photo by Pramzam45
A few years ago I wrote on this site about the experience that introduced me to opera. To sum up: as a young pianist, I was bored by the opera unit in my 7th-grade music class at Nichols Junior High School and *cough cough* flunked the test on Madama Butterfly. (That's right, folks; my public school general music class included Italian opera in the curriculum. Hey - it was the '60's) My mother took exception to my attitude and dragged me in for a conference with the teacher. It was decided that if Mom purchased a recording of the opera and I did some independent study I'd be given credit for the exam.
So once I actually, you know, like, listened to the music, my better musical instincts were ignited and I dived head-first into perhaps the great infatuation of my life. And it was largely due to Bergonzi.
Mom bought the London recording with Tebaldi as Cio-Cio-san, Enzo Sordello as Sharpless, Fiorenza Cossotto as Suzuki and Bergonzi as Pinkerton, Tulio Serafin conducting. The rest of the cast was fine, although I was disturbed by Tebaldi's matronly appearance in the photos of her in the libretto; she didn't confom to my image of a teen-aged Japanese girl.
But Bergonzi was a revelation.
I drank in his voice; I inhaled it; I mainlined it; I soaked it in like a sponge. He sounded so full of youthful vitality and passion and spontaneity and the sheer impetuous joy of producing honeyed golden vocal lines that my head was spinning with his performance. Especially touching was his achingly beautiful reading of Pinkerton's cowardly expression of remorse, "Addio fiorito asil" in the final scene. Even at age 12 I was aware of the way Bergonzi kept his high notes within a musical line; no punching, lunging, bleating or yelling. His B flats were on the breath, though I didn't yet know that term.
As I began to acquire more operatic recordings, I noted that Mario del Monaco (London Record's other tenor of choice) was an unmusical thug in comparison, with an unremittingly loud delivery. Di Stefano? Too wide-open at the top to my boyish ears. Corelli? Exciting, but often sounding as though singing a melody was heavy, effortful lifting. I enjoyed Tucker's Radames in Toscanini's Aida, but otherwise found his mannerisms annoying. And Peerce's top sounded dry and forced to me.
Nope, Bergonzi was the King of my operatic galaxy, with only Bjoerling offering comparable pleasure. When I reached my college years and began singing in the chorus of the Indiana University Opera Theater productions (though I majored in piano), I was disturbed to learn that many of the opera folk said Bergonzi's voice was too small to be considered a great tenor; that he was often inaudible in a large house. (I never did get to hear him live and in person to judge for myself.)
But now I see that, in retrospect, Bergonzi is praised for not having pushed his instrument to create artificial heft and size, as noted in this New York Times obituary. The conventional wisdom is that Bergonzi is the finest interpreter of Verdi to take the stage in the modern era. His recordings of the Verdi canon are considered models of style and musicality.
But here's what I've only now learned.
First, Carlo Bergonzi was a war hero. Opera lovers: were you aware that as a young adult he spent three years in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities? Dio mio! When he finally returned to Italy, it is said he weighed only 80 pounds. I never knew about all this! I hope there are sources I can access telling the full story of this episode.
And there is another aspect of his character worth sharing: the way in which he exemplified a dedicated artist's life.
I studied piano with the great Romantic pianist Jorge Bolet from 1970-1976 at Indiana University's School of Music. Once, at a studio dinner party, Mr. Bolet began speaking about his personal life, a rare event for him. With resigned wistfulness, he talked about the demands of a touring virtuoso's life, and how he realized early on he would never have a normal family life. Playing over 120 concerts a year is no existence in which to have a wife and children; at least, this was his decision.
Now, in an interview published by the Bel Canto Society, I read Bergonzi speaking of a life defined by 35 years of sacrifice:
"We sacrificed everything. My wife and I have travelled around the world perhaps three times. The satisfactions have been few. We have gotten to know New York a little in recent years, but in the other cities we have known only two things: hotel and theater. And my wife has prepared the luggage many, many times.
This is the dirty little secret of the performing arts: those with the greatest gifts usually come to understand that the price paid for being thus kissed by Nature is a life of relentless drudgery and isolation. The reward is not that of applause or wealth; it's the fulfillment of giving one's best to something that matters and creating a body of work that contributes to world culture and will outlive the performer.
Riposa in pace, signore. Ben fatto.
Post-script: Faithful Readers, are you interested in supporting the creation of new music? Here's a worthy opportunity. My daughter Kathleen Winters, a doctoral flute student at the University of Illinois School of Music in Urbana, is using Indiegogo.com to raise funding for a project involving the commissioning and performance of new music in a way that integrates art with the community. Full details are at this link: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/intercultural-connections. You are invited to read about it and, if you like the mission and objectives, contribute any amount.