Magda Olivero came from a distinguished background: her father was a judge and she was well educated before embarking upon musical instruction. At the Turin Conservatory, in addition to her vocal programme she studied piano, harmony and counterpoint with the composer Ghedini as well as pursuing dancing and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which gave her a great ability to move gracefully on stage. However, after an unsuccessful audition for Italian radio, Olivero turned to voice teacher Luigi Gerussi, who emphasized the importance of breath support.
She made her operatic vocal debut in 1932 singing Mary Magdalene in a broadcast by Italian radio, Turin of I misteri dolorosi by Nino Cattozzo (1886–1961). Her operatic stage debut (as Lauretta / Gianni Schicchi) came shortly afterwards at Turin’s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele and was quickly followed by her first appearance at La Scala, Milan: in 1934, as Anna / Nabucco. Olivero returned there during the 1938–1939 season and throughout the mid-1930s sang in Italy’s principal opera houses, such as the San Carlo, Naples and the Teatro Verdi, Trieste.
Having been contracted by the Rome Opera, at the instigation of the conductor Tullio Serafin, to sing Elsa / Lohengrin, Olivero felt she needed to strengthen her voice for the assignment. To this end she undertook the title roles in Madama Butterfly and Manon, as well as Mimì / La Bohème, Zerlina / Don Giovanni, Carmela / Mese Mariano (Giordano) and the leading soprano parts in I quatro rusteghi and Il campiello, both by Wolf-Ferrari. As a result her Elsa was a success and was followed with another triumph, Manon with Gigli in Modena, when a critic noted her ‘lively intelligence’. In 1937 Olivero returned to Turin, this time to the Teatro Carignano, and was acclaimed in Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. During the following year she sang Liù / Turandot in a famous Italian radio recording featuring Gina Cigna; but upon her marriage to the industrialist Aldo Busch in 1941 she gave up her singing career, reflecting the middle-class values of the time.
For ten years, during which Olivero suffered two miscarriages, her only performances were occasional charity concerts. She was brought back to operatic life by the composer Francesco Cilea, who told her: ‘An artist such as you has obligations to the public and to art’ and dubbed her ‘the ideal interpreter of Adriana’ (the title role in his opera Adriana Lecouvreur). Although Cilea, who died at the end of 1950, was not to see her return to the stage in 1951 with performances of La Bohème in Rome (followed rapidly by Adriana at Brescia) his assessment of her genius was correct and her career now rapidly resumed its course.
As well as being held in the highest regard in the major Italian opera houses, notably in Milan and Rome, Olivero appeared at the Maggio Musicale in Florence and at the Verona Arena. She sang Mimì for one of London’s Stoll Theatre’s Italian opera seasons in 1952 and took the title role in Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the Teatro San Carlos in Lisbon in 1954. In addition to focusing upon the works of the major Italian composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as Puccini, Giordano, Cilea, Catalani and Zandonai, she also sang in contemporary works: for instance Renzo Rossellini’s La Guerra (Naples, 1956) and Flavio Testi’s La Celestina (Florence, 1963).
Olivero appeared at the Vienna State Opera in 1960, at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963 (as Adriana) and made her North American debut in 1967. This was in the title role of Cherubini’s Medea at the Dallas Opera, to which she was to return frequently. Later much-lauded assumptions there included the title roles of Fedora and Tosca and Giorgetta / Il tabarro. She also sang frequently with the New Jersey Opera, Newark as Fedora, Adriana and Tosca. Her 1974 Tosca at Dallas led directly to her singing the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. This she did to great acclaim in 1975, following the cancellation of Birgit Nilsson and Marilyn Horne’s recommendation of her as a replacement to the Met’s General Manager Schuyler Chapin. Chapin recalled in his memoirs that at rehearsals senior members of the Met’s staff were ‘stunned by her artistry’.
In 1981, with Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, Olivero gave her last stage performance and two years later in 1983 ceased all professional performance following the death of her husband – although she did continue to sing in church and made occasional appearances even during her nineties.
Having been coached by several composers of verismo opera, Olivero was the last great exponent of this tradition, combining consummate musicianship with searing acting ability. The distinguished Italian critic Rodolfo Celletti noted that her ‘impeccable vocal technique’ was placed ‘…at the service of an interpreter of great sensibility and imagination… who was an attractive and gifted actress’. For many her interpretation of Tosca was greater than that of Callas.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).