Inside I feel 50, outside I feel 70, and my brain believes that I'm eternally young.
But on 21 October the great soprano Virginia Zeani will be 90.
Naturally, many of my friends are dead. It's normal. One is condemned after 70 to see many friends die, so when one reaches 90… well, I hope that I'll arrive at 90; there are still a couple of days to go!
She is a strikingly attractive woman and impeccably presented. She has a sparkling, and sometimes wicked, sense of humour and a vivacious laugh.
I am happy but I'm also in pain: I have arthritis… after dying so many times and falling down on stage in La Traviata and so on, by the end of a life there is pain everywhere. But I can still breathe and think and love, not physical love but spiritual love.
Experience in life helps you to be more ‘clairvoyant' as the French say… I understand from observing people what they are, so nobody can betray me. I have been betrayed, I have been ignored, I have been exalted… everything is in this body which will be 90 in a few days.
I have many friends who I adore and many of them, I think, love me too, and for this I'm sad to die and leave them, but I'll go to meet my husband who died 24 years ago and went to that place where no one can come back from.
Zeani's beloved husband and famed bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni crops up many times during our conversation.
I had decided never to marry because with singing there was no time. In the first four or five years of my career I had made my début in seven operas. Who had time to fall in love at that time?
I loved only once in my life. I met my husband at La Scala and, although I wanted to dedicate myself to singing, I found in him the most intelligent man spiritually – material intelligence is normal – a man with whom I was able to find a great intensity, not only as lovers, but also like a brother and sister, until I lost him all those years ago. Since them I have only my students and friends, and I've never had any other romantic relationships.
We were married on 2 July 1957 and he died in 1991, since then I've been alone. I have my son, of course, and my grandchild and daughter-in-law, and a few great friends: one in Canada, one in England, two or three in Italy, my friends in America who introduced me to you, Mr Gramilano [she laughs] and also in New Zealand where we opened a school which continues even though I can no longer visit.
Rossi-Lemeni was her companion also onstage, and in the final years of his life they were both professors at the greatly respected Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University in Bloomington. It was this appointment that led them to make America their home, and now Zeani is in semi-retirement (she still has some students) in Florida. Although she says that she now has the “beautiful and tranquil” life that she prepared for, her mind is demanding, curious and precise, and she finds that the tranquillity of Florida is not always stimulating enough.
È noiosa… boring, boring.
We slip in and out of Italian and English constantly: Italian is still the language that she feels happiest with.
To have friends is difficult because I'm of a certain age, and for me many young people don't have anything to say that interests me. I do have some stimulating conversations with some students, and a few friends here.
Of course, when she arrived in Italy in 1947 from her native Romania, she had no friends at all.
I studied, and I also cried because I was far away from my parents – “sola, perduta, abbandonata” – and sometimes, while crying, I continued to repeat the words from the operas I was studying.
I lived for 22 years in Romania, then 30 years in Italy where I had the important years of my life and career – I adore Italy – then the rest in America. I feel Romanian when I'm expected to be Romanian, but I know Italy and Italians so well, from Sicily to Milan.
Coming to Italy I found a different level of culture. Although one who wants to be cultured can be, in Romania there were those who wanted to be ignorant, the politicians. Everything depended on politics and those who lead the population.
Also now we are in a critical moment. I hate the idea to leave a son, a grandchild, a daughter-in-law alone to deal with what will happen in 20, 30, 40 years. I'm curious and I'd like to be near them to see and hear everything. I've always been curious: I studied because I was curious; I loved because I was curious.
Zeani was fortunate to study in Milan with the great tenor Aureliano Pertile, by this time in his sixties.
The most important thing I learned from him was the diction. The beauty of sound which expresses an emotion. There is a difference between singing “Ti amo” as three notes, and singing it while letting the sound of the voice say “I love you” at the same time.
She demonstrates often as we speak. The teacher in her comes out and, with an extraordinarily rich and powerful voice, which still has a large extension and no wobble, she illustrates in a few seconds what she means.
My début in Manon Lescaut was Richard Tucker's last performance in Rome, and I sang Manon again with Placido Domingo when he made his début in the opera. Domingo was the only singer I've shared the stage with who truly sang with the intensity that Pertile had described. He gave everything: his voice, his soul, his body, as I imagine the young Pertile himself would have performed. It was as though he had composed the role himself. Although I could never have never composed music myself, as I'd never studied music in depth, I did feel it in every fibre of my being.
After little more than a year of ‘polishing' her technique in Milan – she'd studied seriously for several years in Bucharest before leaving when she was 21 – she had a testing yet triumphant baptism of fire in her first professional engagement when she replaced an ailing Margherita Carosio.
It seems like a joke, but my operatic début was as Violetta! It was in Bologna and my tenor was Luciano Pavarotti's teacher, Arrigo Pola… though obviously, at that time, Pavarotti the singer didn't exist.
It was to become somewhat of a signature role, one that she would sing more than 600 times. Like all sopranos, she talks about ‘my' tenor and not ‘the' tenor. I asked Zeani about ‘her' tenors.
I can speak of my tenors with great enthusiasm because I love the tenor voice, and sometimes what they gave to me on stage influenced my performances and vice versa. With my tenors I always gave my all and I think that many tenors loved working with me because I was always on their side.
I discovered Pavarotti when I was singing a Traviata in Modena with Alfredo Kraus and Pavarotti and his father were in the chorus, it was 1956. Pavarotti was ten years younger than me.
She reels off his date of birth: day and month. She has an enviable memory for dates, events, people and places.
He was my eventually my Alfredo in Traviata at the Caracalla Baths in Rome in 1966.
In life he was formal, cold. He would never express an emotion, only to his wife, who became my friend. He was very cold on stage too, though he did everything that was required of him, but when he had to embrace me it would have been more passionate if I'd embraced myself. However, we called him Dr Voice (Dottor della voce) because he could create an emotion on each individual note that he sang, he had such perfect control. I sang Werther with Kraus which was wonderful. We had to sing it in Italian because in Italy at that time it wasn't permitted to sing in other languages. We were good friends.
I made my début in Aida in Montreal with John Vickers. That role was quite heavy for me at that time, but it was Zubin Mehta who convinced me that I could sing it. I was a lyric soprano, but Mehta said that with my ‘accenti' I could sing Aida even though it was a dramatic role. I think I sang a magnificent Aida.
It's not every soprano who has the possibility to pass from Gilda to Aida.
The technique is always the same, but you must respect your voice. Let's say, when you are young you have a violin with a purer ‘narrower' sound, when it becomes a viola it has a different quality, and may even pass to being a ‘cello… violin, viola, Violetta!
The room echoes to her hearty laughter.
I wasn't a dramatic soprano, but I could find the dramatic accents within a dramatic role as in I Vespri and so on. I was the first in Italy to sing all three roles in the Tales of Hoffmann. My husband sang all the bass roles, and it was a very important event.
Virginia Zeani had, and apparently still has, a rock-sold technique, which allowed her voice to withstand the demands of back-to-back Traviatas and let her sing not only Rossini's Rosina but also Wagner's Elsa in Verona's vast Arena.
It is necessary to study with vocal exercises and a great deal of patience. Study is so important, because to improvise and sing anything, anyhow and anywhere, is not ‘bel canto'. Nowadays, you rarely sing from the bel canto school. It was created in Italy, and means to sings with beauty… beauty of the voice and also spiritual beauty. Nowadays as long as you're musical you can sing with your guitar “Oh yeh, yeh, yeh!”, but this is ‘brutto canto'.
Though here, I imagine, she isn't thinking of singers at La Scala strumming away as they sing.
In my career I only cancelled two performances. I cancelled a Lucia with Tagliavini in Rome because I'd visited a wine cellar in a grotto, it was June, but inside it was very cold and when I came out my neck and shoulder were blocked… I was stupid.
The second time was at the Metropolitan. I arrived at the last minute, without any rehearsal. I'd been singing Aida just before, and I should have been intelligent enough to say, “No, I'm not going to sing in Traviata so soon after Aida”, but I went ahead and did it anyway. It was with Prêtre, who's a great conductor but, without rehearsal, he conducted Traviata as though it was Massenet's Manon. I sang the first couple of performances but then I had to cancel.
Even so, just two missed performances out of thousands!
Of the 72 roles she sang during her career, she also created new additions to the repertory, some happier experiences than others.
The composer Barbara Giuranna wrote to me saying, “I've written the role of Mary Vetsera for you!”, and I was so interested in the person and her story that I accepted without having heard the music. The music was dodecaphonic! [she demonstrates!] but it was too late, I had to learn it. After the first performances of Mayerling in Naples it was to go on to Teatro Massimo in Palermo. Giuranna was so happy after the opening that she wrote to me saying, “I've written another aria for you,” so I had to learn that too!
Another role she created, however, was in an opera which is one of the handful of modern operas to have made it into the basic repertoire of the world's opera houses. In January 1957 at La Scala, Zeani sang Blanche in the world première of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites which, being in Italy, the composer wanted sung in Italian: I dialoghi delle Carmelitane.
I was singing Traviata in Paris and Poulenc was in the audience. Afterwards he came to the dressing room and said, “Would you be willing to be my Blanche in Milan?” My first reaction was that his music was quite light, [laughs], but I said, “Maestro, with great pleasure if you could send me the score.” I had to wait a couple of weeks as it still wasn't complete, but when it arrived I read it, it seemed magnificent, so I accepted, and I sang the world première in Milan.
It is now recognised as being a masterpiece of theatre, but did the cast understand that they were part of something important?
Oh yes. From when I read the score I understood that the music he'd written for Blanche wasn't just beautiful but also spiritual. There was a feeling between me and Poulenc and my colleagues on stage from the beginning… it was extraordinary.
I tell her that I can barely watch or hear the opera's final scene, with its horrendous inevitability.
It's the same for us too, if I think about it now it gives me the shivers. I was completely won over by this opera.
The opening night at La Scala was a glittering one and Maria Callas and her husband Giovanni Battista Meneghini were in the audience.
Maria kindly came to congratulate me afterwards. She said, “You were so wonderful,” and I said, “You are even more wonderful for having come tonight to see me!”
I know every moment of Maria Callas's life because we arrived in Italy the same year, 1947. She arrived by Russian boat from New York to Naples and went to Verona where she was introduced to Meneghini who became her husband.
Ironically, it was Zeani's future husband who had indirectly brought Callas to Italy as the year before he and Callas were due to re-open the opera house in Chicago with Turandot. The troubled company folded before opening and the production was cancelled. Rossi-Lemeni, however, knew that Tullio Serafin was looking for a Gioconda for Verona and Callas got the job, with which she made her Italian début!
Meneghini got her an exclusive recording contract with EMI, the same company that my husband, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, recorded with. They made several recordings together, but from the year he married me he didn't make any more recordings with Maria. I'm not adding anything; you can interpret it as you will.
Zeani is warm and generous, but the fact that she didn't ever have a recording contract is the one thing that she mentions that has left her with a bitter taste.
One regret, though there's no way to change that now, is that I never had a record label to protect me. Maria was fortunate to have Meneghini and Sutherland to have Maestro Bonynge.
Being stupid as I always am in general, I asked Decca, who offered me a contract, if they could put Nicola under contract too, and they said we can't because we already have Siepi and Christoff, we can't take on a third bass. So I didn't sign either.
However, she was fortunate to have many live performances preserved nevertheless.
As I didn't have official recordings they were all recorded in an amateur way, often near the prompt box. I sang many times at the Caracalla Baths and at the Verona Arena and there's a Traviata where you can hear the strong wind and the voice of the prompter! But I don't like listening to recordings of me singing, because after many years of experience, I want to do it better.
EMI's formidable recording producer of the post-war years, Walter Legge, who collaborated on the Callas recordings, didn't look on her kindly after she had to break an American contract for one of his projects when she discovered that she was pregnant.
Life is made of goodness and unkindness, and sometimes I've had people who have been unkind to me. And I'm telling you the truth if I say that I've never been unkind to anyone. Perhaps I've been unkind to myself, because I never remarried after my husband died. I could have continued to live with someone as a couple instead of finding myself alone.
Virginia Zeani's career on stage continued to flourish as she conquered the world stages, but in 1979 her career, and that of her husband, had a sudden change of direction.
In 1954 Nicola Rossi-Lemeni had sung in the production of Norma which opened the doors of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This was a notable occasion because it also marked Maria Callas's American début.
We were in Chicago in 1979 for the 25th Anniversary of the Opera in Chicago and we met the Dean of Indiana University. Margaret Harshaw and Eileen Farrell were teaching at the time, but Farrell was leaving because she had health problems. He asked us if we would be interested in joining the faculty. Well Nicola was sixty, and also had diabetes, and here was this wonderful offer.
Nicola was reticent saying how could we leave Rome, and I said what are we going to do in Rome through our sixties and seventies… go to museums and visit the Roman ruins? We'd done that already. It also seemed ridiculous for the two of us to give private lessons in Rome, I mean we had a certain name. Within a week we'd already made up our minds to leave our careers and come to America to teach.
In 1980 they took up their posts.
A teacher must have a great deal of experience. If you've only had a career of three… five… ten years, you can't have enough experience to teach. You haven't lived. By that time, we had careers that had lasted more than thirty years: my husband had sung 92 operatic roles and I, 72. We had a lot to offer. We both put importance to interpretation too. In Italy we were friends with the great directors Giorgio Strehler and Federico Fellini. Giulietta Masina would say to Nicola, “You chose the wrong career, you should have been an actor!” He knew how to transform himself.
We also had experience with contemporary music. My husband was a specialist in modern roles, and Pizzetti wrote several for him, Murder in the Cathedral for example, which he even sang before the Pope. He must have created at least 20 or 25 modern roles.
Magda Olivero, who also produced some impressive notes at 90, would always underline the importance of singing in ‘the mask'.
People say put the larynx down, keep the head straight. Well, I never remembered I had a larynx, but I remembered that I had a mask. It's also about using the diaphragm; the way you breathe.
Zeani realises her own worth, but she is unassuming and open to new ideas or differing opinions.
Sutherland had a fantastic voice – fantastica! – but her voice wasn't here [she puts her hands around the mask, from below the nose to the forehead and sings] but here [she taps the top of her head and demonstrates the contrasting sound]. I've always been interested in imitating other singers to understand different techniques. The first time I listened to the agility of Callas I returned home and learnt the most difficult phrases imaginable because I thought, well, if she is singing this, then I must be able to do so too.
Vivica Genaux first studied with my husband, and after he died she came to me and I convinced her to be a mezzo-soprano. She surprised me with the ease of her coloratura. When I suggested she should try as a mezzo she said no, but I suggested that she sang a few phrases from Werther or something. She tried and found fantastic colours and became a mezzo.
Then there's Sylvia McNair and Elizabeth Futral. Elīna Garanča was sent to me by her manager in London for a short while. She sang something in German with this beautiful voice. My advice to her was open up toward the public, not just to see that beautiful face but to expand the vocalità, and to sing some lighter vocal exercises. In fact she was able to sing Cenerentola. In a short time she became an important singer, though I'm not saying that it was because of me!
So are there any roles which she would have liked to have sung?
I think I was able to sing all the roles that I loved. If I had to name a favourite role it would certainly be those in Traviata, Bohéme, Manon the operas that gave me the feeling of being alive, of loving…
So does she ever sing around the house, under the shower?
I don't sing under the shower! I only sing for my students to demonstrate…
…and sometimes the notes I sing are better than theirs!
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.