“My life for opera – determination, faith and humility”
Today, the 86 year-old Carlo Bergonzi admits that sometimes he still sings, “I sit at the piano and dedicate “Non ti scordar di me” to my wife, which was the song with which I used to finish each of my concerts, including my public farewell at the Metropolitan in 2003, after many years singing on stages in all the world”. A period that is cemented in history. Yesterday, 11th December, Bergonzi received the Rubinstein Prize in Venice for “a life in music” together with the prestigious Gold Medal from the Italian President. The boy from the Parma area who sang “Ave Maria” for marriage services has come a long way. From Vidalenzo di Polesine, “where my father produced Parmesan cheese” he arrived at La Scala and New York, singing!
Maestro Bergonzi, you are considered the greatest Verdi tenor of all time. What effect do these two honours have on you?
They give me great pleasure, but I’ve never been ambitious. Perhaps courageous. In fact my school friends called me “Lion”. Recognition is wonderful, but humility and courage taught me a lot at a certain time.
In 1943. During the war. I was a soldier in Mantua and on the 8th September the Germans put me on a train to the Rostock concentration camp. I returned home in 1945, weighing 36 kilos.
What gave you the force to carry on?
Music, because on Sundays we gave little concerts to keep our spirits up. But above all faith which has always been my saviour in difficult periods of my life, much of which I have shared with my wife with whom I recently celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.
When did you realise that you were going to make it?
Two times. The first in 1950. After having sung as a baritone for three years I decided to make the jump and become a tenor. I sang Andrea Chenier in Bari, and that night the first of my two children was born. In the theatre was a director of the RAI radio who offered me a contract to sing a series of Verdi operas during a 6-month period on the radio in Milan. It was a shot in the arm. I was living in Cusano Milanino (in the province of Milan), I didn’t have a piano and studied at the house of a friend. It was difficult just to pay the rent.
And the other time?
It was an evening in 1956. I was singing Manon Lescaut in Paris. At the end I heard a voice shout “Bravo!”. It was Mario Del Monaco who in my dressing room said “Come to New York and I’ll let you sing two of my performances”. I didn’t think it would happen, but the contract arrived and I went and sang in Aida, wearing the costume made for Caruso because Del Monaco’s wasn’t my size. It was the beginning of the success. But also of the sacrifices. When I was working I went only between the house and the theatre, going out only to mass. I would go to bed at eight o’clock and never spoke on the day before a performance.
Do you think the younger generation of singers have the same spirit?
No I don’t. There are some beautiful voices but they are too keen to début and start earning. They are abused by artistic directors of the opera houses who often are not musicians but politicians: therefore I don’t go to the opera any more because there’s only mediocrity
via «La mia vita per la liricatra grinta, fede e umiltà» | Spettacoli | www.avvenire.it
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.