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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Giuseppe Di Stefano: A Tenor For All Seasons

Giuseppe di Stefano was born in Motta Sant'Anastasia, a village near Catania, Sicily,in 1921. He came from a family of very modest means and was educated at a Jesuit seminary. His operatic debut was in 1946 in Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon. His La Scala debut was the next year, in 1947, in the same role. From his early youth, Di Stefano's voice was remarkable for its great beauty. After the La Scala debut, his rise was unusually rapid. His Met debut followed, in 1948, in Rigoletto. He was to be a Met mainstay for many years. From this moment on, he sprang to international fame, and sang in all the major opera houses and in many festivals. His biography is very easily consulted, owing to his great popularity.

I will say at the outset that I am, and have always been, an ardent Di Stefano fan. I can't promise too much objectivity on this one. We are accustomed to speaking of tenors in many categories: leggiero, lyric, spinto, dramatic, and heroic. Di Stefano, however, was molded in the old-fashioned way. He was essentially a tenor—period—and he sang an extremely wide range of roles, each requiring different vocal abilities, or "kinds" of voices, at least according to current mythologies. This did not concern Di Stefano. His essential training was bel canto, and he adhered absolutely to the advice of Fernando De Lucia: "Per cantare bene, bisogna aprire la bocca!" (This was reported by his most famous student, Georges Thill, in a filmed interview that can be seen on Youtube.) Di Stefano did "aprire la bocca," very wide indeed, and very consistently, and that is how he sang. His pronunciation, as a result, is impeccable. You can understand every single word, in Standard Italian, Neapolitan, or Sicilian. It was very open phonation, and while some criticized him for this, I think it served him beautifully, because it gave him an enormous range, superb control in the extreme upper register (he could diminuendo on a high C natural!) and it made it possible for him to sing roles from Nemorino to Calaf. Here is the very young Di Stefano, little more than a boy, is the popular "Una furtiva lagrima.":

A beautiful rendition for a 23 year old! Already the main qualities are in place—the open phonation, the beautiful voice, the superb enunciation, and a remarkable ability to diminuendo down to a lovely mezza-voce that is almost choir-boy-like. It was clear he was headed for the big time!

Let's progress by repertoire and age, and the "tenor for all seasons" ability will become apparent. Here he is in a very demanding role, the Duke of Mantua, which is a serious step up from Nemorino in terms of vocal demands, singing the extremely well known "La Donna è Mobile." Notice the open phonation, and the easy access right up the scale to the final B natural:

Wonderful! Did you notice that in addition to the immaculate pronunciation, that there is a distinctive, recognizable personality to his voice? It often happens that when opera singers in a given vocal fach cover their sounds heavily, it is almost impossible to tell one from another. When the phonation is open, however, the individual personality of the speaking voice is revealed. Among basses, the most striking example is Chaliapin, who was a wide-open singer if ever there was one, as tenor Giovanni Martinelli was also.

Like Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Di Stefano (whose vocal production was similar) could sing very high. Here is an extraordinary piece of singing featuring Di Stefano and Callas, his frequent collaborator (theirs was a bit of a mutual admiration society). This short finale to a longer duet features a high Db from both of them, and a B natural at the end. This, as I indicated in the description accompanying the video, is virtuoso singing of a very high order indeed:

That is simply spectacular! There is no other word for it. That is the kind of singing that makes people happy to lay down their hard earned money for expensive opera tickets, and then stand up and shout to demonstrate their satisfaction at having heard great singing.

Finally, in our progression, a very heavy role, Calaf in Turandot, in the by-now famous "Nessun Dorma:

Magnificent. Same vocal production as for Nemorino. Nothing has changed. This is the repertoire critics say he should not have sung, yet I challenge anyone to fault this rendition of "Nessun Dorma" in any way. Perhaps it did shorten his career a bit, but that turns out—considering how long his career was—to be a matter of small concern. He had a spectacular career, was greatly respected, sang all over the world in all the important opera houses and made a very large number of recordings and no small amount of money. There's a problem here? I don't think so. Also, he was certainly not the only tenor to sing with an open phonation on top. One thinks of Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Fernando de Lucia, and Georges Thill, for starters, three of the most famous tenors of all time. No, this is great tenor singing, plain and simple.

Sadly, he died a tragic but heroic death. Attacked by unknown assailants in his summer home in Kenya, he fought bravely—at age 84!—to defend his wife from the thieves. He saved her, but he paid for his heroic actions by being so badly beaten that he slipped into a coma and basically lay, in pain and semi-consciousness, for the last three years of his life, dying at 87 in Milan. This was as great a man as he was an artist!


corax said...

di stefano was a gem among operatic tenors, and this is a gem even in your matchless treasury of essays. in very short compass you succeed in capturing all that was essential about di stefano. well done indeed.

may i also take this moment to compliment you on your youtube channel []. with already over 200 carefully-chosen uploads you are systematically creating one of the most important archives of opera sounds on the internet. and that is saying something.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed! I knew, somehow, that you would be a Di Stefano fan. We have had wonderful conversations in the past about that lovely Bellini duet from which the Di Stefano/Callas excerpt was taken. Every time I hear Callas sing "per tre secoli....." I think of you:) Thanks for the comment on the channel also. I am discovering how time-consuming that can be, and increasingly challenging. It sometimes seems that all the information currently possessed by mankind is on Y-T somewhere. What a time we live in! All the information of the ages is at our finger-tips! Oh, were it also the case that all of the wisdom of the ages was also similarly available!

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, well done. It is said that he was the favorite of some other well-known singers, such as Pavarotti. His diction is remarkably clear, as is that of more crossover singers like Bocelli.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for the comment! Yes, you are right. He was the favorite of a fair few tenors. He was a giant. At the beginning, many compared him to Gigli because of the beauty of the voice. He had a lot more heft in the voice than Gigli, however. He was almsot in a category of his own. He reminds me of Lauri Volpi a great deal. And yes, that dictions is amazing: open, up front and clear as a bell. Every single word.

100% Gambler said...

Some thoughts.

I briefly knew a colleague of GDS in the early 90s, a wonderful old Neapolitan tenor called Franco Ricci, whose opinion was that "si guastò subito" - "he wrecked himself early". I tend to entirely agree.

The very early recordings, like the Nemorino here, or the Lamento di Federico, Manon dream etc, are all good. He was at his youngest, while his vocal apparatus was still flexible enough to deliver well with his wide open style. The A flats, As and even B flats work.

With the passing of even just a few more years, and his ill-advised moves into heavier repertoire, the decline was fast and the strain becomes ever more apparent - the cover he manages at the top in those early years is gone (it was dicey even then).

I saw him when he was about 65, in a charity concert at the Barbican. It was great to hear him, but there was nothing left but the uniquely recognizable Di Stefano sound.

He might have stayed the course better if he'd stuck to the light repertoire of those early recordings - the fast decline may be totally attributable to that. Even so, I don't think he'd have gone far into his forties before the strain started to take its toll.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your perceptive and well-written comment. Personal knowledge and observations are always valuable and help fill out the picture, contributing to broader and more objective views. You are always welcome to drop by here; be assured we value your cogent observations.

Anonymous said...

I understand why you call yourself “ an ardent fan”; Di Stefano was a brilliant tenor, I totally agree. I don’t remember Lauri-Volpi’s words precisely, but he said that Di Stefano was THE tenor in everything, in real life and on stage. He had all the qualities of a great tenor, a beautiful voice, intelligence and a good appearance.
As for his duets with Callas, he matched her ; I mean not tragedy , but the “heroic” sound. Only a great tenor could work with Callas and not to be overshadowed. She created such outstanding female characters , that they needed a “real man” as a partner:) Not a “macho” but a real hero with a strong virile, beautiful voice.
I didn’t know that his death was so tragic, I thought that he peacefully died at age 84.
I have a “technical” question: what is the difference between open phonation and open sounds, which are considered “bad”. There are argues on Russian operatic forums about open sounds, many people think that singing always must be covered and when they hear an open sound they yell, that it’s so bad and unprofessional. That concerns Lemeshev, Kozlovsky, Di Stefano, Lauri-Volpi and some others. Di Stefano is respected, but others are considered “out of date” or “provincial”, many people think that “tastes changed” and no-one should sing like , say, Lauri-Volpi, or Lemeshev. What does that mean - stereotypes?


Edmund St. Austell said...

Well, open sounds and open phonation are the same thing. "Phonation" is just a fancy word for sounds, or, more precisely "the making of sounds." I disagree, at least to a certain extent, with the people you refer to on the Russian forum. They are speaking out in favor of the heavily covered sounds characteristic of Italian singers: Giacomini, Bjorling, Domingo, Sutherland, almost all mezzo-sopranos. Imagine singing with a mouth half full of hot soup and you get the idea. The larynx goes down, the mouth purses, and you get a heavier, darker, "covered" sound. It makes it possible to sing in the upper register a lot, without damaging the voice. Giacomini is an extreme example. On the other hand, there are the open singers, those who open their mouths very wide, do not try to depress the larynx very much, and sing more from the throat and upper chest (clavicular singing) as opposed to sucking in the diaphragm and lowering the larynx. Important singers who sang in this way are DiStefano, Beniamino Gigli, Tito Schipa,Sergei Lemeshev, Leonid Sobinov, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Giovanni Martinelli, Georges Thill, Fernando de Lucia, and almost all coloratura sopranos. The voice is brighter, whiter (i.e., not a dark sound), the vibrato is faster (Lauri Volpi) and great flexibility is possible. This is the classic bel canto method of singing. It is true that it is harder on the top part of the register to sing in this way, and after a certain number of years, the top voice will begin to wear out. The people you speak of on the forum have a point. It's not that they are wrong; it is simply that they overlook the great possibilities for beautiful singing if a singer chooses to sing in an open way, and create very beautiful and lyric sounds for the number of years he or she can do it. The trick lies in the repertoire. If the singer sticks to a very lyric repertoire, then he or she can sing that way into old age. Tagliavini could have done it, if he had not ruined much of his voice trying to do big roles). Gigli did it successfully. You might notice how Lemeshev's voice started to darken with age. Of course, he was working with only one lung, but even so, there is a toll that is taken on the top by open singing. I had better quit. We can do this on email if you have more questions, where I can go on at greater length. Actually, it might a good idea for you to read the post immediately above yours by the person who signs him or herself "100%Gambler." It is very revealing,and contains important information on this subject.

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the explanation. Usually I don’t think about technique when I listen to beautiful singing. But it’s necessary to know something about technique to argue more successfully at opera forums:). There are lots of reasons to argue, because too many people love to criticize great singers severely and often they denounce them for a single sound, though the entire performance is fine.

As I understood those are just two different schools, both gave great singers.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, that sums it up pretty well!

Anonymous said...

The first time I listened to GDS singing, I just couldn't believe what I was hearing. I thought "this tenor has a Stradivarius" in the throat, nothing less. His fine control, wonderful phrasé, shades, perfect diction, ease, bright high notes astonished me. To me he is a "phenomenal" singer, and there are not many. Thanks to him, I became interested in italian opera. Since then, I bought a lot of his opera recordings both in studio and live (where he is extraodinary)with Callas of course but also with others great sopranos and I take a great pleasure to listen to the beautiful music of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Bellini,Rossini etc.
God bless GDS in heaven now.
Sorry for my poor English, I am French speaking.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Mon ami, votre anglais est meilleur que celui de beaucoup de gens qui parlent l'anglais comme première langue! Et bien sûr, vous êtes toujours libre d'écrire en français sur ce blog-- le lectorat est très cosmopolite. En tout cas, je suis d'accord avec vous absolument sur Giuseppe Di Stefano, un grand artiste, et un grand homme courageux. Merci beaucoup pour votre commentaire.

Anonymous said...

M. St.Austell,
Franchement, vous êtes trop gentil.
Puisque vous connaissez très bien le français, je me permets de poursuivre dans cette langue.
Étant comme vous une fervente admiratrice de Segn. Di Stefano, j'ai lu avec beaucoup d'intérêts "A tenor for all seasons". À vrai dire cette lecture a été pour moi une "révélation". Tellement différent de tout ce que j'ai lu à venir jusqu'à présent. Votre propos est éclairé et éclairant,intéressant, intelligent, celui d'un grand connaisseur.
Pour terminer, j'aimerais mentionner un fait important, me semble-t-il, dont on ne parle pas et qui n'est jamais pris en compte dans la détérioration de la voix de GDS, c'est celui de ses graves difficultés respiratoires causées par de sévères allergies, c'est ce que lui-même a dit en tout cas. Personne ne semble l'avoir cru...

Edmund St. Austell said...

Une observation très intéressante, et une possibilité réelle! Encore une fois, merci beaucoup!

Anonymous said...

To all who think that they can make a decision about why Di Stefano lost his voice, I want to lay the answer before you, singing Neapolitan songs or an oparatic aria takes the same effort singing Laforza or Aida. When like in Di Stefano's case, the vocal action was perfect, he could sing any thing. It is crazy to say he sang heavy roles and that ruined his voice. He smoked his voice into that state, there also is no such thing as an open or closed voice. There is however good and bad singing. Di Stefano did only good singing, so please when you say somthing about voice let it be devoid of ignorance. If you want to know were I get my knowledge, you can check I also have a very special photograph of Di Stefano and myself taken in his home with arms around each other. This photo was taken after a 7 hour visit with Pippo. I know wereoff i speak. Jaco Pieterse

Anonymous said...

@Mr. St.Austell: Please note that Lauri-Volpi's and Di Stefano's techniques were as the poles asunder: moreover, to compare Lauri-Volpi's production to Di Stefano's is a mountainous mistake, from a historical point of view. Lauri-Volpi strictly followed Garcìa's technique (19th century), while Di Stefano would follow his own technique (a "naturalistic" one, which purposefully avoided the covering of the sound -which is indispensable to correctly produce high notes- in the name of the "naturalness"). Di Stefano he would say: " Please don't give me suggestions ! I can make mistakes by myself !" A humble man, to be sure. Di Stefano, unfortunalely, was a great singer only from 1944 to 1951. Since 1951-52 his technique was almost non-existent and he became absolutely unable to make a correct "passaggio di registro". His high notes began to sound like shouts. Until 1951-1952 he was a fabulous tenore di grazia and also fascinating a tenore lirico-leggero. But he had no vocal stamina to be a tenore spinto o tenore di forza. He was the victim of his ambition and thought he could sing everything. His Calaf, his Manrico, his Radames, his Otello are simply laughable. They are caricatures. And I grieve to say this, because I adore him as Nemorino, Nadir, Werther, Des Grieux, Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi), Faust (probably he was the greatest Faust in history of recorded music): and let's don't forget that he was one of the greatest Almavivas (in Rossini's Barbiere) in the whole history of singing [1950 Met live recording].In his unfortunately short vocal prime he was really one of the greatest tenors of the second half of the 2Oth century and had the most beautiful tone ever heard after Gigli.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you indeed for a most interesting and informative comment! Yes, I see what it is that you are saying, and there is a lot there for me to think about! I need to reflect a little more on the matter, because others have made the same point, and I, to be honest, never heard Di Stefano in person, so I am prepared to re-think some of the things I said. And you have helped me, with your excellent analysis. Thank you!

jaco pieterse said...

About di Stefanos voice, he is one of a few tenors that consistantly sang with one vocal position, even when he was ruining his voice through much smoking. When singers use what is called pasagio, they have to lift the soft pallet, this gives them a feeling of control but thy lose beauty, and di Stefano never did this. There is no such thing as an open or closed voice only good or bad singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Interesting comment! Much appreciated! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...Found a recording I've never heard before, of GDS in that early period when he was singing well:

This is also the only one pre-1950 (I think) that he re-recorded later, so it's handy for comparison, eg:

The problem with such beautiful singing early on is that the decline is so stark. He's only 40 here (think of Pavarotti at that age). Smoking didn't cause this, although it can't have helped.

(100% Gambler, who can't sign in.)

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for the comment. Much appreciated, and thanks for the interesting links. I especially like the 1961 "Musica Proibita."

Gioacchino Florio-Maragioglio said...

The commenter Jaco Pieterse is correct. When you talk about the voice of Giuseppe Di Stefano, you can talk about two things: the sound and the characterization. Most singers, you can talk about three things: the sound, the characterization and the technique.

In this case, technique should not talked, because he didn't sing using any technique, he sang much the same way he talked.

The open and covered discussion is irrelevant here. Kraus and Raimondi used the same technique, in which Raimondi sang well-covered, Kraus sang open.

In general, singing with cover allows easier use of the top register, but it also puts a "cap" on the top register: for the example, Franco Bonisolli sang well-covered, so his highest note, the D5, was always available for him. But notes higher, he could not sing.

Singing open or singing with cover needs technique to do this. In my opinion, Giuseppe Di Stefano sang as he spoke, in literal, so I think, if you have to say how he sang, I think it is the most accurate to say he sung using closed phonation.

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you very much for an interesting and insightful comment. Along with the comments of others, it have given me much to think about in the case of DiStefano.

Anonymous said...

There are loads more young Di Stefano recordings I was unaware of, listen here:

Spanish! -

True enough he didn't cover past the late '40s, but he DID in those early years, though so little you'd be forgiven for missing it:

Top A at 1'59''.

There are other examples.

What a fast decline. See that same aria, just three years later -

Also note the same top A, again at 1' 59''.

Thank goodness for the '44 and '45 recordings.

BTW, Pavarotti gives a perfect demonstration of covering:

He deliberately strangles the chest note, but it makes the point. Singling open alla Pippo makes for exciting singing, especially when the voice is so beautiful, but it's a certain voice destroyer.

(100% Gambler)

Edmund StAustell said...

EXTREMELY interesting! Thank you so much! Edmund

Anonymous said...

when you lift your arm or leg there is only certain muscles used to perform this task when produsing voice it is the same only certain muscles are used I have watched babbies cry for years and always the same vocal action singers try diferend vocal positions because they dont know what corect vocal action looks like all good singers have the same vocal action only quality differs the proof of corect vocal action is best tested in a voice by like distefano did sing a high and dimniuendo to nothing maintaining the same quality this is the acid test for corect vocal action why are so many voices destroid every year because teachers of voice do not undestand what corect vocal action looks like earlier coment said di stefano sang as he spoke this is corect you only have one set of muscles to produce sound whether you sing or speak singers that talk about pasagio or cover only show ignorance to the function of vocal action because when you change the quality of the voice you must change the position also good voices only have one position di stefano was the master jaco pieterse

Mervyn Lang said...

Di Stefano. Of all the great singers I saw live, he was the greatest. I saw him as Nemorino, Rodolfo, Werther, Des Grieux, Dick Johnson as well as in recital. At the time I also saw Bergonzi, Kraus, Corelli, but they were not comparable to Di Stefano. This description here in A Tenor for All
Seasons is absolutely right. I want to stress also that over the years that I saw him he was completely reliable in appearing, no cancellations unless accompanied by doctor's certificate. Essentially he was a Milanese, eductated and living there, a city renowned for seriousness and hard work.At a sort of final recital about ten years ago in Buxton, U.K., he greatly moved the public, displaying his renowned dash and geniality.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for a lovely comment, which I really appreciate. To the accolades--richly deserved--that you give him, I would add that his heroic death at a very advanced age, defending his wife, shows that he was something else--a real man, in the most profound meaning of the word. A great man. Thank you very much.