Obituary: Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato dies

By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; B07

Giulietta Simionato, one of the finest Italian opera singers of the 20th century and a doyenne of the opera world, died May 5 in Rome. She had heart and other ailments, Reuters reported.

Ms. Simionato, who would have turned 100 next week, was one of the last living links to a musical history that is quickly becoming part of the distant past. She sang in the tragedy "Cavalleria Rusticana" under the baton of the composer, Pietro Mascagni, who died in 1945.

A versatile artist who performed as convincingly in Mozart comedies as in tragedies of war and unrequited love, Ms. Simionato sang for more than three decades in the leading opera houses of the world, from the 1930s until her retirement in 1966. The names of her conductors read like an all-star list: Arturo Toscanini, Herbert von Karajan and Tullio Serafin. She sang major roles alongside artists including Renata Tebaldi and, most famously, soprano Maria Callas, known to opera lovers as "La Divina."

At just over 5 feet and about 120 pounds at the height of her career, Ms. Simionato's stature belied the power of her mezzo-soprano voice.

"A small woman, Miss Simionato moves with simplicity and a tight restraint that suggests her intense inner tragedy, and when the sudden passionate outbursts, with their large gestures, appear, they seem to erupt naturally against the character's will," music critic Raymond Ericson wrote in the New York Times in 1962. "It was good to have an artist of such quality back with the Metropolitan" opera house, he wrote, paying her one of the highest compliments that an opera singer could receive.

She boasted more than 50 roles in her repertoire and excelled in bel canto parts, which are highly lyrical. The quality of Ms. Simionato's acting distinguished her from other singers of her generation, some of whom simply stood on the stage and sang.

"She was a singing actress at a time when most people believed that 'stand and deliver' was okay," said Roger Pines, the current dramaturg of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Ms. Simionato made her American debut in 1954. "She was completely in her character, always."

When she sang in Dallas, one critic favorably compared her voice to Louis Armstrong's trumpet. It's unclear how much she would have appreciated the comment; she once said that she disliked "il jazz e il jukebox."

Giulietta Simionato was born in Forli, near Bologna, on May 12, 1910. Her father, one of at least two dozen children, was the director of a prison.

Ms. Simionato spent much of her youth on the island of Sardinia, her mother's home. She received her first vocal training at a convent there and considered becoming a nun; that probably would have pleased her mother, who wanted Ms. Simionato to sing "for the Madonna."

Ms. Simionato began her professional training as a teenager near Padua, in northern Italy, where the family lived after her mother's death. When she was 18, she sang in Verdi's "Rigoletto," an opera about a hunchbacked jester who locks away his beloved daughter Gilda in a vain effort to protect her from the hardships and ugliness of the world. Two days after that performance, Ms. Simionato's father died.

"Whatever I have accomplished, I have done it myself," Ms. Simionato said. "I was all alone and had to sing in order to live."

Ms. Simionato racked up victories at music competitions and appearances at the prestigious La Scala opera house in Milan, but for years she was relegated to minor roles. When she raised the matter with the director of La Scala, where she sang on contract, and did not receive a satisfactory response, Ms. Simionato struck out on her own in the late 1930s. She was soon in demand.

She began a string of performances in major roles including gypsy women of Bizet's "Carmen" and Verdi's "Azucena." When word of her success reached La Scala, the opera house called her back for the title role in Ambroise Thomas's "Mignon." This role, in 1947, proved her critical breakthrough; La Scala never stopped calling her back.

Ms. Simionato first became known in the United States through her recordings. She was to make her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but she was thwarted by a fit of laryngitis and made her first American performance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago singing in "Norma" with Callas.

In 1966 Ms. Simionato married Cesare Frugoni, a retired Rome physician nearly 30 years her senior whose patients had included dictator Benito Mussolini. Frugoni died in 1978. A complete list of her marriages and survivors could not be confirmed.

Featured in Jan Schmidt-Garre's film "Opera Fanatic," Ms. Simionato spoke bluntly about the "enemies" who had tried to stifle her career out of jealousy and said that, if she had it to do all over again, she would not have chosen a career onstage.

"I am jealous by nature," she once said. "I'm jealous of people, of my possessions, of my dog -- without, however, overstepping that level where it becomes something pathological or morbid. I'm jealous in the good sense of the word."

Ms. Simionato was known offstage for her elegant fashion. She collected furs, according to a 1961 press account, "as other women collect antiques." She wore a bracelet with a pendant inscribe with her lucky number, seven, and a saying in Latin: "In this sign you will conquer."

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