Little did I know that I had the makings of an Opera Fanatic — well, I’ve discovered that I do. I found myself watching the DVD version of The Opera Fanatic (the VHS version of this film has been available on Zucker’s Bel Canto Society website for some time; the DVD version is being released on Arthaus Musik at the end of May) with absolute fascination (twice now, probably a third time by the time I’ve finished this blog entry), despite the fact that Stefan Zucker (purportedly the highest tenor according to the Guinness World Book of Records and generally an annoying enfant terrible) is thoroughly outrageous and, in some cases, shockingly rude to an absolutely extraordinary grouping of true Divas. The chutzpah (not to mention bad taste) of asking legendary mezzo-soprano Fedora Barbieri about the sexual proclivities of mezzos boggles the mind, but then again, she offered-or threatened-to spank him for his naughty question. (Maybe there IS some truth to this rumor she so passionately denied?)
The Opera Fanatic is partly about Zucker’s quest for the answers to a question which cannot really be answered or quantified: what makes a singer thrilling and a performance moving? But it also is, in part, a memorial of his late mother, a soprano named Rosina Wolf, whose memory he evokes several times during the film. Most of all, however, it is about a group of great singers, many of whom have been forgotten (a few probably don’t even hit the radar for some younger opera-goers), and some whose careers were eclipsed by La Callas and Renata Tebaldi. However, one thing these larger-than-life women have in common can be put very simply: Star Power.
And that Star Power is wonderfully present in this film. Years after her career had ended, soprano Leyla Gencer still could demand that she be interviewed at La Scala (they acquiesced); Marcella Pobbe, a wonderful soprano from the 1950s, was suspiciously difficult to pin down for an interview time; yet another Diva was concerned that her maid would need to come twice (before and after the interview).
And some of the meetings went less than swimmingly. Poor Madame Pobbe, when the interview finally took place, fumed at Zucker’s questions (she called him “stupid”). He prodded her with queries like “What was the highest note you ever sang?” Her disdain was palpable, but not for reasons one might think. She wanted Zucker to properly introduce her and to explain her place in opera history first (DIVA). She did, eventually, answer the question about the note (in case anyone cares, it was a high “D” in Carmina Burana, with Zubin Mehta conducting). She was equally ticked off when questioned about canceling her 1959 MET engagement to sing Elisabetta. The cancellation was due to a quarrel with her then lover the great tenor Nicolai Gedda. She blamed Rudolf Bing for the incident. Heard that story before”¦
But despite occasional fits of pique due to scheduling mishaps and other issues, many of these singers offered fascinating insights into opera, character, and the art of singing. The luminous mezzo-soprano Guilietta Simionato, known for her riveting vocal portrayals of characters like Carmen, Azucena, and Eboli, among many others, spoke almost poetically about proper breath control: “… the cavity [mask] projects upwards or sound doesn’t rise. With the breath you have to make a circle. It’s not that the high note is a point of arrival. The breath has to raise it up and then bring it down again, that way the notes come down like pearls.” A clip from a 1961 Cavalleria Rusticana showed her in absolutely gorgeous voice. But perhaps the most telling moment from her interview was her confession when asked what she would have done differently with her career: she said, almost without hesitation, that she would not have become a singer. She suffered greatly, and it took almost two decades for her to get her due as an artist. I, for one, am glad she was not given that opportunity.
Another legendary soprano Magda Olivero commented that “you must find the character inside. Every word, every note has to rise from the inside and go forward to the audience.” She clearly understood what that meant, as evidenced by a superb 1960 Tosca excerpt. She also talked about the difficulties for sopranos in Act II of Tosca, which she described as a soprano-killer.
Anita Cerquetti (a personal favorite) — who is a longtime cult figure among vocal folks for her astonishing voice, very short career, and yes, the funniest record covers in just about all opera history (except for the late British Wagnerian Rita Hunter) — had some interesting comments about opera performance: ” A singer cannot be compared to an actor. The singer has to sing. He has to stay motionless. When he sings a romance, he cannot walk up and down the stage, otherwise the voice shifts. A singer has to be an actor through his gestures, through his face, through his arms and hands, through his voice.” Now, I won’t mince words here, Anita is and was a very large lady (NO comments here, she was) and probably didn’t or couldn’t take a lot of stage direction (just a guess). Motionless is a bit, well, odd even for me. And, let’s face it, much has changed in opera productions since these women graced the stage. There is far more emphasis on physical acting now for example. But some of what she says makes sense: a singer is not an actor in the traditional sense. If anyone watched the MET broadcast of Il Trittico last season, the most moving aspect of Barbara Frittoli’s performance was her portrayal of the character of Suor Angelica, which she achieved almost entirely through her facial expressions and simple physical gestures. In my opinion, her singing was nothing special. And had I been in the opera house instead of at the movies, where I could really see what she was doing with the role, I’m not so sure I would have been so moved.
For me, there is something special about this entire era of singing which quite frankly, harkens back to a time when the voice reigned supreme and when singing conveyed such emotion that even on a bad day, it had, well, “soul.” (Just to clarify: there are many, many current singers I absolutely adore and couldn’t do without. But I must confess to a certain love of singers from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.)
In addition to the great singers of the 1950s and 1960s, the film also goes a further back into opera history and devotes some time to the great Gina Cigna, who actually was French and born in Paris in 1900 (she died in 2001). Cigna came from a much earlier era than the other singers portrayed in the film and was 96 when Zucker went to visit her. She said, “If you don’t know how to breathe, you don’t know how to sing….Opera has lost spontaneity, beauty and freedom.” Her interview was very short as she was so very frail, but just her presence and the excerpts of her glorious voice were enough for me
I’ve left off quite a few singers profiled in the film, for which I apologize. But if my word count is correct, I’m over 1000 words. Watch the film instead. It is really a film about soul, something which these Divas all have in abundance. (The Opera Fanatic, a film by Jan Schmidt-Garre, Arthaus Musik, 101813.)