From Another World: The Art of Magda Olivero
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From Another World:
The Art of Magda Olivero

Although the term "legendary" is all too frequently coined, its usage is both appropriate and justified when describing Magda Olivero. She was an unorthodox soprano whose career—notwithstanding various interruptions—spanned over half a century, from 1932 to 1990. Well known among opera connoisseurs and lovers of verismo singing for decades, Olivero's name became more widely known in the United States only when, through the intervention of Marilyn Horne, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Tosca in 1975 at the age of sixty-five. Although some certainly thought her appearances would be unique, she went on to conquer Spoleto, Boston, San Francisco, and Newark during the following years, before returning for a Carnegie Hall recital debut in 1977. Approaching her seventieth birthday, she presented further performances as Tosca (alongside Pavarotti's Cavaradossi) on the Metropolitan Opera's tour in 1979, which included Cleveland, Boston, Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Detroit. During the same year she also returned to California one last time as Elle in Poulenc's La voix humaine, prior to a second Carnegie Hall recital (her American farewell) on 27 October.

Those who became interested in her art during this period soon realized that she had issued painfully few studio recordings. Other than a handful of arias and the role of Liù in Turandot, there only remained a complete Fedora (1969) and excerpts from Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini (1969) for Decca. Fortunately, precisely because she had recorded so little, she soon rivaled Leyla Gencer in the live recording industry, and her selection of "pirated" performances flourished, leaving us with a testament of nearly all her roles.1 However, there remains sparse literature concerning her voice and career,2 and some of what appeared in music dictionaries was not always factual.3

Maria Maddalena (Magda) Olivero was born on 25 March 1910 in Saluzzo (Piedmont), Italy, as the second girl and last child of the magistrate Federico Olivero4 and his wife Adele Ravarono. Discovering her vocal talent at an early [End Page 422]

Figure 1. Magda Olivero in Act IV of Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur. (Courtesy of Magda Olivero.)
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Figure 1.

Magda Olivero in Act IV of Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur. (Courtesy of Magda Olivero.)

age,5 she sang at home and in church. Intent on becoming a pianist, a shy and slender Olivero complemented her scholastic studies with instruction in piano, harmony, and counterpoint with the composer Giorgio Federico Ghedini.6 She found Ghedini's interesting manner of teaching anything but static and pedantic. Vocal tuition commenced thanks to the insistence of her father's friends. She soon abandoned three instructors in quick succession, prompting her father to arrange an audition at Turin's EIAR radio station7 for the conductor Ugo Tansini, whose judgment on that day has now also become legendary: "She possesses neither voice, musicality nor personality! Nothing! Absolutely nothing! She should look for another profession."8 Although a second audition brought about the same reaction, she happened to be heard this time by Luigi Gerussi, Antonio Cotogni's9 accompanist, who insisted on working with her. [End Page 423] The initial phase was quite difficult, since Olivero finally had to create a foundation for her voice by employing the diaphragm10 and not by supporting her agility with the glottis as she had previously done. She also supplemented her vocal studies with lessons in dance and gymnastics.

Her studies with Gerussi at EIAR continued until 1932, leading to her radio debut on 2 December singing in Nino Cattozzo's I misteri dolorosi alongside Giulia Tess.11 During the following year she performed two short roles in Respighi's Maria Egiziaca with Iva Pacetti and Carlo Tagliabue in the composer's presence.12 Additional radio broadcasts followed, which were conducted by Ugo Tansini, who realized that his original harsh judgment had been wrong. Already at this early stage, Olivero was performing arias from Adriana Lecouvreur, a role that would later play such an important part in her career. Her stage debut in a leading role was as Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, which opened on 31 October 1933 at Turin's Teatro Vittorio Emanuele. She broadened her stage experience...