[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 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 of Chicago

1982 - Madama Butterfly (Pinkerton) with Mauti-Nunziata, Bruscantini, Zilio, Andreolli, Cook, Del Carlo; Gómez-Martinez, Prince, Duhnam
            Luisa Miller (Rodolfo) with Shade, Brendel, Kavrakos, Washington; Gómez-Martinez, N. Merrill, Colonnello

1983 - La Bohème (Rodolfo) with Cotrubas, Raftery, Washington, Hong, Tajo; Navarro, Copley, Pizzi

1986-87 - La Gioconda (Enzo) with Dimitrova, Welker, Plishka, Dunn/Curry; Bartoletti, Crivelli, Brown

1987-88 - [Opening Night] Il Trovatore (Manrico) with Tomowa-Sintow, Verrett, Nucci/Raftery/Cappuccilli; Bartoletti, Frisell, Benois
                 Tosca (Cavaradossi) with Scotto, Milnes/Nimsgern, Patterson, Andreolli, Tajo; Tilson Thomas, Kellner (Gobbi original), Pizzi


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 page.]

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 . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Do you enjoy being a tenor or would you rather be a baritone?

ciannella Giuliano Ciannella:    My heart is baritone but my voice is tenor.

BD:    Really???  Why?

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 else?

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?

GC:    Generally 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?

GC:    [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 small theater.

BD:    Can stage sets help or hinder the voice?

ciannella GC:    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?

GC:    [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 debutduring 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?

GC:    Sure.  In the theater is the reality and the record is the dream.

BD:    Are recordings frauds?

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?

GC:    Always.

BD:    Are there enough great tenors in the world
or are there too many?

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 minimumand I prefer to stay well within those limits.  That way there is a little space to extend myself without going too far.

BD:    As we chat, another performance is going on.  Does it frustrate you to be in the opera house and not be singingespecially 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.

ciannella 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 you?

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 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?

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 himselfbecause 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?

GC:    Certainly 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.

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?

ciannella 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.

BD:    What caused the problems with other stage directors?

GC:    Usually, stage directors want to portray Pinkerton as a really bad guy
someone without any manners or moralsand 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?

GC:    No.  Pinkerton is perhaps thoughtless and irresponsible, but he’s not a deep thinker.

BD:    Do you promote yourself in the last act?

GC:    [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 sung Werther?

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?

GC:    Yes.  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?

GC:    Meyerbeer 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?

GC:    Donizetti 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.

ciannella BD:    Is this what sets great composers apartthe ability to speak to the whole world rather than just to one nation?

GC:    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 years ago?

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. 

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© 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.

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.