Opera Fanatic: Stefan & the Divas

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Iris Adami Corradetti, Barbieri, Cerquetti, Cigna, Frazzoni, Gavazzi, Gencer, Olivero, Pobbe, Simionato; Zucker; Schmidt-Garre, dir. (1998) 93m. In English and in Italian with English subtitles. Color/B&W.

A full-scale book embodying lengthy interviews with the divas is forthcoming and will be available separately. Meanwhile, an expanded version of the original booklet is contained on this page; just scroll down to view links. The booklet is now available only as a pdf.

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:
Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish

Find our other titles featuring these divas by clicking on a name in the “Find other titles with” box on the right.

OPERA FANATIC Biographies, Opinions–and Dish

by Stefan Zucker

“What are the various aspects of expressive singing?” is one of the questions I put to the divas. They discuss and demonstrate their interpretations, singing brief excerpts from Norma, Butterfly, Trovatore, Traviata, Tosca, Fanciulla and Adriana (Olivero, age 86, performs the “Monologo”). They take opposing positions about chest voice and the voce infantile (a childlike sound). The film includes footage from 40 years ago–some of which is not otherwise on video.
Shot in 1996 on locations in Italy (including La Scala) on a big budget, the film is illuminating, poignant and brimming with personality.

Richard Dyer, reviewing in The Boston Globe

“‘Opera Fanatic’ is a videotape presenting divas of the past in interviews with the opera fanatic himself, Stefan Zucker, tenor (‘the world’s highest,’ according to the Guinness Book of World Records), entrepreneur, radio personality, and raconteur.

“Director Jan Schmidt-Garre intercuts the interviews to stress thematic links and weaves in film clips showing singers in charismatic action. Divas will be divas; all of these women have presence, command and emanations–even frail Gina Cigna, interviewed at age 96–and some of them show flashes of temper too. There is something indomitable and irresistible about all of these women; they are all opera fanatics themselves, but they also led real lives that gave them something to sing about.”

Alan Blyth, reviewing in Gramophone

“Essential viewing for opera fanatics with a leaning towards the great sopranos and mezzos of the post-war years

“This bizarre but fascinating film is well worth watching for the glimpses it gives us of some of the leading ltalian-based sopranos and mezzos of the 1950s and 1960s, both in action at the time and then interviewed at their homes by the zany opera fanatic Stefan Zucker, who is also seen and heard discussing with his film crew and helpers the whys and wherefores of great singing, particularly as it relates to those taking part. Eldest of the group is the 96-year-old Cigna, frail but still with her wits about her. Olivero has much–not unexpectedly–to say about her art. So does the perfectly groomed and coiffured Simionato, in her late 80s but not looking a day over 65, and reminiscing with firmness and charm. Barbieri is enormous fun and even entertains a dinner party with a song, Pobbe rather grand and difficult (on film impressive in a duet with Barbieri from Adriana Lecouvreur).

“Most persuasive of all is the much-underrated Turkish soprano, Leyla Gencer, encountered singing the Trovatore Leonora’s Act I aria from a 1957 film of the opera. The poise and magnetism of her presence is felt both in her singing and speaking. (Zucker declares she is the only interviewee he has ever found to be erotic!). Her voice expresses all Leonora’s yearning in classically etched tones. A real discovery is the little-known and diminutive soprano Carla Gavazzi, caught on film as a moving Santuzza. All the artists emphasize that what they miss in singing today is expressive colouring and attention to the meaning of the text, both to create character. How right, in most instances, they are.”

Lee Milazzo, reviewing in American Record Guide

“Virtually every opera lover has heard Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Leyla Gencer, and Magda Olivero; but precious few have actually seen these great singers. So Stefan Zucker, in a van loaded with video cameras and tape recorders, plus an expert staff, criss-crossed Italy to interview not only them, but also Anita Cerquetti, Gina Cigna, Iris Adami Corradetti, Carla Gavazzi, Marcella Pobbe, and Gigliola Frazzoni.

“The result is a riveting portrait of these singers as they are today–some still amazingly vital and active (Olivero, Barbieri, Simionato), some frail (Cigna, who managed to describe the importance of breath, and Corradetti, who died last year, making this only footage of her even more valuable), some unaffected and down to earth (Barbieri and Gavazzi), some still divas (Gencer agreed to be interviewed only at La Scala, and Pobbe acceded only after three attempts and then still proved to be very difficult). Interspersed are brief film clips and ‘sound bites’ that allow us to see and hear them as they were yesterday.

“Always armed with an appropriate gift, usually flowers or sweets, Zucker drew from his subjects a wide variety of opinions even as he concentrated on two themes, the decline of expressive singing in the present and the employment of the chest voice in the past. ‘Never’ use the latter, insisted Barbieri, offering a revealing example from Falstaf; Simionato agreed. Nonsense, countered Gavazzi, insisting that they all fell into that practice. On a different matter, Gencer says she immersed herself so totally in a role that she wept on stage. Simionato, who says she would not become a singer if she had her life to live again, emphasizes creating beautiful legato–and when she demonstrates, you are carried back 40 years. Olivero performs the monolog from Adriana Lecouvreur and bursts into song at the conclusion, proving that at 88 she is still a more commanding artist than sopranos half her age.

“Of course, a few shreds of gossip enliven the proceedings, such as Simionato’s statement that she had enemies who kept her in small roles for years, or Pobbe’s initial desire to discuss her affair with Nicolai Gedda and her later refusal to speak about it on camera, or Barbieri’s dismissal of a particular sexual stereotype. Don’t think that this brief summary has covered everything in the tape.”

“This film is dominated by deeply human expressions and unbridled emotions.”–Christine Lemke-Matwey, Süddeutsche Zeitung (See Reviews tab for full review)

“‘Opera Fanatic’ is dishy, impudent, fond, quite funny. The divas are each lively, if sometimes cantankerous, company. Tech aspects are polished; color lensing captures the timeless look of Italian cityscapes.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (See Reviews tab for full review)

“New York opera tenor and intellectual Stefan Zucker has orchestrated this fascinating documentary about long-forgotten opera divas. Visiting them in Italy, Zucker poses some difficult and emotional questions to some of the most fascinating prima donnas of all time. Shot with electronic and Super-16 cameras, Opera Fanatic provides an utterly compelling look at both an oddly fixated opera fan and some extraordinary stars who have passed their prime.”–ifilm

“These faded divas still recall their arias, the inflection of a note and every slight from every colleague. And they’re still as catty and competitive as you’d expect from the women who invented the term diva.”–David Stabler, The Oregonian

“Stefan Zucker’s interviews with ten divas who had major mid-century careers concern vocal, technical and interpretive perceptions rather than biographical fluff. Prior to most of the interviews, film clips of the divas involved, beautifully restored in both sound and picture, are spliced in. The tape, a ‘must’ for students, will prove of great interest to professionals and thoughtful opera aficionados.”–Paul Turok, Turok’s Choice, The Insider’s Review of New Classical Recordings

“What emerges is not a comprehensive study of expressive singing, but proof that devoting one’s life to the opera means residing in a histrionic world where the banal niceties of our normal existence do not apply. The lines between the singing heroines captured in the riveting 40-year-old film clips and the women who illuminated those characters disappear quickly.

“You’ll find endless hilarity–and yes, inspiration–in this flick, even if you’ve never sat through one note of Don Giovanni.”–Kurt B. Reighley, “Two Ears and a Tale: Opera Fudge,” Seattle Weekly

“The Prague International Film Festival called this documentary by Jan Schmidt-Garre ‘delightful and infuriating, superficial and profound.’ That hits the nail right on the noggin. Stefan Zucker is a New York opera fanatic with a vast encyclopedic knowledge of voice. He loves these old ladies so much that he gets great flirtatious answers from Fedora Barbieri (who offers to spank him), sophisticated sneers from Leyla Gencer, common sense from Giulietta Simionato, charm galore from Carla Gavazzi, passion and pathos from Anita Cerquetti and downright hostility from Marcella Pobbe. The enclosed booklet offers even more dish. Perhaps ‘Opera Fanatic’ is really for pure opera filberts, but anyone could enjoy this give-and-take.”–T. Hashimoto, San Francisco Examiner

“The eccentricities of the old ladies and the originality of their visitor Stefan Zucker make Opera Fanatic into an entertaining road movie in which surely not only opera lovers will take pleasure.”–Schwäbische Zeitung

“The film is especially fascinating because Zucker, with his singular high voice, is not a distant observer: portraying the true fan almost to excess, he partakes in any and all eccentricities in order to coax the ladies into revealing anecdotes from their careers or abstruse theories about singing.”–Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

“The film contains interviews worth seeing and hearing, also seldom seen excerpts of worthwhile historical sound and film documents. There are intelligent questions that receive illuminating answers, sprinkled with gems that one will never forget.”–Dieter David Schotz, Opernwelt

“With clashing colors and surging romantic music, director Jan Schmidt-Garre paints the picture of a forgotten epic, with obsessive people and extreme feelings. An ironic love-filled bow before loquacious elegance, bitchy entrances and the heartfelt warmth of the decadent yet vital ladies. A handkiss of a film with a twinkle in the eye.”–Peter Krutsch, Leipziger Volkszeitung (See Reviews tab for full review)

“This eccentric tale of a classic New York character who travels through Italy to pay homage to the divas of his youth is more than a pedagogical treatise. Even though it is amusing as well as informative, this documentary tells us more about the nobility of human character in its various forms.”–Statement of the Jury IMZ, Vienna TV Award, 2000

“I just received ‘Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas’ and, after having watched it, I couldn’t stop thinking of the people I know who would get a kick out of seeing it.The absolutely delightful interviews cover the divas’ views concerning careers in singing, singing techniques, and the world of opera. And it allows a glimpse of diva-dom. Beyond the dialog, some of which is rather risqué, there are also many moments of historical operatic excerpts. Plus there are some great vocals that take place over dinner and wine. Zucker is great fun to watch and hear.”–John Shulson, The Virginia Gazette

“In 93 fascinating minutes, the artists share their private and professional lives as well as their wisdom and singing voices. Their demonstrations and discussions of vocal technique could be master classes. In film clips from their heyday they are sublime. Zucker’s knowledge and humor are responsible for much of the video’s success, and, as the divas talk about rivals, roles and critics, there’s plenty of temperament. (Marcella Pobbe is asked which singers have impressed her most and she recoils at the very idea of mentioning anyone’s singing but her own.)”–Hal de Becker, Las Vegas Weekly

“‘Opera Fanatic’ is a warm melancholy work, a piece about longing for a lost time.”–Münchener Tageszeitung

“The tape comes with an informative thirty-two-page booklet that includes biographies of all the singers interviewed [the booklet is out of print but available for free on our site], the name of Pobbe’s Met lover, Barbieri’s diatribe against Simionato, and Cerquetti’s explanation for her premature retirement.
“Some of the rare film sequences on this video haven’t been seen in over forty years. This is a video that you will want to watch repeatedly to relive the memories of these great artists of the twentieth century.”–Robert Prag, The Opera Quarterly (See Reviews tab for full review)

“Unplug the phone before you put this tape on, so you, like Pobbe, can say, ‘I didn’t make mistakes.'”–William R. Braun, Opera News (See Reviews tab for full review)

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, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival (San Francisco), and the Melbourne International Film Festival. The Bavarian State Opera showed the film at Munich’s Cuvilliés-Theater with Frazzoni, Pobbe, Simionato and Zucker as guests of honor. They were interviewed.

Opera Fanatic was screened by Filmmuseum Frankfurt, The Mannes College of Music and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Zucker spoke. Opera Fanatic also was shown at the auditorium of the Amici del loggione (the La Scala boxholders association), where the Olivero segment had been filmed. The members then voted to choose their favorite diva in the film: Pobbe.

The film has been broadcast in Austria (on ORF and 3Sat), Switzerland and Germany (on 3Sat), Poland (on PT), Estonia (on ETV), Finland (on YLE), Norway (on NRK), Sweden (on SVT), the U.K. (on Arts World) and in the U.S.A. (on CUNY).

Use the links below for photos and articles about each diva in Opera Fanatic. Or download all the articles and photos at once, using PDF format below.

Go to an essay on the history of chest voice and the divas’ debate about it.

Go to an essay on vocal technique.

Download the complete essay, including the chest voice and vocal technique articles, in PDF format:
Opera Fanatic: Biographies, Opinions—and Dish