Magda Olivero’s funeral was a life affirming mix of emotions. She was a practising Catholic, and three different priests, who had been close to her for many years, spoke about this very special woman.
A Czechoslovakian had known Olivero from the 1960s when he took over the church in Solda. This was where she had a holiday home with her husband, at 2,000-meters, in the mountains near Bolzano. She sang during the Ferragosto Mass on 15 August every year for 42 years, though for several the priest was unaware that this signora with a marvellous voice also had an international singing career. He was with her when her husband died more than 35 years ago.
Another priest from Siena who, before joining the church, saw his singing career end before it had begun (when he didn’t pass his exams at the Milan Conservatoire), remained friends with Olivero. He recalled joining her at the sea when she was 102 and they went to eat in a restaurant. Towards the end of the meal she had her eyes closed and someone whispered, “Magda’s sleeping,” at which point she started singing, “Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire…” (“Have they gone? I was pretending to be asleep…”) from La Bohème, starting pianissimo and slowly raising the volume until the other diners turned to look. He also spoke to her ten days before she died, by phone. She had been blind for the last two years of her life, and she told him how fortunate she was that in the constant darkness she could contemplate on how good life, and God, had been to her.
The third priest, from her home town, Saluzzo, in the Piedmont region, surely can’t have a microphone in his church because, to everyone’s delight, he bellowed out a joyously enthusiastic account of when he last heard her sing, at 92, during a gala for the 25th anniversary of the death of Maria Callas.
A sprightly Luisa Mandelli (Annina in the 1955 La Traviata with Callas) read a lesson and sang a couple of phrases from the Mass – loudly and in tune.
Before the coffin was carried out of the church, a recording of Magda Olivero in Adriana Lecouvreur was played. As her “signature role” it was an appropriate choice, and by happy serendipity the words were perfect: “Io son l’umile ancella del genio creator; Ei m’offre la favella, Io la diffondo ai cor…” (“I am the humble servant of the creative spirit; It gives me the words, that I communicate to other hearts…”) Once again, her voice spoke straight to the heart and I was not the only one with tears running down my cheeks.
The Sienese priest had also recalled Olivero’s attitude to death: it had to be done well. Like an opera aria, if you crack the last note, that’s what people will remember. Magda Olivero didn’t crack her last note: she remained positive throughout her blindness and in the days after her stroke in August. In fact, her last note was held far longer than most: she made a cd when she was 83, she moved house just before her 100th birthday, she gave interviews after she was 100, and continued to teach.
…my voice is but a breath which will die with the new day…
…un soffio è la mia voce, che al novo di morrà…
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.