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An Interview with Giulietta Simionato

Simionato on Björling, Di Stefano, Del Monaco and Corelli, From the Outtakes to the Film Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas

Stefan Zucker: Did you sing with Björling?

Giulietta Simionato: Yes.

SZ: What did you sing with him?

GS: Cavalleria, at the Metropolitan.

SZ: How was he?

GS: The voice was very beautiful. Too bad he drank. This is what ruined him. I don’t want to go into personal particulars, but he was a good colleague and a pleasant person. That’s how I remember him. Björling was a fine singer. He wasn’t much onstage; he didn’t enter into the role. But I managed to shake him up. In my Santuzza there was such emotional charge that it forced them to collaborate with me. [On Bel Canto Society video #12, Simionato and Corelli rehearse the Santuzza-Turiddu duet. Not only is the singing emotional but the acting is violent.]

SZ: How would you compare Björling’s singing to Di Stefano’s?

GS: Oh, they are two completely different things—like the sun and the moon. Di Stefano is the sun—impetuous, volatile, warm-blooded—a real Sicilian. Björling was Nordic. There was a composure in the man and in the singing.

SZ: Was he too cold for the Italian repertoire?

GS: Perhaps he was. But the voice was so beautiful, so well placed, that he could do anything he wanted with it, and you could forgive his being a bit cold.

SZ: Di Stefano made many mistakes in his performances with you in Mexico. How was it to sing with him?

GS: [Laughs] He just had gotten married. And for this reason he didn’t come to the rehearsals and didn’t know the operas. It’s not that I’m telling you something because he’s not here; he knows it. And he used to say to me, “You have to act more like a diva. Why do you bother going to the rehearsals if I’m not there?” “I feel I have a duty to be present; however, we can’t rehearse the scenes with the tenor.” “Well, you know how it is,” he said. “I just got married. I’m beginning with my wife.” Pir-ipi-p, pir-i-pi-r. “And so I have no time for rehearsals.” He didn’t know the operas. In Favorita I turned my back to the audience and whispered the correct words to him while he sang totally different ones. Barbiere no longer was the Barbiere of Rossini but the Barbiere of Di Stefano [laughs]. I define him as “genius and excess.” His was a voice of genius, but he was so intemperate, especially in his offstage life. He knows this is what I have labeled him.

SZ: What happened to Di Stefano’s voice?

GS: He never acquired a technique. He says he was supposed to use his voice just as the Eternal Father gave it to him. He opened his mouth, drew in a breath and out poured those gorgeous tones. That’s the way he was, and the public accepted him like that.

SZ: Was Del Monaco as unprofessional as…?

GS: He was very professional, very organized, very controlled, very, very serious, very determined in everything he sang. And he always had that trace of the glacial, as I called it. He was so secure. He was the last heroic tenor we have had.

SZ: Corelli wasn’t a heroic tenor?

GS: He wasn’t heroic, but it was a beautiful voice.

SZ: Was Corelli as unprofessional as Di Stefano?

GS: Di Stefano never was professional at all. Corelli always was professional. His problem was that he was insecure. He always was afraid he wasn’t going to make it even though his performances were stupendous. He seemed to feel guilty of flaws he didn’t possess. He worried about deficiencies that for the most part were imaginary. Often, right before the “Flower Song” in Carmen, he would say, “Signora, I can’t do it, I’m going away.” “No, don’t say that. Don’t be like that. Come on, come on.” And he’d begin the aria, ending it with that high note that would bring down the house.

SZ: What is your opinion of Del Monaco’s and Corelli’s vocal techniques?

GS: Del Monaco devised a technique of his own, for his capabilities, including vocalises and a study I would call inhuman, because to resist, given the manner in which he sang, is something that verges on the inhuman. I asked him, “How can you possibly sing like that?” “No, Giulietta,” he said. “You should sing the way I do; you should push the way I do.” I told him something I cannot repeat here. “If I pushed the way you do, I don’t know what might happen.” I can’t repeat it, but I said it to Mario, “No, my dear, you dig deep inside you, whereas I do it this way.” The truth was he wanted to dig down into his body for maximum resonance. I don’t know what that man was made of. Everyone said, “He’ll last for a year or two”—but look how many years he lasted, because he was able to resist, in a way that only can be called superhuman! We all were open-mouthed: “How can he resist, how does he do it?” And he was relatively slim—not a big man. He must have had vocal cords of steel. His breathing method was that of a man. They are constructed in a different way. And so while we women tend to do this [pull in at the diaphragm], they do this [push out at the diaphragm]. In fact they all are rotund, because with time they form a strong, powerful musculature around the midriff, on account of the fact that they push out in order to support. I can’t even speak if I breathe like that.

SZ: But how are men built differently, as far as breathing is concerned?

GS: Being constructed in a different way, they have organs we don’t [laughs]. They can’t breathe as we do, because they—you—are built in another way inside!

SZ: But not in the lungs.

GS: [Laughs] Yes, I know. The breathing, however, starts from here [demonstrates]. If you, instead of doing this, do that, you will understand that the respiration—the system, the technique—is turned upside down.

SZ: Del Monaco and Corelli both studied with a certain Arturo Melocchi, who went to China where he learned a particular mechanistic technique from a Russian and brought it to Italy. Corelli modified the technique. Del Monaco lowered his larynx a lot, whereas Corelli raised and lowered his larynx. Can you compare and contrast the approaches?

GS: They are two different ways of singing and two different mentalities, which means a lot. Corelli went up into the high notes—in Ugonotti, for example, he sang the high C just as I did. His was a very wide-ranging voice. But Del Monaco always had difficulty. Corelli also could emit a sweet, soft phrase. Del Monaco, no. Because rubber bends. Corelli’s was a normal respiration. His singing was all on the breath. Studying a little with Melocchi, naturally Corelli modified the technique to his particular capabilities, so that it worked well for him.

SZ: Can you compare the Don José of Corelli, Del Monaco and Di Stefano?

GS: They are three completely different things. Di Stefano, for example, was amazingly spontaneous. There was everything in that voice—the dramatic quality, the color, the expression! Corelli was more thought-out, more studied. He always was afraid. However, he could deliver when the chips were down. He could drive the audience wild. I remember his “Flower Song”: it was something unforgettable. So was Di Stefano’s. Also Del Monaco’s. They all were different. Corelli, for example, in performing the role, was careful never to touch me. He was too scared. “No, signora,” he said. He always called me “signora.” As a matter of fact I spoke with Corelli today [October 13, 1996]. He is a dear colleague and a wonderful person. Di Stefano, on the other hand, always managed to hurt me. I always was covered with bruises, scratches and cuts, because that’s the way he was—a real Sicilian. He did it unconsciously.

Del Monaco also was a highly passionate Don José, complementing my own portrayal. We didn’t talk much, but we understood one another. And yet he never hurt me—never a bruise, a scratch or anything even though he was a very physical Don José. He threw me to the ground, knelt down, bent over me. We were very effective together—an intense, passionate couple—and audiences were excited. Yet, despite his apparent violence toward me, his apparently brutal treatment of me, he never caused me any pain. So you see, they all were so completely different. It’s hard to compare them. No—each one acted according to his nature.

SZ: If an impresario were to ask you to perform Carmen, which would you choose?

GS: I would be equally happy with any of them. I admired them, loved them—as friends, naturally. We were very close, like a family. When we saw each other, it was a real pleasure. I hugged them since I’m very expansive. I always was insecure when I sang, because I always was worried about not being on a high enough level to satisfy the audience. This brought on a kind of anxiety. And then when it was over, I thought, “Perhaps I didn’t deserve this applause; I could have done better.” It’s just my character. If you told me the tenor was to be Di Stefano, I’d say “Benissimo”—wonderful, that’s fine!” or Corelli—”Benissimo!” There were others—I don’t remember all their names at this moment. I admired them all, I respected them—not all in the same way but each in his own way. I always was content, because I knew I worked well with them. Each one had his particular virtues. And I admired each one for his.