Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Virginia Zeani: My Favorite Soprano Turns 85

On Thursday, October 21st, one of the greatest sopranos of the 1950s and '60s, Virginia Zeani, celebrates her 85th birthday.

When I sought an interview from Virginia Zeani for my book, The Twilight of Belcanto, I didn't really imagine I would get one. After all, why would the woman who created the main role in Poulenc's Dialogue of the Carmelites, the woman who was one of La Scala's greatest successes of the 1950s and '60s, have time to talk to me? Well, talk to me she did. What I thought would be one telephone interview turned into six. I subsequently visited her in West Palm Beach. And she never treated me with a milligram of condescension. She spoke to me with a respect, as a professional and as a friend, that I scarcely deserved. (In Italian – our conversations vacillated between Italian and English – she went so far as to use the Lei form with me! This didn't seem possible!)

Maybe the following story will give a sense of how much Madame Zeani has meant to me. About five years ago, I was talking to members of the church choir that I was directing. I spoke of Richard Tucker. One of the paid soloists, an opera major at a prestigious school in Boston, said, “Tucker? Who was Tucker?” I then spoke of Zinka Milanov. Another soloist of the same credentials said, “Well, I don't know the old-time singers that well.” “Old-time” singers?! If she was “old-time,” how could I even talk about the singers I really cared about: Battistini, Caruso, Ponselle, Gigli, Tagliavini, Pertile?

Enter Virginia Zeani, who actually studied with Pertile, who actually sang with Gigli and Tagliavini! Her career lasted long enough to sing with Pavarotti and Domingo when those guys were still young and at the height of their powers. She could speak intelligently about Pertile or Pavarotti or anyone in between, because this wasn't a topic that she read about in school – she lived it. She sang with these greats. And they were fully aware of her greatness, as well. No less than Richard Bonynge said that the most beautiful soprano voices he ever heard, apart from his wife Joan Sutherland, were Kirsten Flagstad, Virginia Zeani, and Renata Tebaldi.”1

I really can't explain to you why I, who was born in 1971 and who was educated in the public schools of Revere, Massachusetts, felt drawn to the technique and musicality of the singers on the scratchy 78 records. If I could explain it, you would then know how healing it was to be able to discuss these artists with a woman who understood that technique, and who used it herself. In Romania, she studied with Lydia Lipkowska2, a famous Russian soprano and a court singer to the Czar of Russia3. Lipkowska sang with Caruso. From there, Zeani went to Italy (March, 1947) to study with one of the great vocal technicians of the time, and one of my idols, Aureliano Pertile.

I apologize if this tribute comes across as being very personal, with many repetitions of the words “I” and “me.” However, I cannot overestimate the fulfillment and, indeed, healing that I received from Madame Zeani. For if it was difficult to find contemporaries with whom to talk about Tucker, with whom could I talk about Pertile? With Madame Zeani I could talk about him.

I could also talk about the great conductor, Tullio Serafin, who asked Zeani to replace Callas in a production of I Puritani. That evening in January of 1952 was Zeani's Florentine début and her first performance in an important Italian house. That same night, her dear teacher Pertile was on his deathbed. The dying maestro said to a mutual friend, “I am happy for her; now will begin her great career.”4 And it was at that very performance that she first met the greatest singer-actor among post-Chaliapin bassos. His name was Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. She would later marry him.

I could also talk about Italy's greatest vocal coaches of the 1950s: at La Scala, Antonio Narducci, Edoardo Fornarini, Leopoldo Gennai, Antonio Tonino; at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome5, Enrico Piazza, Vincenzo Marini, and the great Luigi Ricci.6

I could also talk about the cast of Giulio Cesare at Madame Zeani's La Scala début on 10 December 1956. Cesare was Rossi-Lemeni. Tolomeo was Mario Petri. Sesto was Franco Corelli. Curio was Plinio Clabassi. Nireno was Ferruccio Mazzoli. Cornelia was Giulietta Simionato. Achillas was Antonio Cassinelli (who later married Maria Chiara).

I could also talk about Alfredo Kraus. “I was very good friends of Alfredo Kraus. … He was a special one. You know, I heard him at his début. And we spoke only one month before he died [in 1999. His début was in] 1956, in Cairo. And I was there.7 … We were good friends, he and his wife and I. … Rosa died two years before him. During our last conversation, he said that he didn’t know how he would ever get over Rosa’s death. I knew exactly what he felt. After Nicola died, I thought, 'How will I ever get over it?' … We sang probably 200 performances together, in Lucia, in Puritani, in Manon, in, what else, Sonnambula, in — my God! — in Traviata — loads of Traviatas.”8

I could also talk about Gigli and Pertile. And believe me: there are few things in life I enjoy more than talking about Gigli and Pertile. But how often can I talk with someone who actually worked with them? “I had my début in L’Elisir d’Amore with Gigli in 1950, in Cairo. I was 24, and he was [60]. … And he had a very big belly, and at the end of the opera he had to embrace me, no? Because in L’Elisir d’Amore Nemorino embraces Adina. And Gigli said to me, “Cara mia, sai che cosa ci divide? Quaranta chili e quarant’anni! Senza quelli, ti potrei abbracciare con molta più facilità.” [My dear, do you know what separates us? Forty kilos and forty years! Without them, I could embrace you much more easily.”] … [Gigli] was a very nice man and very full of spirit, full of, how can I say, sense of humor. … Gigli and Pertile were, in a way, like Pavarotti and Domingo. … Different vocalities. [But] both of them went directly to the heart. The voice is only an instrument. But you have to give to this voice the heart. The tears. The joy. The poetry. They are everything, you know. It’s what makes the singer. The great singers, they were very few. If someone has a voice, many people think, 'Wow, great voice.' But if that’s all it is … I didn’t sing for the money. I didn’t sing for the glory. I sang because I loved what I did. … You know, Gigli was the maestro of caressing the sound. It was a caressing voice, a velvet voice, but at the same time based on the words. ...

Pertile was humble. Was nice. Was delicate. In the lessons I never heard him saying something negative about anybody. Sometimes he had the tenors who came there and said, 'Maestro! Look what a high note I have!' And he would say, 'Yes, but you have to have something leading up to the high note.'”9

“I first got to know Gigli’s singing when I was a child in Bucharest, listening to his recordings. I began studying voice at age twelve-and-a-half. My love was divided between the records of Gigli and those of Pertile.”10

“The purity of [Gigli's] sound is absolutely without equal. … You see, his passaggio is perfect, never forced; he maintains the sound in the same position from the beginning to the end, with the intensity of the vibrato and the diminuendos.... The high notes and low notes are in the same position, with intensity and big legato. This is the science of singing. I’m sorry to say, today the science is lost. They try to sing opera like in a musical. No, I’m sorry, I don’t accept it. ... You see the simplicity that he uses in the sound, not forcing and not diminuendo but with a great sadness in the sound. So colorful. His voice loves and caresses everyone around him. Nobody else could have done these things, maybe only Pertile but in a different sense. … [Gigli's] phrasing is unique. It originates from the heart and is guided by the sustaining of a miraculous breath. … It is incredible to hear singers like Aureliano Pertile and Beniamino Gigli, who — in different ways, with different voices — imbued so much emotion into their singing. Later there was the splendid Corelli, whom I will never forget hearing in Adriana. Everyone was in love with him. But the manner, the agility, the color, the flexibility of the sound of Gigli — they are difficult to find in another singer. … [T]he Gigli that I knew in person [in 1950 was] still brilliant, still full of enthusiasm, even if the breath wasn’t always perfect in those years. I suffer, because I have these beautiful sounds in my memory, but I cannot transmit them to everybody. … How can you write a book about Beniamino Gigli? It is not a book about Gigli. It is a book about the history of singing. It’s a book about the maximum of love that people have for music.”11

Not long after my first conversation with Madame Zeani, I realized that there was almost no limit to the amount of great singers from the past about whom we could talk about. Equally voluminous would be a discussion of all the great students whom Zeani nurtured since joining the faculty of Indiana University in 1980. (I believe she holds the record for the most Met Competition winners and finalists by one teacher.) Here is where we get into the territory of Zeani's incredible generosity and warmth. She is more than a voice professor to her students – she is mother hen, friend, adviser, consoler, encourager, muse. “[W]hen the students come to me … I bring out the maximum that they can do. I would like that everybody is 1,000 times better than me. You know, the students who study with me, they know what is the Belcanto, they know what kind of vocalises to do, they know in which voices to believe, because I teach these things.”12

Madame Zeani made an interesting observation about the students of today. As compared with the living conditions of the struggling student of the 1930s and '40s, today's students don't have to “suffer” nearly as much. “Not that I wish suffering upon them,” Zeani was quick to explain.13 However, the suffering of the singers of past, somehow, comes through in their singing. This, according to Zeani, is what is missing in the singing of today.

I like to contrast the following two quotes, because they seem to describe two completely different people – the first perhaps some famous star that certainly you would never meet in person, the second perhaps some beloved aunt.

Who before [Virginia Zeani] succeeded in offering a more complete interpretation [of Violetta in La Traviata]? At least in my opinion, neither Caniglia nor Cigna on the one hand, nor Dal Monte nor Pagliughi on the other — besides the fact that physically, Zeani dominated [the competition] as the most seductive interpreter of Traviata that was ever seen on our Italian stages.” – Davide Annachini14

A sweeter, kinder person never existed.” – Charles Handelman15

So which was she? Was she one of the 20th century's finest belcantisti, the greatest Violetta of her time, or of all time? Or was she a friend who counseled me after my divorce, whom I could call anytime I wanted, who – like a close family member – could be depended on for sweetness and for total candor, both in great quantity?

She was both.


1 Opera News, September 1999

2 Lipkowska’s name is sometimes spelled Lipkovska or Lipkovskaya. The reference books cannot agree on her dates; she was born in either 1880 or 1882 and died in either 1955 or 1958.

3 It must have been the last czar, Nicholas II, who reigned from 1894 to 1917 and was murdered in 1918.

4 Bruno Tosi, Pertile: Una Voce, Un Mito (Venice, 1985), pp. 179f.

5 Ms. Zeani was prima donna assoluta there for nearly a quarter-century.

6 Luigi Ricci (1893-1981) worked with Puccini for eight years and with Mascagni for thirty-four while an Assistant Conductor at the Teatro Reale (now called the Teatro dell’Opera) in Rome. Other composers with whom he was associated included Respighi, Giordano, Zandonai, Henze, and Pizzetti. Among the many great conductors with whom he worked were Marinuzzi, Gui, Panizza, Serafin, and De Sábata. He was coach, accompanist, and close friend to Beniamino Gigli. Ricci authored two books (Puccini Interprete da Se Stesso and 34 Anni con Pietro Mascagni). He collaborated on the musical direction of forty-two films and numerous recordings with RCA. Starting at age 12 (!), Ricci accompanied the voice students of the legendary Antonio Cotogni (a favored baritone of Verdi). Young Ricci began taking meticulous notes on the 19th-century traditions that Cotogni passed on to him. Decades of continued note-taking resulted in the four-volume Variations, Cadenzas, and Traditions, a precious compilation – still in use – of the cadenzas of famous 19th-century singers, conductors, and composers.

7 The opera was Rigoletto.

8From the interview in L. Ciampa, The Twilight of Belcanto (hereafter “Twilight”)


10Ciampa, A Beniamino Gigli Commemoration (unpublished) (hereafter, “Gigli”)



13Conversation with the author (2006).

14 Davide Annachini, liner notes to Virginia Zeani, Vol. II (Bongiovanni, Il Mito dell’Opera, ASIN: B00009L1TR). English translation by L. Ciampa.

15 E-mail to the author (August, 2003)