Afterlife of a diva: Renata Scotto on aging, talent, tradition and why she quit

Renata Scotto. ()
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Usually, in the houses of the older men and women who once dominated the stages of the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala and Covent Garden, there is a piano. The piano, in fact, is the focal point of the house. It’s the reminder of past glory, what they gave their lives to. It’s there in the corner when you walk in the door, sheet music at the ready and crowded with fading photos in costume, backstage shots.

In Renata Scotto’s house there is no piano. A decade after retiring, following a career that lasted over 50 years and was one of the greatest in twentieth-century opera, Scotto never sings, not even in the shower. She keeps a single photograph in the house of herself in costume (as an imperious Lady Macbeth at the Met), and she hangs it under the staircase. With few exceptions, her friends aren’t fellow singers or musicians. This is how she wants it.

“You can ask a thousand people about the kind of person I am,” she said last week over espresso and cookies in her living room in Westchester, leaning back on her couch and laughing as she drew out the “thousand” in the thick Italian accent that’s stayed with her through decades of living in the United States. “I would never have a moment where I said, ‘Ohh, I can’t sing anymore, it’s too bad because I can do it better than so-and-so.’ I’m happy the way I am, and so interested in so many things. I’ve never had a piano in my house. I’ve always kept it separate.”

On Sunday, the Metropolitan Opera Guild is hosting a “Met Legends” tribute to Scotto, who over 20 years sang more than 300 performances with the company, the core of a risky, brilliant career in which she constantly challenged herself and her audience, bringing to her roles scrupulous stylistic authenticity and blistering dramatic commitment.

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“It’s a big honor,” she said. “After all these years singing at the Met, for them to dedicate an evening for me, it’s like saying thank you, and I’m very happy. I always sang for the audience. I love my audience, I love the Met. I love everything. I did it with love and I was never tired. And now I have this evening dedicated to me and it’s a huge honor. I’m very excited.”

Scotto, at 76, is remarkably well preserved. In makeup, dressed in a simple black dress with some silver jewelry, she looks more or less identical to her photograph on the cover of her 1984 memoir, More Than a Diva, though her penetrating blue eyes are far brighter in person. She is small and solid, not even really plump, a relative slimness that she worked hard to achieve.

“To put it simply, I was fat,” she writes in More Than a Diva of a 1977 La Bohème, the first “Live from the Met” telecast. “And now that with television I was going to have such a large audience, I felt that audience did not deserve such a large singer.” Discussing a beautiful video of Lucia last week, she winced. “I was so fat,” she said. “The singing, yes. But to watch?”

Hearing her talk about this is a reminder that Scotto, who seems like she sang quite a long time ago, was part of the first generation of “new-media” divas, subject to pressures about appearance and weight that we imagine began more recently, during the high-def Peter Gelb Met era. Maria Callas was only ten years older than Scotto, but those ten years made all the difference: we have hardly any video footage of Callas (whose career was admittedly cut short), while we have lots of Scotto, who followed Callas’ lead in exploring the possibilities of long-underrated bel canto operas. She starred, after all, in one of the first televised opera broadcasts, a 1956 Barbiere di Siviglia in Naples. Her career took place at a transition in the way we think about opera as a visual art form, a change that Scotto largely accepts.

“For Violetta you have to be slim,” she said, “also for Mimi. If you’re tall and big, maybe Mimi is not right for you, although vocally it’s perfect. There was a time, not my time but before my time, when it didn’t matter. Only the music mattered. Today it’s different, but I think it’s right. Because you see a lot of music, you see theater, and movies are done much better today than they were years ago.”

Scotto and her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, live in the hilly, wealthy suburb of Armonk, on a narrow winding road along which the houses are mostly high modernist glass boxes, large and widely spaced. Scotto’s, though, is more traditional, a streamlined Swiss chalet with a clay roof that reminds you of Italy. It is comfortable and filled with light, though with a certain modesty. “I don’t like show-off,” Scotto said.

There’s a certain triumph in this. Scotto grew up in northern Italy in, she writes, an atmosphere of genuine deprivation. Though opera diva autobiographies are, as you can imagine, a notoriously unreliable genre, it’s not unreasonable to assume that things were difficult in Italy around the time she was born, in 1934, and with the big house in the fancy suburb, the new Mercedes sedan, the vacations to Florida, the vacation spot on the Italian Riviera, there is a moving sense of achievement, of having won.

Scotto made her operatic debut in 1952, at the age of 18, but though she had notable success, it wasn’t until she filled in for Maria Callas in a performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula in Edinburgh in 1957 that she began to get truly famous.

“Before I met my husband,” she said, “I was a little bit, let’s say, too much of a singer. I was not a complete artist and my husband worked with me to be more of an artist, more of a musician. More of a professional. Before I met my husband I would come late to rehearsal, and say, the conductor has to do this, has to follow me, has to give this long note. And my husband said, ‘No, no, no, this is not music, this is prima donna.’ I was very young, I was 24 when I met my husband. And he taught me to be more professional, and when I came to this country even more, because in Italy you feel like really you are special, a little snobbish. When you come to U.S. at this time, in the seventies, here you’re not the only one. They don’t need you. You have to prove yourself. You’re not relaxing, and in Italy I probably was relaxing. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be international. And here I found everything I wanted.”

For the first fifteen years of her career, she had done what is called the “soprano leggiero” repertory, the little-girl roles: Amina in La Sonnambula, Adina in L’Elisir d’amore, Lucia, Mimi, and, on the heavier side, Butterfly. These she did well, and after she made her Met debut as Butterfly in 1965, it quickly became clear that this was the only repertory that Rudolf Bing, then the Met’s general manager, wanted her for.

“I had a little argument with him,” she said with sweet understatement, “because he asked me to sing always the same operas: Butterfly, and Butterfly, and Butterfly. But I never like routine where you have to sing the same opera all the time. I wanted to be free and to give to the audience new challenges, new operas. Otherwise I get bored. So I say, ‘No, I’m not coming back if you don’t give me a new production of something,’ and he said no, and I said, ‘O.K., I’m not coming back,’ and he said, ‘As you like.’ Very polite, but once this was in his mind he didn’t change.”

A few years later, after Bing’s retirement in 1972, Scotto’s most influential advocate at the company, James Levine, took a very different approach. “When I came back to the Met,” she said, “with him it was like I was flying finally. I found my way. Because he wanted to explore me as much as I wanted to explore me, he wanted to explore my possibility.”

Her Elena in Verdi’s Vespri Siciliani at the Met in 1974 signaled the new phase in her career. Attempting the part at La Scala in 1970, she had been catcalled by diehard Callas fans (it was probably a mistake to tell a journalist, “Let them get Callas to come and do Vespri, if she can sing”), but at the Met she had a triumph. She plunged into an entirely new set of roles: all three heroines in Il Trittico, Il Trovatore, Le Prophete, Adriana Lecouvreur, Otello, Luisa Miller, Don Carlo, La Gioconda, Manon Lescaut, Norma, Macbeth, Francesca da Rimini, La Clemenza di Tito, Tosca.

“More and more,” writes Ethan Mordden in Demented, his study of opera divadom, “she became the Met’s house soprano…By the mid-1970s this exploded into a creature of incalculable theatricality, in total command.”

She lost weight (though not as precipitously as Callas), she pushed her voice, she took risks on a scale that few singers, particularly in our cautious era, would dream of. Every singer moves her repertory as her career advances and her voice changes, but few have matched the grandeur of Scotto’s shift. She became one of the most controversial artists in opera, and one of the very best.

Unlike Callas, who in the 1950s had the director Luchino Visconti as a steady collaborator through a series of her most spectacular characterizations, Scotto was more on her own. She had directors who guided her—John Dexter, Piero Faggioni, Peter Hall—but not a single partner. Electrifying performances like that Tokyo Lucia were done on tour with the Met, with no major director at all. Scotto’s achievement was, in large part, her own.

“I prefer my way,” she said, “because you have a chance to learn, a chance to look. John Dexter, though, for me he was the greatest because he was looking for movement. If I would move a hand with no reason he would say, ‘Why did you move that hand? There’s no reason. Give me a reason, then I’ll let you move your hand.’”

In the 70s and 80s, the more extreme fringes of director-driven opera were still largely confined to Germany and Austria, where Scotto didn’t work extensively; German houses tended to schedule multi-month rehearsal periods for new productions, and just a few days for revivals, and neither sat well with her, so she never experienced true Regietheater. Even now, when she works as a director, her style is clean and spare, using evocative lighting more than elaborate sets, and she still reserves a uniquely aggrieved tone of voice when she discusses rampant operatic updatings and gratuitous sex.

She sang at the Met for the last time—a Butterfly—in 1987. Through the ‘90s, she gradually slowed her performances, taking on new roles like Strauss’ Marschallin and Wagner’s Kundry, and even Klytaemnestra in Elektra. Just as she had wanted to try new roles and retire the old ones early in her career, so she began to put singing aside entirely.

“I thought, why am I here?” she said of one of her last Butterfly performances. “I don’t feel that character. At that moment I felt I shouldn’t sing any more Butterfly. Butterfly had these ideas and I didn’t have them at the moment. And I said, ‘Goodbye, my dear.’ The voice has limits. When you try something and it doesn’t come out the way you want, that’s the moment you retire. My husband, he said, ‘I don’t think it’s good, I think you should go and be remembered for the best of you.’ Basta ricordare. To be remembered for what was the best. And I said, ‘O.K.’”

She wishes she could have had the voice for Carmen, but now she thinks of it like a director (she would have wanted the production to tell the story through Don José). Even while she was still singing she began to do more and more productions, mostly of operas that she had once starred in. On the walls of her office, there are more photos of the productions she’s directed than of her. There’s a Tosca starring Deborah Voigt, a Lucia with a bloody wedding dress (in her memoir, she railed against the tradition of bloodying the dress, saying that the blood was in the music, but, she said with a smile, “I changed my mind”).

She also teaches, in a studio in Manhattan but also at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Her son is an agent for singers, and sometimes he’ll ask her to listen to someone he’s thinking of taking on. (She also has a daughter, who lives nearby.) She sang the praises of a 24-year-old soprano she teaches in Italy, an immensely promising artist, she said. “Maybe in ten years she will be singing at the Met. Maybe less.”

“If I watch opera,” she said, “I maybe watch some production that I am interested in. I saw Werther with Jonas Kaufmann, and the new Carmen they did at La Scala. I watch opera, but not ones with me. If I watch myself in opera, I like to watch a little Francesca da Rimini to understand why, why I did this or that. That’s it.”

Opera lovers also watch her work to figure out why, and how, she did what she did. Callas is unmatchable; she blazed the trail of an entire repertory, of taking opera seriously. But Scotto, following her, sang with authenticity, and commitment, and creativity, and unbelievable tension and exhilaration for so much longer. Though a far more stable personality than Callas, she was not without her scandals, her temperament, her grudges. For one thing, the name “Pavarotti” was rigorously excised from More Than a Diva; he is strictly “a certain tenor” in stories of his laziness and selfishness, and he was even scrubbed from the discography in the back.

The memoir is an interesting book, done with another writer’s help but idiosyncratic and full of small, memorable moments. In the course of a long section praising Placido Domingo as a colleague, Scotto writes a touchingly honest observation for a book like this, particularly regarding someone who wrote the book’s foreword: “Offstage he is his own man and as private as I am; I don’t think I know him well.”

Scotto, too, is private and domestic. “I was always that kind of singer,” she said, “who loved the applause. But then the curtain comes down and you leave that part of you in the theater.”

So she has no piano, barely any photographs of herself. But there are plenty of mementos of the tradition of which she is one of the greatest modern exponents. There are photos of Verdi, Puccini, Bellini, a letter signed by Spontini, an autographed snippet of the score of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.

But just as she has no patience for reckless modernizations, so she hates blindly following the ways of the past. The art form moves on, the HD movie theater broadcasts will hopefully bring in new audiences, the singers of Italian opera may not themselves be Italian anymore, but they still are good.

“Tradition, I don’t like this,” she said. “Old-fashioned, I hate. Tradition, what is it? What is tradition? I don’t understand. Tradition, it’s to do the old stuff? Then it’s old stuff.”