The Song of the Ancient Soprano

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It is no secret that opera companies have, of late, included youthfulness as one of the criteria in casting operas. This may not be actual chronological youth (the voices of opera singers take time to develop) but singers with the aspect of youth are often favored over those who might be a tad more, shall we say, experienced.

I think it is time that I call attention to a segment of the fan base who likes their singers old. I don’t mean older, like Plácido Domingo (born 1941), who maintains his relevance because he smartly sings roles that fit his current voice and temperament, combining them with superb musicianship and an irresistible stage presence. He and a few other singers, including Mirella Freni, were able to apply technique, intelligence and luck to have careers that lasted for decades. Today I want to introduce you to singers old enough to be Domingo’s parents.

There are many fans who don’t go to live opera, but stay at home with their scratchy discs of singers from the early days of recorded sound. They lament that the style and interpretations they hear are links to an era of singers who knew Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, Zandonai and Strauss and are seen as exponents of a vanishing opera tradition. For them, even a singer who began her career in the 1950s does not pass muster. Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi are mere parvenues.

There are a still some very old singers who walk among us, heads only slightly bowed, and seem like messengers from that lost world of opera in the 1920s and 1930s. They actually did know Puccini, Strauss and some of the other composers born around 1860! A few of these singers have not formally retired and still appear before their public, an audience of cultists who revere them as exponents of a golden age of singing.

In a way, hearing ancient singers is like listening to Mel Brooks, as the Two Thousand Year Old Man, recall encounters with Cleopatra or being a waiter at the Last Supper. I adore Brooks and Sid Caesar showing us how music was invented.

No country seems to venerate ancient sopranos and tenors more than Italy, where a very old person who is still actively engaged in life and work is referred to as forte. This term implies not simply “strong” but admirable. Italians look at their impressive 87-year-old president, Giorgio Napolitano, and exclaim “Che forte!” even if they don’t agree with his left-wing politics.

A tenor who is molto forte is Angelo Lo Forese who, when I last checked, was still performing at the age of 91. Here he is from a long-ago recording with a convincing throb in his voice that might seem corny now but was plausible a couple of generations ago. This is what cultists look for when they try to hear what Toscanini might have heard.

Lo Forese was born in Milan in 1920. He began his studies in 1938 and stopped in 1941 when he fled Italy for Switzerland during World War II. He returned to Italy after the war and made his debut, as a baritone, in Pagliacci as Silvio. He continued his studies, including lessons with tenor Aureliano Pertile (1885-1952) who became a star at La Scala in 1916 and at the Met in 1921. Lo Forese’s tenor debut was in the demanding role of Manrico in Il Trovatore. It is music he still sings today. His rendition of “Di quella pira” at the age of 90 is forceful, with impressive high notes and more fidelity to the score than his pianist achieves.

Magda Olivero (born 1910) genuinely deserves the overused term “legendary.” Five days before her hundredth birthday she did a two-hour interview, though she did not sing. Here is a snippet of the conversation which reveals her beauty and engagement. Here, at the age of 99, she discusses Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and then sings a passage. There is remarkable luster in her voice and it is fascinating to observe her face, which seems to summon performances from 70 years ago.

Olivero has long defied the odds. At the age of 54, she was as an entirely believable Violetta in musical and dramatic terms: 

Her 1975 Met debut as Tosca at the age of 65 is the stuff of legend. I was not there but know many people who count that among their most cherished nights at the opera. I heard her sing “Sola, perduta, abbandonata,” the death scene from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, when she was in her early 90s and it was miraculous. Here is another performance of that challenging music when she was a mere 83. I invite young singers to study this for interpretation, language, commitment and to admire how well preserved the voice is.

Many New York opera lovers are cultists of very old singers who, in return, offer artistry and old-world graciousness along with enough voice to give the kind of performances that are truly cherishable. One is the timeless Marta Eggerth (born 1912), the last link to the golden age of Viennese operetta.

Until recently, one of the joys of opening nights at the Metropolitan Opera was the presence of Licia Albanese (born 1913) in the Parterre. During the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner”, audience members from the balcony down to the orchestra would turn to look at Licia as the words “land of the FREE” were approaching, allowing her to drown out the entire audience with thrilling high notes. Albanese made her opera debut in 1934 and sang in Madama Butterfly at the Met for her debut in 1940. She sang that opera 72 times there among 427 Met performances until 1966. She gave illustrious performances with Toscanini in the 1940s and still gave public performances in her 80s. Albanese is still a presence in New York musical life through her foundation and singing competition.

Until now, I have described singers who appear for a couple of choice arias in concert, but there are the amazing few who do full roles at advanced ages. The champion was the wonderful character tenor Charles Anthony (1929-2012), whose 2,928 performances at the Met between 1954 and 2010 are the most by any singer. 

The remarkable Giuseppe Taddei (1916-2010), a Genoese baritone, had a long career and made an amazing Met debut as Falstaff at the age of 69. The New York Times reported that he received a “rafter-shaking ovation.” I was there and can assure you that it was so. This raises the inevitable question of why some great singers are not invited to perform in some of the top theaters or, if they are, the invitation comes very late. But Taddei made the most of it and relished every moment. Here he is in the same role at the age of 66.

The oldest Met debutant was the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod (1902-2010) who sang the Emperor Altoum in Turandot in 1987 and continued until 1988, appearing on the famous video that includes Eva Marton and Domingo. Cuénod continued performing until the age of 92.

A delicate question, for another time, is why certain singers stay too long on the stage. I recently heard a beloved soprano perform many years after she should have not. The audience showered her with love but was filled with sadness.

If you have never experienced La Gran Scena Opera Company, whose divas are divos, then you have not had the pleasure of meeting their foremost diva, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh (an intimate of Met radio broadcast host Ira Siff) and her colleagues, including one of my favorites, the 105 year-old diva (well-known to Keith Jurosko). Watch her with Madame Vera, channeling many of the superannuated sopranos who are now so rare and so beloved.