian voices and can assure you that they still exist. But they don’t get ahead because young singers are in a hurry and accept roles unsuited to their voices. Hence they are constrained to force, and the voices lose enamel and velvet instead of acquiring Verdian color.

SZ: Wasn’t it ever thus?

CB: I have two authentic Verdi letters, given to me by Busseto’s Carrara Verdi, one dated 1872, the other from ’86. Verdi laments the lack of voices for his operas. Verdi is very difficult to interpret, and it’s also difficult to get to the point where you can emit the sounds he wanted, particularly for tenor parts, because the music tends to sit in the passaggio, and to sing on F-sharp, G and A-flat for an entire aria is very difficult. That’s why there have always been few Verdi tenors.

SZ: When was Verdian singing at its peak?

CB: If an appropriate tenor, soprano and baritone came forward, it would be at its peak today. But the material is lacking. Sometimes you can’t play around and must tell the truth: if theaters would begin to hire young singers for the right repertory, I assure you that Verdian, Puccinian and Wagnerian voices would still come forward. Today, when a tenor with an easy high C comes on the scene, they don’t consider the color—whether it’s of a lirico leggero, a lirico spinto or a drammatico. He has the C, so they quickly hire him for Trovatore, for only the “Pira” is important. In Verdi, high notes are important, for he wrote them, even though in “Pira” he didn’t put in a C but a G. However, the C is a beautiful tradition and thus one should do it. Phrasing, portamento, tonal velvet and the bronze of the color—these things are Verdian singing. Not just the high C. Thirty-five years ago, when I began my career, there were the following kinds of tenors: leggero, lirico leggero, lirico, lirico spinto and drammatico. Today there’s no difference: they have a Barbiere tenor sing Rigoletto and Rigoletto tenor sing Otello. Thus the categories are lost.

Russ Tyser: Is there a tenor now singing Otello who should be singing Rigoletto?

CB: I don’t know one.

SZ: Are there interesting singers in Italy we don’t know of here?

CB: I don’t know which young singers are appearing here.

SZ: Did any careers start as a result of the Busseto competition?

CB: Yes, Aragall, Malaspina, Gulin, Cappuccilli and others. Today there’s a truly good lirico-leggero tenor, Vincenzo La Scola.

SZ: Has he already been engaged to sing in the States?

CB: No, but he sang I Lombardi with the contest and has been engaged by the Paris Opéra for La Fille du Régiment and La sonnambula and by Lisbon’s São Carlos for Rigoletto.

Stewart Manville: Carlo Bergonzi, I adore the caressing quality of your singing. Is that quality what is meant by “slancio”?

CB: No, slancio is something felt in the person.

SZ: “Slancio” applies to interpretation, not vocal quality. Would you care to define it?

CB: When you interpret a phrase, putting in that vocal expression, that signifies slancio—giving expression to the words.

SM: I’d like to listen to you forever. Dr. Umberto Boeri: “Slancio” may best be defined as “oomph,” “propulsiveness” or “a springing forward.”

Miguel Nicoletta: I heard you sing with Leontyne Price some years ago at the Teatro Colón. Please reminisce about those performances.

CB: I remember them with great enthusiasm. I also remember the enthusiasm of the public, the management and the press. Thank you for calling the experiences to mind.

Now, Stefan, I have to ask you a question: tell me something about your career. I’ve heard a great deal about you but have never head you sing. What repertory do you do?

SZ: I specialize in Bellini’s high tenor parts. For example, I sang the actual world premiere of Bellini’s last setting of Adelson e Salvini. My repertory includes Fernando in Bianca e Fernando, Puritani,
in the original keys, which are as much as a third higher than those in scores published in this century. I also sing stratospheric parts by Rossini and Donizetti, as well as music written by the 19th-century tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini.

CB: Well, in bocca al lupo (into the mouth of the wolf), with my very best wishes, because having gotten to know you, I’ll tell you the truth: I’ve gotten to know someone of notable intelligence regarding drawing distinctions and speaking of vocal technique. [For particulars about
Bergonzi’s voice placement, see Opera Fanatic magazine, Issue 1, p. 34 and Issue 2, p. 11. Issue 2 is still available from Bel Canto Society.]

SZ: Crepi il lupo (may the wolf croak). On behalf of the listeners and myself, let me wish you in cullo alla balena (up the asshole of the whale).

CB: Yes, that’s very important. Very good. Che non scorreggi (may he not fart). (Bergonzi’s entourage applauds.)

Bob Connolly: It’s almost as much a pleasure to hear Grande Uffiziale Bergonzi speak as to hear him sing; the speaking is so beautifully produced, it makes me realize that most of us Americans speak and sing in the throat.

SZ: For me, it’s a diction lesson. We’re all high as a kite here.

CB: I thank you all for listening and phoning. For me it was a real treat. The time flew. Arrivederci.