[Note: This interview originally appeared in Opera Scene Magazine in January, 1983.
It was slightly re-edited, and the links and photos were added for this website
A Conversation with Elena Mauti-Nunziata
By Bruce Duffie
Perhaps the biggest “hit” of the just completed Lyric Opera season was the
new and innovative production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly directed by Harold Prince. There
were ten performances (plus two student matinees) and all were very well received.
In the title role was Elena Mauti-Nunziata, a fine soprano from Naples who
had sung once before at Lyric – in 1976 as Gilda in Rigoletto (with Norman Mittelmann in
the title role and Pavarotti as the Duke. Mittelmann, you will recall,
also returned this season as the four villains in the opening production
Elena Mauti-Nunziata studied in Naples and made her operatic debut in Palermo
in 1965 as Liù in Turandot.
Since that time, she has sung many performances as Mimì in La Bohème and Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, as well as the title
role in Turandot. She now
looks forward to singing Manon Lescaut and also Tosca (“in a few years.”)
Besides all this Puccini, she has also given fine performances as Violetta,
Marguerite, Leïla, and Nedda in many of the world’s leading opera houses
including La Scala, Covent Garden, The Met, Paris, and Hamburg. Her
American debut was in Dallas as Elvira in I Puritani.
During her stay in Chicago for Butterfly,
the soprano was most gracious to spend time one afternoon chatting with Opera Scene. Her husband was also
there and made several interesting comments, and several times everyone present
– the singer, her husband, the interviewer and the translator
– were simply roaring with laughter. My thanks to Marina
Vecci of Lyric Opera for providing the translation.
Here is some
of what transpired on that delightful afternoon…….
Bruce Duffie: Where
is opera going today?
I hope that opera is going in the right direction. It is going toward
the younger generation, and therefore it will have a brilliant future in
the same way that is has a brilliant past.
BD: Is the future as bright
as the past?
EM-N: My answer is somewhat
egotistical because I hope that the future is much more brilliant!
Opera in the past was just for a few privileged people, but in the future
opera will be for everyone.
BD: Is opera not for
EM-N: Today opera is
going toward the larger audience.
BD: Does opera belong
on the television?
EM-N: Personally I don’t
like opera on TV, but the audience has a different taste.
BD: Have you appeared
on the tube?
EM-N: Yes, I’ve done
Traviata, Turandot, Pagliacci and a few concerts.
BD: When you’re working
in front of the camera, are you conscious of it or do you just play to the
EM-N: No, I don’t take
into consideration the cameras. I just sing to the audience.
BD: Does the size of
the house make a difference to your performance?
EM-N: I am worried up
until the time I sing my first few notes, and then I immediately realize
what type of house it is. The production of the voice does not depend
on the largeness or smallness of the house, but on the vibrations in the
BD: So it’s the same
for you in large houses and small ones?
EM-N: I sing the same
in the Arena in Verona, which is a tremendous open-air place, as in the Salle
Garnier, which is so small that you can hardly call in a theater.
BD: Tell me a bit about
your current role – Madama Butterfly – do you approve of Mr. Prince’s ideas,
and do you alter your conception of a role because of the production?
EM-N: I very much approve
of new concepts – for instance, this Hal Prince production of Butterfly which is sort of a cinematic
style where things keep moving. I also like the transformation of Butterfly
herself. The exterior change is the least important – the most important
change is what occurs inside as she becomes an Americanized woman.
This is very close to my own view of the role.
BD: Do you become Butterfly,
or are you still Elena Mauti-Nunziata playing Butterfly?
EM-N: When I step onto
the stage, I become the character – there is no more Elena while I am singing.
If you remember the Rigoletto here
a few seasons ago, or if you have seen me in other operas, you can see that
I change radically according to the character that I have to play.
For me, that is the only way to perform. Otherwise it would be very
hard to interpret it vocally.
BD: Are any of the characters
you play too emotionally draining for you?
EM-N: Butterfly is one,
and also Traviata. These are roles that drain me physically and also
spiritually as well.
BD: How long does it
take you to recover?
EM-N: Luckily I am a
very calm person, so I am regenerated quite easily even after a very exhausting
performance. This is why, though, I don’t go to parties or social events
after a performance – I simply don’t have the emotional strength to give
Does taking curtain calls after a performance break the spell for you?
EM-N: I think the curtain
calls are a duty that the artist owes to the public. I do object which
a colleague bows in the midst of a performance – perhaps after a big aria.
That interrupts the continuity of the show.
BD: What about curtain
calls after individual acts?
EM-N: To be very honest,
I missed the first-act curtain call in this Butterfly production. I see the
curtain calls at the end of the acts as a meeting-point between the artists
and the public, where we all communicate what we thought of the preceding
BD: So it doesn’t break
the spell, then?
EM-N: There is already
a break because of the conclusion of the act so the curtain calls are a reasonable
ending. Then everyone gets re-charged again for the following act.
BD: How long does it
take for you to get into character?
EM-N: I am all for concentration
in a character, but I don’t think it’s necessary to spend three or four hours
getting prepared and thinking about a character before a performance.
I come to the theater very early, but not three hours before. It only
takes me a short time to concentrate and get into the character before going
BD: Does that concentration
carry you through the intermissions?
EM-N: I simply use the
same technique a few minutes before returning to the stage to get back into
the character. Perhaps the word “technique” is not the right one, but…
BD: Are there places
where the intermissions are too long?
EM-N: No, never.
BD: Are they too short?
EM-N: Almost always!
In this production, the one break is a bit longer than usual, but that is
because there is only one rather than the usual two.
BD: Do you do Traviata
in three acts or four?
EM-N: It really depends
on the physical production and whether the producer can solve the problems.
In some places I’ve done it in three pieces, and in others there have been
BD: Verdi wrote it in
three so when it’s done otherwise I often think, “Poor Verdi.”
EM-N: No, not “Poor
Verdi” because he was the one to be nasty to the singers.
BD: Did Verdi ask things
of the singers that are impossible???
EM-N: Well, if Verdi
wrote it that way, it must have been possible in those days to sing it that
way. So there is no reason why it shouldn’t be sung that way today,
except that it does require a little bit of an effort.
Husband: In those days,
the pitch of the orchestra was lower, and there were fewer dramatic needs
to be taken into account. Now the orchestra is higher in both pitch
and volume, and the public expects you to attend much more to the dramatic
aspects. So it is heavier to sing Traviata today.
BD: Are you happy that
opera is more theatrical today?
EM-N: Oh yes.
I am very happy about that because I love the character first and foremost
even before the singing part of it. The exploration of the character
is one way of approaching the public in a more direct way, making it more
* * *
BD: You’ve said that
you enjoy new concepts in staging. Are there some productions that
go too far?
EM-N: I’ve seen examples
of productions which went a long way beyond the tradition, including a couple
at La Scala. But what is important when doing things that depart from
the tradition is to do them with a great deal of intelligence, in which case
even though they are different they are very well accepted and they work
very well. A good example of that would be the Butterfly I did at La Scala which is
very different from the traditional style, but a very beautiful production.
BD: How is it different?
EM-N: There was no bridge and no flowers. It was
a lacquered platform with a tall cylinder that enclosed the platform and nothing
else but a sort of veil around the cylinder. All there was, was Butterfly
talking to some puppets. You might laugh at this description, but the
concept of the director was that no one in this day and age would believe
that a girl, however young, would believe the “line” from Pinkerton.
So the director was showing Butterfly living in a world of her own making,
and all the characters that enter into it are creatures of her imagination.
They’re not real – it’s all a fantasy. But this is enough about the
other Butterfly – there is so much of interest in this one here in Chicago.
It is very beautiful and it fits with my own concept. Mr. Prince and
I were able to work together very well without any disagreement – it was
a perfect communion of thought and of work.
BD: Did you bring any
of the concepts from other productions with you to this one?
EM-N: Of course I brought
in things I’ve learned while doing the role so many times – not so much in
terms of entering from certain directions or the like, but rather things
having to do with attitude and gestures. Often, when seeing what I
was doing with certain lines, Mr. Prince would agree that it was the right
thing to do, so I would go ahead and continue doing it. As I mentioned
before, it was a communion between myself and Mr. Prince, for although I
brought in gestures and other details, he immediately recognized them as
being pertinent to the character. It’s also possible that I might have
been anticipating some of his ideas.
BD: Is this the mark
of a great director – the ability to take what the performer brings and mold
that rather than forcing a pre-conceived idea on you?
EM-N: Yes, undoubtedly.
That is the basis for a good performance. I’ll give you an example
– I was doing I Puritani in Palermo,
the production by Zeffirelli. I was very young then, and when we met,
he looked at me and said, “Remember, you are a noble woman, so you’ve got
to laugh, cry, love and be crazy, but bear in mind that you are a noble woman,
noble by birth.” After that, we did the opera with only two rehearsals.
He, of course, gave me the indication of what he wanted, but then let me
do the work of interpreting his intentions. We’ve worked many times
since then and never had any problems.
BD: Now when you do
I Puritani in another theater, do
you remember what Zeffirelli taught you and ignore the other director?
EM-N: No, because I
did do it in Dallas and the director was Lotfi Mansouri, another
wonderful director. But I did bring the same spirit to the character
of Elvira and it worked out very well.
BD: Very well but very
EM-N: I think it was
similar in both Palermo and Dallas, although some of the outer aspects where
a bit different, the spirit of the opera was the same. The movements
were different because of the different settings, but the inner spirit of
the character was the same.
BD: Would it be correct,
then, to say that you get the spirit of each role from the best director
you work with, but the movements change from production to production?
EM-N: Yes, and intelligent
directors understand that and will let me work with these fine ideas and
not try to do anything against them.
BD: Have you ever had
the misfortune of getting a “hack” director?
EM-N: Sometimes it is
hard to discuss things or try certain things with various directors, but
I always try to find a way to make an agreement with whomever the director
is. I don’t like to do something that is not what the director wants,
but when it’s all said and done, I am the one on the stage in front of the
public and director is backstage?
BD: Will you remember
a lot of the things Hal Prince taught you in this production and carry them
into your next Butterfly?
EM-N: Certainly because I’ve never seen a Butterfly that
was as truly Japanese. Puccini had never been to Japan and didn’t know
exactly all the details, so it was not basically Japanese in concept.
But even in earlier productions I would change my gestures in the second
act to become more American. In this production, though, the change
is much more marked. Japanese women tend to hide their hands, and now
I will try to not hide my hands at all in any the second act to show the
change in Cio-Cio-San.
BD: Perhaps in your
final performance before you retire you can slouch and chew gum… [Much
Husband: Of course the
Japanese are so tiny and subdued, and the music Puccini wrote is so strong
and big that it doesn’t describe a typical Japanese woman of that time.
Already you have indications of how to play her.
BD: Does that present
inner conflicts – the character fighting the music? [Vis-à-vis
the video shown at right, see my interview with Fiorenza Cossotto.]
EM-N: No, for me there
is no conflict because I way interpret Butterfly is not so subdued and tiny.
But I change my gestures anyway from the first to the second act. The
first is a traditional Japanese woman with the gestures of that culture,
and in the second the gestures become much broader because she is much more
of a woman. One reviewer here said something that was quite correct
– that at the end I killed myself not for love but for vengeance. Butterfly
kills herself out of spite, and I’m glad that the reviewer saw this in my
performance because this is what I wanted the audience to see.
BD: [With a gentle nudge,
knowing that he is sitting right next to her at the moment] Would you
not die for your real-life husband?
EM-N: I don’t know –
I’d have to be in the situation and see how I felt, but I certainly wouldn’t
kill myself if he went away for three years. Last spring I did a contemporary
opera by Mannino called Vivi and
it has the same plot as Butterfly.
She’s not Japanese but it’s about a woman who loves a man who leaves her
and he promises to come back, and he does but with a wife. So in this
opera, the woman buys a gun and shoots the man dead! He was so happy
after so many Butterflys to see
me portray a different ending to this situation!
BD: Would you shoot
Pinkerton if the director staged it that way?
BD: So you enjoy that
EM-N: [Smiles broadly
and nods her head.]
BD: Are there any characters
that you portray onstage that you don’t like?
EM-N: When I first look
at a new role, I study the point of view of the character even before I look
at the music. I always interpret characters that I like or at least
can sympathize with.
BD: Do you turn down
characters that you don’t like?
EM-N: I am about to
sing Don Giovanni and I was originally
asked to sing Donna Anna, but I told them if they wanted me in that opera
I would sing Donna Elvira. But now I will be involved in another contract
where they already have an Elvira, and since I like to sing Mozart every
once in awhile, I will sing Donna Anna even though I’m not really happy with
the character. But now that I’m studying it, I’m preparing it a bit
differently than what is usually done.
BD: So it’s almost like
an exercise in discipline to do this character you don’t care for?
EM-N: Well, I’m trying
to find things that I do like in that character. When I propose these
ideas to the director, if he likes the ideas then everything will work all
BD: Perhaps like in
Vivi you can shoot Giovanni!
EM-N: Yes, I would definitely
approve of that kind of ending!
BD: [To her husband]
I can sell you a bullet-proof vest... [Laughter all around]
EM-N: Actually I’m really
not a violent person – perhaps I’m too meek at times. I’m given to
extremes of behavior. I’m either one way or the other way, and it’s
hard for me to deal with people who would trample over me.
BD: You’re very lucky
that your husband can travel with you. Does he accompany you all the
EM-N: Yes, always.
BD: Do you find it difficult to play a love scene when
your husband is in the audience?
EM-N: Not at all because
life is one thing and the theater is totally different.
Husband: [With a wink]
I go and warn the tenor before the show…
BD: Are you a tenor
or a baritone?
Husband: I am a baritone
– true men are baritones! [Laughter all around]
* * *
BD: Which role have
you sung more than any other?
EM-N: Madama Butterfly.
BD: Have you sung it
EM-N: One can never
sing too much a role for which one has a lot of affection.
BD: Even if you sang
nothing but that one role for a couple years?
EM-N: I wouldn’t get
sick of it, but the character would certainly suffer from doing only the
BD: So you need a balance?
EM-N: Well, last year
I sang 36 Bohèmes, and the
last few became a little too automatic. The gestures and bits of stage
business were getting too routine.
BD: Is there anything
you can do to inject a little life into those last performances, or do something
to throw your colleagues to have them do something to you?
EM-N: There are always
different performances from one night to another. People do slightly
different things all the time, but I must react to whatever happens on the
stage. Despite doing the same gestures, the spirit of the moment can
affect the attitude in which the gestures are done.
BD: How much does daily
life affect that nights’ performance?
EM-N: If someone is
sensitive, the daily life does have an influence on your performance.
If you have a fight with your husband or with someone else right before coming
to the theater, it will have an effect on how you do certain things.
BD: Are there some roles
you are looking forward to that you’ve not sung yet?
EM-N: One that I’ve
always wanted to do that I will have the chance to do soon will be Manon
Lescaut, and in a few years I would like to sing Tosca.
BD: Are you pacing your
EM-N: Yes. I’ve
been careful so far. We know that there is a lack of lycico-spinto sopranos – which
my voice seems to be – and the attitude of theaters
toward me has changed. Before, I was always asked to sing lighter roles,
and now I’m getting asked to sing heavier roles – Ballo, Trovatore, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Boccanegra, Luisa Miller, Don Carlo. For a couple of years
I held back and didn’t accept those roles, but now I am beginning to say
yes to the ones that I think are suited to my voice. I’m entering that
repertoire, but very carefully.
BD: Do you enjoy being
booked so far in advance?
EM-N: It gives me a
great sense of security from an artistic point of view and also from an economic
point of view. It’s nice to know that I am wanted.
Husband: [With a sly
grin] But she cannot get ill or die because she has the commitments…
[Laughter all around]
* * *
BD: Have you made some
EM-N: No. There
are some “pirated” recordings but I’ve not done any in the studio.
My I Puritani from Dallas and the
Turandot from La Scala are around.
BD: Are you frustrated
that you’ve not been asked, or is simply the lack of time?
EM-N: I’m mad about it. Not frustrated, but a bit
angry. In some roles, I think I have more to offer than some singers
who are constantly doing recordings, but I have found it hard to penetrate
the recording circle. Of course doing or not doing recordings has a
lot of influence on your career as a whole. I have to prove myself
every time I perform. There are no “examples” to prepare the audience.
Besides not making records I don’t have a press agent to do all of the details
BD: But can’t recordings
be too perfect?
EM-N: They tend to be
very cold because we all know how they are made – cutting and pasting the
best sections together. Some singers who have no high notes will have
them on the record and people with no voice have a voice on the records.
I am quite happy with the appearance of “live” recordings which mike much
BD: Are you happy, then,
that some of your performances are out on pirated discs?
EM-N: I am happy that
even if I don’t make any commercial discs, at least there will be the pirated
recordings to remember me by.
BD: You’re moving more
into Verdi now?
EM-N: I don’t think
of myself on the whole as a “Verdi voice” but there are a few roles of his
that I sing – Traviata, Otello, Trovatore, and in a few years Don Carlo. But that’s it as far
as the Verdi roles for me.
BD: Have you ever sung
any operas in translation?
EM-N: I’ve done a few
French operas in Italian, but also I’ve sung them in the original French.
BD: Does opera work
EM-N: No. For
instance, I’ve sung Manon by Massenet
in both French and Italian and it’s completely different in the translation.
The accents and the whole musical line are different.
BD: You don’t find a
closer contact with the audience when they understand each word?
EM-N: Yes, but the libretto
is available, and before coming the people should buy the libretto and read
BD: Is the public more
prepared today than it was some years ago?
EM-N: I think that people
are more prepared today than ten or fifteen years ago. Before, people
came for the high notes and beautiful sounds, but now people are thinking
more about the line and the performance as a whole. I was most happy
to learn of a letter from someone in the audience to a friend of mine who
said, “At last, someone who can sing without any effort!”
Husband: Toti Dal Monte
was a famous Butterfly, but I don’t think she could have done well in this
BD: Is that because
she was from a different age?
BD: Do you think that
people will accept this Chicago Butterfly
25 years ago from now?
EM-N: Probably because
this production is very modern and will last. It came out of the tradition
and extended that tradition to a new level. This, of course, is my
own opinion and there are all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions
about how Butterfly should be done.
BD: Will you be coming
back to Chicago?
EM-N: I hope to return
before another six years have elapsed.
BD: When a house asks
you for a role, do you then wonder if that is the direction you are going?
EM-N: Yes. For
instance, when they first asked me for Tosca
I said no, but decided that perhaps in three or four years I ought to do it.
So that started me thinking in that direction.
BD: How difficult is
it to say no?
EM-N: My husband is
the one who is called, and when he’s on the phone he will speak in a voice
so that I can hear what is being discussed. So I’ll nod my head or
shake my head to let him know if I want to do that role. It’s easier
for me to let him turn things down.
BD: [To Husband]
Do you like being her agent?
Husband: No, no.
This is a true confession for I’ve never thought he didn’t like it.
I try to be as normal as possible in my private life. Most people outside
don’t recognize me as being an opera singer, but despite that I do have a
bit of artistic temperament and I get moody once in a while. This can
make things difficult for people who are close to me, so perhaps it is difficult
for him to be so close to me emotionally and still function as an agent.
BD: Are opera singers
in general “normal” people?
speaking, opera singers are not really normal people. There are exceptions
– normal people who have beautiful voices – but
mostly they are singers from top to bottom, and that is quite a tragedy.
BD: They only
live for their art?
EM-N: I remember
one instance in Italy when a singer could not find any cab driver who would
take him from his hotel to the opera house. It was the middle of summer
and this singer refused to ride in a car with the windows open, so none of
the cabbies would put up with him. I don’t know whether he finally
walked or what...
BD: One last
question – are you good audience?
I have a great enthusiasm and take part in what happens on the stage.
If the artist gives a lot, I will give a lot back. It doesn’t matter
if there is a minor flaw, but rather how the overall performance is.
BD: Thank you
for coming to Chicago.
EM-N: Thank you
and thanks to all the listeners. I am happy in Chicago, and I will
be happy to come back again. Arrividerci,
and I hope it will not be another six years before I return.
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© 1982 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in a dressing room backstage at the Civic
Opera House in Chicago on November 22, 1982. It was published in Opera Scene Magazine in January, 1983.
The transcription was re-edited, photos and links were added,
and it was posted on this website in 2013.
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
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
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.