[Note: This interview was held backstage at the Opera House in Chicago
in December, 1982, and was originally published in Opera Scene Magazine in January, 1983.
Photos and links have been added, and it has been re-edited for this website
presentation. Throughout this page, names which are links refer to
my interviews elsewhere on this website. My thanks to Marina Vecci
of Lyric Opera of Chicago for translating during the meeting. BD]
Tenor Giuliano Ciannella
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Giuliano Ciannella (25 October
1943 – 13 January 2008) was an Italian operatic tenor who had a major international
career from the mid-1970s through the late 1990s. He was notably a regular
performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1979 through 1986,
the Lyric Opera of Chicago between 1982 and 1988 [see box below for full
details], and at the Vienna State Opera from 1985 up until the end of
his career. Ciannella mostly performed roles from the Italian repertory,
particularly excelling in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini.
Born in Campi Salentina (Lecce), Ciannella initially studied engineering
at the University of Bologna until a chance encounter with Mirella Freni
led him to his being encouraged towards an opera career. He entered the Bologna
Conservatory where he studied under Leone Magiera. After he graduated he
continued with further training under Carlo Bergonzi before
making his professional opera debut in 1974 at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan
as Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
That same year he won the Bussetto international singing competition. He
made his first appearance at La Scala in 1976 as Cassio in Verdi's Otello. Over the next three years he
had several successes at important opera houses in Italy, including the Teatro
Carlo Felice, the Teatro Regio di Parma, and La Fenice.
Ciannella joined the roster of principal tenors at the Metropolitan Opera
in 1979, making his first appearance with the company as Alfredo in Verdi's
La traviata opposite Eugenia
Moldoveanu as Violetta in an outdoor concert at Clove Lakes Park, Staten
Island on June 13, 1979. His first performance at the opera house was on
September 24, 1979 as Cassio to Plácido Domingo's Otello and Gilda
Cruz-Romo's Desdemona; a performance which was broadcast live on television.
Cianella made more than one hundred appearances at the Met over the next
nine seasons, with his signature roles at the house being Alfredo, Rodolfo
in Puccini's La Bohème
and the title role in Verdi's Don Carlo.
His other roles with the company included Des Grieux in Puccini's Manon Lescaut, the Italian Singer in
Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier,
Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth,
Manrico in Verdi's Il trovatore,
Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly,
and Rinuccio in Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.
He also gave several performances of Verdi's Requiem with the company alongside fellow
soloists Johanna Meier,
James Morris, and Florence Quivar in 1981. After leaving the Met in 1986,
Ciannella returned to the house only one more time during his career for
a 1996 production of Puccini's Turandot.
His final and 112th performance at the Met was as Prince Calàf to
Ruth Falcon's Turandot on June 14, 1996.
Ciannella also performed roles with many other companies internationally
during the 1980s and 1990s. He sang frequently at the Vienna State Opera
from 1985 up until the end of his career, performing much of the same repertoire
he performed at the Met. He notably gave a lauded portrayal of Riccardo
in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera
in 1990. Ciannella made his debut at the San Francisco Opera in 1984 as Don
José in Carmen. He appeared
at the Houston Grand Opera for the first time in 1985 in the title role
of Gounod's Faust, and that same
year made his debut at the Bavarian State Opera in the title role of Verdi's
Don Carlo. In 1986 he performed
for the first time at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden as Manrico. He appeared
in operas at the Arena di Verona during the summers of 1983, 1985 and 1988.
In 1987 he sang the title role in Verdi's Ernani at the Bregenzer Festspiele. He
sang two roles at the Oper der Stadt Köln during his career, Don José
(1988) and Des Grieux (1990). His other performances include appearances
with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Grand Théâtre de Genève
among many others.
After retiring from the stage in the late 1990s, Ciannella taught on the
voice faculties of the Parma Conservatory and the Ferrara Conservatory.
He was still teaching at the time of his death in Ferrara in 2008.
Giuliano Ciannella at Lyric Opera
1982 - Madama Butterfly
(Pinkerton) with Mauti-Nunziata
, Del Carlo
(Rodolfo) with Shade
, Brendel, Kavrakos,
Washington; Gómez-Martinez, N. Merrill
1983 - La Bohème
Washington, Hong, Tajo
1986-87 - La Gioconda
with Dimitrova, Welker, Plishka
1987-88 - [Opening Night] Il Trovatore
(Manrico) with Tomowa-Sintow
Andreolli, Tajo; Tilson Thomas
In the exciting 1982 Lyric Opera season with many fine performances and
several surprises, a fine Italian tenor making his debut became quite a hero.
Giuliano Ciannella had been contracted to sing in the new production of
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly directed
by Hal Prince, and indeed made an impressive debut as Pinkerton and sang
the first four performances. At this same time, Luciano Pavarotti,
who had been contracted to sing in Luisa
Miller, withdrew suddenly leaving Lyric without a tenor for a relatively
unknown Verdi opera. However, Signor Ciannella is one of the very
few tenors in the world to have sung the role. Indeed, he had previously
had successes in Europe opposite both Ricciarelli and Scotto, so he graciously
stepped into the rehearsals and performances, thus allowing Lyric a fine
tenor for its last opera of the season, and causing the much simpler problem
of finding a new Pinkerton, which is a role in the repertoire of most tenors.
[This would be Vasile
Moldoveanu.] Ciannella looked splendid and sounded wonderful, and
the Chicago audiences responded with cheers at the close of each performance.
The voice and stage presence of Giuliano Ciannella is ideally suited for
leading roles in the Verdi/Puccini repertoire, and he has performed several
of these parts at La Scala, Trieste, Hamburg, and the Metropolitan.
He has sung them all over Italy. He has also been seen as Cassio in
two different televised productions of Otello — from
the Met and La Scala. Prior to his debut at Lyric Opera, he had been
heard as Macduff in Macbeth to open the 1981 Ravinia season with Milnes
and Scotto, and the Chicago Symphony conducted by James Levine. [Program
can be seen on this
The fall was a very busy time for Ciannella with the intense rehearsals
for the new Butterfly plus those
four performances, followed immediately by rehearsals for Luisa and the full set of performances.
His extra effort “saved the show” for Lyric, and we all hope that he will
return in the coming seasons. [As
seen in the box above, he did sing again in three further seasons.]
It was during one of the student matinees of Butterfly that Sig. Ciannella took the
time to speak with me. His English was quite good, but he invited
Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera to be there to help translate a few of his deeper
and more complicated thoughts. So we all assembled in one of the unused
dressing rooms high above the ongoing performances, and here is much of
what was said . . . . . . . . .
Do you enjoy being a tenor or would you rather be a baritone?
My heart is baritone but my voice is tenor.
GC: I’ve always
liked the baritone parts especially the “Verdi baritone” with the big phrases
and long lines.
BD: He didn’t
write the same way for the tenor?
GC: When I was
first studying at the conservatory I tried to sing baritone. I can
sing the notes, but I feel more comfortable vocally singing tenor.
I met Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and he told me I could sing baritone, but he also
said that since I had the top notes why not sing tenor!
BD: So it was
really your choice?
GC: No, it was
right that I sing tenor.
BD: Are you
, then, a “Verdi tenor?”
GC: A few people
think so, but Puccini roles are also good for my voice. A few Italian
critics have called me a “Verdi tenor,” but I like to have a 50/50 balance
between Verdi and Puccini.
BD: And nothing
GC: Of course
I sing other composers – Italian, French, Russian. I would say that
my favorite roles are in Manon Lescaut,
Tosca, Turandot, Aïda, Don Carlo, and Luisa Miller.
BD: These are
more dramatic roles — a little heavier than average.
Do you also sing lighter ones?
GC: Not anymore.
It’s difficult for my voice to sing too light.
BD: So what
roles have you retired?
GC: Traviata, Rigoletto, Lucia...
BD: You’ll never
sing those again?
GC: It is impossible
for me to sing with a light soprano. If there were a spinto soprano
who could sing Lucia, I’d be happy to sing it with her. Another role
I enjoy singing is Faust of Gounod.
BD: Would you
rather sing the Devil?
GC: Ah, sure!
Mefisto is a very interesting role. I do enjoy singing Faust, but there
again, I need a soprano who can sustain the same level. Miss
Mauti-Nunziata, for example, would provide a fine balance.
BD: Does the
size of the house affect the kind of roles you sing?
I like to sing in the big theaters, but this really is a technical problem
because there is an acoustic element that deals with the time of resonance.
This can affect the control of the voice because if the time is too short
or too long, it’s dangerous for the voice.
BD: Do you look
for certain spots in each opera house which are the best, and then gravitate
No, no. It’s easy to see immediately how your voice is going to respond,
and that depends on the power of the voice and the projection. Many
things come together to give the true sound that you hear in the house.
Voices like mine sound better in big theaters. It would reverberate
too much in a small theater. For instance, big voices like mine are
no good for chamber music. It is actually more difficult for me to
sing in a small theater.
BD: Can stage
sets help or hinder the voice?
The material of the set is important. If the setting is made of materials
that absorb sound, it’s no good. It’s better to have a solid piece
of scenery behind you rather than an open space. In America there are
many open-air theaters, and each one has a shell which is the right shape
to project the sound toward the audience. And there are, of course,
theaters in which certain singers sound better and others where they sound
worse. Not every singer sounds the same in all theaters.
BD: Do you then
try to accept contracts only in the theaters where you sound better?
No. The human body is a very strange machine, and adapts to situations
quite well in many instances. The La Scala theater in Milan and the
San Carlo in Naples are designed the same, but after the war, Toscanini
changed the pit and now it’s not so good acoustically. The San Carlo,
though, is perfect acoustically, and you can sing from every corner of the
stage and still be heard very well. At Scala, there are places near
the front of the stage on either side of the prompter’s box that are a bit
better to sing from, and singers prefer to stand there whenever possible.
This can create funny spectacles if the singers are always gravitating toward
those spots no matter what the scenery is or the stage action is. When
I was singing in Otello there
— I sang the role of Cassio for my debut — during
the ensemble my voice was heard too much over all the others. So the
director, Franco Zeffirelli, made me move away from that spot to balance
the sound better. I hadn’t tried to stand there; it just happened that
I landed there because of the action. So I was told to move a bit differently
to end up farther upstage.
BD: Are voices
different in the theater and on records?
In the theater is the reality and the record is the dream.
BD: Are recordings
GC: They are
not frauds, but they are things which are manipulated. We all know how
things are corrected and redone to make a complete work. In the live
performance it’s impossible to re-do anything. Certainly records present
the ideal achievement in the best of circumstances. In the Olympics,
world records are established outdoors rather than in the more controlled
conditions indoors. So the live theater is like the outdoor race, and
the recording is like the indoor race.
BD: Is there
a competition amongst tenors?
BD: Are there
enough great tenors in the world — or are there too
GC: There are
not too many; just enough.
BD: But several
of the best known tenors are reaching the end of their careers. Are
there young ones coming along to fill the gaps?
GC: It’s doesn’t
matter if they’re at the end of their careers. The fact is that they
are all great singers. The problem is to find new singers.
* * *
BD: How do you
decide which roles you will sing and which you will turn down?
GC: I know my
limits — both maximum and minimum — and
I prefer to stay well within those limits. That way there is a little
space to extend myself without going too far.
As we chat, another performance is going on. Does it frustrate you
to be in the opera house and not be singing — especially
when it’s a role in your repertoire?
GC: No. It’s
very much part of life to have another tenor singing a role I also sing.
It would be very frustrating to not be able to sing the role at this time
in my career if it’s one that I enjoy and have had success with, but I have
no desire to sing in every theater every night. Maybe some singers
would like that, but I wouldn’t.
BD: If you are in the audience, would you rather
attend an opera where you don’t sing the role?
GC: Well, I
like all music. Perhaps I’m a bit unhappy that I cannot sing Mozart.
I also enjoy music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
BD: Would you
ever sing an opera by Monteverdi?
GC: I sang some
of his madrigals when I was younger and it was very interesting, but I cannot
sing that style now. I know the history of music and it is impossible
today to know the exact composition of the orchestra in that period.
Monteverdi didn’t specify a certain number of each instrument, nor did he
say what instruments were to play at any given moment! And even if
we know exactly what he wanted, we don’t have the kinds of instruments he
used. Even for the madrigals, it’s not correct to sing them with the
modern technique. They’re a bit easier to handle today, but still not
really correct. I am interested in these problems and enjoy the music.
BD: When you’re
studying a role, do the letters and other writings of composers influence
GC: Oh yes.
Whenever it is possible to find the letters, I try to read them. It’s
also interesting to read the literary sources. For Luisa Miller and Don Carlo, I’ve read Schiller, and for
Werther I’ve read Goethe.
For some works the literary sources are quite helpful, but in some instances
the transformation is so far away from the original that it’s not so much
BD: In that
case, would it hinder you?
GC: No, but
in those cases the letters of composers are more helpful to get an idea
of how and why they made the transformation to get to the music. But
in the case of Don Carlo, for example, he is more heroic in the Schiller
play, whereas in the Verdi opera he is more quiet and more melancholy.
They are really quite different
BD: Are you
conscious of the fact that Don Carlo is epileptic?
GC: No, because
neither Verdi nor Schiller took that into account. The character in
Schiller doesn’t resemble the historical figure.
BD: Then how
much do you try to make him historical — or do you make
him just Schiller or just Verdi?
GC: One can
only follow Verdi because the opera is music. It is helpful to follow
the transformation by the librettist and composer because the music does
express that transformation. Obviously, one cannot sing the opera
and go against the music in terms of the character. The Devil in Faust
is a bit more difficult — not so much Faust, but the
Devil himself — because Goethe was such a great writer.
I enjoy Goethe very much, perhaps even more than Manzoni who is supposed
to be the “Italian National Writer.” I have sung Faust (of Gounod)
and I will be singing the Boito Mefistofele.
In the Gounod, the only problem is an aesthetic one. Gounod was not
as deep a thinker as Boito. Gounod was more of a precursor of things
to come in the French school, whereas Boito was a very literary man.
So for this reason it is important to know the Goethe Faust. Mefisto is the same character
in Goethe as in the Boito opera.
BD: Do you sing
any operas in translation?
GC: I prefer
to sing operas in the original language. I was asked to sing a couple
Russian operas in Italian, and I did, but I prefer the original.
BD: Did they
work in Italian?
GC: Well, sort
of. It was good for the comprehension on the part of the public, but
it would have been better in the original because of the rhythms and the
closeness of the original text to the music.
BD: You don’t
find any special feeling knowing that the audience has comprehended each line?
it’s a good thing, but the audience should come prepared.
BD: How much
preparation do you expect from an audience?
GC: That has
a lot to do with where I am singing. In a great and famous theater,
one would expect a higher level of preparation, and generally they are prepared
quite well. I don’t demand it, but...
BD: Why don’t
you demand it?
GC: It’s hard
to know even one person well, so how can you know everyone in the audience?
That is why, in the important theaters, operas are done in the original
BD: Do you try
to only sing in the important theaters?
GC: It is a
great honor for me to sing in the great theaters, but it’s important to
sing well anywhere.
BD: When singing
a role that has been done by the great tenors of the past, does it throw
you a little, or do you feel extra pressure to surpass them?
GC: Then I would
be in constant fear because in the past there were so many great singers,
and no opera has only been sung by bad singers. One should take into
account the great interpretations of the past.
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you about a few specific roles. How much of a heel is Pinkerton?
I have quarreled with many stage directors about this — not
with Hal Prince, but with others. You have to consider the time of
the story. It was permissible for military men at that time to do
what Pinkerton has done — to marry a woman like Cio-Cio-San
without really meaning it. It can be compared to owning a slave, which
we don’t approve of today, but at the time it was acceptable behavior.
So in this context, Pinkerton is not a bad man. He has no bad intentions
toward Butterfly despite the fact that to a modern eye it is very bad.
He takes things very lightly and doesn’t consider the consequences.
BD: What caused
the problems with other stage directors?
stage directors want to portray Pinkerton as a really bad guy —
someone without any manners or morals — and
this cannot be right because Pinkerton was an officer, and had presumably
graduated from a military academy where the cadets are taught about manners
and behavior. At that time, the protocol was even more severe than it
is today, so Pinkerton must have learned how to be a gentleman.
BD: Is it possible
to go too far and make him too sympathetic?
GC: Then the
director would be simply criticizing Pinkerton’s behavior and not Pinkerton
himself. If there was a great monologue for him where he says the law
is wrong and he’s taking advantage of the situation, we would know that Pinkerton
was a bad guy.
BD: So he doesn’t
heed the warnings from Sharpless?
Pinkerton is perhaps thoughtless and irresponsible, but he’s not a deep thinker.
BD: Do you promote
yourself in the last act?
Well, after three years, he should have been promoted at least once.
I’ve done enough performances of Butterfly
in my career to be at least an admiral by now! [Laughter all around]
BD: Have you
GC: I know the
work but have not sung it on stage yet. That opera, by the way, is
an exception to what we were just talking about earlier because it is very
faithful to Goethe. A lot of maturity is required to sing the role,
and I am looking forward to it.
BD: So there
are some roles that you have in the back of your mind which you begin learning
even before you’re asked to sing them?
Some of the verismo roles are like that, and maybe when I’m 50 I’ll start
singing some of them.
BD: What about
some of the big Meyerbeer roles such as L’Africaine, Les Huguenots, or Le Prophète?
is a bit uneven from opera to opera and in the individual works. L’Africaine is perhaps the best of his
operas and I’ve sung the big aria in concert.
BD: What about
other Italians besides Verdi and Boito?
and Rossini were not really Italian composers, but rather composers whose
work is the top achievement of the 1800s. They are the last remnants
of an attitude when music belonged to the world rather than to a particular
country. It was a very happy time for music in general.
Is this what sets great composers apart — the ability
to speak to the whole world rather than just to one nation?
But on the other hand, Verdi wrote from his heart which always was in Busseto,
so making any kind of translation doesn’t allow his thoughts to correspond
to the music. That’s why it’s impossible to have a Verdi opera work
perfectly in translation. Verdi thought in Italian and for his French
operas. Rossini, on the other hand, thought and worked in French for
his works for Paris. Do you know the French edition of Don Carlos?
BD: Yes, I’ve
heard it and enjoy it.
GC: With all
the ballets and everything, though, it’s too long. There are many many
moments that are very beautiful, but it’s so loosely tied together that
it often loses focus. When he reworked it for La Scala, he put all
of those things right and cut it to the proper length.
BD: Do you believe
in cuts as a general rule?
GC: In operas
before 1850, we should cut the repetitions; after that time, no. In
the time before 1850, all the extra music was written primarily for the comfort
of the audience — so they could walk around and socialize.
But after about 1850, the drama becomes much more important. The extra
music had started as a necessity and had become a habit, so after its real
purpose had gone, we can clean it up a lot.
BD: Are you
glad that opera is more theatrical today than even as recently as 20 years
GC: As a general
rule there is more theatricality today because everyone is respecting more
the intentions of the composer. An exception is made when a “genius”
stage director comes and forces a concept on the case which is totally absurd.
BD: Have stage
directors gone too far?
GC: Some of
them, certainly. Some directors apparently think that the music is
just a pretext for their own abilities to stage something.
BD: Have you
been involved in an affair like that?
GC: No, because
if I’d have seen that this was what was wanted, I would have withdrawn from
the production. Nowadays you often don’t even see the composer’s name!
It’s the conductor or the stage director whose names appear in large letters.
Opera is really a co-operative effort, not just belonging to one person
only. It is the effort of many that bring the spectacle to the stage
for the public to enjoy.
BD: Thank you
so much for all of your fine work at Lyric this season. Will you be
here again soon?
GC: I hope so...
I am to meet with Miss
Krainik later, so we shall see.
---- ---- ----
© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded backstage at the Opera House in Chicago
on December 16, 1982. A transcription was made and much of it was
published in Opera Scene Magazine
in January, 1983. The transcript was re-edited and posted on this
website early in 2016.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.