5 Lessons on Being an Opera Diva

Virginia Zeani

BONUS INTERVIEW BELOW

All you diva-wannabes pay attention: school is about to be in session.

The Venetian Arts Society will host a “Gala Salon honoring Virginia Zeani” – the opera star who from the 1950s through the 1970s reigned over opera – at Cinema Paradiso Saturday, Sept. 28.

The evening starts with a cocktail reception followed by the screening of bio-documentary “A Tribute to the Life & Career of Legendary Opera Soprano Virginia Zeani” and ends with a champagne reception.


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Since Zeani and her late husband taught voice at Indiana University throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and she continues to instruct here in SoFlo), I thought it was appropriate that Madame Zeani give us all a master class in divadom:

1st Lesson: don’t go around calling yourself a diva.

“Virginia was never a diva,” explains Roger Beaumont, the New Zealand-based historian in South Florida finishing “The Life & Times of Soprano Virginia Zeani,” his latest book. “She was a prima donna, the first lady of the opera. Divas are temperamental people. [Zeani] had a great temperament. She didn’t want to live in the spotlight. She didn’t want to fight like that. She had a difficult life, but she came through onstage. In all those years she only had to cancel two performances. How incredible is that?”

2nd Lesson: define yourself humbly (let other heap praise).

“I’m not an opera star,” says Zeani from her home in West Palm Beach. “I was a great singer, but not a star.”

3rd Lesson: courage and necessity are your best accessories.

“When I was young I had the courage of a lion,” says Zeani, who was born in Romania in 1928; saw her first opera (“Madame Butterfly”) at age 9 and made her 1948 Italian debut at age 22 in “La Traviata,” replacing an ill Margherita Carosio. “I had no money. So I had to sing or die. You know, that is when you have the courage of desperation…to sing ‘La Traviata,” to be so young after the war and every where it was tragedy, not only in Romania but in Italy. I had the courage to sing out [because] the operas, they are so beautiful and extraordinary to me.”

4th Lesson: to sing about love onstage, it helps to be in love offstage.

“I sang with him [her husband Nicola Rossi-Lemeni] in 1952 when I replaced Maria Callas in ‘I Puritani.’ He was the basso. I never realized that under this long white beard was a young man. Then in 1956 at La Scala he was Caesar and I was Cleopatra – what more could you want? A week later he asked me to marry him, three weeks later I accepted and three months later I married him. My marriage was a surprise to myself. I was married to the stage [so] I thought to myself, ‘I will never marry.’ You have to give so much to the stage when you are an artist. He was considered the greatest actor at the time. A greater actor La Scala has not. He was an actor like the famous Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin. He was extremely intelligent and a beautiful [person]. He had so many qualities apart from being a great basso. So I married him and had a child [Allessandro, a physician who moved his family from Rome to West Palm Beach as well]. I lost a lot of contracts around the world. I had a contract with the Metropolitan Opera that I could not respect because I was pregnant and married. I could not just leave. But that was splendid, no problem with me. We were married for 35 years. It was a great fight.”

5th Lesson: cultivate devotees.

“I still clearly remember the first time I heard her,” reminisces Beaumont, who ran across a Zeani recording of “La Traviata” in a New Zealand second-hand record store. “I was in shock. I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was so incredible with the quality of the voice. The sound was like nothing I had ever heard of. It just went straight to the heart. From that day on I had to have every recording I could find. We have managed to collect 40 or her 70 roles.”

BONUS INTERVIEW

I asked Madame Zeani for the first thought that came to her mind when I asked her about her contemporaries:

Maria Callas – “She was in the beginning a fat girl, an ugly girls with a great voice. The she become a divine flower. I know these people. I knew these people when they were in their places. I know the way people were, not the way people say they were. Callas was very cunning. She had a force…on the stage. Her interior force was believeing in herself.”

Luciano Pavarotti – “He had his debut with me. He was an Italian boy…skinny…beautiful. He was 20 when I met him. Always smiling. Beautifully educated. He was a very, very good friend.

Placido Domingo – “Ah yes, the Latin lover. So dedicated to the relationship between himself and the soprano. Still the greatest singer of his age.

Grace Bumbry – “Not like the name at all. She was not very graceful, but very nice and serious about her art. And very concerned about the voice. I sang with her ‘Aida” in Naples. I remember the first time I met her she was always designing to be the best. And you know, before the last act she ate this big steak. Then she sang like a lion.”

Zubin Mehta – “The most adorable conductor I had in my life. The first opera he conducted with me in Florence was ‘La Traviata.’ ”

Francis Poulenc – “I believe in God. He made me believe in love. He had love for an eternity because he was in love with music. Oh, the beauty of his face and his smile.”

Joan Sutherland – “She had a very introverted personality. She was the queen of agility, you know, with her voice. She was a big person, tall, a little bit shy but believing in….her husband, who was god to her.”

Renata Tebaldi – “She was a beautiful girl two years more than me with a great, great voice. Not extremely educated or cultivated. But she had a difficult life. No father. She always traveled with her mother.”

IF YOU GO

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28

Where: Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale

Cost: $45 for nonmembers, $30 for members of the Venetian Arts Society

Contact: 954-709-7447 or VenetianArtsSociety.org.