Legendary dramatic soprano who sang publicly for more than 70 years passes at 104.
The great Italian soprano Magda Olivero died yesterday in Milan according to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. She was 104 and had a stage career lasting over 50 years. Her public performances spanned 70 years, making her final appearance at the extraordinary age of 99. With the passing a few weeks ago of Licia Albanese at the age of 105 it feels distinctly like the end of an era.
Never a major recording artist, Olivero gained the respect of her peers, students and a host of fans as a result of an enduring voice, a considerable dramatic talent and a rock solid technique. Her ability to keep pushing the boundaries (she made her Met debut as Tosca at the age of 65!) ensures her place in operatic history.
Born Maria Maddalena Olivero in the Piedmontese town of Saluzzo in 1910, she made her operatic debut in 1932 singing in Nino Cattozzo’s (long forgotten) oratorio, I Misteri Dolorosa for a Turin radio broadcast. Her stage debut was the following year in Turin and she went on to have a successful career in the Italian lyric and dramatic soprano repertoire. In 1938 she sang Liù in the first complete recording of Turandot – still available on the Cetra label. In 1941 she decided to retire after she married, but ten years later she returned to the stage at the personal request of the dying Francesco Cilea who begged her to reprise the title role in his opera Adriana Lecouvreur.
She went on to sing all over the world and because of her noted dramatic chops she became one of the greatest verismo specialists alongside the likes of Callas. Her signature roles included Tosca and the lead in Giordano’s Fedora (which she recorded for Decca in 1969 opposite Tito Gobbi and a stentorian Mario del Monaco). Other roles included Mimì in La Bohème, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, Violetta in La Traviata, the lead in La Wally, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut and Liù in Turandot.
Having been rather shamefully ignored by the Met in the 1950s and 1960s, in 1975 Olivero was invited to make her début in Tosca – an acclaimed tour de force and a considerable personal triumph. Her last stage performances were in 1981 in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine but she sang locally in sacred music well into her 90s. There is a video clip of her five years ago at the age of 99 singing a scene from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.
Commenting on the legendary technique that saw her singing for 70 years, American soprano Renée Fleming told NPR Classical: “She is such an inspiration… beautiful, funny, a great raconteur. She gave me a breathing lesson. She had me feeling how she breathes, how she supports, and let me tell you, her abdominal wall is stronger than mine. Rude awakening.”
Magda Olivero (March 25, 1910 – September 8, 2014)