Biographical Essays

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Biographical essays written by Stefan Zucker.

Saverio Mercadante

Liszt thought him Italy’s best composer

Who wrote an opera set against a priestly background, with a triumphal scene and the chief character dying in a tomb? Here's a hint:

Robert Merrill

Gifted with a powerful, resonant and biting voice, Robert Merrill is supposed to have quipped, “When in doubt, sing loud.” In fact, he almost never sang any way but loud. He had a plangent sound but frequently sang as if by rote, failing to communicate rhythmic pulse, much less musical ebb and flow or feeling for drama in music. For him the basic unit of utterance was the note, not the phrase. The notes themselves stayed more or less at the same volume and thus lacked dynamic direction. As a result he couldn’t prepare emphases with crescendos.

Magda Olivero

Magda Olivero“One has to find the exact facial expression for what one is saying and singing. If one just sings, without putting in any heart or soul, it remains just beautiful singing and not a soul that sings!”

Demonstrations: Adriana, Tosca

“She has no voice. She has no musicality. She has no personality. She has nothing. Change profession.” That was the verdict of V.I.P.s from Italian radio concerning the young Magda Olivero. Olivero had come with a recommendation from an important magistrate, so the radio staff felt bound, at her insistence, to give her a second audition. The result was the same—with one difference. Voice teacher Luigi Gerussi said, “I’d like to teach her.” “If you want to waste your time, waste it,” one of the others remarked.

Giovanni Pacini

Rossini Thought Him Italy’s Best Composer

Giovanni Pacini was born in Catania on February 17, 1796. His father, Luigi, was a well-known tenor who became a basso buffo, creating Geronio in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. An uncle was a ballet dancer, another a choreographer as well. Giovanni studied singing with the celebrated castrato Marchesi in Bologna. Turning to composition, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Rossini’s teacher Padre Mattei, later with the composer Furlanetto. His first performed farsa, Annetta e Lucindo, 1813, was a success, and over the next four years he composed about a dozen others.

Marcella Pobbe

Marcella Pobbe  “All I did was right. I didn’t make mistakes.”

Born in 1927 (some reference books give 1921), Pobbe studied in Vicenza, Pasero, Siena and won several vocal contests, making her debut, in 1948, in Spoleto, as Marguerite. The following season she sang at the San Carlo in a revival of Petrella’s I promessi sposi. In 1954-55 she appeared at La Scala as Elsa, as Betsabea in the house premiere of David (Milhaud) and as Agathe. In 1956 she sang in the world premiere of Rossellini’s La guerra, at the San Carlo. She appeared in Verona, London, Paris, Vienna and in South America. Her Met debut was in 1958, as Mimì.

Her recordings include Mefistofele, Isabeau (Mascagni), Jeanne d’Arc au Bûcher (Honegger), Carmen, Pêcheurs and Otello. She made films of Adriana, Ballo, Tosca, Francesca da Rimini as well as the Countess in Figaro and several recitals. Her repertory included Giulio Cesare, Ifigenia in Aulide, Orontea (Cesti), Kovàncina, Fiera di Sorocinski, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Strauss’s “Four Last Songs.”

She renounced her Met engagement for Elisabetta, in 1959, because she didn’t want to appear in the same house as Nicolai Gedda, with whom she was having a lovers’ quarrel. This step ended her Met career. (Her affair with Gedda continued off and on, notwithstanding his various marriages and lovers.) In watching the film it might be helpful to know that, on the phone before the interview, Pobbe herself spoke of all this heatedly and at length and asked to discuss it for the record, but when the cameras were rolling she clammed up.

Federico Ricci

He and his brother composed an opera once as popular as Barbiere or Elisir

Born in Naples, October 22, 1809, Federico Ricci was the son of Pietro Ricci, pianist, and the brother of Luigi Ricci, composer, Gaetano Ricci, piano teacher, and Adelaide and Vincenzo Ricci, singers. After lessons with his father, in 1818 he entered the San Sebastiano conservatory, studying under Zingarelli and Raimondi, as well as his brother Luigi and Bellini, then maestrini (assistant teachers). After composing two masses and a symphony, he dropped out of school, following Luigi to Rome. Florimo urged Bellini to try to secure a contract for Federico at La Scala, without result. To compose his first opera, Federico teamed up with Luigi, already established, for the comedy Il colonnello, Naples, 1835.

Giulietta Simionato

Simionato“If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t become a singer. I suffered too much.”

Demonstrations: Samson, Trovatore

Born in 1910 on Sardinia, Simionato won a singing contest in Florence, in 1933. From 1936 she was under contract to La Scala as a cover and comprimaria (performer of supporting roles) but was not thought to have the voice of a leading singer. After 11 years she was “discovered” there when she was assigned Mignon. Although the audience had come not to hear her but the new star, Di Stefano, her performance was thought a revelation.

José Soler

Heard on the DVD and VHS of #657 (Pagliacci plus Guglielmo Tell Highlights) in the prototypical heroic-tenor role of Arnoldo, in Tell, José Soler was one of the last of the breed. Heroic-tenor roles have more high notes than parts written for dramatic tenor and call for a leaner, more focused sound. Since Caruso and Del Monaco the world has thought of dramatic tenors as having thick, heavy voices and sounding like baritones.

Nicola Vaccai

Malibran preferred part of his Romeo to Bellini’s

Nicola Vaccai was born in Tolentino, March 15, 1790, into a family of doctors. As a youth he studied music with Fabbri of Pesaro, also law and poetry. One of his verse tragedies was professionally performed there. In Rome, in 1807, he abruptly interrupted his university studies to enroll in Jannacconi’s school, studying harmony, counterpoint and composition. After receiving the diploma di maestro from L’accademia di Santa Cecilia, in 1811, he studied dramatic composition with Paisiello in Naples and wrote liturgical music for churches and, anonymously, insert arias for Valentino Fioravanti and others.

Leyla Gencer

Leyla Gencer   “When you sing, you have to feel what you are saying.”

“I actually cried on stage. Once in a while a note would issue forth that was not orthodox. That’s why the American critics don’t like me. But I don’t care. They want a music with water and soap.”

Born October 10, 1924, near Istanbul to a Polish Catholic mother and a wealthy Turkish Moslem father, Gencer received a classical European-style education. Her mother pulled her out of a lyceum at 16 because she had fallen in love with a 34-year-old Polish architect with whom she read Plato. Her mother enrolled her in a conservatory. Initially her range extended to F above high C, but a French voice teacher soon shortened it to the A below. She entered a vocal competition in Holland without success and, in 1946, married a banker. She was temperamental and difficult, but he loved her. She left the conservatory to study with Giannina Arangi Lombardi, meanwhile singing in the chorus of the Turkish State Theater.

Her opera debut was in Ankara, as Santuzza, in 1950. Arangi Lombardi promised to launch Gencer’s career in Italy but died in 1951. Still in Turkey, she took lessons from Apollo Granforte and was accompanied by Alfred Cortot. She gave a recital, was noticed by the government and began singing at official functions, such as receptions for Eisenhower, Tito and Adenauer. Wrapped around her little finger were the President of Turkey and other high government officials. They interceded on several occasions so that her Turkish commitments wouldn’t interfere with her foreign offers. She had a much publicized affair with American Ambassador George McGhee. Her Italian debut came about on short notice—Santuzza with the San Carlo’s 1953 summer season. From 1957, she appeared at La Scala, including in the world premieres of I dialoghi delle Carmelitane (Poulenc) and L’assassino nella cattedrale (Pizzetti).