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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

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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Anita Cerquetti

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Anita Cerquetti in Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas:

“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.“

Demonstration: Norma

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.

SZ: How?

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.

Stefan Zucker

For a performance with Cerquetti, go to Ernani (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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Carla Gavazzi

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In Opera Fanatic, Gavazzi compares and contrasts various interpretations of “Amami Alfredo” from Traviata.

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Carla Gavazzi as Santuzza

SZ: Cerquetti, Adami Corradetti, Barbieri, Simionato, Pobbe and Olivero are all opposed to the use of chest resonance.

CG: Chest resonance is indispensable. They are ignorant! They don’t know anything! Olivero used a lot of chest voice. Did she ever, in order to become successful. Even to a vulgar degree!

Demonstrations: Traviata, Tosca

 

Gavazzi was born in 1913, in Bergamo, to a prosperous, artistic and educated family. She was sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and France, where she studied violin as well as French and German. She debuted, as Mimì, in 1940. Her career, interrupted by war, marriage and the birth of a son, resumed in 1946. Her repertoire included modern and chamber music as well as Semiramide, Pamina in Flauto magico, Faust, Liù in Turandot, Margherita in Mefistofele, Manon, Manon Lescaut, Otello, Micaëla in Carmen, Margherita da Cortona (Refice), L’incantesimo (Montemezzi), La favola del figlio cambiato (Malipiero), Mathis der Maler, La campana sommersa (Respighi), Cyrano de Bergerac and Risurrezione (both by Alfano). Alfano chose her for the world premiere of his song cycle based on the poetry of Tagore. Gavazzi sang at Florence, Milan, Parma, Brescia, Trieste, Bologna, Verona, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Barcelona and Lisbon. She recorded Elvira in Giovanni, Adriana, Fanciulla and Pagliacci and filmed Cavalleria.

She retired around 1960 because of a goiter, which caused intermittent swelling in the neck, and because her son had polio.

Gavazzi often was aflame with passion. At moments her Adriana recording gives spinal chills. I’m an Oliveroite, but I have to admit that I sometimes find Gavazzi’s more rhythmic approach preferable because it enabled her to move a phrase ahead better. Her Adriana surpassed Olivero’s at aggressive, assertive moments. (Olivero’s Adriana had other, spiritual dimensions, also a rapt, girlish quality.) Sometimes Gavazzi sang with a flicker vibrato. At her best her intonation was uncommonly accurate. For example, unlike most singers, she sang half steps untempered (as a violinist would play them). She lacked a pianissimo.—Stefan Zucker

CG: I find that in general there is too much preoccupation today with making a rotund sound. All the singers are good and they are all the same, with beautiful pianos, which were much less common before. If Katia Ricciarelli hadn’t sung so many pianos, she would still be singing with that lovely voice she started with.

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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Marcella Pobbe

“All I did was right. I didn’t make mistakes.”

pobbe Born in 1927 (some reference books give 1921), Pobbe studied in Vicenza, Pasero, Siena and won several vocal contests, making her debut, in 1948, in Spoleto, as Marguerite. The following season she sang at the San Carlo in a revival of Petrella’s I promessi sposi. In 1954-55 she appeared at La Scala as Elsa, as Betsabea in the house premiere of David (Milhaud) and as Agathe. In 1956 she sang in the world premiere of Rossellini’s La guerra, at the San Carlo. She appeared in Verona, London, Paris, Vienna and in South America. Her Met debut was in 1958, as Mimì.

Her recordings include Mefistofele, Isabeau (Mascagni), Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Honegger), Carmen, Pêcheurs and Otello. She made films of Adriana, Ballo, Tosca, Francesca da Rimini as well as the Countess in Figaro and several recitals. Her repertory included Giulio Cesare, Ifigenia in Aulide, Orontea (Cesti), Kovàncina, Fiera di Sorocinski, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”

pobbebwShe renounced her Met engagement for Elisabetta, in 1959, because she didn’t want to appear in the same house as Nicolai Gedda, with whom she was having a lovers’ quarrel. This step ended her Met career. (Her affair with Gedda continued off and on, notwithstanding his various marriages and lovers.) In watching the film it might be helpful to know that, on the phone before the interview, Pobbe herself spoke of all this heatedly and at length and asked to discuss it for the record, but when the cameras were rolling she clammed up.

She supposedly was dogged by ill luck. For example, she divorced a wealthy husband (the divorce was one of the first in Italy), only to have him drop dead the next day. She made bad investments.

Her sound was sweet, bright, charming, white, evocative of adolescence. She was an Italian Upshaw or Hong but with a more powerful voice. It was even from top to bottom and seemingly produced without effort. Her intonation was accurate, and she had excellent control over dynamics.

In Don Carlo she found more tonal body, but her voice had less focus and her vibrato was wider. She was well schooled but lacked sufficient emotion. Hers was a lighter, brighter sound than one associates with Don Carlo or Trovatore (in which she had a good high D-flat). Divas from the period often claim that, unlike Scotto and Freni, singers then didn’t undertake heavy roles if they had voices that were lyric in color. Pobbe is the counterexample. —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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Chest Voice: Some History

Since W.W.I women for the most part have been afraid of chest resonance, fearing it would ruin their voices. But in the 19th century women used it as a matter of course, a practice they inherited from the castratos. Most women on early recordings sing all notes from F at the bottom of the treble staff on down in chest voice. But they do not sing higher than that in chest voice. Voice teacher Giovanni Battista Lamperti dissuaded his pupil Marcella Sembrich from undertaking Aïda on the grounds that she lacked the requisite chest resonance. (Records attest to Sembrich’s having used chest resonance below G-flat, so presumably Lamperti must have felt her chest voice was too light for the part.) Lamperti did maintain it was unhealthy for the voice for women to carry chest resonance higher than F.

Nineteenth-century Italian opera composers seemingly took for granted that women would employ chest voice. (Consider Mascagni’s preference for Lina Bruna Rasa’s chest-voice-heavy Santuzza.) The majority of roles cannot be communicated adequately without chest color at one point or another. Women often find that unless they abstain from chest resonance, the music at certain moments causes them to use it. A challenge for women with modern vocal techniques is how to fulfill the chest requirement without hurting themselves.

In the last 160 years, while women have used chest voice less and less, men have used it more and more. For discussions of men, chest voice and head voice, see my “Last of a Breed: Giovanni Battista Rubini Ruled as the Paragon of Virtuoso Tenors, King of the High F’s” (Opera News, February 13, 1982) and “Seismic Shocker: Gilbert-Louis Duprez’s History-Making High C” (Opera News, January 1, 1983), also my “Different Kinds of High Notes and the Seismic Shock: Nineteenth-Century Tenors and the Meaning of ‘Falsetto’” (American Record Guide, March 1982). The Rubini and Duprez articles are reprinted in my The Origins of Modern Tenor Singingsee our full catalog.

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Chest Voice: The Divas’ Dispute

Gavazzi and Gencer claim that not only did they themselves employ chest resonance but that the other divas—in particular, Olivero, Cigna, Adami Corradetti, Simionato and Barbieri—did as well. (Frazzoni made some seemingly inconsistent statements about whether or not she herself used it.) These latter deny having resonated in their chests. I asked Gavazzi to explain this. She claimed they employed chest unknowingly.

This kind of explanation is common among singers. Corelli and Hines cannot conceive of any tenor singing above the staff without routinely covering his tone. Yet Alfredo Kraus and I claim we do exactly that. Speaking on the radio program “Opera Fanatic,” Corelli and Hines insisted we cover automatically, without being aware of it—a view we reject.

Also speaking on “Opera Fanatic,” Kraus asserted that Chris Merritt sings his high notes in falsetto—a view he rejects.

Usually I favor giving the singer the benefit of the doubt: if he says he’s not covering, then he’s not.

The dispute over chest voice may be a special case, however. The anti-chest divas were raised in the belief that chest resonance is vocally unhealthy. They also were told it fractures continuity of musical line. Still, certain powerful emotions and coloristic demands sometimes flushed chest out of them. But they hate to admit it. Each diva views her vocal technique as having the sanctity of religion. Each is mortified if the world knows she sinned. Barbieri insisted she wouldn’t attend The Bavarian State Opera’s showing of Opera Fanatic if Gencer were there, on the grounds that Gencer had insulted her by saying in the film that she—Barbieri—used chest voice.

Why should opera lovers care about whether or not someone sings with chest voice? Because the affective consequences are very great. My viscera aren’t satisfied if chest isn’t used in certain passages, the phrase “un gel mi prende” (Norma), for example.

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Vocal Technique

With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who at least from the 50s onward didn’t have a placement-based method, the divas in the film used a technique of resonation called “masque placement” (“placement” of the tone at the front of the face, anywhere between the forehead and the lower teeth). Masque placement prevailed in the period in which they sang.

For much of the19th century many singers placed their voices at the top of the head, at a point between but above the ears. Gemma Bellincioni, the first Santuzza, used this placement.

Today masque placement is being edged aside by mechanistic approaches, which do not involve placement at all. Instead, they require manipulation of the lips, mouth, tongue, soft palate, nostrils, jaw, position of the head or of the larynx.

With the exception of Adami Corradetti, who did not think about breathing, the divas used a breathing method involving pressing in at the diaphragm. Before, during and after the divas’ period a variety of other breathing techniques have been in use.

The divas all subscribe to the view that there is one god, one country and one singing technique—their own. (Olivero concurs that this is her stand.)

For more detailed information about these and six other fundamentally different kinds of vocal technique, see Opera Fanatic magazine, issue 2. (See our full catalog)

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Musical Line vs. Dramatic Expression: Two Kinds of Diva

The divas divide into two groups. The first group strove not to vary tone color for dramatic expression but to maintain consistency of tone color for the sake of musical line. Half the divas in the film—Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Pobbe and Simionato—belong to this group (as do virtually all singers today). From their point of view, a change in tone color compromised musical line as much as a break in legato. That they didn’t vary tone color didn’t prevent them from being emotionally intense. They relied on good diction and musicianship to serve librettists and composers.

For the second group, varying tone color for dramatic expression was paramount. Adami Corradetti (as a performer but not as a teacher), Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer and Olivero are in this group. To my ears, these performers succeeded in changing tone color without damaging the musical line and thereby heightened emotional impact. The singers in the first group acted with their faces and bodies. The singers in the second group also acted with their voices.

One can find counterexamples. Frazzoni and Gencer didn’t always come alive interpretively. Cerquetti sometimes inflected her tone, most notably on a live recording of Ballo. Cigna on some occasions colored hers as well.

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Intuition vs. Analysis

During the interviews it became clear that the divas respond to words and to the music’s emotions but don’t analyze its structure. They never think about clarifying a vocal line by showing through emphasis which notes are melody, which mere ornamentation. The notion of each piece containing a hierarchy of notes is foreign to them.

Unlike the majority of singers (Italians in particular), most of the divas in the film turned out to have studied instruments. Perhaps that contributed to their musical intuitions. Simionato had no such background, yet her musicianship was no less expressive.

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Jan Schmidt-Garre

Film director Jan Schmidt-Garre studied conducting (with Sergiu Celibidache), philosophy and film and was a volunteer and assistant director with, among others, Ponnelle and Kupfer, at several theaters and at the Salzburg Festival. His films include Bruckners Entscheidung, Celibidache, which won a Silver Medal at the Chicago Film Festival and was nominated for the German Film Prize, and the series The Tenors of the 78 Era. The Joseph Schmidt episode received Special Jury Mention at the Musée du Louvre’s 1998 “Classique en images” international film competition. The series is being shown on TV in many European countries. Portions of it are to be seen on WNET in New York.

Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas has been screened at the Prague International Film Festival, where it won second prize out of 120 entries, the Munich International Documentary Film Festival, where it won a prize, the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival and the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

In July it will be shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival. The Bavarian State Opera will screen the film on July 28 at Munich’s Cuvilliés-Theater with Frazzoni, Pobbe, Simionato and Zucker as guests of honor. They will be interviewed.

The film is now being broadcast in Finland (on YLE), Norway (on NRK) and Poland (on PT).