Cesare Siepi, 87

Opera singer Cesare Siepi dies at 87

Cesare Siepi portrays the title character in Mozart's
Cesare Siepi portrays the title character in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in this 1957 photo. (Louis Melancon/metropolitan Opera Archives)
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By Anne Midgette
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Cesare Siepi, 87, one of the greatest operatic basses of all time, died July 5 at a hospital in Atlanta. He died of respiratory failure, after having a stroke several days ago, according to his son, Marco.

Warm, deep, resonant and melting, Mr. Siepi's voice was a defining sound in opera in the 1950s and 1960s on the world's stages and, fortunately, in many recordings.

For years, he was the reigning bass at the Metropolitan Opera, and a regular fixture at London's Covent Garden and many other houses around the world, singing virtually all the staple roles of the bass repertory: King Philip II in Verdi's "Don Carlo," Boris in Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," and, perhaps most memorably, the title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Tall and handsome, he was one of the few Giovannis who could both sing with the sensuous, seductive ease the role requires and look the part of the irresistible seducer. He owned the role for decades, even making a film of the opera, released in 1955, under celebrated German conductor and composer Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Cesare Siepi was born Feb. 10, 1923, in Milan. His father was an accountant and his mother a homemaker. His father died when the boy was 16, and a half brother was killed during World War II on the Russian front, leaving him alone with his mother for much of his life.

While he initially hoped for a career in the boxing ring, he gave it up after several amateur bouts when his mother grew worried over his cuts and bruises.

Vocally, he was a natural talent. He began singing with a madrigal group at 14, made his concert debut at 17, won a scholarship to a music academy in Milan, and in 1941 made his operatic debut singing Sparafucile in Verdi's "Rigoletto," an awfully low role for your average teenager.

Shortly thereafter, he fled to Switzerland to escape the fascist regime and did not return to Italy until the war had ended.

His Italian career took off almost immediately. He quickly established himself as a regular at La Scala in big roles: Zaccaria in Verdi's "Nabucco," the title role in Boito's "Mefistofele," under Arturo Toscanini.

Soon, he was singing in opera and concert appearances around Europe: the Verdi and Mozart requiems in Edinburgh, and even a debut at Covent Garden in 1950 in the relatively small role of Pistol in Verdi's "Falstaff," when La Scala visited the house on tour.

In 1950, Rudolf Bing took over as general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, hoping to bring in more stage directors from the world of theater, open the house up to television and find singers who were able to act.

Bing began his tenure with a production of an opera that hadn't been done at the Met in 30 years, Verdi's "Don Carlo." The Bulgarian-born opera singer Boris Christoff, then living in Italy, was scheduled to sing King Philip II but was inexplicably unable to get a visa; Bing brought in Mr. Siepi on a few weeks' notice to take the part.

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