The passing of soprano Magda Olivero represents the final contact we have with the grand era of verismo singing that was launched at the end of the 19th century. It is quite remarkable that we had her for as long as we did—she was 104 when she died on Sept. 8 in Milan.
My own introduction to her came via my piano teacher and mentor, the great Texas native pianist Ivan Davis. She was an acquaintance of his. He would play a recording her performance of an aria and my job was to recreate the phrasing, playing just the melody, of her interpretation. Not an easy assignment. He could do it perfectly, of course. From time to time, he used other singers as examples, including Maria Callas, who was his personal friend. But, mostly it was “Magda."
Olivero made her stage debut as Lauretta in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, who sings the ever-popular aria “O mio babbino caro,” in Turin in 1933. Her public debut was a year earlier in a Turin radio broadcast, singing the now long-forgotten oratorio I misteri dolorosa by Nino Cattozzo. Olivero was 10 years old when Puccini died in 1924. She specialized Puccini opera roles and those of his verismo successors, particularly Francesco Cilea (1866-1950).
Cilea coxed her out of retirement in 1941 to sing a revival of his best-known opera, Adriana Lecouvreur. A decade later, she recorded it live in 1959, when she was just shy of 50 years old. Live recordings are always a risk for singers, to be avoided whenever possible, but she is flawless.
Thus, she is the last contact we have with that golden era: grand, even grandiose, singing with dramatic, and at times melodramatic fervor, creating characterizations that came alive on the stage and captivated audiences. Screaming fans, the kind that rock stars engender today, would mob the stage, if they hadn’t already fainted in the aisles, overcome by their adoration.
One of her successors, soprano Aprile Millo, emailed me me this observation:
“There were many roles she sang where you might enjoy many artists, but after you heard her soul in them, it would take on a different more layered, more heartbreaking and intense, reality, a feeling... illuminating text like a living neon, a face expressive and full of thought and communication."
That is a good description of her magic. It was not a great voice or one of striking beauty. The vibrato was on the fast side fast, although that moderated later in life, and it lacked the evenness that marks many of today’s singers. But, like other flawed but magnificent singers such as Maria Callas, these flaws just made her characterizations all the more human. Rather than leaving the theater thinking how beautiful the sopranos voice was, you left heartbroken over her tragic situation.
Sopranos with big careers made a pilgrimage to her home. On the recent public radio obituary, Renée Fleming describes her visit and the breathing lesson she gave her. Here is what another great verismo singer, Allesandra Marc, told me by email.
“My meeting the great Magda Olivero, in the home of Miguel Lerin in Barcelona, was a tremendous honor and a dream come true for me! I am grateful for the legacy she left for us, humbled by her artistry, and remain inspired by her presence that lives on in her recordings! Always & forever the true diva!”
Noted soprano Susan Graham chimed in, too, sending this via email:
"I was saddened to hear of Magda Olivero’s passing. She was an incredible and groundbreaking artist. As the last verismo soprano whose career spanned decades, she was a connection to a bygone era and will be deeply missed.”
Suzanne Calvin, Director of Media and Public Relations for The Dallas Opera, said “Magda made her American debut with us in 1967 in Cherubini's Medea. That's something most of the obits skip, going straight to her Met debut in 1975 as Floria Tosca.”
But one of the best summaries comes from TDO’s new Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume:
“Magda Olivero was a unique artist. People generally praise her mostly for her dramatic stage presence. What always impressed me in her interpretations was the ability, beyond her stagecraft, to use her God given natural voice and unsurpassed technique, as well as superior and cultured musicianship, to put all these components at the service of a controlled and unified performance.
“Drama, magic and music just fed each other perfectly.”
Some YouTube recordings of interest (there are many more):
This is from Turandot (Puccini) in 1935. She singing the aria – “Signore ascolta.” (Liu was a a signature role) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yDHYmJgvU0
An undated performance of Magda’s aria from Puccini’s La Rondine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFjr7md01r4
And, the dramatic end of big Tosca/Scarpia duet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltwkonYX1HI
Here is a bootlegged film of her in Boito’s Mefistofele at age 63 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6NyxZG0xKM
Here she is in 1993 singing "Io son l'umile ancella," from Adriana Lecouvreur. She was born in 1910—you do the math https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gysz7lTndE4