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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.

SZ: Was it a surprise for you, to sing the part of Elsa at the Rome Opera?

MO: It certainly was. Imagine being engaged for Philine and ending up singing Elsa! Maestro [Tullio] Serafin said I was “an exceptional soprano leggero.” He had me learn all those roles and told me that that winter I would sing Philine in Mignon at the Rome Opera. As you know, Philine is a very high role. I set to work studying with Maestro [Luigi] Gerussi, perfecting my high notes for this role. When my contract arrived–it was for Lohengrin! My dear Maestro Gerussi said to me, “Maestro Serafin should not have tricked you in this way. But let’s see if you feel strong enough and your nerves are steady enough to win this gamble. I am with you all the way. We’ll study without stopping, like two madmen. We’ll try the impossible. But you must accept that contract.” And I did. But Elsa is all in the middle voice. Since I had concentrated on the high register, the center of my voice understandably had become weak. My maestro said, “I’m going to prescribe a program that either will make you or break you. I’m going to give you a work where you have to sing constantly in the center, with some high notes, but with a tessitura similar to that of Lohengrin.”

Can you imagine what he chose for me, who was used to singing the lightest roles in the world? Butterfly! I said, “Maestro, if that’s what you recommend, I have both the courage and the nerves–let’s try it.” He said, “It may not work.” I said, “Maestro, if it doesn’t work, so be it.” So I began with Butterfly and with vocalises, little by little bringing my tessitura down, getting used to singing sul fiato [on the breath]. It all went amazingly well. I don’t remember exactly how many months I studied Butterfly, but even before singing Elsa I sang Butterfly in the theater [at Camogli, April 22, 1936]. It was such a success that those who were present still remember it.

Then I went to Rome for Lohengrin, which I had studied so assiduously with my maestro. Wagner is a completely different kind of singing–rigid, no portamentos. But I really had prepared it well. When I arrived in Rome, I found they had given the first performances to another soprano, Franca Somigli. I was given the final two performances. [Born Marian Bruce Clark, in Chicago, 1901–1974, Franca Somigli was received poorly there and at the Met but sang throughout the war in Italy and Germany.] They gave me a substitute conductor who went over the entire score with me and said, “Ah, you know it. Good.” I certainly did. Then he showed me a model of the set and told me, “In the first act you enter here, and at the end you exit there. In the second act you enter here and go up to there, then go down there and exit there,” with the same kind of directions for the third act. That was my stage rehearsal [laughs]. No orchestra rehearsal, nothing! In other words, everything necessary to insure a fiasco.

I was very thin, and in that white dress, with my long braids, I looked like a stringbean. Looking down the staircase, I saw celebrated artists, such as Tancredi Pasero, horses onstage and this imposing set. At that moment I suddenly felt completely alone, and I asked, “Who’s going to help me?” Fortunately my father and mother had given me great faith, and I thought, “I’m not alone; God always is with us.” That gave me such strength, such courage, that I descended the stairs calmly, stepped to the front of the stage and began Elsa’s opening aria [March 4, 1937]. Afterwards, the tenor, [Giovanni] Voyer, said, “I don’t think I ever have been so moved. This girl, who never had seen any of us and whom we never had seen, appeared suddenly out of nowhere to sing Elsa, without for a moment causing us any problems, musical or dramatic.” In fact from that moment on, Maestro Serafin–I dare to say–adored me. He understood how much courage I had to agree to sing Elsa instead of Philine. I didn’t have an easy career. I always found obstacles in my way.

SZ: What had happened between you and Serafin?

MO: Those are delicate things, and, even though Maestro Serafin is dead, I never would permit myself to speak about them, given how much I owe him and how much he taught me. The famous aria from Traviata [“Sempre libera”]–I owe my facility in singing it to him. He said, “Remember this aria is like an overflowing cup of champagne.” With that image I understood everything and sang it with great slancio [oomph], with a nervous energy that is the essence of Violetta.

SZ: You spoke of the obstacles you had to face. What are the five worst things that ever happened to you?

MO: Perhaps as a young beginner I irritated certain more established artists who felt they were more important than I. Along comes a youngster who could represent a threat to them, and they try to get rid of her, discreetly or otherwise [laughs].

SZ: Who were they?

MO [a bit irritated]: In all honesty I’ve never done anything nasty or discourteous. In fact all my colleagues–sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, tenors, baritones, basses–loved me because they knew they had a friend onstage, not an enemy ready to hold a note longer or play any kind of trick that would put them in a bad light. They all knew I was ready to help them if necessary, not create difficulties. For example, I was supposed to sing Risurrezione [by Franco Alfano], a work I loved very much. Then twice I had to return the contract because another artist wanted to do it [laughs]. The third time around, that artist fell ill, and they called me hurriedly to Rome, where I finally got to sing Risurrezione [October 24, 1937, for an EIAR broadcast]. Another time there was an Adriana that I very much wanted to sing, but they engaged another soprano, one who had been singing for many years [presumably she is referring to Carla Gavazzi, who got to sing the RAI broadcast of October 29, 1950, which was issued on Cetra], and I remember that I worked off my anger by walking through Rome for hours and hours. And then it was over. I’ve never harbored resentment against anyone because I always have tried to view the situation from the other person’s side as well as my own. This is an excellent way to understand and overcome the anger of certain moments.

Stefan Zucker: You stopped singing in 1941.

Magda Olivero: Yes, on May 31, 1941.

SZ: Why?

MO: There was no precise reason. I simply left the theater, instinctively. My career was in the theater, but I never lived there. I never loved life in the theater. I was in Berlin, where I’d sung Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo [at the Charlottenburg Theatre, on April 27, 1941] and found myself surrounded by some of the most illustrious singers of the time. [They included Francesco Albanese, Gino Bechi, Luigi Borgonovo, Maria Caniglia, Margherita Carosio, Loretta di Lelio (the future Mrs. Franco Corelli), Nino Ederle, Beniamino Gigli, Rina Gigli, Tito Gobbi, Maria Huder, Carmelo Maugeri, Giulio Neri, Gianna Pederzini, Ebe Stignani, Giuseppe Taddei, Alessandro Ziliani and a number of others; conductors included Vincenzo Bellezza and Serafin.] I witnessed some of the most shameful scenes. One evening we all were invited to a dinner at the Italian embassy. I went down, ready to get into a car and be driven there. One singer had left in a custom-made luxury automobile–one with a particular motor, horsepower, etc. Another singer began with, “Why did she leave before us, and in that luxury car? We know why. And what kind of car will they send for us? And will they be offering us flowers?” And on and on. After hearing this incredible discussion, I suddenly felt an inner revulsion, so I turned around and went back up to my room.

The next day Maestro Serafin told me the ambassador had asked why I wasn’t there. I said, “Maestro Serafin–last night I witnessed scenes so infantile I thought I was in kindergarten.” He looked at me and said, “You are too good.” [Laughs.] He was all too familiar with this particular mentality. Fortunately I never have had this kind of singer’s mentality. I’ve never gone to look at a poster and said, “Oh God, her name is in larger type than mine.” Even if another singer’s name was in larger type, I thought to myself, “Okay, be patient. It’s not that important. In front of the audience it’s not going to make any difference. It’s not going to make you a bigger or smaller artist. It’s onstage that it becomes clear who is right.”

For me the theater was of the utmost importance. I truthfully can say that every time I stepped out onstage I gave the best of myself. I sought passionately to do better, to make things more beautiful–my voice, my interpretation. But the moment the opera was over and the lights were turned off I left the theater and resumed my life as a completely normal person. I went back to my hotel, took a hot shower to relax, sat down at the little table to a supper of stewed fruit and yogurt and sometimes, throwing caution to the winds, a bit of white meat of chicken. Then I got into bed with something to read that wasn’t too demanding–something amusing–and gradually fell asleep. But I never could sleep until one in the afternoon, as many do. I’m always up by nine, nine-thirty at the latest, even if I went to bed at two-thirty. And I walk. I’ve always been a great walker.

SZ: You didn’t stop singing because of your marriage?

MO: I got married, yes, but neither my husband nor anyone else ever forbade me to continue my career. It was my decision. And, remember, there was the war. On November 18, 1942 the Allies began to bomb Italian cities. Every night from nine to midnight three waves of aircraft assaulted us. I faced all the air raids with incredible serenity. [She grows animated.] I survived everything–even the carpet bombings. They came from far away, flew low over the city–and ta-ta-ta-ta-ta! I was lucky the most terrible raid stopped inches away from the corner of a cellar where I had taken refuge alone. Another time part of an anti-aircraft missile fell on me, as long and as wide as this [demonstrates]. Something told me to get up on the sidewalk. I did, and at that moment–zing! That thing whizzed by me. If I hadn’t been on the sidewalk, it would have split me in two. It’s all a question of destiny. I have a tranquil nature, and I got through the whole war that way. It was not an easy war, I assure you.

I couldn’t think of returning to the stage at that time. They did put on performances, but every time the alarm sounded they had to stop everything and run down into the shelters. Then they went back onto the stage and resumed singing. These were make-do performances, thrown together to give work to the singers. I, on the other hand, preferred to stay in my shell, in my little nest, and enjoy the music [laughs] of the bombardments, which wasn’t very pleasant. In any case, after the war everyone tried to convince me to resume my career.

Maestro Serafin, along with Baron Mazzoni, came from Milan to Turin, where I lived then. [Serafin was then artistic director of La Scala, and Mazzoni was the sovrintendente of Turin’s Teatro Regio.] Maestro Serafin said, “I’ll give you the operas and dates you want, but you must return to the stage, because you never have understood just how important you are.” I said, “All right, Maestro; I’ll go to Milan.”

I was standing in the Piazza della Scala, looking at the opera house, but I could not bring myself to enter it. From that moment on Maestro Serafin hated me. He called me inconsiderate; he called me every name in the book. This is what mutual friends told me. I don’t know why, but something prevented me from entering that theater.

In 1954 I was engaged to sing Margherita in Mefistofele at the Teatro Comunale, in Florence. Maestro Serafin was to conduct. Maestro Siciliani, the artistic director of the theater, told Maestro Serafin the singers who had been cast. “Who is singing Margherita?” Maestro Serafin asked. “We’re not sure yet,” replied Maestro Siciliani. “We’ll let you know as soon as she has been engaged.” Time passed, and finally Maestro Serafin said, “Would you mind telling me who is singing Margherita?” Siciliani replied timidly, “Magda Olivero.” Serafin’s face darkened.

You can imagine my trepidation on arriving for the first stage rehearsal. I felt like a complete beginner, scared to death. I looked at Maestro Serafin, thinking, “Now what’s going to happen? He’s going to insult me, destroy me.” He didn’t say a word. I began to sing, my heart beating furiously.

At the dress rehearsal I saw Tatiana Pavlova [a renowned stage actress], who was the stage director and whom I remember with infinite gratitude. She recited the entire prison act to me, just as she had performed it in Goethe’s Faust. With my great love of acting I succeeded in doing remarkable things. I was able to sing the aria in the most incredible positions, even at its most difficult moments! After the rehearsal I went to Maestro Serafin’s dressing room to thank him. I still remember he was seated in an arm chair. I went toward him. He looked up, took my hand and said, “You are still number one.” In that moment my nerves and fears melted away, and once again we were close friends.

SZ: Why had you returned to the stage? [Magda Olivero answers this question in detail and discusses the part of Adriana, in the booklet to Opera Fanatic CD OF23, Adriana Lecouvreur.]

SZ: What is your interpretation of “tre assi e un paio”?

MO: You have to consider the moment. The card game in Fanciulla is one of the most elegant scenes ever written because Puccini does it with nothing. There’s only that tan-tan-tan in the orchestra, which is Minnie’s heart beating furiously. She has to find a way to trick Rance and win Johnson. When she cries for water, Rance turns his back. At that moment she raises her skirt, pulls three cards out of her stocking and substitutes them. Rance comes back and says, “Here’s your water.” She cries, “No, I don’t feel faint because I’m ill. I’m faint with joy because I’ve won! Three aces and a pair!” She places them in front of him. He puts on his hat, says “Buona sera!” and leaves–a stupendous scene. And done with nothing.

SZ: It seems to me there are many possible interpretations of “E avanti a lui.” You have made a choice….

MO: Of course. You always have to make a choice–you try to make the best one. And this through an introspective study, trying to…. Tatiana Pavlova taught me that when there are these phrases to be spoken, not sung–for example, in Mefistofele, “Mi fai ribrezzo” [You disgust me], you do the opposite of singing–you tighten your arms and shoulders, like this [demonstrates]–and then you act, declaiming on the breath. But with this constriction, this rigidity, the voice comes out in a different way.

SZ: Can you give us another example?

MO: Let’s see–you can say, “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma” in a normal manner, like this, or you can say it this way [blood-chillingly], which is much more appropriate to the situation. Faced with death or a dead body, you never would utter it in a matter-of-fact way. It’s not fitting. Furthermore, you have to say it sotto voce, so that it isn’t heard by those in the halls of the Palazzo Farnese. This way it’s Tosca’s thought: “Look at him, dead. And to think that all Rome trembled before him. Now I’ve killed him. He’s lying there, and now no one has to tremble before him.”

SZ: How should one say “Muori….”

MO: In that same way–on the breath. I never like to hear it shouted–”Muori! Muori!” [shouts]. The poor wretch is dying. There is only Tosca’s hatred and her joy that he is dying. Before, when he cries, “Aiuto! Aiuto!” she utters a reasonably loud, vehement “Muori!” But when he falls and she goes over to look at him, she says “Muori! Muori!” softer and softer. There’s no need to proclaim it. She’s just a few steps away from him, and he’s expiring, so she puts all her hatred into these words.

SZ: In the 50s, from what I gather from your recordings, you sang “Egli vede ch’io piango” [near the end of Act 1] more or less as written, while, for example, in Newark [New Jersey], in 1970, and at the Met, in 1975, you did much more.

MO: Yes, I began the note piano and swelled it into a thunderous burst of grief!

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