Soprano Magda Olivero’s 100th birthday

Magda Olivero: the last link we have to the Italian opera composers of the 20th century
Magda Olivero: the last link we have to the Italian opera composers of the 20th century

The great Italian soprano Magda Olivero turns 100 on March 25.

She is reported to be cheerful, in good health, still singing and living in Milan surrounded by admiration. I imagine her birthday will be an Event in Italy. Olivero is the last link we have to the Italian opera composers of the 20th century.

If she barely missed Puccini (she was fourteen when he died, so who knows?) she worked closely with Pietro Mascagni, Francesco Cilea, Franco Alfano, and Riccardo Zandonai.

It is a bit of a misnomer to identify Olivero with verista as it is to pigeonhole these composers as exponents of verismo. “Truth,” the verismo movement in opera, began in the late 19th century, and while it was Italian-heavy, it included operas in French and German and has its roots in the novels of  Zola and Balzac.

Verismo was meant to depict every day life in immediate language-the vernacular. Thus music was a bit sidelined and opera singers of this period were valued for the primacy of the words.

Olivero was made for this. Her singing voice was almost beside the point. It retained a thready, rather hollow tone. She had all the notes and she was intensely musical, but if you want great lush singing, stick with Tebaldi and Leontyne Price. Olivero could tear your guts out with a look.

What I love about her singing is absolute commitment to the drama. Don’t believe me? Here she is at age 83 singing the aria Io son l’umile ancella. This comes from Francesco Cilea‘s opera Adriana Lecouvreur -a work closely associated with Olivero.

She retired early, in 1941, eight years into her career, after her first marriage. Cilea asked her to return to sing one more performance of Adriana for him. Alas, he died before the performance, but in 1950 Olivero returned to the stage. Over forty years after this “comeback” she was still going strong. Listen to the firm line, the fine sense of pitch and the complete mastery of the text. And listen to the control and the exquisite pianissimo. These from a woman in her 80s.

Olivero was all about text. She took what voice she had and fitted into the dramatic situations as she understood them. She could be humble, imperious, charming, demented and simple. She had no fear.

Her Tosca in Boston was heavily made-up but at the end she leaped a good ten feet into the air and went flying -at age 66; none of this looking for the mattress and mincing around. Her B flat at the final “Avanti a dio” is still bouncing off the walls near Fenway Park.

She made her debut at the Met in April of 1975.  She sang Tosca:

They yelled and screamed when she came on, causing Jan Behr, the conductor, to stop the music and wait until the excitement subsided. They broke into arias with bravos…

At the end there was a twenty-minute ovation for the lady. It was one of the longest ovations in recent Metropolitan history…

Singers of Miss Olivero’s day were taught to convey mood and expression so that the last person in the balcony could know what was going on. The bad artists went about it silent move style. The good ones, like Miss Olivero, moved hands, shoulders, body in one grand, fluid line.

It was history come to life last night as the soprano, despite her age, gave us a feminine, fiery, utterly convincing Tosca. Vocally things were even a little better than anticipated. Holding herself back, pacing herself like the experienced artist she is, Miss Olivero got off some amazingly strong high notes…

Miss Olivero must necessarily represent the art of singing rather than singing itself.”-Harold C. Schonberg, New York Times, April 4, 1975

Here’s Vissi d’arte from the belated Met debut:

By 1975 Olivero had sung in Dallas, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Newark. She had a cult following in the states, and in those days, before downloads and with few commercial recordings, you had to really want to see her.

And many many people did. She did the Met tour as Tosca in 1979, with Pavarotti – who was reverential and who wept at the ferocious curtain calls granted the lady (I was there).

By this time, Olivero had been singing professionally throughout Europe and South America since 1933. She sang operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, the aforementioned veristi, plus Wagner a’l'italiana.  She made Adriana Lecourvreur play like Beethoven in a way even Tebaldi never approached.

Here’s an encore from Magda Olivero. Puccini’s O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. She’s a youthful 52 here, at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1962:

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Happy birthday Magda Olivero e grazie. Vissi d’arte, indeed!

–Christopher Purdy

Comments
  • Anna Gabrieli

    When Magda Olivero came to sing Tosca in Boston with The Opera Company of Boston, she and I had the same manager, and she and her sister-in-law came for dinner with my late husband, Peter Elvins, and me at our home in Belmont, MA. She is a great artist and a great lady. i would like to send her birthday greetings and wonder if she is still at her home in Corso Mattiotti in Milano.
    Anna Gabrieli