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The Unstoppable Soprano

Madga Olivero.jpg
Ira Nowinski/Corbis
Magda Olivero during curtain calls for her performance as Floria Tosca in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, 1978

How old is too old in opera? It all depends on the voice and the role, of course. Beverly Sills, who had a relatively light instrument, retired at fifty-one, wary of outstaying her welcome. Birgit Nilsson, the Heldensopran of Wagnerian fortitude, bowed out at sixty-four. The tenor Plácido Domingo is still onstage at seventy-three, though now mainly in baritone parts.

But few have lived up to the standard set by the soprano Magda Olivero, who died in Milan this month, at the age of 104. The news of her death brought back vivid memories of my strangest night at the opera, which took place in the spring of 1975. At the time, New York’s classical music fanatics were abuzz over the impending Metropolitan Opera debut of a much-loved soprano. Beverly Sills—the New York City Opera star who proved that you didn’t need the Met in order to have a top-tier international career—was about to make her long-delayed bow there in Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth.

Yet it was not Sills who prompted the excitement, but rather Olivero, the Italian cult diva set to appear on that same stage six days ahead of her. Then in my impecunious twenties, I’d arrive early at Lincoln Center to cadge discount or free single tickets from people with extras. One night I heard from the omniscient standing-room doyenne Lois Kirschenbaum—whom The New York Times dubbed “Queen of the Nosebleed Seats”—that Olivero (of whom I was only vaguely aware) was doing Tosca at the Met. Since Lois deemed it compulsory attendance, I dutifully complied.

After Olivero successfully appeared in Dallas, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Hartford in the late 1960s, the mezzo Marilyn Horne finally prevailed upon the Met to give the New York public a chance to hear this singular artist. By that time the sixty-five-year-old Olivero was the last of the prewar generation of singers who specialized in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century verismo (realism) operas of Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, and Francesco Cilea, among others. (Olivero knew Mascagni and Cilea personally, and the latter deemed her the ideal heroine in his Adriana Lecouvreur.

However, realism in this setting is not synonymous with naturalism, for verismo singing was highly stylized in its own way. A reaction to the earlier operatic tradition in which acting was done primarily with the voice, the verismo style aimed at being more spontaneously lifelike and physically active than the stand-and-deliver bel canto approach. What distinguished the verismo approach was its integration of the vocal, theatrical, and above all psychological aspects of a character into a multidimensional whole. But Olivero wasn’t stuck in that bygone repertoire, and had a notable triumph in Francis Poulenc’s 1958 one-act one-woman opera, La voix humaine.

In his New York Times review of Olivero’s Met first night, Harold C. Schonberg wrote that, given the partisan uproar, “One would have thought that a combination of Tebaldi and Callas was making her debut.” In fact Olivero was in considerably better voice than Callas at that point, and no worse than Tebaldi, as I can attest having witnessed them all in their final New York appearances.

In January 1973 I twice heard Renata Tebaldi sing Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, among her last Met performances before quietly retiring. Though much diminished, her voice’s most distinctive qualities remained intact: the fabled morbidezza (softness), and an uncanny ability to make notes sound as though they hovered in mid-air.

Maria Callas was something else entirely. Her March 1974 farewell recital at Carnegie Hall (with the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano) was a flat-out disaster. As she nervously babbled on to the audience before performing anything, a heckler shouted “Canta! Canta!” (Sing! Sing!), which only further rattled her. More shocking than Callas’s shredded, gasping voice was her lack of intelligent musicality, once her greatest strength.

By contrast, Olivero was anything but a superannuated curiosity when she appeared on the Met stage a year after Callas’s ill-fated finale. It was April 3, 1975, a Thursday night when middle-aged subscribers far outnumbered true believers. At the first sounds of Floria Tosca’s entrance exclaiming her lover’s name—Mario! Mario! Mario!— hysterical applause and shouts of Brava! erupted while the uninitiated looked dumbfounded at this unexpected tumult.

The big question among hard-core fans that night was in what posture would Olivero sing her Act Two aria, “Vissi d’arte.” That number had long been used by sopranos as an opportunity for a kind of stunt, delivering it in anything but a standing position. Maria Jeritza was famous for singing it prone on the floor where the villainous police chief Scarpia had thrown her, demonstrating amazing lung power while flat on her stomach.

Olivero did not disappoint. When the evening’s Scarpia, the Swedish baritone Ingvar Wixell, flung her onto a chaise longue, she began the aria with her head hanging over one end upside down, a bravura touch that drove her followers wild. She more sensibly completed the aria sitting upright.

As Olivero herself admitted, “I never had a voice. What I had was expression, a face, a body, the truth.” She might also have added superb phrasing, crystal-clear diction, a firm legato line (the invisible connective tissue between notes), and faultless dramatic instincts. Whatever she lacked in natural gifts she made up for in commanding technique.

She also had the sheer lovableness possessed by only a handful of singers—Sena Jurinac and Mirella Freni come to mind—which she managed to sustain to the end of her phenomenal seventy-six-year career.

Olivero made her operatic debut in Turin at twenty-three (in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and gave her last public performance (a scene from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini) in Milan at ninety-nine. In between, she married a rich industrialist in 1940 and retired to have children that sadly never materialized. Although she thereafter sang sporadically for charity events, she was finally prompted back to the stage by Cilea a decade later and resumed an international career in the1950s and 1960s. Even in her later years, Olivero never lost her ability to excite audiences, and in 1970 appeared opposite Domingo in a Verona Manon Lescaut that caused such a sensation that police were called in to restore order.

The spell she cast could win over even skeptics like Schonberg, who began his review of her now-legendary Met debut by inexplicably claiming, “It wasn’t Magda Olivero’s evening, as it turned out.” But he then went on to aver, “It was history come to life last night, as the soprano, despite her age, gave us a feminine, fiery, utterly convincing Tosca.”