When the late Lanfranco Rasponi was a boy--he never tells his age--he was taken by his mother to a matinee performance of "Falstaff" at the Pergola Theatre in his native Florence. Mariano Stabile, one of the great interpreters of the title role, was singing and thus "opened the enchanted gates of what was to become a hobby and a passion, to the present when so much is third rate and so little magic remains."
"So little magic" might well be the subtitle of "The Last Prima Donnas," a collection of 56 interviews with singers who dominated so many stages during the last 80 years. Again and again, one hears the prima donna, no longer in the spotlight, complaining that stage directors "quash the individuality of the artists," that all opera singers today are money-hungry, that opera directors and audiences have no standards.
The lament for the glories of the past is a continuing dirge in the opera world. Critics all through the 19th century were telling us how Verdi's music was killing the art of singing. As a teen-ager, attending performances at the Metropolitan Opera with singers such as Rethberg, Martinelli, Tibbett, Schipa, DeLuca, Pinza, Kipnis, Flagstad, Melchior and Schorr, I constantly was reminded by the old-timers in standing room of the glories of Farrar, Destin, Caruso, Ruffo, Amato and even Jean de Reszke.
In the best sense of the word, the prima donna was a great artist, dedicated to her art and her public, a supreme interpreter of the music she sang and a superlative actress. Many of the artists interviewed certainly would fit this description. Some interviews go back about 50 years; the most recent was 1980. Sixteen originally were published in Opera News.
Many of the complaints of the prima donnas about current conditions would seem to apply more to Italy than the United States; for example, the accusation that opera directors are in many cases unqualified for their positions. Sadly, opera directorships in Italy largely have become political appointments, reflecting the city's or region's dominant party. There also are complaints about the lack of dedication and discipline of the young singers. I don't think this is true of the Americans I have come across, and perhaps this is why the American singer is on the roster of almost every opera house in the world--major and minor.
Conductor James Levine, testifying before Congress, recently reported that "American singers dominate the European festivals" and added that "this could be only the beginning of the greatest artistic period of our history."
Many of the singers interviewed will be fascinating to American opera-goers who will recall such artists as Kirsten Flagstad, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, Lisa della Cassa, Gladys Swarthout, Grace Moore, Lily Pons, Lotte Lehmann, Lucrezia Bori and Bidu Sayao. But others like Gilda dalla Rizza, Margherita Carosio, Ester Mazzoleni, Hildegard Ranczak and Ines Alfani Tellini will have more limited appeal, because of the lack of aural recognition and identification.
Any opera-goer, or would-be opera lover will find the first chapter, "Voices and Repertoire," an illuminating clarification of the different types of female vocal instruments and their place in the operatic repertoire. Rasponi is specific, naming singers and citing their suitability or inability to sing certain roles and why. Not everyone will agree with all his judgments but his knowledge of the vocal scene, based on 50 years of operatic listening cannot be disputed.
Rasponi had to engage in considerable detective work to track down some of the women interviewed. Some were living in old artists' homes; others barely had enough funds to sustain themselves. Each interview is preceded by an introduction, explaining the circumstances under which it took place, an appraisal of the artist and an attempt to indicate her position in operatic history. The interviews generally deal with the artists' training, the circumstances of their debuts, and the roles and successes or failures they have had. Rasponi obviously was a very skillful reporter because in almost all cases his subjects speak openly and frankly about themselves and their colleagues.
Unhappily, Rasponi's weakest chapter is on Maria Callas. He never had a formal interview with her and the chapter is largely a rewrite of many news stories that have appeared about her. Rasponi does not illustrate or explore her unique abilities with the same skill and depth that he exercises on other subjects.
This is not the kind of book I would recommend for quick reading. Some of the interviews begin to sound similar after a while. But for anyone who loves opera and wants to learn more, "The Last Prima Donnas" will provide an inside picture of opera production and the changes that are occurring in it. But bear in mind, despite Rasponi and disillusioned prima donnas, there still is magic on the opera stage and there undoubtedly will be many more prima donnas--in the best sense of the word--to come.