Renata Scotto has never been one to hold her tongue and at 81 she doesn't intend to start. In a recent interview for Italy's Il Corriere della Sera, she was asked about Andrea Bocelli:
He's good when he's singing pop music and he's achieved a popularity that's perfect for the masses. He shouldn't, however, grapple with opera.
Which is, of course, what many of her colleagues feel, yet few have had the courage to voice. Scotto didn't approve of The Three Tenors arena gigs either:
You can't mix classical music with other things: it's not serious… it's not elegant.
She also has no problem talking frankly about deceased colleagues:
I didn't really like Mario Del Monaco. Also, I once gave Giuseppe Di Stefano a slap on stage. During a duet in L'elisir d'amore, instead of singing, he wandered towards the back of the stage to eat an apple. I looked at the conductor asking him, with my glance, what I should do? Continue alone? In the next scene Di Stefano returned to the footlights. My character, Adina, was meant to give him a pinch on the cheek, but instead I gave him a loud slap.
Seems fair. Scotto had a famous falling out with her old chum Luciano Pavarotti which was tetchily resolved on an Italian talk show.
We had our ups and downs. We grew up together. He had an extraordinary voice and was also very ambitious. When we sang together in America he gave himself the airs of a ‘grande diva' and treated me as though I was there just to accompany him. I didn't speak to him for a decade or so, then we made up.
The Corriere asks her about about the notorious incident when Scotto was singing I vespri siciliani at La Scala, and Callas was in the audience. Some of Callas's fans started applauding her instead of Scotto, then came the whistling – the ‘fischi' which accompany booing in Italy.
It's a painful memory. The opera is very difficult. The divine Callas, who I was the first to admire, applauded and sent flowers to my dressing room.
The incident blew up when Scotto left an interview saying that Callas was a ‘poveretta' (poor thing), who was searching applause at any cost because her voice had gone, trying deliberately to ‘damage' Scotto and she said that she found Callas's conduct ‘a little pathetic'. After that interview she remained Enemy N°1 for Callas's supporters internationally.
Scotto admired Callas the artist however. Her big break was in 1957 when she replaced Callas in La sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival.
She was a star and I was just starting out. She was a legend. We made a disc together and she was very reserved, kept herself to herself, I never saw her happy… at the most a melancholic half-smile. I think she was lonely.
Of all her roles, Lady Macbeth is the one she loved the most – “so many nuances” – but there is a role that she never sang:
Carmen was not suited to me vocally, but I would have loved to have played her in a dark, gypsy way.
The Italian soprano who débuted as Violetta when she was 18, and was already singing at La Scala before she was in her twenties, likes to keep busy. She spends four months a year in New York, another four months during the winter in Florida, and the remaining time she divides between her hometown, Savona on the Ligurian coast, Milan and Rome where she gives masterclasses and searches for new talent.
It's a way of facing up to old age which advances along with a little arthritis too; the years mount up but I try not to think about it.
So does she miss the footlights?
No, because I gave all that I could. Now I promote Italian belcanto: it is a way of giving to others that which I had.
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.