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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Amelita Galli-Curci: Queen of the Coloraturas

Born in 1882, in Milan, into a prominent and well to do family, Amelita Galli (the Curci is from a later disastrous marriage) seemed destined from youth for a musical career, but at first as a pianist. After the typical lessons at home, she began her conservatory study of piano in Milan in 1895, when she was thirteen. Her brilliance at the piano eventually resulted in a gold medal in competition, which in turn resulted in her being offered a professorship at the age of 23. She accepted, and seemed content with the prospect of settling into a life of concertizing and teaching piano. However, Pietro Mascagni, a family friend, heard her singing at the piano, and strongly urged her to pursue a career as a singer. After some self-training, she auditioned, and the famous charm of that voice instantly attracted attention, and in 1906, at the age of 24, she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. The rest, as they say, is history. After extensively touring South America, she arrived in the United States and made her Chicago debut in 1916, to great acclaim. Shortly thereafter, she signed with RCA Victor, and her fame exploded across America, where she became very popular. She and America fell in love, and, fully adopted by the United States, she became an American citizen in 1920, after divorcing a petty Italian nobleman come to less (Curci) who was shamelessly squandering her money. She made her Met debut in 1921, and remained a permanent member of both the Chicago Lyric and the Met until her retirement in 1930. (An excellent biography can be found at

The extraordinary beauty and grace of Amelita Galli-Curci's singing, even today as captured on old recordings, is such that devotees of great singing often fall instantly in love. I count myself in that happy group. There is something in that sound that stirs images of the fresh and charming innocence of a young girl whose beauty and joie de vivre have just begun to bloom. It was incredibly attractive, and made her one of the most popular singers ever, and among the most highly paid of her day. Many, including myself, consider her the greatest of the coloraturas.

The life of a singer, however, as Enrico Caruso once remarked, should be told in song, not words, and he was right. Here is the first recording I ever heard of Galli-Curci, years ago, and I have never forgotten the effect that it had. This is the essence of the youthful innocence of which I spoke:

I have listened to this recording many, many times, and it never loses its charm. The coloratura is brilliant: ever gentle, ever graceful, ever sparkling. The articulation is brilliant, and the musicality riveting. She was self taught, and she read many old bel canto treatises, such as Garcia's famous L'Art du Chant, that most famous of all bel canto methods. With her innate musical ability, and her brilliance as a painist, she quickly internalized the great principles of 19th century bel canto singing, and took it from there. Purists may raise eyebrows at the lack of method on the very bottom of the voice, which she simply lets fall away, rather than trying to cover with a "chest voice" as is commonly done today, but I think she was right. Nobody lays down their hard earned money to listen to such a high, pure and flute-like voice sing low notes. Also, her breathing attack is largely clavicular as opposed to diaphragmatic, but this in fact largely accounts for the light and girl-like quality of the voice that so many found so attractive. We are very, very far here from the covered and strongly supported tones that are the norm today. This was another era, and reflected distinct tastes. (And in my opinion, often superior tastes.)

She recorded arias that a coloratura would never dare record today, such as the famous Tacea la notte from Il Trovatore. While she never performed the role in public, to the best of my knowledge, her recording of this aria shows new interpretive possibilities, and the musical execution in general—in particular the phrasing—are extraordinary and revealing. Those who grew up listening to Leontyne Price singing such roles as Leonora might scoff outright at the idea of so gentle and child-like a voice doing such a piece, but I invite you to listen to the result:

It is beautiful and haunting, and the characteristic youthfulness of the voice is ever so slightly tinged here with foreboding. If the voice is not "heroic," the musical, stylistic and tonal sophistication more than compensate.

Finally, to end with an aria in which she demonstrates her absolute brilliance as a coloaratura soprano, we join her for the ever popular Una voce poco fa from Rossini's Barber of Seville:

What more can I say?

Galli-Curci also recorded, for her American audience, popular sentimental tunes of the day that many people would know from the piano anthologies on the music rack of the parlor uprights that were common then is so many homes. The interested listener can find recordings of Home, Sweet Home, The Last Rose of Summer, and so on, but it is necessary to know the lyrics in advance. The beloved soprano was what might be called an early graduate of the Joan Sutherland School of Stage Diction. It is, as a result, not always easy to determine what language she is singing in:-)

But that is a matter of little consequence; she was hardly in the business of introducing new music, but was rather a singer of music that was everywhere known. What she did bring to her performance was charm, musicality, freshness, and, if there is such a thing, sheer lovability. That's quite enough for one tiny Italian-American girl!


corax said...

as usual, your writing is pellucid, and you go straight for the essentials. your diagnosis of galli-curci's technique is unparalleled in its accuracy, clarity, and usefulness. an excellent example of why we keep coming back to your wonderful blog.

your comments on her TROVATORE recording were most provocative. i have been musing on the whole verdi thing for some time -- TRAVIATA is another good example of a soprano role that attracts singers of various types, and their violettas will of course vary accordingly. i am sure there has been plenty of scholarship on the actual music of verdi -- probably a hundred scholars have already made this point with more learning or eloquence -- but what i want to suggest is that his music, despite certain deceptive simplicities such as the frequent oom-pah-pah bass in the accompaniment, is really stylistically transcendent -- or what a postmodern scholar might call 'transgressive' -- it doesn't belong to a single genre, or perhaps it is just sui generis. though he is a generation older than puccini, i think the case could be made that he is more radical in this regard than his successor. certainly, that puccini would not have been possible without verdi.

if i'm right about this, it might help explain why a flutey bel canto soprano like galli-curci can end up making musical sense of leonora; or why so many different types of soprano can succeed as violetta [imagine: galli-curci, callas, moffo, sills, sutherland, to name only a few, all singing the same arias ... and in their way, each makes sense of this extraordinarily challenging role].

in ogni caso: bel lavorio professore! [come al solito]

Edmund said...

Thank you so much for your lovely comments and profound questions. This one is a beauty! I have to admit that I do not believe I have ever heard it posed before. My sense is that Verdi's operas may be more sui generis than transgressive. I think the "transgressiveness," if we go with that concept, may in fact be something else, and that is a visible dynamic; one resulting from a constant tension between Verdi's talent and the changing times in which he lived. I think it's important to remember that he was born in 1813...barely out of the 18th century. His earliest musical memories would coincide with the age of conflict beteen high Classicism and nascent Romanticism. Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini would have been immediate influences. At the same time, Verdi himself (and this may not be commonly understood) was personally interested in German music, and listened to a great deal of it during his early years. His lifetime--a very long one--covered a period during which he saw Classicism give way to Romanticism, and Romanticim slowly yield to Music Drama and incipient Verismo. Emotionally and intellectually, he was grounded in the idea of musical theater for the people. "Trust the people!" he would often say. It seems certain he was aware of the growing disconnect between popular tastes and what today we might call "academic" composition. Against this tendency (which is reflected in the middle period operas that everyone knows)there was a lively intellect, a deep and brooding temperament (springing from dreadful personal loss)and a burning desire to keep up with what was going on in the increasingly intellectual musical world around him. By the time of La Forza del Destino, the popular style of which he was fond had clearly begun to exhaust itself, and he was both criticized and ridiculed in musical circles for not keeping up. Stung, he created (as an aging man) Aida, and immediately won back the enthusiasm of the musical world. By the time of Falstaff, he was clearly into the then modern concept of music drama, or through-composed musical plays. He was by now an old man, but the tension I am trying to describe here is still there. I believe what you notice is the dynamic tension between the strong desire to write the popular music of his middle period and the intellectual and artistic need to be contemporary. In the case of Traviata, for example, the 3/4 time oompah tempi were a deliberate attempt to use the then growing popularity of Viennese waltz music as a leitmotiv for the frivolity and artificiality of Violetta's world, which he will bring to tragic disavowal. Such an opera, therefore, presents an opportunity for the sensitive artist to highlight that aspect of Violetta's life which she wants to stress, or, even more subtly, to color the seemingly frivolous coloratura with hints of darkness and tragedy. This is something a really good musician and stylist like Galli-Curci could do. Others, with different voices could do the same in different operas. [Callas (La Divina!) comes to mind. We both know what she could bring to Bellini, for example.] Because the tension of which I speak was almost always present in Verdi, the opportunities are certainly there to take a piece such as Il Trovatore and highlight the earlier styles of High Romanticism when possible, and darken, either musically or sylistically, certain phrases that present the opportunity to foreshadow tragedy or darkness, in the same way that Verdi's own evolving sense of leitmotiv and musical suggestion could do. This would be my best understanding, admittedly off the top of my head, of what Galli Curci, a superb musican, could do with Tacea la Notte.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful article, written by a true fan:) I totally agree with everything you wrote about her singing. Though her technique is perfect , it’s easy to imagine that she learnt it as a hobby, while singing at home. Perhaps not many singers can study so easily, but the general idea of beautiful singing is that it must be effortless, natural and pleasant. Vishnevskaya said that she had left the stage when stopped feeling the “joy of singing”. It seems that for Galli-Curci singing is as easy as speaking. But what is wrong with her diction? Did she speak with Italian accent?


Edmund said...

Thank you! Yes, I have to admit I am a fan. I have never had any resistance to girl-like charm:)

My joke about belonging to the Joan Sutherland School of Stage Diction simply reflects to the joking observation about coloraturas in general (Sutherland being the prime example)that no one can ever understand anything they sing. The reason is that everything vocal is sacrificed to the purity of tone and to extreme flexibility of articulation. What we really listen to in the great coloraturas are vocal pyrotechniques (пиротехника)and what are essentially elegant vocalises. Actually, Galli Curci spoke five languages fluently. She was a very elegant and refined person from an upper class background. But unfortunately, I usually can't understand her in any language except Italian, which is not too bad. The English was hopeless:)

Edmund said...

Hmmmm....make that sentence of mine about diction "simply REFERS to the joking observation...." Answering comments early on Sunday morning is probably not a good idea:))

Edmund The Sleepy

Sikantis said...

I looked at the videos you gave. The voice is really great.

Edmund said...

Yes, it's a really wonderful voice, isn't it? So light, pure, clear and flute-like. Even today, on recordings, the voice still enchants. Thanks for the comment.


Anonymous said...

Yes, judging by her singing and photos, Amelita was a very cultured, intelligent woman. Singing usually reflects artist’s personality.
Your comment on Verdi could have been a separate article.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Agreed. In the same way that professors often teach according to what they are, so singers often infuse their own personalities into their music. And, I might add, devotees of a particular artist or piece of music often invest something of themselves in their appreciation. Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons arguments about various musical artists, or compositions, can become so passionate. That which we love we passionately defend.

Yes, my answer on the Verdi question was a bit long-winded:) It was an extraordinarily suggestive question. I know well the professor who wrote it, and he is a genius. To answer a question of his, I can assure you, is no simple task:) :)

Nate said...

Galli-Curci is most likely the greatest natural female singer on record. I know this is a rather bold statement, the kind I rarely make and actively avoid; however, I feel so strongly about this, that I am willing to take the plunge. Perhaps I should clarify exactly what I mean. By natural, I refer to her tonal emission and apparent lack of effort as well as artifice in her singing. As another commentator stated, she sings as easily as one speaks. I suppose natural might also refer to the fact she had very little formal training. I recall she admitted to a few lessons, which she deemed worthless. It was at that point she decided to teach herself by listening to recordings of famous sopranos and reading books about the art of singing, such as the Garcia treatise already mentioned. I also contend she is the greatest natural SINGER, not that she had the most beautiful VOICE. You mention the grace of her singing, and I agree there is an elegance, an artistic refinement and musicianship to her phrasing, her ornamentation (never excessive), her rhythmic control, her sense of style. Her thorough grounding as a pianist surely contributed to this. She worked hard perfecting her legato, which is most haunting. Even her staccati are beautifully and correctly executed (as are Sembrich's), and unlike those of Tetrazzini's, which, according to Henderson, although brilliant and charming, were formed incorrectly by checking the breath rather than gently touching the note. Melba's staccati do not sound quite right on record (what else is new?); however, they were compared by critics of the period to full-voiced "balls of light." Perhaps most of all, I view Galli-Curci's "naturalness" in terms of the fluency, ease, facility, and agility of her singing. Finally, when I say she may not have the most beautiful voice on record, that does not mean her voice is in any way ugly. It is a pretty voice with a "rare timbre," according to de Schaunsee, and a soothing, warm tone. But there are other female singers whose voices are perhaps more intrinsically rich and beautiful, including Melba, Patti, Tetrazzini, Ponselle, Rethberg, Flagstad, Sutherland, and Horne. Certainly there are others who have greater interpretive ability, such as Callas, Muzio, Lotte Lehmann, and Schwarzkopf; and still others who surpass Galli-Curci with regard to sheer power and intensity: Nilsson, Turner, Leider, Tebaldi, to name but a few. Nonetheless, in the matter of the art of singing, I sincerely believe Galli-Curci is indeed the greatest natural female singer of them all.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Stunning comment, Nate! I could not agree more! Your special emphasis on l'art du chant, to reference Garcia's great book of the same title, which she studied like a bible, is spot-on, as is the "naturalness" to which you refer. "Naturalness" is the exact word someone used once in responding to a (probably characteristically) effusive comment of my own on the nonpareil interpretation of Gamzatti in La Bayadere, danced by Darcey Bussell, the London Royal's greatest ever prima ballerina, imho--(an opinion usually sure to start a quasi-hysterical agrument:) In the case of both Galli-Curci and Bussell, there is something that far transcends technique, even though both are masters of the same. It is that ineffable gift called "star quality" that everyone talks about and no one can define. It communicates itself with devastating power and it may be more nearly a quality of intellect or of "spirit" than pure vocal or balletic technique. Whatever it is, Galli Curci had it, and I think your use of the word "natural" comes closer to defining it than any other I can immediately recall.

Thanks again for another great comment!

Anonymous said...


Edmund St. Austell said...

Muchisimas Gracias. Mucho le agradezco su comentario, y yo estoy de acuerdo. La G-C es para mi una diosa!

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