Franco Corelli, Reflections on a Career and a Life: an Interview with Stefan Zucker

Portions reprinted from Opera News by permission

by Stefan Zucker

“I don’t miss the pressures, but I do miss the joy of singing and performing.” —Franco Corelli

IN RECENT YEARS, the legendary tenor Franco Corelli participated in a series of interviews with Stefan Zucker, host of “Opera Fanatic,” the popular (now defunct) late-night program on New York radio station WKCR-FM. They also collaborated on a theater series, An Evening with Franco Corelli and Stefan Zucker. The following comments are excerpted from these programs. (For information about the 7 Corelli interview tapes, see our full catalog).

Stefan Zucker: It’s said that before you began your career you lost your high notes and became a baritone. What happened?

Franco Corelli: I was young and didn’t know how to use my voice. My vocal cords were unable to sustain the pressure to which I subjected them. Since I was very athletic, with a strong diaphragm, my voice’s birthright was great volume of breath and breath span. After three months of lessons with soprano Rita Pavoni, I lost my voice, and then for a period of three or four months I studied as a baritone.
     When I was a boy, Tito Gobbi gave a concert in my hometown, Ancona. He said that singing is like sport. In sport if you get tired, you still keep on pushing, and without proper training I drove my voice. After a page of music, my voice would get lower. I thought that to get through an entire aria, I’d have to make the switch to baritone. I did have a big enough middle register to enable me to pass for one.

SZ: Were you successful as a baritone?
FC: No. The technique I was studying wasn’t a good one and led me to close my throat. I used the throat muscles so much that the voice didn’t pass through freely.

SZ: What technique did you adopt ultimately?
FC: A friend, Carlo Scaravelli, who was studying with Arturo Melocchi, taught me his approach, involving singing with the larynx held low. After a few months, I regained my freedom in singing and my high notes.

SZ: Did you yourself study with Melocchi?
FC: I went to him sometimes, although some advised me he was a throat-wrecker. His method was based on opening the throat. When you yawn, the throat is open. A truly open throat remains that open.
     Melocchi taught [Mario] Del Monaco for a number of years. Because he began to perform a few years before I did, I used him as my example, scrutinizing everything he did throughout his career. He sang with the larynx lowered as far as it would go. Melocchi’s tenors all came to resemble Del Monaco in tone color, range and style. This means that, for better or worse, Melocchi taught a real technique.

SZ: What are its pros and cons?
FC: The lowered larynx permits you to have a vibrant, strong, brilliant voice, like steel, but it does tend to prevent you from singing sweetly. It also can cause problems with mezza-voce and legato.

SZ: According to Del Monaco’s autobiography, La Mia Vita e i Miei Successi, at the beginning of his career he appeared as Ernesto and Alfredo—and couldn’t be heard. Then he became among the first to study with Melocchi, who had learned the lowered-larynx technique in China from a Russian—the technique previously was unknown in Italy. To sing Verdi with a lowered larynx is as anachronistic as playing Bach on a concert grand—although the result can be thrilling.
FC: In today’s theaters, with today’s louder and more brilliant orchestras, singers need the power and steel that come from the lowered larynx.

SZ: With some other methods, the larynx may lower as a by-product, but with Melocchi’s method, lowering the larynx is the beginning of everything. Carried to an extreme, this road leads to Luigi Ottolini, a tenor who was unable to change vocal color, although he had a concentrated, focused sound with immense ring. [He is the Radamès on an Aida highlights recording with Nilsson.] Like Del Monaco, he had difficulty modulating dynamics, with soft singing in particular. He had a strong voice that was not particularly useful for musical or dramatic purposes. According to La Mia Vita, Melocchi recommended that Del Monaco not try to sing with nuance or real dynamic modulation.
FC: With the laryngeal method you must know your vocal organ very well, what you can do and how far you can go. For example, I heard some who pushed their larynxes down to the point that they sounded as if they had bronchitis. [He imitates them.] With this technique, you can make your vocal cords suffer. Many who teach it cause their pupils to force their voices to the point of ruination. I ultimately modified the method so that my larynx “floats”—I do not keep it lowered to the maximum at all times.

SZ: Tell us about the history of your voice. How was it when you began to sing?
FC: When I began, my natural voice was not beautiful. I had a strong voice, and people told me that was my best quality. Still, no one believed in me. I began to sing as a joke. A friend and I listened to records and sang for hours and hours, and that’s when I fell in love with singing. Before entering a competition, I had seen only two or three operas. I lost that competition because I screamed too much but won the next one because I was in wonderful voice and my screaming excited the judges. The prize was to be my debut, in Spoleto in September 1951, as Radamès.
     I studied the part for three months with the conductor, Giuseppe Bertelli, but I didn’t have enough technique for Radamès. Little by little I began to lose my voice, while singing the third and fourth acts. They had me change to Don José. In Aïda  you need legato, bel canto and style. Carmen is an opera of explosive impulse, and you can succeed in it if you have enough temperament. Carmen also is congenial to me because it isn’t very high. It does have high notes, but they are well situated and not extremely difficult. And it stays in one tessitura.
     Three months after my debut I went to the Rome Opera, where I remained for four years. My first opera there was Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo, a very difficult work. The next month came Adriana Lecouvreur, the following month Carmen at Caracalla. After that, my life was easy. I was very lucky. But I was humble and studied for hours and hours, asking people what they thought about my voice and what were my mistakes, what were my worst notes, and if I could change them. I asked if I could change my vocal color, which I didn’t like.
     For three or four years I didn’t believe my career could continue, because, unlike today, the theater was full of wonderful voices. I began with a voice that wasn’t so interesting, but I tried to make it beautiful by infusing it with some sentiments, genuine and simple sentiments.

SZ: Francesco Tamagno and Aureliano Pertile were nearly the last dramatic tenors to have made diminuendos—until you. How did you learn to sing pianissimo?
FC: I first sang pianissimo in 1954, in Rome, in Don Carlo. The conductor was Gabriele Santini, one of the greatest. He taught me well, but I was singing too strongly. I arrived at the last act a little tired—my throat and breathing were tired. The A-flat on the word “mancherò” was difficult for me, and I made what I thought was a bad effect on it. People said, “You had a remarkable moment there, attacking the note strongly and making a diminuendo.” I learned to sing pianissimo from that.

SZ: Within three years of your debut, you went on to La Scala in La Vestale.
FC: For me it was important to sing an opening night at La Scala that early in my career. The engagement was prestigious because of all the famous tenors around.

SZ: What is the story of your vibrato?
FC: When I began to record, I was horrified and stopped right away, because I heard that my voice trembled. I was pushing too much because of lack of adequate breath control. [He caricatures himself.] Although I didn’t study so much before my debut, I certainly did afterward, little by little refining the sound, learning to control my breath and to push less. My legato improved, and my vibrato subsided.

SZ: You of course did conquer Radamès.
FC: Radamès represented my arrival in the high repertory. I tried it out for one performance in 1953 but only started to sing it with some frequency in ’55.

SZ: In the next few years you were offered still higher repertory, including Poliuto and Ugonotti.
FC I had no choice but to study and refine my technique further.

SZ: What was your highest note at the beginning of your career?
FC: At the beginning I had problems with top notes, so at my first audition I sang “Giunto sul passo estremo” [Mefistofele], because it goes up only to A-flat. I was afraid to attempt anything higher. My topmost note was about B-flat.

SZ: What was the highest note you ever sang in performance?
FC: I sang Poliuto five times with Callas and three times with [Leyla] Gencer. In each of the performances with Gencer I interpolated high D-natural.

SZ: In 1962 you were hailed at La Scala for your performances of Gli Ugonotti. Was that tenor part the most athletic you sang?
FC: Yes. Carmen, Norma and Forza were easy for my voice, which was, however, a little too heavy and low for Poliuto and Ugonotti. Before the Ugonotti rehearsals began, the conductor, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, said, “I don’t know if Corelli is able to handle it.” He came to my apartment, and I sang the part for him. On leaving, he remarked, “I never dreamt you could sing an opera such as this.” It was, however, very difficult for me.

SZ: Considering how tenor careers often progressed, one would have expected you to continue in either of two directions—with heroic high roles, such as Arnoldo in Guglielmo Tell, or with dramatic low ones, such as Otello.
FC: Mine was a strange career, for I began with heavy repertory and then went to the lyric French repertory.

SZ: Why did you do that?
FC: I had made my Met debut in 1961, in Il Trovatore. The Met had not done Roméo for many years. In 1964, two years before singing it at the Met, I performed it in Philadelphia. The performance was good—the public liked it. Mr. Bing wanted to produce the opera and paid me well to sing it. I also sang Werther at his urging and made a recording of Faust. The roles were very difficult for me, especially Faust. I was apprehensive, thinking I couldn’t sing sweetly enough. I feel I did succeed in the end—you hear a tenor different from the one in Andrea Chénier, Ernani, Aiïa, Trovatore. In “Salut! demeure” I sound like a true romantic tenor. I threw away some recitatives, though, because I didn’t know them well enough.

SZ: Looking back, do you feel this repertory was a good choice?
FC: I ended up not singing operas better suited to me, Manon Lescaut and Otello in particular.

SZ: In 1958, in Rome, you sang Pollione opposite the Norma of Callas when she walked out of the performance. What really happened?
FC: She was a little sick, and that didn’t permit her to sing at her best. Some in the audience heckled her. When she came offstage after Act I, she was completely calm, but then she began to stew and announced she was cancelling. The management went to her, to push her to continue the performance. She became a lioness and began to scream. She threw some vases and a chair. Little by little she lost her voice. When she left the theater, however, she looked elegant, as if nothing had happened.

SZ: Are you suggesting that she could have continued the performance had she not started to scream?
FC: Absolutely. She was in possession of a fabulous voice and an excellent technique. As late as 1958 she was always able to sing. She could have continued.

SZ: People think of you as having been nervous, but in general they do not say you were temperamental. There are, however, some exceptions. You had a run-in with conductor Fabien Sevitzky during Carmen rehearsals at Verona. What took place?
FC: We had a big problem, and I wasn’t the only one. The beginning of the fight was between [Giulietta] Melocchi and this maestro. Then [Ettore] Bastianini fought with him. They were upset because of his strange tempos. He was more interested in the design of the accompaniment than in the vocal lines and highlighted the orchestration at the expense of the singers. Some of his tempos were extremely fast, others unduly broad. My turn to fight with him came when I was singing “La fleur.” Ordinarily I sang the aria in three minutes, but with him it took more than five. Finishing on my knees in front of Simionato, I stood up and declared, “Maestro, for me it’s impossible to sing with you. You are really great, but my voice isn’t good for your tempo.” We had some back and forth, and I left the stage. The sovrintendente came. Maestro Sevitzky said, “I’m really sorry, but mine is the correct tempo, not the one you hear on records. The people who made them didn’t know what they were doing.” The sovrintendente rejoined, “Maestro, you are really great, as Mr. Corelli said, but under these circumstances it is impossible for me to keep you.” Sevitzky left.

SZ: Why did you stop your career in 1976?
FC: I was a little tired, I felt that my voice was a little tired, a little opaque, less brilliant than before. The singer’s life cost me a great deal. I was full of apprehension and mad at everyone. I was a bundle of nerves, I wasn’t eating or sleeping.
     At first I thought I would simply relax for a time and then return, but after three months I still had no desire to sing. I felt so comfortable that I said to myself, “Why go back? The public demands more and more of you, and if one night you’re unable to deliver, they ask why.” I don’t miss the pressures, but I do miss the joy of singing and performing. My voice did regain its bloom. When I’m in good voice, I ask myself, “What if...?”

SZ: When you sing for me today, your singing has more warmth, heart and caress than it did twenty-five years ago. You sing with more gradations of volume, and your voice has become more adolescent in timbre, more suitable to the poetry of Chénier. You sing "Che gelida manina" with more sweetness and tenderness now.
FC: It’s true. I do look deeper today, because, before, I thought about voice before everything else.

SZ: Besides concentrating more on dramatic tenor parts, is there anything you would do differently if you had your career to do over again?
FC: Well, on some days I feel I’d sing with less force and with more variety of dynamics and more passion, with more heart—like [Beniamino] Gigli. On other days I still prefer my old approach, because it was more vigorous. Nowadays I change back and forth.

Franco Corelli Photos