(Renata Scotto. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Guild)
for it is you who make things glitter, you
-- Robert Kelly, "Montblanc"
Opera has its Queen Bee. The Italian soprano and living legend Renata Scotto (~living legend, you can look, but don't touch~) has done it all. She's been Norma and Violetta and Mimi -- among the best in the modern era. She rediscovered La Voix Humaine back when it wasn't fashionable and also sang Schoenberg's Erwartung. In the span of an enormous career, she’s as intimate with the stage as with the backstage: La Scotto’s made the graceful transition from singer to director to teacher – a versatility that’s made her modern. Her vocal skills spanned from the lightest bel canto to the densest verismo. With ninja-sharp musicianship (and acting skillz) and a deep understanding of each composer, her style was intelligent, authoritative, and passionate.
Born in Savona, Italy (about a two-hour drive south of Milan) in 1934, we toast to the Italian diva (with ice-cold Bollinger in Régine flutes from Vetrerie di Empoli) who was born 77 years ago today. Now La Scotto lives part time in Armonk (since 1978), a Westchester County city that’s one hour north of NYC. She's been with her husband Lorenzo Anselmi, who was first violinist at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala (Scotto was already studying opera in Milan at age 14, and had her La Scala premiere at 19), for more than 50 years and they have two children. Daughter Laura lives close by, and son Filippo is a manager at the NYC-based Piper Anselmi Artists Management company (he represents our Rhapsody in Blue Slayer Maestro Francesco Maria Colombo as well as his Mom’s stage director work -- really, what could be more Italian than that?)
Opera Chic caught up with the La Scotto over the phone during another round of ~Snowpocalypse~ where the soprano was staying local for a special Metropolitan Opera Guild upcoming event. They’ve organized a party for her called “Met Legends: Renata Scotto” on Sunday, February 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College where she’ll chat about life and her legacy as a singer, a director and a teacher, accompanied by rare footage from past performances. Past Met Legends have been Marilyn Horne, Teresa Stratas and James Levine -- she's in good company.
But how can the soprano’s prolific Metropolitan Opera career fit into just one evening? Forty-five years ago from The Met's current season, she sang in 314 performances between 1965 and 1987 during a 25-year career and sang 26 roles (her Metropolitan Opera debut was as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly).
(Scotto at The Met's Lady Macbeth. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Guild)
She made her Italian debut in 1952 (at 18-years-old). Her make-it-or-break-it moment came in 1957 at the Edinburgh Festival filling in for Maria Callas in a brilliant Bellini's La Sonnambula – at age 22 with 3-days notice. Trip report: She made it -- didn't break it.
Her earliest roles were bel canto: Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), Violetta (La Traviata), Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), Amina (La sonnambula), Adina (L’elisir d’amore), Gilda (Rigoletto) and a bit heavier as Mimì (La boheme). It wasn't until her 1974 Metropolitan I Vespri Siciliani that she segued into meatier (and at times more obscure) territory: Meyerbeer’s Le prophète; Verdi’s Don Carlo, Otello, Luisa Miller and Macbeth; Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Il Trittico and Tosca; Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini; Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito; and Bellini's Norma.
She's been staging opera for well over a decade and her productions have been seen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (La Boheme and Un Ballo in Maschera) and the Florida Grand Opera (La Sonnambula and La Traviata). She's also staged productions in Helsinki (Norma), Bern (La Wally), Thessalonki (Lucia di Lammermoor), Dallas & Genova (Madama Butterfly), and a 1995 La Traviata for the New York City Opera that won her an Emmy Award.
Familiar with opera heroines like old friends, segueing into the role of mentor-teacher was inevitable. La Scotto understands that singing isn't just about the voice, and teaches students how to be complete performers: how to survive auditions, move on stage, how to dress, and how to choose the proper repertory. She's presented master classes at Juilliard, Curtis, Yale, and Met Opera's Lindemann Program (among others). In Italy, she's done master classes at La Scala and at Rome's Santa Cecila (the latter is still an active calling). In July 1997, she inaugurated the Renata Scotto Vocal Academy in Italy where each summer she teaches. Eight years ago she opened a new branch of her Academy at the Westchester Music Conservatory in New York.
When La Scotto talks about teaching, finding talent sustains her and the success of her students brings her satisfaction. La Scotto also spoke to Opera Chic all about Verdi’s versatility, modern staging, her love of America, and advice for new singers. Read the interview after the jump!
(Scotto at the Met's La Gioconda. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Guild)
You sang many of the most popular characters in the history of opera -- Norma, Mimi, Violetta -- but in the course of your career you also managed to bring forth many obscure works of high quality that deserved more recognition – Fedora when it hadn’t yet been rediscovered, La Voix Humaine , you also sang Schoenberg’s Erwartung – did you consider it your responsibility as one of the leading opera singers of the 20th century to popularize these work or was it simply an artistic choice – like, they were just good works for your voice and style?
The shift into more obscure pieces was because of two reasons.
First, yes, it was to work with my voice. Fedora was just one of the 120 roles I sang. My career was very diverse and full of so many different roles. Step by step, year by year, my husband and I worked very hard to always recognized the best roles for my voice and to find more possibilities for my voice. Then we’d push towards those new roles. I had to always be open to new possibilities: When I was 14 years old, they said I was a mezzo. Then when I was 16, my first music teacher said that I was a soprano. A lyric soprano with coloratura and a beautiful top.
At the first pass of my career, I stuck with the same roles like Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Lucia di Lammermoor. But then after about 15 years, I began to sing more Bellini and more Puccini. Now my teachers were telling me that it was a very good time to start singing heavier roles. I had immeasurable guidance from dear people during my career.
But I began to sing very early. I don’t even remember a time when I didn’t sing. I was always very determined and strong. I wanted to exactly what I had decided to do for myself. All of it was for me. I’ve had a very beautiful career that I’m thankful for. First when I started, I was just a singer. Then I became a professional. But that only came after hard work and serious study. When I met my husband, he gave me help. We’re still together and there’s always a lot of love. So I can say that love and patience helped build my career.
During that second phase of my career, I found so much more freedom and now I could pick and choose everything that I wanted to do. That new phase of my career began when I came to America. I could be free in America. The United States gave me a lot. It gave me freedom. It finally gave me the artistic freedom that I had always wanted. And this was a great gift. An immeasurable gift. There was so much more diversity in America and there's more artistic freedom. I was able to find a press agent which gave me more outlets to shape my career. We could translate it from the stage to radio and television, and I learned different ways to make myself known as not only a singer.
In Italy, I was still under a lot of control for the destiny of my career. There were so many choices I that I wasn't able to take. And many operas in foreign languages were still being sung in Italian translation. So I wasn’t able to explore many different operas in different languages aside from singing in Italian.
Once I began my career, I traveled to many different countries to study diverse roles and languages. I’ll always remember Vienna as a favorite destination.
And you know what? If I didn't like a certain role, I didn't sing it! I took a lot of risks. But I also had the guidance of many important people in my life, notably my husband and Gianandrea Gavazzeni. [Ed: Gianandrea Gavazzeni, the Bergamo-born Italian Maestro, was La Scala's principal conductor for almost 50 years and also sat as Music and Artistic Director. In addition to La Scotto, he counted Callas, Gencer, and Karajan as close friends.] Gavazzeni was a great teacher who took me under his wing and who introduced me to the heavier repertoire. I also credit Riccardo Muti and James Levine as great teachers whose lessons left lasting influences.
Throughout my career, there were many lessons learned, but I always worked hard. I was never lazy with roles or my ambition. I was careful not to do too much partying after the performances or to socialize too much. I really prioritized my life away from the stage. I enjoyed the galas and events, but chose carefully which ones to attend because I always believed that I was serving my public. My audience. Because at the end of the day, they were the ones who I thought of in regards to my voice.
I realized that there was a balance to my success: I must separate my life as a woman with that of an artist. The performer and artist in me played different roles than the woman that I was. I enjoyed cooking and reading at home and taking care of my kids when they were younger -- although now I love to take care of my grandchildren. In my home, I'm careful to keep those lives separate. My home isn't a museum dedicated to my awards or accomplishments. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but for me it's really important to keep those lives separate.
How does your background as a singer inform your work as a director? Many singers nowadays complain, sometimes in print and very often off the record, about directors who make things harder for them with very unusual stagings. As a director who had an astonishing singing career, do you find yourself putting yourself more often in your singers shoes because of your background? Do you constantly have to balance between the need to keep the perspective fresh and the singers needs?
The music always comes first. You must follow the paces of the opera. For instance, even if you want to make a big impression, you cannot do too much if the music doesn’t allow the expression. It’s very important not to distract the audience or detract from the music with the production.
Of course, opera is great music, but also great acting. The key is to do everything in good taste. Good taste is the number one priority for making a successful production. Everyone has their own idea of good taste, but there exists an ideal. You have to go about it with a good, strong, solid concept and with the understanding that the audience, in the end, is there because they want to enjoy the music. When we forget about the music, that's when everything falls apart.
Today I find a lot of the productions are about showing off. It’s all about creating a happening as opposed to putting on an opera. When it's bad, it usually means that it's just too extreme. I don't like the extremes. I like it in the middle.
I did Un Ballo in Maschera in Chicago [Ed: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2010 production by La Scotto was set in the 18-th century Swedish castle.] It’s a hard opera to direct because Verdi made a difficult story set in Sweden and that's tough to translate into what an audience is comfortable with seeing on the stage. I made sure that each character had a dialogue. You know, opera isn't just sit and stand and sing your lines. There’s a lot of acting and it’s important not to forget this. Opera is acting, and I really do like the acting aspects of the art.
La Sonnambula for the Florida Grand Opera I really liked. [Ed: Opera Chic was in Miami in 2007 and saw La Scotto’s La Sonnambula for the FGO]. It was minimalist enough where it wasn’t distracting, and the sets and costumes told just enough of the story to frame it.
(Scotto at The Met's Il Tabarro. Photo: Metropolitan Opera Guild)
You’ve done both early Verdi (Nabucco) and the later works (Otello) as one of the foremost Verdi singers of all time -- and you later became a prominent opera director: after so much study and analysis, what’s your idea about the evolution of Verdi’s musical style from the early works to the later operas? How could he evolve so much, and so seamlessly?
Verdi’s the most important composer to me, in both opera and singing. He did it all. He did everything from bel canto through really pared-down theatrics like we see in Otello and Falstaff at the end of his career. Verdi’s so important for singers to experience because it really makes you sing and teaches you exactly how to sing well. You can create so much of your anima, soul, and voice through Verdi.
But Verdi is very, very difficult to sing, because the pitch fluctuates so much and it really has to be perfect to get across the nuances that he scored. You need a perfect sense of coloring, phrasing, and lots of breath control. Verdi goes from the most thrilling fortissimi to the most beautiful pianissimi in a moment. There is everything there. Verdi explored all the possibilities of the voice. Every color. Every nuance.
The orchestration between his early works and later works is just so different, so expressive, and expansive. And I’ve sung all of them! Nothing is as hard for me as Verdi, but it's such an important base to get down as a singer. You’ll need Verdi for your entire career.
As a teacher, how do you rate, generally, the new generation? Are there any bright lights that come to mind?
I've discovered a wonderful Italian soprano. She won Placido Domingo's Operalia and in three years that I’ve been working with her, she's accomplished so much. She sang L’elisir in Rome to great success and her name is Rosa Feola from Caserta.
There’s also a baritone who was just hired at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
And at the MET there are too many talented singers to even start talking about! So many.
I won't encourage anyone without talent. I won't take on a singer just for the sake of it -- that's not what I do. I like to find someone who is a great talent and then nurture and develop that talent. It's interesting, but when they have talent, you don't have to do so much study initially. Studying comes afterward. It's more important to go into the theater and get experienced.
Although I’ll give the new singers some advice: don’t immediately go to the big houses to sing. It’s better to stay away from too much critical advice or criticism during the first phases of your career. It’s better to pace yourself and to go slow. Singers today seem to have less patience when it comes to building a sustainable career. They want so much, so soon. They want it all immediately. This is exactly the opposite of my advice.
My second piece of advice is to never stop studying. There's always something to learn. Never put down the books, never stop studying. It's something I do always and it's so enriching.