[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, 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
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 was also a regular performer with the Lyric Opera of Chicago
during the 1980s. [See the box below for a full list of his appearances
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
Giuliano Ciannella at Lyric
Opera of Chicago
1982 - Madama Butterfly
(Pinkerton) with Mauti-Nunziata
, Del Carlo
(Rodolfo) with Shade
Kavrakos, Washington; Gómez-Martinez, Merrill
1983 - La Bohème
(Rodolfo) with Cotrubas
Raftery, Washington, Hong, Tajo
; Navarro, Copley,
1986-87 - La Gioconda
with Dimitrova, Welker, Plishka, Dunn
Bartoletti, Crivelli, Brown
1987-88 - [Opening Night] Il
(Manrico) with Tomowa-Sintow
Nucci/Raftery/Cappuccilli; Bartoletti, Frisell
Patterson, Andreolli, Tajo; Tilson Thomas
, Kellner (Gobbi
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
These are more dramatic roles — a little heavier
than average. Do you also sing lighter ones?
anymore. It’s difficult for my voice to sing too light.
BD: So what
roles have you retired?
GC: Traviata, Rigoletto, Lucia...
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?
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 toward them?
[Laughs] 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
BD: Can stage
sets help or hinder the voice?
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
[Laughs] 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
voices different in the theater and on records?
Sure. In the theater is the reality and the record is the dream.
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
GC: There are
not too many; just enough.
several of the best known tenors are reaching the end of their
careers. Are there young ones coming along to fill the gaps?
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
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?
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
you’re studying a role, do the letters and other writings of composers
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 help.
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?
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?
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
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 language.
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.
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
GC: 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.
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.
So he doesn’t heed the warnings from Sharpless?
Pinkerton is perhaps thoughtless and irresponsible, but he’s not a deep
BD: Do you
promote yourself in the last act?
[Chuckles] 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?
Yes. Some of the verismo roles are like that, and maybe when I’m
50 I’ll start singing some of them.
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.
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
BD: Is this
what sets great composers apart — the ability to
speak to the whole world rather than just to one nation?
Yes. 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
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.
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?
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
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.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.