The cult of the operatic diva is one of the things that makes outsiders to opera a little curious (or put off, even). Although smitten in my past with certain singers, I am mostly past that stage, for better or worse. By midlife, you sort of find yourself saying, “they don’t make divae like they used to.” Even if this is perhaps not an entirely bad thing, when one of the genuine articles departs, it’s something to note.
The soprano Magda Olivero was one of these inimitable ones. She died this September at age 104, and Ira Siff captures what she was all about in his Opera News appreciation, well worth reading. Here is an excerpt from his tribute, describing her Met debut at an age when many opera singers are long since out to pasture in Bloomington or some such place.
But it was not until 1975, at the instigation of her great admirer Marilyn Horne, that the Met finally invited Magda Olivero for three performances as Tosca. She made her debut soon after her sixty-fifth birthday. Although the audience was wildly demonstrative, this was no mere nostalgia event. After a few minutes to warm up and conquer nerves, Olivero’s voice was astonishingly fresh, shedding decades by Act II. At the second performance, this listener was treated to the most touching, spectacularly sung “Vissi d’arte” of his experience. During Act III, Olivero’s ascent to a spectacular, lengthy high C and plunge down two octaves into chest voice on the line “Io quella lama” earned her a spontaneous ovation. This old-school audience response was inspired by the artist’s old-school stage deportment; it was an evening that, in the best sense, turned back the clock whenever she was onstage. Olivero’s total belief in the reality of the drama prevented her performances from ever being reduced to shtick. And her prodigious technique and breath control spoke of a bygone era, but one in which she was unique among veristas, none of whom matched her vocal capabilities.
You can find a pirate of the Vissi d’arte in question online, as well as the NYTimes notice.
Oddly, I found this bit of “The Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz from some Italian TV show more touching, not least for the smile in her voice that her sweet toned tenor evokes.
It’s all a bit odd, and not voices that you’d cast today; (nor would you hear an opera duet on a general interest TV show for that matter.) But you feel with her, and with him too, that you know a bit about them through their singing, and that bit you know is authentic.