WHAT'S IN a name? "Renata" means "reborn," and Renata Scotto, who takes everything seriously, took that seriously, too. She was reborn several years ago, after seeing herself on television.
Most opera singers would have been happy to be Scotto in the mid-1970s, when she was about 40. She was an international star, the toast of major opera houses around the world, a recording artist chronically in demand and the devoted mother of two small children. She was also beginning to have an impact on television, which is transforming opera from a specialized taste into an item of mass appeal -- and there was the problem. In the inexorable closeups of the television camera, she looked not like a young French seamstress dying of tuberculosis but like a happy Italian mother of two young children.
"Television is the most important way to increase the audience for opera," says Scotto, who was visiting Washington with the Metropolitan Opera and will give a solo recital at the Kennedy Center tonight. "People are coming into opera houses now who have never come in before, because they have seen opera on television. But opera on television is not easy. You have to please people who don't usually like opera. You have to show that opera can be like modern theater, that a singer does not have to be fat and big and wear a helmet to have a good voice."
The experience that triggered here rebirth was a telecast of "la Boheme" with Luciano Pavarotti. "I saw myself on television," she recalls, "and what I saw was nice lady with a good voice, but it was not Mimi. I wanted to look like an actress who sings. That's why I lost 43 pounds."
The weight loss, which ultimately entailed almost a complete change of appearance, was not the whole process, however. During a 1975 interview, Scotto felt unable to converse in English, though she did occasionally use a few, strongly accented words. Today, her English is fluent and the accent very light; only the most abstract, seldom-used words give her a momentary problem. "How do you say 'presuntuosa'?" she might ask.
"Ah, yes. I do not want to be presumptuous."
She is not. Her image change is probably the most thorough in opera since the 1950s, when Maria Callas decided that she should look like Audrey Hepburn. But after her transformation, Renata Scotto has kept the even temperament she had before she took the hard path to glamor. Even when she is prodded with anxiety-provoking questions about the inevitable end of a career, the effects of aging on a voice, the tension between international stardom and family life, she takes it easily in stride. Consider, for example, the following sequence:
Q. "How far ahead are you booked?"
A. "I plan four years ahead; I'm all booked for 1984-85."
Q. "And what happens if you wake up one morning in a week or two and there is no more voice. What do you do -- cancel, or continue to sing when the voice is gone?"
This is probably the worst question you can ask an opera singer, and it was not well-timed; Scotto's voice was tired on the day of the conversation, and she canceled a performance here a few days later. She registered a small shock before smiling and answering smoothly, "I would have to cancel, of course." Then she reached over to an end table and knocked on wood, still smiling. Fortunately, the Metropolitan had lodged here in the Watergate, where wooden furniture is readily available.
Questions about career and family are easier to answer because Scotto's answers are clearly the right ones. With her in the Watergate are her two school-age children (whose school vacation fortunately coincides with the Washington trip) and her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi. The family situation was not so easy in 1975, when she was singing in the United States and her family was living in Italy. At that time, she said, she saw her family "quasi mai" -- almost never. Her daughter Laura was then 6, and Scotto was obviously disturbed by her feelings about opera: "She tells me, 'Mama, don't sing.' She is jealous of the singing because she knows it takes me away from home."
Part of the problem originally was a career conflict with Anselmi, who is a violinist and conductor. "We met at La Scala 20 years ago," she recalls, "and after we married he stayed at La Scala for 10 more years. He finally left because we didn't want to be seperated, and he has made me what I am. He does everything for me; he makes me aspire to my best."
Now, home is "a little house in Westchester County," Scotto says. "I have taken my family to this country, which I love, from Italy, which I also love." Since Scotto is singing so much at the Met, the pangs of separation are considerably reduced. Her 9-year-old son Filippo has become an opera fan while also becoming an American. A friend who sat with the family in the Kennedy Center Opera House whle she was singing "Manon Lescaut" describes the scene: "Her son brought a box of baseball cards with him and he sat there quietly, flipping through the cards, as he watched his mother dying onstage."
"My son likes my singing," Scotto says proudly. "He tells me, 'You are a very important person; people come to talk to you, buy tickets to hear you sing, ask you for your autograph.' I tell him, 'I am important because I am your mother,' and he says, 'Yes, but you are the best singer in the world.'"
The children and the house in Westchester are one explanation for the dramatic improvements in her English. "I try to improve my English, and my children try to help me," she says. "They are Americans, now. My son was 4 years old when we came here, five years ago."
Now, of course, the family misses her when she is in Europe. "I spent more than a month in London, singing at Covent Garden," she says. "I made my debut as Lady Macbeth -- one of the greatest experiences of my career -- but I missed my children. When I go on a recital tour in the States, I am in the same country but still far. I telephone them every day. I try to be involved in their lives rather than to involve them in mine."
"I love being a star," she admits frankly. "I love it when the audience goes wild -- the applause, the flowers, the people asking for autographs. When you work very hard, as I do, you need recognition, and this is the best kind of recognition. But I have two lives. When I leave the stage, the audience and the flowers, I have my family. I try very hard to have a private life. Sometimes, I feel that I take too much time for myself, that I am selfish. I want both; I want my art, but I want to share it with my family -- and when my career finishes, I will still have my family.
"It is not easy. Sometimes, I think it is impossible, to go on, and I ask myself, 'Why?' But I keep my body and my mind in good shape, and I think about the future; some singers never think about tomorrow.
"Sometimes Anselmo, my husband, scolds me. 'You want everything,' he says, and I answer him, "Why not -- if I can?"