“If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t become a singer. I suffered too much.”
Demonstrations: Samson, Trovatore
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.
When a comprimaria, Simionato married a Scala violinist. In the early 50s she allegedly had an affair with bass-baritone Mario Petri. She told me, however, that they merely simulated the affair so she could force a divorce and that Petri used her to advance his career. She had a long affair with an eminent doctor, whose wife, according to Simionato, was “manic depressive and a little out of her mind. He couldn’t ask her for a divorce because she was incapable of understanding and of giving her consent.” In 1965, on the death of the wife, Simionato married the doctor and, in 1966, gave up her career. After his death she married an old friend, who died in 1996.
Simionato had top notes many sopranos might envy. A voice teacher warned her not to be tempted by soprano parts, maintaining that, “The color of your voice is typical of mezzo-sopranos, and it’s the color that determines the category, not the range.” She came to think of herself as a falcon*—a hybrid between soprano and mezzo—and triumphed in the falcon role of Valentina in Ugonotti (La Scala, 1962). Unlike Cigna, Simionato’s voice was mellow rather than penetrating.
SZ: Have you always tried to use the same color of voice?
SZ: Did you always sing Azucena, for example, with the same color as Amneris?
GS: The color was always the same, except that with Azucena there was naturally always this kind of madness. She had experienced such a tragedy that there was something wild and unbalanced about her, whereas with Amneris there was the yellow color of jealousy. And since I am jealous by nature—I’m jealous of people, of my possessions, of my dog—without, however, overstepping that level where it becomes something pathological or morbid. I’m jealous in the good sense of the word. When I sang Amneris I was jealousy incarnate. At a certain moment she actually has these two unfortunates buried alive, who were guilty only of loving each other. But she didn’t want to permit this. There was jealousy in my voice, but the color was always the same. I couldn’t change it like the painter who changes the color in his painting with his brush. The color is what it is.
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” [in “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.[SZ: Counterexamples come to mind.]
Mezzo-Sopranos: A Breed Apart?
Stefan Zucker: I touched on the sexuality of mezzo-sopranos with Fedora Barbieri.
Giulietta Simionato: No comment.
SZ: How come?
GS: In her case, it was something beyond the normal. Naturally one person has this hunger and another doesn’t. Gabriella Besanzoni used to call any convenient stagehand into her dressing room between acts to do to her what she needed to have done because she said it was good for her voice.
SZ: And Gianna Pederzini?
GS: Pederzini was something else. She didn’t have a great voice but was a great artist, with great theatricality.
SZ: She didn’t only have Roberto Farinacci [one of Mussolini’s most notorious ministers; for information about the Pederzini-Farinacci relationship, go to Il trovatore.
GS: I don’t know if there were others. I didn’t know her well. With Farinacci it was official, and everybody knew it. He would write to the directors of the theaters and say, “Gianna has to do so many performances of this opera and so many of that,” and he specified her fees. During the fascist era she commanded, and that was that. However, she was an exceptional artist.
SZ: And you yourself?
GS: I was a rather tranquil creature. I thought only of my work and nothing else. If I did something, it was after due consideration, far from the theater, because I always was a bit worried that it could adversely affect my performance on stage. However, there were others who felt the need, and necessity is necessity! [Laughs.] When that happens.
SZ: Some say mezzos are more passionate than other women.
GS: [Laughs.] I don’t know. There are lots of sopranos who behave in the same way! [Big laugh.] And so it’s not a question of category.
SZ: Well, Tebaldi said of Del Monaco, “The man was the slave of the tenor.” After his death his widow said that in order to sing he had renounced sex. Should mezzos do the same?
GS: I don’t know. A man is a man, a woman a woman. Once my hotel room was next to Del Monaco’s. He had a performance the next day, and his wife said, “No, Mario no, Mario—remember that you have a …” “Yes,” he said. “Remember that you have …” “Yes, yes!” I could hear them thrashing about on the bed. I had a single room next to theirs, and naturally I didn’t know what to do. I thought, I hope they calm down because I have a performance tomorrow, too, and I need my rest. Later I asked her, “What finally happened?” “I made him take a cold shower,” she said, “and he finally calmed down.” So you see, the man’s needs are more pressing than the woman’s. At least I think so. I think I’m a normal woman. And those women who have this need, according to me, are not normal. Perhaps they have some kind of hormonal imbalance. Rather than say something incorrect, I’ll keep quiet.
SZ: During Pederzini’s era, was it difficult to make an important career as a mezzo because of Farinacci?
GS: Yes, because besides Pederzini there was Cloe Elmo, who was the wife of the brother of the personal secretary of Bufarini Guidi. He was a very important figure during the fascist regime. And then of course there were Elena Nicolai, Ebe Stignani and other important mezzos. It was by no means easy to get ahead.
SZ: Can you compare these mezzos?
GS: In what sense?
SZ: Their interpretations.
GS: Nicolai, for example, was a mezzo of Wagnerian dimensions. Her voice was rough, dark, wide-ranging—Wagnerian. Stignani was, of course, a vocal phenomenon. I admired that woman wildly because she had a magnificent voice. She too had to play second fiddle to Pederzini and be willing to do lots of Trovatores because Pederzini didn’t want to make up as an ugly old woman. That’s the way it was. In any case, Stignani is up there high above all others.
SZ: As an interpreter?
GS: No, as a vocalist. She always sounded the same and wasn’t an actress.
SZ: Barbieri told me you impeded her career.
GS: She impeded her own career! Although she was a fine artist with a beautiful voice, she had a short vocal range so she couldn’t sing all the works I could on account of my extensive range. She even would strangle on a [high] G!
Fedora Barbieri: Simionato was not really a mezzo but a short soprano. Her voice had nothing to it below G or G-sharp. She was only able to make a career on account of her lovers. She didn’t know how to sing. She should be ashamed of herself! She went ahead only because they pushed her, because she was the lover of big shots!
SZ: Which big shots?
FB: She had Frugoni [Cesare Frugoni, the eminent doctor she married]. For 20 years I didn’t go to the Vienna State Opera because she was the lover of someone from the theater. That’s how she got ahead. She did all kinds of bad things to me! I can’t look at her or listen to her or anything. She is the most evil woman in opera! Write that Fedora Barbieri called her that! She’s invidious, bad! She wants to teach but doesn’t know how and ruins all voices. She demands 350,000 lire a lesson. She’s bad, perfidious!
Gianna Pederzini was a great artist even if she wasn’t a true mezzo but really a soprano. She was good.
Gabriella Besanzoni told me I was the greatest Carmen and the most beautiful mezzo.
Simionato was abnormal. Don’t speak to me further about her![SZ: I can’t vouch for the truth of these allegations, but I do know that throughout opera history (at least until very recently), singers have slept with impresarios as commonly as did actresses in the Hollywood of the 30s. Barbieri herself married the head of the Maggio Musicale fiorentino, and he managed her career.]
Simionato declared she wouldn’t accept an invitation from The Bavarian State Opera to attend a screening of Opera Fanatic unless the opera company un-invited Gencer and Barbieri. Barbieri stated she wouldn’t attend if Simionato were there.—Stefan Zucker
Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:
Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish
*The voice category “falcon” was named after Marie Cornelie Falcon (1812-1897), who created the role of Valentine in Les Huguenots.
**Lina Bruna Rasa (1907-84) opened the 1927 Scala season as Elena in Mefistofele under Toscanini. That year she sang in the world premiere there of Wolf Ferrari’s Sly. Mascagni chose her for the world premiere of his Nerone at La Scala (1935), for a Cavalleria tour in Holland, Belgium and France (1937), and for his studio recording of Cavalleria (1940). (Simionato is the Mamma Lucia.) In 1935, after the death of her mother, she became schizophrenic and, in 1937, tried to throw herself into the orchestra pit during a performance. In 1940 she was institutionalized but was released occasionally to perform. She moved Toscanini to tears at a 1947 Milan concert. After an unsuccessful comeback in 1948 she was returned to the institution.
In the live recording of Cavalleria (1937), Bruna Rasa carries chest resonance up to middle-voice B-natural, on “Io son dannata!”