A grande lady of the opera becomes one hundred years old. Dr. Konrad Dryden had an opportunity for a conversation with Magda Olivero. Congratulations on 100! Selections from the interview.
Ms. Olivero, you have worked with some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. As far as I know, you always had the best relationships with your colleagues. James King once said to me that you had been the only "lady" among his many colleagues. Plácido Domingo expressed about your appearance together in 1970 in “Manon Lescaut” at the arena of Verona that you, although you would have had your debut approximately 8 years before his own birth, so perfectly convincingly embodied the young title heroine that the enthusiasm of the public was almost frighteningly exciting.
At the beginning of my career I was still rather intimidated by all the great singers, who at that time were at the high point of their careers, in particular of Gina Cigna, who sang the Abigaille in “Nabucco”, when I made my debut in 1933 at La Scala in the small role Anna. The reverence that I felt opposite singers such as Cigna or also Ebe Stignani was something I had to learn to overcome. I sang e.g. in 1937 for the first time with Beniamino Gigli in “Manon”, and I was still quite shy when I got the offer in 1938 to sing Liù in the first recording of Puccini's “Turandot” beside Gina Cigna and Francesco Merli. I remember that we needed a great many takes at that time, since Cigna's voice already showed signs of overexertion. I sang my first Minnie ever in “La Fanciulla der West” on his express desire beside Giacomo Lauri Volpi. I had amazing luck to have had such marvelous tenors as partners as Franco Corelli, who already looked like the born lover. With my Violetta I let myself be inspired by Greta Garbo’s film version. I found it completely amazing how one cannot really recognize the exact moment of her death. And if a tenor didn’t completely correspond to the optical requirements for an Alfredo, I simply thought of Robert Taylor.
I still know exactly what my teacher always said: “Never copy! Make mistakes and correct them then, but make them with your own personality.” I miss some of my colleagues, who went on the long journey without return and have left a true gap.
What are some of the high points, if you look back on your career?
A completely special evening was my debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the year 1975. Tosca was actually a role which I had difficulty understanding at the beginning. It was for me too bigoted and complacent. It was a marvelous experience, and the emotions that filled the house that evening are difficult to describe to someone who was not there. In the gala for the 100 year anniversary of the Met in 1983 unfortunately I could not participate, since my husband was at that time very ill. I sang Elle in Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine” in 1978 in San Francisco in a wonderful production, which penetrated completely particularly deeply into the thought world of Cocteau. I sang, among other things, many contemporary works such as Einem’s “Besuch der alten Dame” which was terribly difficult. I was particularly in love with Mascagni’s “Iris“, an opera of very special beauty, and I was always particularly sad over the fact that Mascagni died before he could experience me in this role. Also to sing “Medea” in Dallas, where the spirit of Callas was still present everywhere, was a completely memorable affair.
What do you regard as the most important factor regarding the longevity of your career?
A good technique is the basis of every long career. Some see the principal reason for the length of my career in my retreat from the stage for approximately one decade at the time of the Second World War. However, I do not believe it can have contributed, because I sang a great many concerts during this time. My refusal to take on dramatic roles was perhaps a reason. I was very careful, when Tullio Serafin insisted at a very early time in my development on the fact that I sing Elsa. To achieve a correct vocal technique based completely on the breath requires great effort. Then I could go on the stage and perfectly concentrate on the character, as in a play. I did not have to pay any more attention to technique, which meanwhile had become second nature.
You created a singing competition two years ago.
I try to find the best voices. There are sufficient, but technique is unfortunately missing with many, which is very sad. I am frightened about the defects which are inherent in many of today's young singers: breathing, the support… Much seems to be unfortunately forgotten today. I believe that the reason why there are nowadays less and less large voices lies in the fact that technique is simply not sufficient any longer to let a voice mature in peace.
How will you celebrate your special birthday on March 25th?
Alone and peacefully with the family. However, I would like to thank the fans in Germany that still remember me. I am grateful for everything that they gave me. I would like to remain in memory to those who heard me as an artist who gave peace. This memory is a great gift, even as I live in the present and look to the future. I do not hold myself as a legend, only as a singer, who enjoyed her career with great love and always tried to give the best. God gave me the great gift to be able to become one hundred years old with many beautiful memories and with never ending enthusiasm.
[DrB] As usual, this is translated from Opernglas. I find this interview to be absolutely wonderful and wish I had the whole thing.
I recently went with an old friend to see the rerun of the Met HD of Der Rosenkavalier. Friend had memorized the role of Sophie in her youth but had never seen the opera performed before. I knew that when I was studying I had little interest in the performance of anyone except myself.
This made me wonder how many other voice teachers are teaching opera singing without having experienced much in the way of opera? I also wondered how many voice teachers are aware of how many perfectly plausible and successful techniques there are besides their own? How many teach everyone a verismo technique because that's what they were taught? Or a leggiero technique because their teacher taught that? Just wondering.
Or have you ever heard of a voice teacher recommending that a student switch teachers to someone other than themselves because the student's voice would be more suited to the other teacher's technique? You need a verismo voice before you need a verismo technique.
Or how many of them would have any idea what I was talking about?
Not one note of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet (1868), today's HD simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, was familiar to me. Not to worry. The romantic idiom of the piece is exactly as expected.
In Renée Fleming's interviews at intermission it was mentioned that the opera originally did not include Hamlet's death, and Anglo-Saxon audiences were horrified. As a result, an alternate ending was written in which Hamlet and Laertes fight and mortally wound one another. This later ending is the one used today.
On the whole I would recommend while viewing this opera to remember that this is an opera and not the immortal play by Shakespeare. Hamlet's father's death in the opera is the result of a conspiracy, and Polonius, Ophelia's father, is a co-conspirator. Ophelia's role is naturally bigger, and Hamlet's is smaller than in the play. It's still a wonderful role for an acting baritone, such as Simon Keenlyside. His voice didn't seem at all odd to me this time as he had at Garnier last month, and he seemed ideal for this role.
Marlis Petersen replaced Natalie Dessay. She was acceptable, especially in the mad scene. The general level of intensity was high across the cast with the exception of Marlis who seemed rather cool. It would have been different with Natalie.
The biggest shock for me was Jennifer Larmore as Gertrude. She was a bit out of her Fach in a dramatic mezzo part, but she developed a fully realized characterization that was quite intense.
This essay by Alex Ross is quite interesting. I haven't seen everything, of course, but his take sounds pretty good.
I am beginning to regret the Met's choices for the HD broadcasts. I would love to be seeing Lulu and The Nose instead of the very mediocre Simon Boccanegra.
I liked Elina Garanča's Carmen, including her singing. Maybe Alex hasn't seen as many bad Carmens as I have. Perhaps he needs the wooden groanings of Vesselina Kasarova to put it all in perspective for him.
Only Anna Netrebko saved Tales of Hoffmann for me. Oh. And the added solos for Kate Lindsay's Nicklausse. Is it really Peter Gelb's fault that the whole thing was intended for Rolando Villazon?
I agree with the overall assessment. Judged strictly on the simulcasts, this has been a less than stunning season.
I went to San Francisco to hear Dawn Upshaw and Emanuel Ax at Davies Hall. The main attraction for me was the announced debut of a new piece by Oswaldo Golijov. Well.... I ran into Stephanie Friedman, and she said that the piece by Golijov was not ready. Now that he's so famous maybe he's having composer's block.
On the program instead was a song cycle by Stephen Prutsman called Piano Lessons. It is possible to hear in these pieces a connection to such American composers as Bernstein, Copland and Barber. The poems are charming, the music is nice, blah, blah, blah. But don't you think maybe pieces about practicing scales should have here and there a few scales? Perhaps he is avoiding the obvious. I like to hear a specific character for each song and instead got a lot of sameness. To be completely unobvious the singer would have to sing the scales.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the births of Frédéric François Chopin and Robert Schumann, and this concert may be regarded as a celebration of that. The Chopin songs were sung in Polish--Dawn Upshaw does that--and were accompanied by a Polish pianist. They were pleasant.
The highlight of the evening was the playing of Emanuel Ax. Between the songs he played four mazurkas and two nocturnes by Chopin.
The encore was by Hugo Wolf who is having his 150th anniversary this year. It was all fine, but I went for Golijov. It was known but not announced that his songs would not appear by the time I bought my ticket.
Cecilia Bartoli is releasing Sacrificium as a video.
She looks like a happy pirate.
Here is a sample track.
This is lip-synched, according to various sources. Filmed at the baroque palace of Caserta in Southern Italy, a place that is beautiful but is not a performance space. Perhaps the acoustics were not good.
My favorite opera blog posting lately has been Opera Chic's spread on Angela Gheorghiu does Lady Gaga. It would be impossible to explain, I suppose, how much more I like Angela for doing this. I have picked out my favorite, but actually they're all pretty spectacular.
This one is also cute, don't you think? Though a bit old, I see.
In his first two significant operas, Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), Richard Strauss continued the post-Wagnerian tradition and composed very heavy roles for very heavy voices. From Der Rosenkavalier (1911) on he struck out in the direction of lighter voices. This is the first noticeable lightening trend since Donizetti.
He even goes so far as to compose a role for coloratura soprano: Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). Only Dyer's Wife from Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) is traditionally sung by a dramatic soprano. My knowledge of Strauss operas is not encyclopedic, so this is based on what I know. I notice that Deborah Voigt, a dramatic soprano, has sung Die ägyptische Helena (1928).
The orchestra beneath these voices continues to be heavy in the post-Romantic style. The idealized Strauss sound is a lyric soprano floating above a posh post-Romantic orchestra. Strauss does not share Wagner's preference for the heavy, muddy center in his orchestration, possibly a wise attitude in support of his love for the soprano voice.
I once postulated the concept of a Strauss legato, a kind of super legato where the singer manages, despite the fact that the text is in German, to invisibly connect the notes as though there were no consonants at all. This may have been based on the style and technique of the great Jessye Norman. The current trend, especially with regard to Rosenkavalier, is to sing the entire opera as though it were recitative.
There is no musical break with Wagner, but he along with Hugo von Hofmannsthal show a significant love for comedy.
This article from the Met gives insights into singing Verdi from some of the best Verdi singers today.
These little paragraphs are full of interesting perspectives. Marcello Giordani is perhaps the most interesting because he talks about the color of the tone that must be maintained.
I already wrote my essay on singing Verdi here. There is no conflict with anything the singers say. It takes a minimum amount of force and stamina to sing major roles in Verdi operas. The point I was trying to make in comparing Adrianne Pieczonka and Karen Slack is that the rest is about music, not voice.