Renata Scotto, opera diva who inhabited roles, dies at 89

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Renata Scotto, opera diva who inhabited roles, dies at 89
The famed soprano Renata Scotto, left, leads a class with Brenda Rae and the pianist In Sun Suh, in New York on May 19, 2007. Scotto, the firebrand Italian soprano and Metropolitan Opera favorite who was acclaimed for her acting and her insights into opera characters as much as for her voice, died in Savona, Italy on Aug. 16, 2023. She was 89. (Jennifer Taylor/The New York Times)

by Jonathan Kandell

NEW YORK, NY.- Renata Scotto, the firebrand Italian soprano and Metropolitan Opera favorite who was acclaimed for her acting and her insights into opera characters as much as for her voice, died Wednesday in Savona, Italy. She was 89.

Her son, Filippo Anselmi, confirmed the death. He did not specify a cause.

At her best, in roles such as Giacomo Puccini’s Cio-Cio San in “Madama Butterfly” and Mimì in “La Bohème,” Giuseppe Verdi’s Violetta in “La Traviata” and Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma,” Scotto achieved a dramatic intensity that electrified audiences and elicited the highest praise from her fellow opera stars.

“Renata is the closest I have ever worked with to a real singing actress,” tenor Plácido Domingo was quoted as saying in The New York Times Magazine in 1978. “There is an emphasis, a feeling she puts behind every word she interprets.”

Vocally, Scotto could not match the sensuousness of Renata Tebaldi or the astonishing technique and range of Joan Sutherland. And miscues on high notes could mar her exquisitely shaped phrases.

But Scotto’s charisma and stage presence made critics overlook her shortcomings. “Her voice may be a bit hard, and seldom does she get through an aria without some kind of vocal flaw, but the important thing is that when she sings, a sensitive mind is at work and a powerful personality comes through,” The New York Times’ chief music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, wrote in a review of a Scotto recital at Carnegie Hall in 1973.

Scotto long reigned as one of the most popular sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera. From 1965 to 1987, she delivered more than 300 performances in 26 roles at the Met. Her stage appearances tapered off after that until her retirement in 2002.

Armed with self-confidence, the diminutive Scotto jousted with giants of the opera world, including the general managers of La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera as well as renowned conductors who took issue with her interpretations. “In opera, the singer comes before everything,” she said in a 1972 interview with the Times. “Many times I have had discussions, sometimes fights, and always I win.”

She was equally demanding of her colleagues onstage.

In a 1963 performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” in Bergamo, Italy, tenor Giuseppe di Stefano left her in the middle of a duet to eat an apple in the wings; when he returned, Scotto slapped him across the face. (The scene called for only a pinch on the cheek, and the tenor’s shocked reaction alerted the audience that something was amiss.)

In another incident, Scotto unleashed a verbal barrage at Luciano Pavarotti for pushing her and other cast members aside to take unscripted solo calls during and after a performance of Amilcare Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” at the San Francisco Opera in 1976.

Yet Scotto’s combination of talent and hard work drew admiration from fellow singers. “She’s unique in vocal coloration,” baritone Sherrill Milnes told the Times Magazine. “Even if you don’t understand the language, you feel it. She will also sacrifice vocal beauty to get the word or the emotional intention across.”

Renata Scotto was born in humble circumstances Feb. 24, 1934, in Savona, then a small Italian fishing town on the Mediterranean coast west of Genoa. Her father, Giuseppe, was a police officer; her mother, Santina, was a seamstress. When Savona came under Allied bombardment during World War II, Renata, along with her mother and her older sister, Luciana, took refuge in a nearby Alpine village, Tovo San Giacomo.

Even as a child, she showed signs of the diva to come.

In Tovo San Giacomo, she would stand by her bedroom window and regale passersby with the latest songs favored by the leading Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli. The villagers applauded and often tossed her candy. “You see, I never sang for nothing in my life,” she noted in her 1984 memoir, “Scotto: More Than a Diva,” written with Octavio Roca.

When she was 12, she was invited by an uncle to her first opera — Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” with Tito Gobbi in the title role — at the Teatro Chiabrera in Savona. “Gobbi the great singer and Gobbi the great actor made me decide that night that I would be an opera singer,” she recalled.

As a teenager, Scotto was sent to Milan for voice and piano lessons. The only lodging her family could afford was at a Canossian convent, which she described as “somewhere between a jail and a very austere kindergarten.” The mother superior lectured her on the banality of secular music, and a nun tried to steal her music scores.

But outside the convent, her teachers, especially soprano Mafalda Favero, recognized her talent and helped bring about her career. Several years later, she studied with Spanish former soprano Mercedes Llopart — who, Scotto said, “really taught me how to sing.”

Scotto made her operatic debut in her hometown in 1952 at age 18, singing Verdi’s Violetta. She appeared the next day in the same role at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. A year later, she made her first appearance at La Scala in Catalani’s “La Wally,” singing the role of Walter. Skeptics on La Scala’s staff considered her too short, at 4 feet, 11 inches, to play Walter. They also forced her to wear a plastic nose because her own was supposedly too small. But audiences wildly applauded her performances.

Scotto’s international breakthrough came in 1957 at the Edinburgh Festival, where La Scala staged its production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” Maria Callas sang the lead role of Amina in the first four performances covered by her contract, but she bowed out of an unscheduled fifth performance, pleading illness. Scotto then replaced her, to great acclaim.

“I became a celebrity, I could choose my roles,” Scotto recalled. “The applause at the end would not stop, with 10, 12 solo calls.” But the episode ignited a lengthy feud between the two divas, stoked by media gossip and overwrought opera fans.

At La Scala in 1970, Scotto sang the role of Elena for the first time in a new production of Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani.” Callas, who had performed the same role almost 20 years before and retired in the mid-1960s, was in the audience. As soon as Scotto walked onstage, a claque of Callas fanatics began yelling, “Maria, Maria!” and, “Viva Callas!” Scotto continued to perform despite the frequent interruptions. But afterward, in an interview in her dressing room, she erupted in fury: “Let them get Callas to come and do ‘Vespri’ if she can sing.”

A worse incident occurred at the Metropolitan Opera on opening night in 1981 with Scotto in the title role of “Norma” and Domingo as Pollione. Although Callas had died four years before, a band of her rabid followers began shouting her name as soon as Scotto walked onstage. At intermission, she broke down in tears and had to be persuaded by Domingo to return and finish the performance. Four hecklers were arrested later.

Even as a young soprano on the rise, Scotto demonstrated self-assurance in dealing with management at the great opera houses. In 1964, when La Scala’s general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, withdrew his promise to cast her as Violetta in a new production of “La Traviata” directed by Franco Zeffirelli, she vowed never to perform there as long as Ghiringhelli remained. And true to her word, she returned to the Milan house only after he stepped down in 1972.

She similarly challenged the Met’s strong-willed general manager, Rudolf Bing. Scotto complained that in the three seasons after her 1965 debut, she was always offered the same operas: “Traviata,” “Butterfly,” “L’Elisir” and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” When Bing refused her any new roles, she left the Met two seasons later after meeting her contractual obligations. The New York press cast her as imperious: “If the Met Won’t Sing Her Tune, Goodbye Scotto,” a New York Times headline read.

But once Bing’s tenure ended in 1972, Scotto was invited back to the Met. Upon her return in the fall of 1974, her first role was Elena in “Vespri,” conducted by James Levine.

“Renata is a direct descendant of the great, expressive Italian sopranos,” said Levine, who became the Met’s music director in 1976. (Levine, who was fired by the Met in 2018 over claims of sexual misconduct, died in 2021.) The two got along famously, and the ensuing decade proved to be Scotto’s glory years.

Her artistry and popular appeal reached such heights that the Times declared, “From all appearances, the New York opera season of 1976-77 will be the season of Renata Scotto.” The previous summer, she had drawn an estimated 100,000 people to a concert performance of “Madama Butterfly” in Central Park. Early in 1976, she became the first soprano to perform all three leading roles in Puccini’s three one-act operas, “Il Trittico,” at the Met in the same evening.

In 1977, Scotto broke new ground with a live telecast — the first installment of the long-running PBS series “Great Performances at the Met" — performing in “La Bohème” as Mimì, with Pavarotti in the role of Rodolfo. As she noted, the broadcast reached more people in a single night than had seen Puccini’s opera since its premiere in 1896.

But she was so appalled by her heavy appearance that she went on a diet, losing 30 pounds and keeping them off the rest of her career. “Some people worry that losing weight might hurt the voice,” she said, “I say nonsense: that is a myth to protect the fat singers.”

With Levine conducting, Scotto gave deeply etched performances in “Norma” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” As she explained in a 1976 interview with the Times: “A singer has to give emotion to the audience, and for that you must be a complete performer, not just a good singer and not just a good actress.”

This approach endeared her even to critics who faulted her vocal miscues. In an October 1976 review of Scotto’s performance as Leonora in “Il Trovatore,” Schonberg cited her rendering of the aria, “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” as an example: “Miss Scotto scooped her way through it and had trouble with the tessitura. It was not a distinguished example of vocal technique. But Miss Scotto was able to get away with it because of the style she brought to the aria, the conviction with which she sang it,” Schonberg wrote. “Personality sometimes can count for more than voice alone.”

But as Scotto’s singing talents eroded in her last years on the opera stage, critics asserted that not even first-rate acting could compensate. In a 1986 review of “Madama Butterfly,” Times critic Donal Henahan wrote that her performance “followed a pattern we have come to expect from the soprano in the late years of a long career: ardently and sometimes shrewdly acted, though erratically and sometimes painfully sung.”

Scotto married a violinist in the La Scala orchestra, Lorenzo Anselmi, in 1960, and they had two children, Laura and Filippo. They survive her, as do two grandchildren.

Anselmi abandoned his playing career to become his wife’s voice coach, musical sounding board and business manager. “The biggest decision that a man can make is to give up his own career to dedicate himself to his wife’s,” Scotto said. He died in 2021.

After retiring as a diva, Scotto directed a number of operas, to modest praise. She also gained renown as a voice teacher.

Her advice was often practical. She used to remind her students of an admonition from her first voice teacher, Favero, that it was necessary to reserve vocal stamina for emotional scenes.

She also urged her students to draw on their own life experiences, especially family relationships. Scotto cited as an example how memories of her mother, Santina, helped her interpret Mimì in “La Bohème”: “I would understand Mimì’s sweet desperation and her happiness by remembering Santina the seamstress as she worked and sang.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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