“Singers should stay motionless when they sing. Otherwise the voice shifts. The singer has to be an actor through gestures, face, arms and hands. Through the voice.“
Born in 1931, Cerquetti first studied violin and sang for her own pleasure. At 16 she performed the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” at a friend’s wedding and was persuaded to audition for the Perugia conservatory, where she was accepted. She performed Leonora (Trovatore) at Modena but her official debut was in 1951, as Aïda, at Spoleto. She appeared throughout Italy, France, Switzerland and in Chicago, and she sang Abigaille with Serafin at Verona in 1956. In 1957, in her only New York appearance (at The Town Hall), she sang Paride ed Elena (Gluck). Among her recordings are Gioconda, Oberon, Norma, Forza, Vespri, Tell, Ernani and Abencerages (Cherubini). She retired abruptly. We discussed this:
AC: I sacrificed my career for my family.
AC: By leaving my career so early.
SZ: There are various explanations regarding why you stopped. For example, RAI [Italian radio] told me you had a brain disease.
AC: Uff! [Sound of disgust] What?
SZ: And that you could no longer remember your parts.
AC: They told you that at RAI? What dears! How nice of them! No, thank God, no! Do you know why this rumor got started? I was studying Il pirata, which I was scheduled to sing in Palermo. At the same time I was singing Norma at the Rome Opera, substituting for Callas and going back and forth between Rome and Naples, where I was also performing Norma. Naturally, traveling back and forth like that, and singing in both cities, there was little time to study. When I arrived in Palermo, knowing they had a cover ready, I said, “Because I haven’t prepared this opera well, I don’t feel I should sing it.” From that point people began to say I had lost my memory. The Milan paper wrote, “Anita Cerquetti has suddenly lost her memory.” It wasn’t that I’d lost my memory; it was simply that I hadn’t studied. This is the truth.
SZ: Let me read this quote of Franco Corelli [the Pollione of the Rome performances]: “Cerquetti strained her voice by singing too much.”
AC: Yes [sardonically].
SZ: “She substituted for Callas in Rome while performing Norma at the San Carlo in Naples at the same time, and after three months she developed nodes on her vocal cords.”
AC: This is another lie, because, thank God, I have never had nodes. Instead I was overcome by stress because I was tired, very tired.
SZ: When did you have the stress?
AC: I was very tired because I couldn’t sleep at night and during the day I sang. It got to the point where I had absolute need of physical rest. Above all I needed to sleep. This was from stress. But, thank God, my vocal cords remained intact and have remained so until today. This is the truth. And other things were said as well, not just that. They said my husband left me, didn’t they? [Her husband, Edo, grunts affirmatively.] They also said I had lost my mind, that I had had a heart operation (this news arrived from America). So many things were said—understandably—because I had left my career at its most beautiful moment. It’s only natural that people asked why. And since everyone needed a reason, each one invented his own.
SZ: Did you commit acts of divismo?
AC: When I canceled the Pirata, all kinds of things were said about me—that I did scandalous things, that I turned a hotel upside down because I couldn’t find a room to my liking. They called me hysterical, a crazy woman—everything. And no one—no one—spoke up for me. No one said, it’s not true, that’s not the way it is. Apparently it was convenient at that moment for some people that I disappear. Since I needed my family and affection—in this life you need more than just success—I said “Basta: I’m closing the door, and that’s the end of it.”
SZ: Do you have the desire to sing, to perform?
AC: Not today. The first years, yes, but no longer.
SZ: And the first years?
AC: In the first years it was hard, because I withdrew abruptly, no longer seeing people or listening to music. I wanted to erase those memories even though they can never really be erased. But at least I wanted to keep them at a distance, put them in the back of my mind.
SZ: Why didn’t you attempt a return to the stage?
AC: I received many offers to return. There were moments when I almost accepted. But then I thought, what’s the point? I’ve already found my peace, my serenity. To return under the gun! Basta! And so I closed the door.
Today one tends to think of dramatic soprano voices as heavy, in the manner of Marton’s, but Cerquetti’s instead was brilliant and penetrating, with soaring top notes. Her breath span was a trifle short. She was expert at such elusive subtleties as the grace notes in “O patria mia.” Her temperament sometimes seems a little cool, lacking in pathos, her sound Nordic. (In Opera Fanatic she warmly interprets words in demonstrating an excerpt from Norma.) Gioconda inspired her to sizzle. She sang the part with a heavier tone.
SZ: What is your opinion about chest voice?
AC: I hate it.
SZ: To me you sound as if you used pinches of it as Gioconda.
AC: Well, I used chest notes despite myself—but lightly. The part brought them out of me. I couldn’t sing with heavy chest resonance if I wanted to because I’ve always tried to avoid it.
SZ: Are chest notes harmful to the voice?
AC: Yes. They ruin the middle voice, and they are ugly. I prefer a note that is less forte but more beautiful. If you throw a note into the chest you hear the difference when the sound rises and passes the first passaggio [change of register]. You hear that it’s no longer the same voice, that something has happened. It’s as if you open a door and find a narrower hallway because the notes in the middle voice are comparatively thinner and weaker.
Cerquetti on Cigna: Cigna, by the way, used chest resonance.
On Olivero: Few singers have pathos. Olivero did. Almost all others are scholastic. Her voice by itself serves for nothing.
On Barbieri and Simionato: [They] always hated one another.
For a performance with Cerquetti, go to Ernani (CD)
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