, September 2008
In the 1980s, any rabid New York opera fanatic worth the title would either stay in on Saturday nights or run home from social obligations to tune in to WKCR, Columbia University's radio station, where one could experience opera mania unabashed and unashamed. Stefan Zucker played rare recordings, had phone-ins wherein opera fans expressed their strong opinions, and presented guests of the caliber of Alfredo Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi, Grace Bumbry and a series of interviews with Franco Corelli. I also seem to remember Jackie Callas, Maria's sister, turning up with some rather good tapes of herself. The show, like the divas Zucker adores, was vivid. The host could be incisive, intelligent, infuriating, indiscreet and insupportable. And let us not forget inimitable—that voice, both speaking and singing, of The World's Highest Tenor. (Zucker is the Guinness Book record-holder.)
One of Stefan Zucker's fondest dreams came true when musician and film-maker Jan Schmidt-Garre decided to film him touring around Italy interviewing some of his adored divas of a bygone era, mostly postwar but some going back to the 1920s. The film is fascinating on a number of levels. It brims over with the passion of these women, who embody dedication to the stage while at the same time, in some cases, displaying egos of monumental proportions. The divas are originals, and they are on some level mad, but in a wonderful way. For instance, when Gigliola Frazzoni, a marvelous Minnie of the '50s, reenacts some of La Fanciulla del West in front of a television screen that is simultaneously showing her RAI film of the opera, she is at once hilarious and riveting—and in truth, far more riveting than risible. There is no self-consciousness or embarrassment, just the desperate need to communicate. Many of the brief singer demonstrations of a line here or there are very moving, and Magda Olivero, the last verismo soprano, does the entire Act III "Giusto cielo!" monologue from Adriana Lecouvreur. Zucker brings forth these wonderful moments from his subjects, but one also has the feeling that these divas live to relive these chapters from their lives and need little prompting.
An intentionally layered effect comes in the form of the filming. Zucker's journey around Italy with the crew is shot in Super 16 with a handheld camera, so that all arrangements made with the singers on mobile phone, rides in the van, setups in the divas' homes have the look of film. The interviews are shot on video and become a separate visual entity. The documentary presents the individual personalities of the singers in chunks of interview footage but also ties together certain themes—What is expressive singing? Did you ever use chest voice? Did you use voce infantile (childlike voice) for Butterfly?—intercutting interviews to focus on an artistic point. The chest-voice issue is a source of hilarity, as one diva after another claims she never used such a vulgar device, a few even illustrating the point by demonstrating a line in what is clearly well-placed chest voice. Hearing Zucker relate the claims of her colleagues who supposedly eschewed chest, the piercingly intelligent, no-nonsense Turkish diva Leyla Gencer looks at him incredulously and says, "They have short memories."
Zucker gets along with most of his interviewees, despite some Zucker-esque moments; he declares his interview with Gencer "erotic." (She fields skillfully.) The wonderfully entertaining Fedora Barbieri is clearly his match when he gets a bit lewd and simply drowns him out, belting out a canzone in a restaurant. Marcella Pobbe, on the other hand, tries to run her interview, and the entire thing feels uncomfortable. Among the most articulate are, of course, Gencer, Giulierra Simionato—who is pragmatic about vocal technique and touching about the thick skin she didn't actually possess during her long career (she looks incredibly beautiful in her late eighties in 1998)—and Carla Gavazzi, whose career was cut short by illness. Footage of the performers who were filmed during their careers is intercut as well, and it is generally thrilling. Particularly galvanizing is the little-known Gavazzi as Sanruzza.
This film is a must for opera fans—a near-religious experience for those who adore singers of this era, and required viewing for those only familiar with a more current crop. One wishes the terrific accompanying booklet supplied by Zucker's Bel Canto Society back when they released the film on VHS came with the Arthaus DVD. Bur it can be found on Bel Canto's website and is worth the trouble.