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Magda Olivero

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

Demonstrations: Adriana, Tosca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On recording Fedora:

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

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

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

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

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

Olivero on Mario Del Monaco:

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

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

On Galliano Masini:

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

On Giuseppe Lugo:

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

On Giuseppina Cobelli:

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

Stefan Zucker

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

Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish