Tenor  Carlo  Bergonzi
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


It seems that the operatic firmament bestows upon us various golden ages.  Though it usually only allows for one voice-type or one fach in any era, we have had several of them for most of the categories.  Great tenors seem to come and go, and the size and weight of each voice determines where it will fit into the repertoire. 

So-called "Verdi Tenors" are a special breed.  Usually their focus is on the composer from Busseto, but just as often their list of roles spills over into other areas.  Lighter ones sing some Bel Canto.  Heavier ones do Puccini and the occasional Wagner part.  Among the most admired and treasured of the Verdi Tenors is Carlo Bergonzi. 

Born in 1924, he emerged after the war as a baritone but quickly re-set as a tenor.  His career took him around the globe, making stops in the major opera houses of Europe, North and South America, as well as Japan.  He also made many recordings of both complete operas and recitals, including a two-LP set (remember them?) of arias from all the Verdi operas.  [A photo of this album appears later on this webpage.]

He made his American debut in Chicago in 1955, and returned in four scattered seasons thereafter.  Amazingly, there were only two Verdi roles for the Windy City in Aïda and Forza del Destino.  The others ranged from Puccini
(Il Tabarro and Tosca) and Donizetti (Lucia and Elisir) to Boïto (Mefistofele), Mascagni (Cavalleria) and Montemezzi (L'amore dei tre Re). 

It was during his final visit in 1981 that I had the chance to speak with him.  Our time was limited, but he was gracious and eager to have me understand just what he was trying to say.  He spoke some English, and sprinkled a few Italian words here and there, as well as simply presenting some thoughts in his native tongue.  I have left intact a few of his exclamations and phrases, as well as some words that are better in Italian than even a careful rendering can make them in English.

Here is what transpired during our all-too-brief encounter at his hotel . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:   Let me first ask you about singing in various opera houses.  How much difference is there, singing in a small house in Europe as opposed to a big house like the Met or Chicago?

Carlo Bergonzi:   There isn't much difference between them.  There doesn't have to be much difference, because I never push the voice for the big theatre or the small.  The voice must always be normal.

BD:   The voice is always the same, always easy?

CB:   Easy!  Ecco!  This is very important.  For the big house, for the small house, it is not different.  The difference is the acoustic of the hall.  This is very, very important.

BD:   Have you sung in houses where the acoustic is very bad?

CB:   I don't remember the acoustic being bad.

BD:   When you sing on the stage, do you hear your voice come back to you?

CB:   This is not really a good acoustic when the voice comes back.  In a good acoustic, the voice doesn't come back, but you try for this.  You put the voice out there and you feel that, without pushing, the voice goes all around the theatre.  This is very important.

bergonzi BD:   Let's talk a little bit about the operas of Verdi.  You've sung so many of them
have you done all but Otello?

CB:   I haven't even thought yet about Otello.

BD:   Will you ever do Otello?

CB:   For all tenors, it's the greatest goal, the highest point for every tenor!  But you need a certain maturity.  You have to have rest, you have to prepare it for six or seven or eight months or even one year. 

BD:   Is Otello that difficult for the voice?

CB:   Otello is a very difficult opera. 

BD:   Is it too heavy?

CB:   It is heavy, not for the high notes, but for the center, the middle register, the passaggio
Mi, Fa, Fa-diesis, Sol [E, F, F-sharp, G].

BD:   Right, the middle of the voice, where it goes from the lower register to the higher register.

CB:   Ecco!  This is very difficult for Otello.  It is very different than the other operas.

BD:   Are there other operas that lie similar to that?

CB:   In one act, but not the whole opera.  The last act of Luisa Miller is similar to second act of Otello because it's in the passaggio
not the high notes, but the middle voice.

BD:   When you sing Luisa Miller, do you use any special preparation?

CB:   No!  Well, for the last act, yes.  The first and the second acts are lyric, but the third act is very dramatic, like Otello.

BD:   Do you want a longer intermission before the third act?

CB:   After the aria and cabaletta in act two, I have the intermission, then I have the aria of Luisa and the duet with Luisa and her father, Miller during which to rest.  So for me it's 40 to 45 minutes of intermission.

BD:   Do you rest during this time, or do you vocalize a little bit?

CB:   No no no, I rest.  I don't talk at all.  Nothing!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me about the early operas of Verdi.  Why are these not done as much as Rigoletto or Traviata or Forza?

CB:   Verdi is ALL difficult because of the reason we've just talked about
the middle, the passaggio.  Early Verdi operas are written very difficult for the tenor line.  In all operas of Verdi, the tenors have the aria near the beginning.  It is this way in Oberto, in Due Foscari, in Giovanna d'Arco, in Attila, in Masnadieri.  In Ernani it is a little later, but all of these, even Giorno di Regno have the aria and cabaletta right away!  This is difficult.

BD:   There is no time to warm up!

CB:   Ecco.  You have to prepare the voice in the dressing room!

BD:   On a night when you're singing one of these operas, do you go to the theatre earlier?

CB:   Two hours before.  This is not just for the makeup, but to vocalize
to review the phrases which are difficult in the end or the beginning of the aria, to try the passaggio and the high notes.

BD:   These opening arias are in the early Verdi operas, but he also put the aria for the tenor first in Rigoletto and Aïda!

CB:   Yes!  This is what I tell you before, Verdi is always difficult! 

BD:   I thought he knew how to write well for voices.  Will singing his operas destroy voices?

CB:   Verdi can destroy voices if the voice is not impostata.  [This word can refer to proper vocal placement as well as technical development.  A good English equivalent would be «set up right».]  You must sing in the right way.

BD:   Having the right projection?

bergonzi CB:   The right projection, yes.  Verdi is not about the big voice or the small voice.  Verdiano is the color.  This is very important.  In Puccini, the voice is more light because in Puccini there are more high notes than in Verdi.  It's very important to have a very clear voice and a way of singing that's not supported in the diaphragm like Verdi.  Supporting Verdi in the diaphragm is very important for the color, for the middle, the passaggio.

BD:   But not so much for Puccini?

CB:   No.  Verdi is more difficult than Puccini.

BD:   Verdi's more difficult for the tenor?

CB:   For the tenor, yes.

BD:   What about for the soprano?

CB:   Verdi wrote music that is easy for the baritone, bass and mezzo-soprano, but not for tenor and soprano!

BD:   But there are some wonderful Verdi baritone parts!

CB:   Yes, because it's the normal voice!  Verdi had a baritone voice.  The normal voice of Verdi is the baritone.  Most of the line is within the staff for the baritone.  This is very important. 

BD:   What about comparing Verdi with Donizetti?

CB:   Oh, this is very difficult!  This is very different!  The portamento is very important for Verdi; the respirazione, the breath.  In the studying that technique for Verdi, it is very important to support the breath with the diaphragm.  Verdi is unforgiving.  If you use the wrong respirazione for Verdi, then you don't sing Verdi!   You sing Verdi either well or bad; to sing Verdi well, it's the respirazione.

BD:   What about for Donizetti?

CB:   Donizetti is more difficult in the variazione, in the vocalise.  You know L'elisir d'amore?

BD:   Yes, of course.

CB:   In the first act...  [Demonstrates, at score pitch, from the Adina/Nemorino duet.]  It's in vocalise.  It's another kind of singing than Verdi.  Donizetti is very difficult for sing
Lucia, Elisir d'amore, Favorita...

BD:   But it is lighter?

CB:   More light than Verdi!  Sì sì.

BD:   But to sing Donizetti, you also need the support!

CB:   Yes, but for my technique it is necessary for all operas
the support, the respirazione, the breath, the diaphragm.

BD:   So you learn to sing well with your voice, and then you can sing Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini...

CB:   I tell you, I sing 68 operas
Bellini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Puccini, Giordano, Verdi...


BD:   Have you sung any contemporary works?

CB:   Yes!  At the beginning of the career I sing the autori contemporanei like [Ludovico] Rocca, [Ildebrando] Pizzetti, and many operas for radio.  [Note: Bergonzi sang Rocca's Il dibuk and Monte Ivnor, and Pizzetti's Ifigenia (1952/06/01, San Carlo, Napoli) and L'oro.]  In La Scala, I sang the first performance the Mas'Aniello of Jacopo Napoli. 
He was the director of the conservatory in Napoli.  [Note: The man, the region, and the job description all share the name «Napoli»: Jacopo Napoli, himself Napolitano, was for several years a composition teacher at the Naples conservatory and then held that establishment's directorship 1954—1962.  Although the printed libretto gives the date as 1953/03/23, Mas'Aniello received its world premiere at La Scala on 1953/03/25.  In the title role was the four-months-shy-of-29 Carlo Bergonzi, making his Scala debut.  The opera ran for four performances.]  I sang many new operas.

BD:   In your opinion, do the new composers know how to write for the voice?

CB:   They are not for my voice.

BD:   Are they for any voices?

CB:   [With an embarrassed chuckle]  Eh, I don't know.  Maybe the younger singers have the voices for the new repertoire, but for my voice, non è giusto, it's not right.  It's not for me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In your long career, you first sang baritone.  Do you occasionally miss singing the great Verdi baritone roles?

bergonzi CB:   I had been a baritone in '47, '48, and '49.  I sang three years as a baritone.  [Note: Bergonzi's professional debut as a baritone is usually given as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948.  However, in August 1947, at Catania's Arena Argentina, he was part of a company which presented La traviata and La bohème.  His respective roles were Il barone Douphol and Schaunard!  At Parma's Teatro Regio in September 1948, he sang Belcore in L'elisir d'amore opposite the Nemorino of Ferruccio Tagliavini.  At the same theatre the following September he sang the double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in the roles of Alfio and Silvio.]  I sang the light operas like Belcore in Elisir d'amore, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, and Ashton in Lucia, and the big role of Germont in Traviata and one time Rigoletto in Gallipolli, Teatro Schipa, I sang Amico Fritz with Feruccio Tagliavini.  The season also had Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi, but one day he was ill in the afternoon and could not sing.  The impresario tells me, «Carlo, you sing Rigoletto.»  I had never sung Rigoletto, but I had studied Rigoletto!

BD:   You knew it?

CB:   Yes, because all baritono, whether they have the voice for Rigoletto or not, study the role.  I knew every note very well and the personaggio, the character, all!  The whole part was in my memory.  The impresario tells me, «I am in for a very big disaster.  I am very disappointed because tonight I can't start the performance, and the theatre is sold out!»  This is because they don't have a baritone for Rigoletto!  So I said,
«OK, I will try it!  I will sing Rigoletto!»  My voice was very light, not the right kind of baritone for Rigoletto.  But I sang an excellent performance!  People said the voice was not big, but the Verdi line was just right.  So I sang it just that one time.

BD:   If a recording company were to ask you to sing it for records, would you?

CB:   I never recorded anything as a baritone.  But today, I don't know!  [Ponders this a moment]  Maybe I would try it, but no, now I am a tenor and will always be a tenor.  Maybe in a year or two I might try Otello.  [Ponders again]  I know it is not possible, but f I could be a baritone again, I would only want to do three roles
— Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth, and Rigoletto.

BD:   You have made a lot of records.  Do you feel that your voice on records come across as well as in the theatre?

CB:   All my records are not bad...

BD:   [With mock horror]  Not bad???

CB:   [Smiles]  No, not bad.  But I would like to redo them and try to make them better!  [Chuckles]

BD:   Do you enjoy making recordings?

CB:   Yes.  I enjoy it in principle.  In general I am glad for my records.  The critics are all for Bergonzi!  «The Verdi Tenor» is a best-seller.

BD:   When we play some of your records on the radio, they always get good response.

CB:   [Smiles]  Good.

bergonzi BD:   In that box-set [shown at left] you sing arias from all the Verdi operas, even the unknownsI due Foscari, I Masnadieri, Alzira...  Why are these works not done in the theater any more?

CB:   I don't know!  You have heard these operas?

BD:   !

CB:   They are very good!  I sing now, in 20 days, in Carnegie Hall in New York, a concert version of I due Foscari with Ricciarelli and Bruson.  [Note: Eve Queler conducted the Opera Orchestra of New York, and Margarita Castro-Alberty replaced Katia Riccareilli as Lucrezia Contarini]  Then in December I will sing Il Corsaro.  This is a beautiful opera!  [Note: This was on December 12, 1981, and was the New York premiere at Stony Brook University, conducted by David Lawton.  The cast included Sarah Reese as Gulnara, Carolyn Val-Schmidt as Medora, and James Dietsch as Pasha Seid.  The same personnel, under the title «Long Island Opera Society», also performed the opera on December 15 at Town Hall.]  You're right that they are not often done.  The general managers of the theatres don't put the early Verdi operas in the cartellone [playbill for a specific performance or set of performances, also used generally to mean a theatre's season programming].

BD:   We had a very nice production here of I due Foscari in 1972 and it was well-received!  [Six performances in September—October 1972.  Pier Luigi Pizzi's production from the Teatro Dell'Opera Roma, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti, with Franco Tagliavini as Jacopo, Piero Cappuccilli as Francesco, and Katia Ricciarelli as Lucrezia.]

CB:   Yes!  I will sing Attila in Tulsa next February.  [Note: These performances were March 6, 11, 13, 1982, in Chapman Music Hall, Tulsa Opera, conducted by Eugene Kohn with Bergonzi as Foresto, Simon Estes as Attila, Adib Fazah as Ezio, and Marisa Galvany as Odabella.]

BD:   We had Attila here just last season!  [Note: October—November 1980, a co–production with New York City Opera and San Diego Opera, conducted by Bruno Bartoletti.  Nicolai Ghiaurov sang the title role, Silvano Carroli was Ezio, Veriano Luchetti was Foresto, Gilda Gruz-Romo was Odabella, and in the important comprimario role of Uldino was the young Gregory Kunde!]

CB:   In Italy now, the theatres of Roma, Napoli, Venezia-Fenice are beginning to perform the early Verdi
Giovanna d'Arco, I due Foscari, I Masnadieri, Attila...

BD:   Even Oberto?

CB:   Oberto, too!  .  It is a good, good opera!  The first opera of Verdi, but the genius was already there!

BD:   The genius of Verdi was there, even at first?

CB:   Sempre!  [Always!]  Sempre!

BD:   How do you see the development of Verdi from Oberto through Aïda and Falstaff?

CB:   [Ponders a moment]  There was a big change with the maturity of Verdi's genius, but when I studied Oberto for the first time and I arrived at the aria «Ciel, che feci?», I cried.  At that moment, singing with just the pianoforte, I stopped and cried.  I thought about the young Verdi who was already the great genius in his first opera.  Some part of The Lion was already there!

BD:   Then he got even better?

CB:   Afterwards everything was amplified, always getting better then better then better then better!  Verdi write the last opera, Falstaff, for the duemila, the year 2000!  Not for 1890, but for 2000.  This opera is modern, not just for now, but for 2100
— many years from now!

BD:   What about the Requiem do you look at it as another opera?

CB:   No.  It is a beautiful opera, but it is different.  The music of the Requiem is an exceptional thing.  If Verdi wrote his operas well — Oberto, Aïda, Masnadieri, Falstaff, Otello — then he was beyond natural, otherworldly in the Requiem.  It is something extra for me internally.  It's a very different thing, a supernatural thing.  Think of the tenor's Hostias and Ingemisco, the mezzo's pieces, the soprano/mezzo duet, the bass aria, the final soprano and chorus
— all of these sections.  It is bigger, more beautiful than any of his operas, and it is more difficult for the singers!  I love very much the Requiem.  I have sung it with the greatest maestros in the world!  The first time I sang it was in the MetropolitanI don't know the date because in my head I do not have the computer yet — was with Bruno Walter, I think 1960 or '59.  [Note: The dates were March 27 and 29, 1959. These were Maestro Walter's final two Met performances.]  After that, I did it with Karajan!  [Note: Karajan conducted all six of Bergonzi's Requiem performances with the Scala company, some of which were on tour, as well as the Salzburg performance in 1970, which was his only Salzburg performance.]  Then there was Leinsdorf [who led his commercial recording] and Solti, great, great maestros.  Now is the time of the young maestros.  Some are very goodAbbado, Muti, Bartolettithese are the new maestros.  I have a great respect for the young maestros.  [Note: Remember, this conversation was held in 1981...]

BD:   What if you disagree with a tempo or a phrasing?

CB:   In the rehearsal you say, «Abbiam un' accordo!»  [Let's come to an agreement!]  But with me, the maestros have no problem because I sing what the composer has written.  I study the metronome marking of Verdi and Puccini and all the other composers.

BD:   I just wondered, though, how much impact the conductor could have during performance to give even more to the score.

CB:   When you feel very good in the voice, then during the performance evenings you might try to make the high note more long!  Or make the filatura [«threading» of voice or phrase; long, sustained piano phrasing] or the pianissimo longer.  The maestros understand this.  The maestro is very important for the singer.

[At this point, we saw that our brief time had elapsed, and reluctantly we stopped the interview.  It pleased me, however, that as we left the hotel room, the tenor took hold of me and we walked arm in arm to the elevator and into the lobby.]

bergonzi          bergonzi         



Carlo Bergonzi was born into a family of opera lovers: he was only six years old when his parents took him to a performance of Il trovatore, which made an immediate impression. While still young he sang in choirs and appeared in child rôles in opera performances in Busseto, Verdi’s birthplace. After attending elementary school he worked for his father, making Parmesan cheese, but at the age of fourteen he entered the Parma Conservatory, where he studied piano for five years. Although in 1943 he was interned by the Nazi regime for antifascist activities, when World War II ended he returned to the Parma Conservatory to study as a baritone with Ettore Campogalliani.

It was as a baritone that Bergonzi made his début, as Figaro/Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948 at Lecce. Other baritone rôles included Belcore/L’elisir d’amore and Marcello/La Bohème (both with Gigli, as well as a tour of L’elisir d’amore with Tito Schipa, all formative experiences); Dr Malatesta/Don Pasquale, Germont/La traviata, Enrico/Lucia di Lammermoor, and a single performance as Rigoletto, substituting for Tito Gobbi in Puglia. Bergonzi has said (in conversation with Stefan Zucker) that it was this performance that made him realize he was not a baritone, commenting: ‘I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands.’ His wife, too, suggested he was a tenor after hearing him sing a perfect high C in his dressing room one evening.

Bergonzi made his début as a tenor, self-taught, in the title rôle in a performance of Andrea Chénier at the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari on 12 January 1951, the date of the birth of his first son. Within a few months he had fully accomplished the transition to tenor, and was participating in several of the radio productions mounted by RAI to mark the centenary of Verdi’s birth, most notably singing Aroldo/I due Foscari, conducted by Giulini, as well as Carlo/Giovanna d’Arco and Gabriele/Simon Boccanegra. These performances were heard by agents and impresarios as well as by the general public and offers of singing engagements in Italy soon followed.

The title rôle of Jacopo Napoli’s Masaniello brought Bergonzi’s La Scala, Milan début in 1953. He continued to appear there regularly for twenty years, giving his farewell performance in 1993. His British début also came in 1953 with Don Alvaro/La forza del destino at the Stoll Theatre, London, the same rôle in which he made his first Covent Garden appearance in 1963. As with La Scala, Bergonzi returned to Covent Garden on many occasions, giving his farewell recital there in 1992. He made his American début in 1955 in Chicago, singing Luigi/Il tabarrro and Turiddù/Cavalleria rusticana in a double bill. This was followed by his Metropolitan Opera début the following year, as Radamès/Aida: in all Bergonzi sang twenty-one rôles at this opera house, encompassing most of the major tenor repertoire, in 249 performances, making his last stage appearance there in 1988 as Edgardo/Lucia di Lammermoor. Between 1958 and 1978 he sang regularly at the Verona Arena as well as throughout Italy, and also appeared at most of the major international opera houses including those in Barcelona, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Rome, San Francisco, Vienna and Tokyo.

During the 1980s Bergonzi gradually moved from operatic rôles to recitals. Although he withdrew from singing in public in 1994, in 2000 his participation in a concert staging of Otello in New York was announced: he was however unable to complete the performance. After retiring to live in Busseto, Bergonzi was active as a teacher. Several of his pupils, for example Giuliano Ciannella, Vincenzo La Scola and Salvatore Licitra, have achieved international distinction. He also initiated the Voci Verdiane Competition which is held at Busseto.

Bergonzi’s performances (like those of his contemporaries Franco Corelli, Giuseppe di Stefano and Mario del Monaco, all of whom he outlasted), stood out for the warmth of his voice, the musicality of his singing and the drama of his delivery. His stage presence could be slightly wooden, but the beauty, elegance and good taste of his singing more than made up for any deficiency in this department. His discography is large, being made up of many outstanding commercial studio recordings and numerous unofficial recordings of live performances. He was distinguished as an interpreter of the operas of Verdi.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers).

© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in his hotel in Chicago on September 30, 1981.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB twice in 1986, also in 1989, 1994 and again twice in 1999.  A portion was also included on the Lyric Opera of Chicago Website as part of their Fiftieth Anniversary celebration, being one of their "Jubilarians."  This transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.