FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Italian Lessons in Bologna with Gigliola Frazzoni
Friday, December 16, 2016 - 12:46 PM
Anyone who has accomplished anything in their lives, at least professionally, owes a great deal to the people who taught them their craft or awakened in them the sensibilities to do their work well and with passion. Such persons might be parents or other relatives, but there are also the many teachers and mentors along the way who often do not get the acknowledgement they deserve. I invite you to pause and think about who played such a role in your life.
My high school history teacher, Maritza Tsaggos, turned around my thinking on so many things. For her, history was not about memorizing dates and treaties, but is a great human drama in which conflicting forces clash, and tragedy stands side by side with the comic, the ridiculous and the poignant. She taught us that studying art, literature, design, music and psychology provides a fuller grasp of the great arc of civilization in which politics is but a small, often nasty, segment. With her approach to history, Mrs. Tsaggos opened my mind to more fully understanding opera.
From my earliest youth, Italy and its stupendous culture and civilization were my focus and became the central organizing principle of my life. A big part of that was opera. I was fortunate to see Italy at the age of 17 and its inspiration far exceeded my expectations. After two years at the University of Wisconsin (studying theater production management under the legendary Gilbert Hemsley) I returned to Italy to do a total immersion in everything Italian.
I chose Bologna. Its university, founded in 1069, had just created DAMS (Dipartimento di Arte, Musica e Spettacolo), often called Italy’s Juilliard. The city has had an excellent music conservatory for well more than two centuries. Its illustrious students include the 14-year-old Mozart, who got important training in music theory in 1770, and Rossini. Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, founded in 1763, is one of the jewels of 18th century opera.
I could name all of Bologna’s virtues (such as its sublime food), but will limit myself to one: some of the best Italian is spoken there and in nearby cities. There is an accent, to be sure, but it is a charming lilt in which a vowel is slightly prolonged or doubled. Bello becomes behloh and piacere becomes pee-ah-chay-ray. These subtle changes and more open vowels inevitably make the speaker smile, and that is bello and un piacere.
I had the immense good fortune to meet and fall under the spell of Gigliola Frazzoni, whose name is a concatenation of so many vowels that I smile when I say it now. Frazzoni died on Dec. 3 at the age of 89 and news of her passing reminded me that she is high on that list of persons whose influence made me who I am.
In an era when Callas and Tebaldi attracted the headlines and international attention, Frazzoni was a hard-working soprano who surely would have been a bigger star if she were not afraid of flying. She received offers to sing in America but turned them down.
I was presented to Frazzoni as an eager acolyte as she was winding down her career and I wanted to learn all that I could. In addition to being an oracle of operatic tradition, she made it her mission that my Italian be as good and idiomatic as possible. We would listen to recordings of her colleagues and she would sing, as well, demonstrating how words are inflected, phrases are shaped and more complex meaning could be conveyed to listeners. She taught me how to use Italian expressively and passionately, but without exaggeration or crudeness.
Now, I use her singing to share some of what she taught me. When you listen carefully, you find that she was a superb roller of the letter R, never for cheap effect but for subtle expressivity. Her “Vissi d’arte" from Tosca is full of gems that show how carefully she considered each sound. Preghiera (prayer) is rolled slightly on the first R and not on the second. Words such as sincero, dolore and signore are not rolled, but others you hear will be.
Here are Frazzoni and Ferruccio Tagliavini in the first act of Tosca. More Italian than this I cannot imagine: Passion, flirtation, free open-hearted singing. Her voice is rich and expressive, revealing a whole range of colors and temperaments.
The role she was most acclaimed for was Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. She sang it at La Scala in 1956 with Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi. Frazzoni was unmistakably Italian in speech and deportment even when playing a stereotypically American woman. I love her interpretation of this role because it is proudly Italian, as was Puccini even though he set most of his operas in faraway places.
To understand her artistry and what she taught, let’s listen to the act one love duet with Mario del Monaco, whom she refers to as “Misterrr Johnson.” Note the ravishing coloration of vowels she employs here and the clips that follow.
An audio excerpt with Franco Corelli generates heat in this blizzard scene in the High Sierras. You can hear the occasional roll of the Rs such as “perrrr me.” It is like a sexy purr. Then watch her with tenor Kevin Neate to have a sense of her on the stage.
Finally, listen to the poker scene from the second act with Gigliola and Tito Gobbi (with whom I studied in 1978). The sense of theater is so detailed and heightened that the stage director in your own mind can fill in all the dramatic details.
Although she brought considerable italianità to my speech and usage, I never mastered that pesky R. After a year (in which I sometimes cooked while she taught other students), she said to me (in Italian), “Federico, you roll the sheets of pasta. I will roll the Rs in Puccini.”