Giuliani and the Eternal Diva Debate

Jeannie Williams wrote in New York magazine:

"Want to know how Rudy Giuliani really eked out his mayoral victory? He skillfully negotiated for the votes of both the Callas and Tebaldi factions--two groups whose allegiance runs far deeper than any political party.

"Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were famed rival opera sopranos whose fans still debate hotly. Just before the election, Giuliani heaped knowing praise on both singers while giving the definitive nod to neither.

"This all took place on Stefan Zucker's 'Opera Fanatic' program. Among the other tidbits Giuliani offered that night:

"The first opera records he bought, at 13, were Verdi's Rigoletto and Handel's Julius Caesar. Then he got hooked by the Metropolitan Opera's Saturday radio broadcasts.

"Tenors are his favorites, especially Italians. Giuliani fondly recalls attending the 1961 Met debut of Franco Corelli (and Leontyne Price) in Il Trovatore. Most exciting tenor today: Luciano Pavarotti.

"His favorite contemporary soprano: Kiri Te Kanawa, especially in Mozart operas. But, like so many fans, Giuliani has found nobody to replace Callas, Tebaldi, and Milanov in the Italian repertory.

"'My family didn't have a great deal of money,' Giuliani recalled, 'but getting interested in opera gave me a sense of beauty--and maybe even a sense of humanity.'

"Quick: Someone send Rudy an opera about the homeless."

Phoebe Hoban wrote in The New York Observer:

"When it comes to the opera, Rudolph Giuliani is nothing if not a politician. He told 'Opera Fanatic' that his two favorite sopranos were archrivals Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi--a scandalous equivocation to opera buffs, who know you simply can't like both.'"

Edward Rothstein wrote in The New York Times:

"Giuliani and the..Eternal Diva Debate: Can a True Opera Fan Admire Both Callas and Tebaldi? Absolutely, the Mayor Says

"On Saturday night, Rudolph W. Giuliani entered a realm that can easily match the New York City streets in animosity and extravagance. It is a realm where most politicians are reluctant to tread, where fistfights have broken out and lifelong friendships broken up, a realm of high passion and low opinions--the realm of the opera fan.

"The Mayor was interviewed on 'Opera Fanatic.' He was prepared to take tough positions, answering questions on pressing issues: How good is the Metropolitan Opera? Who was a better tenor, Jussi Bjoerling or Franco Corelli in his prime? Should there be booing in the opera house? And what about young Andrew Giuliani--does he have a future in opera?

"This is not the first time Mr. Giuliani has ventured into the world of vocal registers and devoted claques. His host, Stefan Zucker, who bills himself as 'the world's highest tenor' (the Guinness Book of World Records gave him that title after he held an A above high C for 3.8 seconds in a Town Hall recital), began the interview by recalling that the Mayor's first appearance on his show in October 'almost cost him the election.'

"At that time, the candidate, whose résumé included the leadership of his high-school opera club, asserted that his two favorite sopranos of the century were Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. The judgment caused a scandal among 'Fanatic' listeners. 'Everyone knows,' Mr. Zucker declared, 'you can't be a fan of both.' Mr. Zucker was finally convinced of the candidate's integrity when he expressed dissatisfaction with the Metropolitan Opera.

"This time, speaking for a half-hour on the telephone, Mr. Giuliani was ready to defend his positions while tempting listeners with the prospect of a mayor who might take an active interest in the arts.

"He called for 'preserving New York City's role as cultural capital' of the United States and the world. He argued for the economic importance of the arts to New York. He declined to enforce his tastes on any institution because of his belief in the 'free marketplace.' He sought to dispel any impression that he might advocate cutting back on city money given to small arts organizations in favor of more established 'tourist attractions.' And he acknowledged that yes, Andrew 'has a flair for drama' and might 'take naturally to the operatic stage.'

"Corelli vs. Bjoerling

"But back to the scandal, which Mr. Giuliani handled with the skill of one used to political battle. Despite the rivalry between fans of Callas and Tebaldi, he argued, 'It's very easy to like both.' Callas, after all, had an extraordinary instrument and was an unparalleled dramatic actress; her voice was not beautiful, but her performances could be superb. Tebaldi did not have as great an instrument, but her voice was 'lyrical, lovely, luscious.'

"When he was pressed to give a verdict in the case of Corelli vs. Bjoerling, Mr. Giuliani was equally judicious. Mr. Corelli was a master of the heroic tenor roles, he said, noting that he had been present at Mr. Corelli's 1961 Metropolitan Opera debut in Verdi's Trovatore and called it 'one of the most exciting experiences I have ever had.'

"'Bjoerling had different strengths,' the Mayor said, evident in more lyrical roles because he had such an 'unusual quality to his voice.'

"What About the Met?

"As for the Met, Mr. Giuliani felt that the orchestra had improved, that there were some 'daring productions,' but that sometimes there were disappointing casts. The size of the house, he said, requires 'both a gigantic voice and a beautiful voice--a rare combination.'

"'Have you ever booed?' Mr. Zucker asked the Mayor.

"'No, I never have,' he replied, though he thought there were times when it might be appropriate, just to keep up standards.

"'Have you ever wept?'

"'Sure,' Mr. Giuliani said, mentioning Marcello's murmur of 'Coraggio!' ('Courage!') to Rodolfo in Puccini's Bohème.

"'Have you ever fallen asleep at the opera?'

"'Sure,' admitted the Mayor again, 'several times during the "Ring" operas.' The Mayor promised to return to Mr. Zucker's show to compare recordings of Verdi's Otello and converse with Mr. Corelli. And though he may find that he is too busy, he hoped he would get to the opera 'quite a bit' during the spring. One listener was already offering him a pair of seats."

The article went out over the Associated Press wire service and was picked up, in whole or in part, by a number of newspapers. Those that have come to our attention are The Republican-American (Waterbury, CT), The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution and The New York Observer.

Frank Rich published an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times critical of Giuliani's readiness to have New York City divest itself of radio station WNYC. Concluding, he said, "Any mayor who says he can't decide whether he prefers Callas or Tebaldi needs all the help he can get before deciding the fate of public radio in New York."