[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 presentation.]
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
Hal Prince. [See my Interview with Hal 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 of Hoffmann.)
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
singer, her husband, the interviewer and the translator – were
roaring with laughter. My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera
for providing the translation.
Here is some of what transpired on that
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
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
BD: When you’re
working in front of the camera, are you conscious
of it or do you just play to the audience?
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
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 voice itself.
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
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
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 to it.
BD: Does taking
curtain calls after a performance break the spell
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
production. I see the curtain calls at the end of
the acts as a meeting-point between the artists and the public, where
all communicate what we thought of the preceding performance.
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 on.
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
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
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?
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
BD: How is it
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
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?
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
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. [See my Interview with Lotfi
Mansouri.] But I did bring
the same spirit to the character of Elvira and it worked out
BD: Very well but
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
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
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
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
BD: Perhaps in
your final performance before you retire you
can slouch and chew gum… [Much laughter]
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
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
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
BD: Would you
shoot Pinkerton if the director staged it that way?
BD: So you enjoy
broadly and nods her head.]
BD: Are there any
characters that you portray onstage that you
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
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 the Anna even though I’m not
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 right.
BD: Perhaps like
in Vivi you can shoot
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
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
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 time?
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
Husband: 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!
BD: Which role
have you sung more than any other?
BD: Have you sung
it too much?
EM-N: One can
never sing too much a role for which one has a lot
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 one part.
BD: So you need a
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
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 career carefully?
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
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
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
“examples” to prepare the audience. Besides not making
records I don’t have a press agent to do all of the details for me.
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 less.
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
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 in translation?
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
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 it.
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 production.
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?
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
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?
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
want to do that role. It’s easier for me to let him turn things
Husband] Do you like being her agent?
Husband: No, no.
[Startled] 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
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
BD: Are opera
singers in general “normal” people?
Generally 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.
only live for their art?
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
last question – are you good audience?
Yes. I have a great enthusiasm and take part in what
happens on the stage. If the artist gives a lot, I will give a
back. It doesn’t matter if there is a minor flaw, but rather how
the overall performance is.
you for coming to Chicago.
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
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
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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.
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
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.