This is an extract from Lanfranco Rasponi's book "The Last Prima Donnas" (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1982)
In 1979 Renata Tebaldi opened the door of her cozy apartment in Milan, and I could not believe my eyes. If I had not known that she was born in 1921 or 1922, 1 would have believed her to be fifteen years younger. Never had she appeared more relaxed and glamorous, her ingratiating smile as natural and impulsive as ever. She had always had definite opinions, but now she had become particularly articulate about her feelings and beliefs, and she looked back on her long career with a stimulating mixture of detachment and passion.
"Young singers today," she declared sadly, "think of what was my profession in a manner that to us of the preceding generation is totally incomprehensible. Discipline was our credo, and the everyday preoccupation was not to sing roles that might force our instruments. Our ambition was to be able to sing for a period of at least thirty years. It was a question of deep pride and also a profound attachment to our art. Those who have taken our place are victims of a form of recklessness that is very close to madness. Does life hold no promises for then? Do they wish to burn their vocal cords in a short period? They begin, take on engagements, and then suddenly disappear. They will sing anything and everything. Responsibilities, truthfully, must be shared by the directors of the opera houses, who are not only incapable but in some ways sadistic. A coloratura wants to sing Norma? It's all right. A mezzo wishes to sing the Druid priestess? Just fine. We have examples before our very eyes that make one shudder. Everything is allowed, and the chaos reigning everywhere is harrowing. Young conductors simply don't know their profession. Alas, even with the most celebrated, we witness the results. In my era they spent years as assistants, an invaluable apprenticeship. Each one knew how to play several instruments, and the conductor was our spiritual confessor and adviser. Now they have the pretension to put on operatic performances without the proper singers. It can only end disastrously.
"These conductors rush the tempos so, it is impossible to follow them. What happens to the breathing apparatus if they don't allow the time for it to function? They want the score to proceed always faster. With all the cuts that had been reinstated, Il Trovatore conducted by Riccardo Muti not long ago in Florence, lasted far less time than usual. I was filled with admiration for Gilda Cruz-Romo, the Leonora. What a monstrous effort for her to sing the fourth act, which presents considerable difficulties, at that infernal gallop - and what is more, she managed it! This mania to hurry the tempos - just look at the scores and they are always clearly indicated - against the composer's wishes! Supposedly it is meant to increase the dramatic tension. There is also the craze on the part of conductors and metteurs-en-scene to crush the personality of the artist. The sad truth is that in a short period of time they have almost completely succeeded. Tell me - with the exception of Caballe and Domingo, who is there? Montserrat is the last prima donna, capricious at times, but she obtains what she wants because she knows what is right for her. Placido too is one who will not allow anyone to step on his toes. He has his ideas - I know him well - and, thankfully, he imposes them, for he knows how to render his characters human.
"It is much easier to make sheep out of people. Look at young people the world over. They are all dressed alike; blue jeans are their uniforms. How can a young soprano realize that Violetta is not Tosca, that Tatiana is not Elsa? They don't know how to wear costumes, and there is no one to teach them. Bejart has rewritten La Traviata with Violetta turned into a sculptress, Germont singing 'Di Provenza' surrounded by his family, Violetta arriving at Flora's reception in a coffin, and so forth and so on. So one can only reach the conclusion that everything is possible and nothing impossible. What can young people make out of such a Traviata? That Verdi, Piave, and Dumas fils were all mad?
"I have had my experiences. I was obliged to engage in veritable battles at the Metropolitan over the costumes. I am a tall woman, and by long experience I know what I must not wear. The designer had decided that Violetta must be a giantess. At a certain moment I asked Mr. Bing who was more important to the new production of this opera - the designer or Tebaldi. And he gave in, because he knew that all the performances were sold out - and there were many - not because of the designer, but because of me. But with Mr. Bing, despite the fact that he was a dictator, one could always come to terms. Often I make an examination of my conscience and ask myself whether I was a fool, in consideration of all that I see happening around me. And then I say, Renata, you were right, because you served your profession honestly. You have been, like Adriana Lecouvreur (a role I adore), 'l'umile ancella' of the geniuses who wrote so much wonderful music.
"I ask myself what goes on in the heads of the delicious Mirella Freni and the ever so talented Renata Scotto - she sang an enchanting Walter, a trouser role, with me in La Wally at La Scala in 1954 - who are both lyric sopranos, with voiccs infinitely smaller than mine. The first one. sings not only Elisabetta di Valois at La Scala but Aida in the big auditorium in Salzburg. And the second appears not only in I vespri siciliani, II Trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlo, and Norma, but in La Gioconda, Macbeth, Nabucco, and goodness knows what else. And I, a spinto, recorded Don Carlo, Ballo, and Trovarore, but never dared sing them in a theatre, for these operas are written for dramatic sopranos and only they can really honor the scores. Mirella is intelligent, and she comes out of Don Carlo passably. Ma chi glie lo fa fare? [But who makes her do it?] She is totally out of her element, while she is incomparable as Susanna and the Gounod Juliette, to mention two of the parts that truly suit her. And Scotto can only force her instrument out of all proportion. Serafin begged me to take six months off and prepare Norma with him. And I replied, 'But there is Callas, who does it so well.' 'It does not matter,' he answered. You will sing it with your voice. It will be your Norma, and I can guarantee you it will be a huge success.' But not even Serafin, whose judgment about voices was unsurpassed, made me budge from my decision.
"Where are the big voices today? There are only tiny mosquitoes flying around. And we - Milanov, Nilsson, del Monaco, Corelli, and others - lost three and four kilos at each performance, so tremendous was the tension we gave to our assignments! It was our blood we gave to the audiences. How could we have beer such fools?
"What worries me more and more - this problem had already started when I was still singing - is that today singers are all confronted with a diapason that is much too high. It should not go over 440, but there are many orchestras that start at 443 and arrive even as high as 450. Conductors will do anything to obtain a more brilliant sonority. The orchestra in Florence, as far as Italy is concerned, has the highest diapason of all. The late Dimitri Mitropoulos imposed it when he conducted Elektra there. This is the reason why real contraltos and bassos no longer exist: because of the enormous increase in the diapason, all the voices are pulled up. To go back to II trovatore in Florence, there was a pompous announcement that Carlo Cossutta would sing 'Di quella pira' in the original key written by Verdi and not the higher version that has become traditional with all tenors. The truth is that the one Verdi composed has become a tone higher!
"The sensuousness that prevailed in all of Wagner's works no longer exists. Why did this composer write so many F-sharps at the beginning of his scores? He knew very well the effect he wished to obtain. Those who play instruments these days no longer know how to extricate themselves from so many problems; the gongs, the bells, all the special musical instruments, all have had to be readjusted or made over. The diapason should be the same everywhere, and Serafin, who saw ahead very clearly, did his best to impose this point of view at a congress held in Great Britain. But it continues to vary from one orchestra to the next. How are voices going to resist? Every day we see promising singers who destroy themselves in no time. This is a period of strikes; why done all the singers get organized, refuse to open their mouths, and say basta? It does not take great intelligence to predict that a big step backward will have to be taken. It will all come to a stop, and then there must be a new, fresh start.
Then, briefly, she told me her story. Born in Pesaro, she went to live with her mother and her maternal grandparents in Langhirano, a small town near Parma. Her parents had separated before her birth, and for a long time she thought that her father, a cellist by profession, was dead. There was later a reconciliation, but it did not last long, and her father returned to Pesaro. A very sensitive child, Tebaldi suffered from this situation and became enormously attached to her mother, Giuseppina. At the age of three Tebaldi was stricken with polio, but this is a part of her life she prefers to forget. Eventually, although her right hip continued to give her some trouble, she began to study piano in Parma, and her teacher discovered that she had a voice. She auditioned for the conservatory in Parma and was accepted, pretending to be eighteen, the age of admittance, when she was really only sixteen.
She had studied there for two years when she went to Pesaro to spend Christmastime with her uncle Valentino, her father's brother. As destiny would have it, he owned a small cafe where the famous former diva Carmen Melis came to buy pastries. She was then a teacher at the conservatory in Pesaro, the most celebrated in Italy. He talked to her about his niece, and she consented to listen to Tebaldi in her hotel suite. Still a true prima donna in her ways, she terrified Tebaldi, who was a simple country girl. But, although Melis criticized her manner of singing, she agreed that the voice had a lovely timbre. The next day, and for the rest of her holiday, she went to Melis for certain readjustments, particularly in connection with vowels, and when she returned to Parma no one could believe it was the same voice, so drastic had been the improvement.
It was then that Tebaldi decided to move to Pesaro permanently to study with Melis. In Pesaro she lived with her Father's family and took classes with Melis both at the conservatory and privately. Then the war came, and because of the frequent bombings, the conservatory bad to close. Melis moved to Como, and Renata, with her mother, evacuated to the countryside, where she continued to vocalize on her own.
''La Signora Melis and I kept in touch as best we could,'' she told me, ''and in 1944 she let me know that she had arranged for me to make my debut as Elena in Mefistofele in Rovigo, under the very well-known conductor Giuseppe del Campo. I went to meet Melis ten days before the. performance to study the role - a short one, but very effective - and she was perfectly marvelous; she never left me, even in the wings of the theatre, until the curtain went up. There I was on the couch, terrified. But la Signora was pleased with the results.''
For the next two years not much happened, because of the disastrous conditions the country was in, but Tebaldi did manage to sing a few performances here and there. The great test came in 1946 when she appeared as Desdemona in Trieste with two famous interpreters, Merli and Biasini. The news spread like wildfire that a wonderful new voice had appeared on the horizon.
"Immediately, she said, "all the theatres opened their doors to me, and it was thrilling for me that all the sacrifices my mother had made for me - she always would have preferred to see me married and settled - had not been in vain. Desdemona, until the end of my career, remained my favorite heroine: innocent, good-natured, the victim of love and jealousy, which know no laws.
"In three decades I had some exceptional partners as the Moor. Merli was close to the end of his professional life - he was fifty-nine years old at the time - and he was marvelous: tender, anguished, tormented, and with a stupendous diction. No other tenor - in this role as well as in many others - had the vocal splendor and the irresistible strength of Mario del Monaco. What perhaps was missing a tiny bit was the humanity. Ramon Vinay was a superb singing actor, but the voice was somewhat veiled. Jon Vickers's approach is the most intellectual, and it is a miracle how suddenly he is able to produce some immensely delicate phrases. James McCracken is formidable in his own way: impetuous, passionate, almost brutal.
"It is a role that poses many question marks, for the tessitura lies almost always in the middle, and the orchestration is heavy. Any tenor who becomes entangled with this tempting part is apt to lose some of the freedom in the upper register. It is the decision that Domingo must make now. He is admirable in this opera, but will he be able to continue to appear in Rigoletto and Ballo? Del Monaco had to reduce his repertoire drastically, for he was so in demand for thc Moor everywhere that he ended by accepting most of the offers. Corelli, I know, has been tempted, but has never decided. Martinelli, perhaps wisely, only began to sing it in his last years.
After this parenthesis, she continued: ''I was in Brescia appearing with Giacinto Prandelli in L'amico Fritz when I was called to go to La Scala for an audition with Toscanini, who had just returned to Italy from the United States and wished to hear the new voices in the lyric market. I was stunned when he chose me right away to appear at the gala reopening concert of the reconstructed Scala. Apart from the beautiful prayer of Rossini's Mose, in partnership with the unforgettable Tancredi Pasero, I don't really recall much of anything that went on that evening, with the entire audience in tears and so were we, the singers. The stage was not ready yet, and so performances were given in the Palazzo dello Sport. I really started my Scala operatic career there, first as Margherita and Elena too in Mefistofele and then in Lohengrin in the summer of 1946. The following year I appeared in La Boheme and as Eva in Meistersinger in La Scala's first season after its reconstruction. June 26, 1950, was another important date, for Toscanini again chose me, for the Verdi Requiem, which was preceded by the same composer's Te Deum. At one of the rehearsals the maestro decided that I should sing the E-natural in the Te Deum, which comes after the trumpet has taken it and must be in the same timbre. This is an important detail, for it created a legend around me that is not true, and this is what happened. Toscanini decided that this one note I sang must sound as if it came from heaven, and for this reason he had me placed way over above the chorus. The story got around - and persists still today - that the maestro had declared that I had the voice of an angel.
''Anyhow, it is a party I attended on another occasion, where I was seated next to the maestro, that led me to undertake Aida. Toscanini asked me about my repertoire and if I sang Aida. I replied that I did not, as I felt it belonged to the dramatic soprano wing. He explained that he felt I could, taking certain precautions, and said he would show me. And he did in his studio. He was absolutely extraordinary, for he sang the entire part himself, giving me precious advice. So I did agree to sing it at La Scala in 1950, and, amusingly enough, when I left because of other commitments, it was Maria Callas who took over, making her debut in Milan.
"At the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, I was offered the revival of a forgotten opera by Rossini, L'assedio di Corinto, and I accepted. Actually, the genius from Pesaro wrote it first as Maometto II for the San Carlo in Naples, with his wife, Isabella Colbran, in the lead. Then he rewrote it for the Paris Opera under the title Le Siege de Corinthe, where it received a triumphant baptism in 1826 with the famous Laure Cinti-Damoreau. It then was performed everywhere, and in London it was Giuditta Grisi who sang it, having already performed it in Italy. After 1860 it disappeared from the repertoires, and for me this was quite a challenge. The reason I accepted it was that Rossini, fed up with all the ornamentations the various divas requested, had written a different type of score from his usual ones. Gabriele Santini conducted, and the success was so great that we repeated it in other cities.
"When La Scala revived it - she laughed - in 1969, with Thomas Schippers conducting (later the Metropolitan imported the production for the debut of Beverly Sills), for me it was like listening to another score, so much had they fiddled around with it, putting in all the fioriture. It was impressive singing, but we go back to where we started: there is no more respect for anyone or anything. After all, Rossini must have known what he wanted.
"During those first years I also often sang the last opera Rossini composed: Guglielmo Tell. It is a work, alas, that has more or less vanished, for the vocal extension of the tenor role is such that there is no one today who can cope with it. A few have tried, but without success. Lauri-Volpi has written, most interestingly, about his experiences when he sang in its one hundredth anniversary at La Scala - and if he found it difficult, God save the others! In my epoch there was Mario Filippeschi, who could cope with it very adroitly. With Rossini it is most difficult to cheat, for his orchestrations are very light and the singer is therefore very exposed.
"My debuts at both Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera came in 1950. The directors of the War Memorial Opera House had heard my Aida at La Scala and requested that I start my American career with the Ethiopian slave. But because of endless complications in my engagements, I was only able to start at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Desdemona introduced me to that marvelous audience which I love with all my heart. I shall never forget the sympathy, so affectionate and deeply felt, of the entire operatic public when my mother died suddenly in Manhattan and I canceled the entire season. I was destroyed by her loss - we were so terribly close; she had sacrificed her entire life for me. It took me a long time to overcome this shock. And when I returned the following season, the ovation that greeted me was absolutely overwhelming. I knew that everyone in that theatre loved me, and it is wonderful to know there can be such deep affection from strangers.
"I ended by singing less and less in Europe, for so little time was left after the Metropolitan, the Chicago Opera, and the enormous amount of recording I did of entire operas and single recitals. I did return always to sing at the San Carlo in Naples, for that was my second spiritual home the first being New York. Neapolitans are marvelously warm people, and it is in this city that I had the opportunity to sing for the first time Verdi's sublime and neglected opera Giovanna d'Arco, which has a somewhat foolish libretto, but such heavenly music.
I did not ask her about her relations with La Scala, which had deteriorated because of Antonio Ghiringhelli's subservience to Callas: she must be served first. I knew it was a subject she preferred not to discuss; she may have been deeply hurt, but she never showed it. After Forza in 1955, she returned to La Scala from time to time, in 1959 for Tosca and then in 1960 for Chenier. She spoke admiringly of Callas and never mentioned the widely reported origin of the Callas-Tebaldi rivalry. It happened in Rio de Janeiro in 1951 when both of them were appearing at the Municipal: the Greek diva's Tosca was booed, and she accused Tebaldi of having organized a cabal against her. But in Milan people remember that even in 1950 Callas's resentment toward the then-reigning prima donna had already begun; and when Tebaldi failed to make a success of her first Traviata in Milan (she was to be vindicated later with a triumph in this opera in Naples), Callas went around saying to everyone, "Poor thing, I feel so sorry for her. There was certainly plenty of room for both of them at La Scala, but the wily Greek edged out Tebaldi, who was not a fighter and was never malicious. Strong willed and stubborn, yes, but never unkind. During the three decades I have known her, never once have I heard her admit that there had been a feud, although she was fully conscious that the attendant publicity would be fantastic. "Callas is flamboyant and thrives on this sort of thing, Tebaldi said to me at the height of the press reports. "I am not, and I don't feel I need any of this. I can stand on my accomplishments. I have my public and she has hers. There is enough space for both of us - to each her own.
She talked about Callas with utter serenity and a pity that I could feel was totally sincere. "Maria did mark an era - no one can take that away from her. She insisted on singing everything and did. Now everyone wants to do likewise, and, alas, it is not working out.
"I had never seen her again after she lost all that weight - mind you, I insist on repeating that no unpleasant words ever passed between us and then one night she came to the Metropolitan when I was singing Adriana. No one dared tell me that, she was in the audience, fearing that this would upset me. Why should it? Then, suddenly, after the performance was over and I had returned to my dressing room, the door opened and there she was with Mr. Bing - and the photographers, naturally. She threw herself in my arms and was flattering to a degree about my interpretation. Curiously, she, who sang everything, never got around to the Cilea opera. I remember so well her words: 'I am so happy to have been present at your great success.' It was a tragic moment in her life, for she had been abandoned by Onassis, for whom she gave up her career. I never saw her again, and then, suddenly, the news of her death gave me a veritable chill. How much that proud woman, left all alone, must have suffered! I often wonder what happened to her two dogs, who belonged to the same breed as mine. I am happy she came that night, for it tore down a wall that as far as I am concerned never existed.
"I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the United States,'' she affirmed with moving sincerity, "where I lost many complexes I had. I learned to become more sure of myself, to dress, to take better care of my appearance, and, above all, to think differently. At the Metropolitan, where I stayed until 1972, I sang more than two hundred fifty performances: Aida, Forza, Traviata, Tosca, Chenier, Boheme, Falstaff, Adriana, Manon Lescaut, Boccanegra, Fanciulla, and Butterfly. After I sang this last for the first time in Barcelona, every theatre demanded it. Mr. Bing thought I was too tall for the former geisha, but after reading the rave reviews from Naples and Rome he gave in. Much later, in 1966, in the first year of the new house in Lincoln Center, after my voice had become much darker - I had to stop singing for almost a year because of total exhaustion - I took on La Gioconda in an unforgettable production of Beni Montresor and under the direction of Margherita Wallmann, who talks of me with such true affection in her charming autobiography, Balconies from the Sky. I sang over thirty performances of this opera at thc Metropolitan and then again in Naples. Mr. Bing wanted me for Tatiana in Onegin, a role I sang at La Scala and which was just right for my voice and personality; but I never felt that my English was sufficiently advanced, and at the Metropolitan this Russian opera was given in English.
"Diction, as far as I am concerned, is of capital importance. That is why I never appeared in any of my Wagnerian roles in the United States, as, quite rightly so, these operas are done in German. In Italy I appeared often as Eva, Elisabeth, and Elsa, another part that suited my instrument and nature, but I never felt I was equal to them in German, for my diction in that language leaves much to be desired. In fact, even in the hundreds of recitals I gave - an activity I followed with enormous satisfaction after I left opera - I never dared make excursions into lieder.
(She made no reference to the debacle of her first Adrianas at the Metropolitan in 1963; her voice was simply in terrible shape in a role that does nor require a high range. Wisely, she stopped singing for a year and went through an extensive reappraisal of her vocal technique. When she appeared a year later in La Boheme, the middle of her instrument was as gorgeous as ever and the upper register somewhat mended, but there was still a hard edge to the top that remained with her until the end.)
"I laugh when I read some critics call the Metropolitan in my era an opera house ruled by routine. Can one speak of routine when in the space of ten days Tosca was performed once with Milanov, once with Nilsson, and once - all modesty forgotten - with me? Competition is the healthiest thing there can be in the singing profession. For the public, it is more interesting when different interpreters follow one another in repertory works. One may love La Boheme, but one does not always want to listen to the same Mimi. But today who is there? When I think of who was before the public when I started, I realize where we have fallen. Think of Caniglia, Carosio, Favero, Nicolai, Barbieri, Stignani, Cigna, Pacetti, Bechi, Pasero, Andrea Mongelli, and Tagliavini, to name a few, and then later Simionato, Milanov, Sutherland, del Monaco, di Stefano, Bastianini, Corelli, Siepi, Tucker, Warren - my goodness! there was excitement then; they were all superb. I shall never \par get over the death of Leonard Warren onstage while I was appearing with him in Forza. He was a wonderful colleague, and what a voice! Now the same little group sings everywhere, rushing from one theatre to the other, with no rehearsals, no sense of responsibility toward the public, asking always for higher and higher fees. How can you arrive by plane at four o'clock in the afternoon and then sing at eight? They must all have nerves of steel. Not only did I always go to bed early the night before a performance, but I never spoke to anyone on the telephone, unless it was an emergency, for twenty- four hours before. I shall never become a singing teacher, for I do not have the patience to put up with the total lack of discipline existing today. My admiration for Pagliughi, Saraceni, Cigna, Carbone, and all the others who give their all to these students is boundless, but I am not a martyr. Fortunately, I made many recordings and the royalties do continue. For singing as much as I did in the United States meant paying very high taxes, and not so much remains. Ma pazienza - despite all the sacrifices, it was all wonderful."