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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.”


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

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.


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)

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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

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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



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

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!

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Iris Adami Corradetti

adami corradetti1
Iris Adami Corradetti in the 1920s and in Opera Fanatic

“The first act of Butterfly should be sung very sweetly but not with the voce infantile [a childlike or white voice suggestive of innocence and virginity]. Butterfly has renounced her family and changed her religion—the actions of a mature woman.”

Demonstrations: Butterfly

Adami Corradetti was born in 1903. Her father, Ferruccio Corradetti, was among the most important baritones from the late 19th century into the 1930s as well as an actor and critic. Her mother, Bice Adami, created the leading soprano part in Mascagni’s Le maschere. Both parents made many recordings. Adami Corradetti began as a concert pianist. Toscanini attended a party at which she not only played but sang. He engaged her for La Scala, where she made her debut in 1927, as the Page in Wolf Ferrari’s Sly. For several years she mostly sang comprimaria parts. She appeared under Toscanini’s baton and those of every other famous Italian conductor of the period as well as of Blech, Mascagni, Zandonai and Strauss. Adami Corradetti performed nearly 100 parts in operas by composers from Carissimi to Menotti, creating roles in 35 operas, including many by more than 20 now-obscure composers favored by the fascist regime. Famous for Zandonai’s Francesca, at La Scala from 1938 she “owned” Butterfly. In 1946 she married and, to please her husband, retired—a decision she came to regret.

Adami Corradetti grew up disliking opera and claimed to have absorbed little about it from her parents or anybody else. Her singing technique was largely self-taught.

A critic remarked that she wedded verismo expressivity to such traditional graces as legato. Another critic maintained that, as an interpreter, she “balanced head and heart.”

In her recordings of “Flammen, perdonami” (Lodoletta) and “Paolo, datemi pace” (Francesca da Rimini), from 1940, she brightens her tone to imbue it with more tenderness, fragility and pathos. In Italy at this time characterful tones were prized and it didn’t matter if they were so bright and penentrating as to be acerbic. Bianca Scacciati and Adelaide Saraceni sang with vowels that were still brighter and more open and penetrating than Adami Corradetti’s. (In Germany, England and the U.S. singing was expected to be mellow.) But by the time of Adami Corradetti’s song recordings from 1954 and ’57, she too was cultivating a mellow sound—darkened and rounded—as is now expected worldwide.

All the divas in the film teach or have taught singing. Adami Corradetti’s protégées included Ricciarelli and Margherita Rinaldi. Carteri, Valentini Terrani and Mara Zampieri also studied with her. Adami Corradetti told me she was opposed to the use of chest voice. However, her pupil Diana Fanizza said Adami Corradetti didn’t stop her from singing with it.

Adami Corradetti had musical intuitions so powerful that, without being able to verbalize her reasons, she phrased as if by intellectual analysis of the music’s structure. After I interviewed her I sat in on a lesson. A soprano sang “Oh! quante volte” from Capuleti, making the notes of cadenzas equal in value—and the result was dull. From time to time Adami Corradetti stopped her and demonstrated the way she felt a phrase should be sung. In singing a cadenza she would begin slowly, accelerate in the middle and then slow down at the end.

Adami Corradetti also sang an ascending half-step dissonance slightly sharp, which made it more telling. In general she emphasized dissonances—moments of harmonic tension—and deemphasized their resolutions. But when I asked her why, she was unaware of what she had done and had no explanations as to the reasons she had lengthened certain notes and shortened others.

Having appeared as Liù to Cigna’s Turandot, in 1930, Adami Corradetti declared:

Cigna’s kind of Turandot is far removed from the way I conceive the role. I’m not so enthusiastic about virago interpretations such as Cigna’s and Nilsson’s because, from my point of view, the princess is a fragile girl, psychologically weak, who in the end falls in love like all women do. Nevertheless I recognize that Cigna gave some stupendous performances of this opera, with her beautiful, cutting, vibrant voice.

Iris Adami Corradetti died June 26, 1998. This interview is the only footage of her. (Another portion of it was used in The Tenors of the 78 Era, Volume 1) Her last words to me were, “I’d still love to be able to sing, to give, because my soul is still alive.”—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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Gigliola Frazzoni


“Throughout the first act of Butterfly I used the voce infantile.

Demonstrations: Butterfly, Fanciulla and Tosca


Frazzoni demonstrates her Butterfly in Opera Fanatic


Born in 1927, she debuted in Bologna, as Mimì, in 1948, and appeared in Rome, Venice, Turin, Palermo, Parma, Verona, Munich, Stuttgart, Wiesbaden, Zurich, Geneva, Bordeaux, Cairo, Dublin and Vienna. She made her Scala debut in 1955, replacing Callas in Chénier. There she also sang Cavalleria, Fanciulla, Butterfly and Pagliacci. Her recordings include Tosca, Fanciulla and the world premiere, at La Scala, of I dialoghi delle Carmelitane. Her Minnie was filmed.

An uneven singer with an ample, round, dark sound, at her best she had a warm vocal personality—tender, endearing, adorable, sensuous, feminine, passionate, cuddly. She was a Minnie who laughed, loved, raged, suffered and exulted—electrifying. She was wild at “Vieni fuori! Vieni fuori!” in Act II. She sometimes sang slightly flat. She was insecure on high B and C.

Frazzoni tells her story:

My teacher took me from Bologna to Milan to audition for the agent Liduino. In another part of the office Serafin was making up the cast for Francesca da Rimini. He said, “This voice interests me. Don’t send her away.” He signed me for a small part, Samaritana. Thus I made my debut.

Later Liduino blocked my career because I represented a threat to someone he was protecting. Once Del Monaco and Gobbi were in Chicago for Fanciulla. Steber was supposed to sing Minnie but was sick—in reality she was on a bender—and they recommended me. Liduino called me and asked me how much I wanted. I wasn’t accustomed to big fees. To make my American debut, in my opera, I would have gone if they had covered my expenses. I told Liduino I left the money up to him. I was afraid of flying but for that occasion was prepared to. I bought a valise. When nothing happened my husband called Liduino’s office and was given a runaround.

A week later I received a letter from Del Monaco saying he was ashamed to know me because I’d asked for so much money—Liduino had demanded $3,000 a performance although I would have gone for $300. He didn’t want me to go to America because he managed Stella and a number of other sopranos. Steber mimed the performance with someone singing from behind the curtain. Bing flew from New York to Chicago to hear me, in vain.

As a result my good friend Tebaldi ended up performing Fanciulla at the Met and recording it for Decca. She wanted to do everything. She was one of the greatest singers, with a sweet voice, an exquisite legato. She was wonderful in Lohengrin, Otello, above all, and was even a good Maddelena, but she was unsuitable for verismo. (I would have been a bad Desdemona because I needed to run around onstage.) Her temperament was too controlled for Minnie and she was too static onstage. Minnie has to be violent at moments. She was too sweet for that.

The Fanciulla recording was to have been done at La Scala with Votto conducting but Decca moved it to Rome because he said, “I want to record Fanciulla with the cast we had at La Scala.” [At La Scala Frazzoni was the Minnie, Del Monaco and Corelli the Johnsons. The recording was conducted by Capuana and starred Del Monaco and Tebaldi.]

In 1958 I was scheduled to do seven performances of Butterfly at La Scala. They were so successful that the theater added 10 additional performances, whereas Callas only got to do 14 of Traviata.

In the first act of Butterfly you must seem fifteen. Butterfly and Violetta each require two voices. I try to adapt my sound to the situation. I had the discipline to decline engagements, to prepare myself for certain roles. When I performed Butterfly I only did that part that year because I had to make my voice smaller and childlike for the first act. But in the second act I became a spinto and threw out all the voice I had.

I used chest voice when the drama called for it, for example, at the end of “Voi lo sapete”—the way Bruna Rasa did. The word “piango” calls for it. I reconciled chest voice with my masque placement. You shouldn’t really dig into those notes. They should sound natural, not forced. [She demonstrated the phrase with great passion and a sob at the tied note on “piango” but used chest very lightly if at all, I thought.] Bruna Rasa once came backstage to congratulate me after a performance. Incidentally, the poor thing went crazy because of syphilis.

The first requirement in singing is to have temperament and sensibility. You must be happy, joyful, full of love. In Puccini every phrase teaches you to sing with happiness and humility.

There are no more Giocondas. Today Bohème-type voices sing heavy repertory and they lack impact as Santuzza. Voices that would have sung Micaëla or Liù end up doing Gioconda and Fedora.

What I regret most of all is not having any children—I would have liked to have had six.

Frazzoni on Adami Corradetti: She made me feel a lot of tenderness.

On Simionato: In Cenerentola she sounded like a soprano leggero. She had great facility with high notes.

On Stignani: She was a mezzo but she sang the high C in Norma. Callas told her, “But why do you put in the C? Only I do it.”

On Gavazzi: She was one of the last with great temperament. She also had a beautiful voice.

On Olivero: Her recording of “Ah! fors’è lui. . . . Sempre libera” is unsurpassable and was an inspiration to me. Those who do Adriana today are ridiculous compared to her. But unfortunately she was one of those singers who had to do everything, and so she even performed Fanciulla. Her Minnie is of no interest to me.

SZ: Why is that?

GF: No comment!

On Corelli vs. Del Monaco:

SZ: You sang Fanciulla with both Del Monaco and Corelli. Please compare them.

GF: Del Monaco was a normal person. He didn’t create problems for others. With Corelli you never knew if he’d sing or not. Offstage he was unbearable. “I don’t feel well—this bothers me, that hurts me.” After performances he disappeared. Del Monaco instead was a tranquil man. He was very serious about his singing. He listened to himself while he sang. Offstage he was like a brother. He was happy, he gave joy. After the performance he was able to sing through the entire opera again in full voice in the hotel, after he had eaten. His wife, Rina, was a dear, good person. Del Monaco had a beautiful voice, but his singing was more calculated.

Corelli was the Callas of tenors. His voice was not beautiful but it had an allure that excited the public. Callas had a pathos, something great inside her, that Franco also had. His voice gave me goosebumps. He threw himself into the performance. He was Johnson—he was more true to the drama.

He sang, “Minnie, Minnie” with such tenderness! Onstage I was in love with him, offstage less so because he was impossible.

After performances with Corelli women said to me, “He touched you! That must have been so thrilling!”

Stefan Zucker


Frazzoni in Chénier with “the Callas of tenors”

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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Gina Cigna

“If you don’t know how to breathe, you don’t know how to sing… Opera has lost spontaneity, beauty and freedom.”

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Gina Cigna

Born in 1900 in Paris to a well-to-do family, Cigna studied music theory, also piano with Cortot and voice with Calvé. She was a painter and ceramist. In 1927 she debuted under her married name, Ginette Sens, at La Scala, as Freia. After studies with Storchio and Russ and performances in the Italian provinces, she reemerged under her own name at La Scala as Donna Elvira and went on to appear in Florence, Verona, London, Paris, Cologne, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich, Hanover, Dusseldorf, Berlin, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto. In 1947 on her way to perform Tosca in Vicenza she was in an auto accident. She crawled out the window of the car, arrived at and sang the performance but at some point suffered a heart attack. This caused her retirement.

Her repertoire included 50 roles, from Poppea to Kostelnicka. Her principal parts were Turandot (which she performed 493 times), Norma, Gioconda and Violetta. She also sang a prodigious number of recitals. Her recordings include Norma, Trovatore, Turandot and Aïda.

Cossotto coached repertory with Cigna and Pobbe coached Aïda with her. Her voice students included Casapietra, Mauti Nunziata, Dimitrova and Luis Lima.

Cigna’s voice often had a touch of omnipresent conspicuous fast vibrato, seldom heard since her day. Throughout a wide range her voice was plangent. Sometimes, though, it sounded unsupported at ends of phrases, and her breathing sounded labored. In her recordings from 1930-32, she used chest resonance sparingly, but in those from the late 30s she didn’t stint. She claims not to have employed chest resonance. However, her pupil Françoise Detchenique (seen with her in the film) says Cigna advised her to use it with restraint.

Her singing communicated understanding of musical structure: harmonically unimportant notes subordinated, notes of harmonic tension emphasized, those of harmonic relaxation deemphasized. She built crescendos note by note, propelling melodies toward their points of greatest dissonance. Sometimes, however, her treatment of dynamics was a little too understated (perhaps because of her French background).

She was a singer of many aspects. In Gioconda her voice was dark like a mezzo’s, but in Faust it was bright. In dramatic repertory she could sound like a mature woman, yet in Faust she was girlish. Although Cigna is remembered principally for Turandot, she often sang with Innigkeit (with inward or interior feeling), like a Lotte Lehmann of the Italian repertory. (Cigna’s vocal personality wasn’t quite as warm.) Her singing created an atmosphere, her characters oozed mystery, so that in listening to her one believes they felt even more than they expressed.

Stefan Zucker

For a performance with Cigna, go to Il trovatore

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Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish