A Life in the Theater

Classic Arts Features   A Life in the Theater
Fred Plotkin talks with legendary soprano Mirella Freni, who this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of her Metropolitan Opera debut and her 50th year as a reigning diva of the operatic stage.

In an interview last summer on NPR, former president Jimmy Carter said, "When I hear my recording of Mirella Freni singing ["Chi il bel sogno di Doretta"] from La Rondine...to me it is overwhelming. No matter what I'm doing with music in the background, when that particular recording comes on I just have to stop and do nothing but listen." When I mentioned this to Freni in a recent conversation, she laughed and said, "I hope I don't stop him at very important moments!"

Soprano Mirella Freni, who has been making people stop and listen to her for 50 years, continues to cast a powerful spell on audiences that few singers can match. Born in Modena, Italy, on February 27, 1935, she made her opera debut as Carmen's Micaëla in her hometown less than a month before her 20th birthday. Ten years later, on September 29, 1965, she made a stunning Met debut as Mimi in La Bohème, in what was to become her most famous role.

On May 15 when the Met celebrates Freni's 70 years of life‹50 years as an opera singer, 40 of which have been as a treasured Met artist‹there will be found at the center of the stage a singer with a lustrous voice and interpretive skills that have deepened over the years rather than calcified. Freni's gift of a gorgeous voice is complemented by her way of using words, acting, and singing to illuminate and transmit emotion. Part of her magic is that, like the character of Adriana Lecouvreur that she has so memorably essayed, Freni's characters do not declaim, but speak. Every role is in its right proportion: vivid, fully rendered, but never overblown.

Her actual singing debut came in 1945. "As a small girl I enjoyed singing with my mother's brother. He taught me all kinds of melodies and I sang the ones I liked most. It did not matter if they were for tenor, baritone, bass, or any other voice. One that I did well was 'Un bel dí' from Madama Butterfly. I sang this when I was ten years old on a national radio contest. There was a category for children and I won that. But I also won the overall contest by defeating the contestants in the other categories. I think I won because even at that age I would sing with a great deal of emotion, even if I did not know about what the character of Madama Butterfly was expressing at that moment. I knew what the words expressed and I felt those emotions."

It so happened that the great tenor Beniamino Gigli heard her in the contest finals in Rome. He took Freni aside and said, "Bambina mia, you have something special not only in your voice but in the way you express yourself." Gigli told her not to sing again until she was older, or she would damage her voice. "My uncle wanted me to sing with him, but I would say, 'No, Maestro Gigli told me not to sing, so I will not sing!' Then I began to take lessons when I was 16."

Her teacher was Ettore Campogalliani, who had also taught Renata Tebaldi and would later have Luciano Pavarotti, who was also from Modena. Pavarotti was born a few months after Freni and their mothers worked in the same cigarette factory. Among the first things they shared was a wet-nurse, about which Freni famously remarked, "you can see who got all the milk!"

After her debut in Modena, she married and had a daughter, Micaela, withdrawing from singing for two years. Upon her return, she quickly rose to the top of her profession, with debuts in London, Milan's La Scala (where she has sung 21 roles), and elsewhere. At the Met she has done 13 roles, and cultists of her artistry trade stories about these performances as if comparing jewels on a bracelet. I have seen ten of her Met portrayals and would be hard put to single one out.

Her Mimi is peerless, heartbreaking, fatalistic, and deeply romantic. So is her Liù in Turandot, which was her first role in the new Met (October 7, 1966). About that occasion she said, "I had been used to singing in teatri di tradizione and here was this new Met, so large and important. I walked out onstage during a rehearsal and asked myself 'Will they hear me?' I sang for a bit and realized that the auditorium has excellent acoustics. The important thing there is to sing normally, as I would in a smaller theater, without pressing or adding more volume. A singer who forces her voice there might ruin it and also sacrifice the beauty of tone and interpretation. I know that my voice is filling a theater properly if I hear just a little bit of it return to me when I sing."

In the 1960s, Freni also sang Adina, Susanna, Juliette, Marguerite, Micaëla, and other roles at the Met, with colleagues such as Teresa Berganza, Grace Bumbry, Franco Corelli, Nicolai Gedda, Pilar Lorengar, Zubin Mehta, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Georges Prêtre, Regina Resnik, Thomas Schippers, Cesare Siepi, Richard Tucker, and Shirley Verrett. She spent the next 15 years in Europe raising her daughter after a divorce and later marrying the magnificent Bulgarian bass, Nicolai Ghiaurov, who became an ideal personal and musical partner. Sadly, Ghiaurov died in June 2004.

Freni made a glorious return to the Met in 1983 as a breathtakingly eloquent Elisabetta in Don Carlo, with an all-star cast that included Plácido Domingo, Grace Bumbry, Louis Quilico, and Ghiaurov, all led by James Levine. One performance was telecast live to Europe and later broadcast in North America. It would be my desert island opera DVD. Don Carlo had audiences clamoring for more Freni appearances, and she brought a string of indelible portrayals in the next 13 years.

Her Manon Lescaut, in 1984, made audiences swoon over a performance that was by turns erotic, comedic, and ultimately highly tragic. Freni is a generous artist who is very giving onstage. Yet one cast member, a hyperactive little lap dog, did all it could to upstage her during this production. "I kept scratching the dog behind its ears to keep it happy and calm. It had made pee-pee on another singer and I did not want that to happen to me. At a certain point I would hand it off to another cast member so I could sing, but that dog had its moment at every performance."

Freni and Pavarotti sang five legendary performances of La Bohème at the Met in 1988 under the baton of Carlos Kleiber. Every time she returns to this opera, she adds shadings and insights that make her interpretation even more meaningful. "When you encounter a genius like Kleiber, it makes you look at the role afresh, even if it is one you have done for many years. I had done many performances of Mimi with Karajan, who was moved to tears, and now these with Kleiber. Before every performance he came to my dressing room with new ideas and ingenious thoughts, many of which I incorporated into my portrayal. However, the Bohème I did with Karajan, Kleiber, and other conductors all had the same base‹it was my Mimi."

In the 1980s Freni expanded into a new repertory, matching her Italian sensitivity to the aching Russian souls of Tchaikovsky heroines such as Tatiana (in Eugene Onegin; 1989 and 1992 at the Met), and two roles she has not yet essayed here: Lisa in The Queen of Spades and Joan of Arc in The Maid of Orléans, a role she reprised at the Washington National Opera in recent weeks. These newer Freni roles all breathe passionate life and are gorgeously sung. Another "Russian" role is the title character in Giordano's Fedora, which earned thunderous ovations for Freni and Domingo when given at the Met in 1996.

Freni has a lively sense of humor onstage and off, but has had few chances at the Met to show that side in opera. Her Susanna was immensely clever and her 1992 Alice Ford was a sly foil to Paul Plishka's Falstaff in a cast that included Marilyn Horne as Mistress Quickly and a young Susan Graham as Meg Page.

Two more Met roles stand out: her Adriana Lecouvreur was a tour de force of singing and acting. The prudent Freni, who sang Madama Butterfly's aria as a ten-year-old, never did this demanding role onstage because she felt it would take a toll on her voice. Then, at a Metropolitan Opera Gala in 1991 honoring the 25th anniversaries of the company debuts of Freni, Ghiaurov, and Alfredo Kraus, she poured a lifetime of knowledge and passion into the wrenching third act of the opera‹with Levine conducting and Domingo crying "Butterfly! But-ter-fly!" as Freni's Cio-Cio-San collapsed. There was a terrified hush in the audience followed by a seismic roar.

Anyone at the Metropolitan Opera House on May 15 is likely to hear a comparable ovation even before she opens her mouth to sing. And when she does sing, a lifetime of sublime artistry and generous emotion will fill the theater and be returned with love.

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