Magda Olivero, the last great verismo soprano

March 25, 1910, Saluzzo, Italy — September 8, 2014, Milan

 “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!” ~Magda Olivero

Magda (Maria Maddalena) Olivero was born on March 25th 1910 in Saluzzo (near Turin). Magda Olivero, whose career spanned five decades of the twentieth century and established her as an important link between the era of the verismo composers and the modern opera stage.

Often referred to as “the last verismo soprano,” Magda Olivero was an artist whose total immersion in her roles combined with astounding vocal longevity to earn her legendary status among lovers of expressive singing. Young Magda (short for Maria Maddalena) studied piano, harmony, counterpoint and then voice, auditioning at Turin’s EIAR radio for conductor Ugo Tansini, whose appraisal has become part of the Olivero legend: “She possesses neither voice, musicality nor personality!... She should look for another profession.” A second audition produced the same response, but also aroused the interest of voice teacher Luigi Gerussi, who offered to train her.

 After a period of arduous vocal study, Olivero made her major-role stage debut in Turin as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi in 1933, the same year bowing at La Scala as Anna in Nabucco. Her easy high notes and impeccable coloratura led to roles such as Gilda, Manon and Sophie, and she was encouraged by Tullio Serafin to specialize in bel canto repertoire. But Olivero’s heart was in verismo, and she had the opportunity to work closely with a number of composers, including Giordano, Alfano, Mascagni and Cilèa, sometimes creating roles for them, always gaining their admiration. (Thirty-one of the forty-four composers whose operas Olivero sang during her career were still alive when she began to study.) 

Magda Olivero, the last great verismo soprano
Young Magda Olivero
In 1938, Olivero sang Liù in the world-premiere recording of Turandot, one of her few commercial recordings, and in 1939 she sang her first Adriana Lecouvreur, the role with which she became most identified. Olivero married industrialist Aldo Busch in 1941, abandoning her career for a decade, singing only occasional concerts to aid charities during the war. 

Francesco Cilèa, who considered Olivero the greatest interpreter of his Adriana, finally persuaded the soprano to return to the stage. Writing to her, Cilèa insisted it was Olivero’s duty “toward her public and her art.” The elderly composer was dying and wanted to hear Olivero as Adriana one last time. When she worked on the role with him, Cilèa declared Olivero had “gone beyond the notes” to what he felt when he created Adriana. Two weeks after returning to the stage as Mimì, on January 20, 1951, Olivero sang Adriana; sadly, Cilèa had died months earlier, but he was the catalyst for an astounding second Olivero career phase, lasting four more decades.  

Although Olivero kept singing Manon and Violetta (an early recording of “Sempre libera” attests to her agility and rock-solid high E-flat), this second career focused mainly on verismo heroines, Suor Angelica, Butterfly, Fedora, Manon Lescaut, Margherita (Mefistofele), Iris, Minnie, Giorgetta (Il Tabarro) and Tosca. She also continued to participate in premieres of new works, by Renzo Rossellini, Ottorino Gentilucci, Flavio Testi and Gian Francesco Malipiero. Olivero won acclaim in Menotti’s Medium and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (Mother Marie) and La Voix Humaine, and as a hair-raising Kostelnička in Jenůfa at La Scala. 

Magda Olivero, the last great verismo soprano

By the mid-1960s Olivero was known in the U.S. through performances on “pirate” LP’s. Her career expanded beyond Italy, and a U.S. debut took place in Dallas in 1967, where, she was persuaded, after some hesitation, to sing Cherubini’s Medea. Her reticence, based on the success of Maria Callas in the role in that city, proved unfounded; the performances were a sensation. New York area performances began in 1969, in Hartford Connecticut, with her legendary Adriana. 

The enterprising Maestro Alfredo Silipigni then brought Olivero to his New Jersey State Opera; local opera lovers journeyed to Newark for unforgettable Olivero evenings of Tosca, Fedora, and Mefistofele. In the meanwhile, a Philharmonic Hall debut in 1971 featured the soprano in a recital coupled with La Voix Humaine in the same evening. 

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. 

Olivero continued to sing, albeit with less frequency, until 1983, when the death of her husband caused her to retire with no fanfare or farewells. However, in 1993, at eighty-three, Olivero recorded excerpts from her beloved Adriana Lecouvreur, making a final artistic statement on the role, still able to offer passages of ethereal beauty and expression. Her art is extensively documented in live-performance audio recordings and a handful of video documents, everyone a lesson.

She died on September 8, 2014 at Milan. She was 104.

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