Renata Scotto has been made an honorary citizen of Tovo San Giacomo, a small town near the Ligurian coast, in the Province of Savona — just a few kilometres from where I happen to be writing this article.
In my career, I have received many awards, but this is the best of them all.
Why does Tovo San Giacomo, with few more than 2,000 inhabitants, hold a special place in her heart? When she was evacuated from Savona in 1940, at the age of six until the end of the war, Tovo San Giacomo became her home. She told Oliviero Marchesi from the Italian magazine Di più:
It was where I made my first friends… where I took my First Communion.
My father, Gino, was a traffic warden in Savona, where I was born, and he remained in the city, whereas my mother, Silvia, and my older sister, Luciana, and I were evacuated to Tovo San Giacomo.
…After the disorientation of the first few days, I found a happiness that was quite unexpected, thanks to the wonderful friends I found.
My mother managed to protect me from the trauma of the war and hid any worries she may have had from me and my sister. In those years I lived and simple, modest life, which was beautiful, carefree, and full of games.
I would play with the boys more than the girls; I was a tomboy. I was always without shoes and socks, and would challenge the boys to a game of football… countless afternoons running barefoot behind a ball.
Even then, however, my greatest happiness was singing. I would sing at the top of my voice from the window, in the streets, and in the countryside when I accompanied my mother to wash our clothes in the Maremola stream.
I didn't know any opera. I sang the songs I heard on the radio. But in those days, they played popular songs sung by the best opera voices, like Beniamino Gigli singing Mamma and Tito Schipa singing Vivere. I didn't know it then, but they were my first voice teachers!
Scotto was speaking after the ceremony when the town's mayor, Alessandro Oddo, presented her with the award at the town's Museo dell'Orologio.
The first person to realise my talent was my Uncle Salvatore, who heard me when I returned to Savona after the war. He was a fisherman from Sardinia, married to my maternal aunt. He was a special man, and understood that I should have voice lessons, and thought I deserved the opportunity, so, even though as a fisherman he certainly wasn't rich, he made huge sacrifices for years to pay for me to study in Milan.
Before sending me off, Uncle Salvatore took me to Teatro Chiabrera in Savona, to see the first opera of my life: “You must know what opera is because, if you become a singer, this will be your world.”
The opera was Verdi's Rigoletto. It was an extraordinary emotion for me, and that experience left its mark on me for ever. It was as though I didn't have enough ears and enough eyes to draw in all its beauty. The fact that the opera singers sung as they were acting seemed to me the most wonderful thing in the world, and I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
Everything happened very quickly. I was only 13 when I was sent off to Milan, with my uncle's money and my parent's blessing.
During the day I would have my singing lessons and then in the evening I would return to the convent where I stayed with the nuns.
In an interview with Antonio Gnoli for La Repubblica in 2015, she described those Milanese years.
Some mornings were particularly hard: awoken at sunrise, then mass. Lessons. But every Sunday afternoon I was there at La Scala, on an apprenticeship.
She was only 18 when she made her opera debut, which was back home in Savona, as Violetta in La traviata; an opera that became her calling card.
It was too sudden a success. I wasn't technically ready. Nature gave me a beautiful voice, but it needed educating… refining. It was Alfredo Kraus, who became a friend, who took me to his teacher, Mercedes Llopart. I refused the job offers, preferring to continue with my studies, perfecting my belcanto.
She told Di più how Zio Salvatore saw her Violetta in Savona.
After the performance, my uncle came to my dressing room. He was a man of few words, like all good Sardinians, but his eyes showed how happy and proud he was. Unfortunately, he died soon after and that fact that he didn't live to see my successes has been a great sadness in my life.
Scotto went from singing in the streets of Tovo San Giacomo to conquering the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
I live in Armonk, near New York, with my husband Lorenzo Anselmi, who I met when he was La Scala's first violinist. He was the first and only love of my life: we've been married for 57 years. We were sad to leave Italy, but America seemed to offer us the best opportunities for the career and for our two children: Laura now is a manager of a publicity agency, and Filippo runs an opera artists management agency. My husband and I have maintained our connections with Italy, and we have a house in Noli where we spend several months each year.
Noli is just a half-hour drive from Tovo San Giacomo.
To tell the truth, I've never returned in all these years because I was afraid of ruining the magical memories that I had of this town. I was afraid to find it completely changed, to not have my friends of those times, to be deluded. But when the Town Council called to offer me the honorary citizenship, I thought, “Yes, I must go.”
It has been a wonderful emotion. Certainly, many things have changed, but one thing looks identical: the piazza where I used to play, chasing the ball barefooted with my friends. The friends that now, after so many years, I have embraced once again.
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.