Soprano  Anna  Moffo

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Anna Moffo (June 27, 1932 – March 9, 2006) was an American opera singer, television personality, and actress. One of the leading lyric-coloratura sopranos of her generation, she possessed a warm and radiant voice of considerable range and agility. Noted for her physical beauty, she was nicknamed "La Bellissima".

Winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Italy, Moffo became popular there after performing leading operatic roles on three RAI television productions in 1956. She returned to America for her debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 16, 1957. In New York, her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on November 14, 1959. She performed at the Met for over seventeen seasons. Moffo's earliest recordings were made for EMI Records; she signed an exclusive contract with RCA Victor in 1960, recording for the company until the late 1970s. In the early 1960s, she hosted her own show on Italian television and appeared in several operatic films along with other non-singing roles.

In the early 1970s Moffo extended her international popularity to Germany through operatic performances, TV appearances, and several films, all while continuing her American operatic performances.

After graduating from Radnor High School, Anna turned down an offer to go to Hollywood and went instead to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she studied with Eufemia Giannini-Gregory, sister of soprano Dusolina Giannini. In 1954, on a Fulbright scholarship, she left for Italy to complete her studies at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome where she was a pupil of Mercedes Llopart and Luigi Ricci. She later studied voice privately in New York City with Beverley Peck Johnson.

Moffo made her official operatic debut in 1955 in Spoleto as Norina in Don Pasquale. Shortly after, still virtually unknown and little experienced, she was offered the challenging role of Cio-Cio San in an Italian television (RAI) production of Madama Butterfly. The telecast aired on January 24, 1956, and made Moffo an overnight sensation throughout Italy. Offers quickly followed and she appeared in two other television productions that same year, as Nannetta in Falstaff and as Amina in La sonnambula. She appeared as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and made her recording debut for EMI as Nannetta under Herbert von Karajan, and as Musetta in La bohème with Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Rolando Panerai. The following year (1957) saw her debut at the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, at La Scala in Milan and the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.

Moffo returned for her America debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago, as Mimì in La bohème next to Jussi Björling's Rodolfo on October 16, 1957. Moffo had three other roles at the Lyric that season: Philine in Mignon with Giulietta Simionato and William Wildermann, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro with Tito Gobbi, Simionato, Eleanor Steber, Walter Berry, conducted by Georg Solti and the title character in Lucia di Lammermoor with Giuseppe di Stefano/Brian Sullivan, and Aldo Protti. On at least one occasion her performance of Lucia's Mad Scene earned Moffo a ten-minute standing ovation. She opened the following Chicago season as Nannetta with Gobbi, Renata Tebaldi, Cornell MacNeil, Simionato, and Ardis Krainik (as Alisa), followed by Liù Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Di Stefano, and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi with Gobbi, all led by Tullio Serafin, and Gilda in Rigoletto with Gobbi/MacNeil, and Björling.

Her Metropolitan Opera debut took place on November 14, 1959, as Violetta in La traviata, a part that would quickly become her signature role. She performed at The Met for seventeen seasons in roles such as Lucia, Gilda, Adina, Mimì, Liù, Nedda, Pamina, Marguerite, Juliette, Manon, Mélisande, Périchole, and the four heroines of Les contes d'Hoffmann. Alfred Lunt's production of La Traviata as part of the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in the Lincoln Center in 1966 was mounted especially for her.

In the late 1950s, she recorded Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, opposite Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Giuseppe Taddei, conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini; and recitals of Mozart arias with EMI. She then became an exclusive RCA Victor artist.

Moffo was also invited to sing at the San Francisco Opera where she made her debut as Amina on October 1, 1960. During that period she also made several appearances on American television, while enjoying a successful international career singing at most major opera houses around the world (Stockholm, Berlin, Monte Carlo, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, etc.). At the Metropolitan Opera in March 1961 with Nilsson and Franco Corelli she performed in Turandot as Liù, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.


She made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London, as Gilda, in a Franco Zeffirelli production of Rigoletto. Shortly after the Italian tenor Sergio Franchi joined RCA Victor, they recorded a popular album of operetta duets, The Dream Duet, which peaked at number ninety-seven on the Billboard 200 in 1963. Later that year Franchi and Moffo collaborated in recording The Great Moments From Die Fledermaus with The Vienna State Orchestra and Chorus, Oskar Dannon conducting. 

Moffo remained particularly popular in Italy and performed there regularly. She hosted a program on Italian television "The Anna Moffo Show" (two series: the first in 1964; the second in 1967) and was voted one of the ten most beautiful women in Italy. She appeared in film versions of La traviata (1967) and Lucia di Lammermoor (1971), both produced with the Italian TV director Sandro Bolchi, and directed by her first husband Mario Lanfranchi, as well as non-operatic films, including Menage all'italiana (1965), the then controversial Una storia d'amore (1970), The Adventurers (1970), A Girl Called Jules (1970), and The Weekend Murders (1970). In the early 1970s, she began appearing on German television and in operetta films such as Die Csárdásfürstin and Die schöne Galathée. She also recorded with Eurodisc a lieder album, and the title roles in Carmen and Iphigenie in Aulis, as well as the role of Hänsel in Hänsel und Gretel.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


In November of 1990, Anna Moffo was back in Chicago, and graciously agreed to take a few minutes from her busy schedule for a conversation.  Her responses to my questions showed a depth of understanding, which she had garnered from an illustrious career on the stage and in the recording studio.

As with other sopranos who sing roles which are the opera
s titles, please note the difference between (for example) Tosca (the character) and Tosca (the opera).

moffo Bruce Duffie:   Tell me some of the joys and sorrows of being an international opera singer, and traveling all over the world for performances.

Anna Moffo:   There are no real sorrows except the traveling.  Of the joys, there are many.  First, there is the public, but it is also rewarding because I had a chance to do so many new things each year that during the course of my career.  Many things I thought I would never do, and certain roles that I thought I would never even be able to touch without losing any of the things that I’ve been doing before.  For example, I’m getting close to 900 Traviatas, so that still works.

BD:   Let’s talk about Traviata a little later, but let me ask a general question.  Of this entire range of repertoire, how do you decide which roles you will sing, which roles you’ll sing now, which roles you will sing later, and which roles you’ll never sing?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Pablo Elvira, and Ryland Davies.]

Moffo:   I don’t think you can decide that at the beginning of your career.  You have to try things, and if they seem out of your reach, they usually are for the most part... unless something drastic happens in your vocal apparatus, which isn’t likely.  It can be many things.  Having children sometimes changes things, or, as people get older, everybody thinks your voice is supposed to get darker and bigger and lower.

BD:   Is that not the general rule?

Moffo:   No, it doesn’t have to be.  Mine certainly has gotten darker and bigger, but it hasn’t gotten lower.  I’m able to do lower roles now, but all my life I worried about one thing other than singing my best, and that’s losing my top.  As a matter of fact, my top seems to have gone higher in my vocalizing.  I don’t need the notes I can do now.  A high F seems not so high now because I have a good deal above that.  I’m not planning to do Zerbinetta, or anything like that, but one hates to lose facility up there, and it does help for roles like Norma.  As dramatic and heavy as that is, you need to have confidence in the upper register because she’s always up and down and running.

BD:   Did composers like Bellini or Donizetti really know how to write for the voice?

Moffo:   Oh, boy, did they!  The bel canto period began to be called that because in order to sing these roles, one really had to have their technique perfectly.  The more good singers these composers heard, the more interesting their melodies became.  They were more intricate, with more difficult jumps, harmonies, and everything.  It’s a little bit like Paganini, and Chopin, and Liszt
they only wanted great people to be able to play their music.  They may not have realized at the time how good they were, and that most people could never play like Paganini ever did.  We really don’t know what people’s voices were like.  What we do know is that they were dealing with different kinds of theaterssmaller theaters with smaller orchestras.

BD:   In the case of Paganini, no one could play his unaccompanied etudes, but now, every college student plays most or all of them.  Can we expect with the same kind of thing for vocalists?

Moffo:   We’re not talking about *if* they can play them, it’s *how well* they can play them.  [Both laugh]  That’s what I think about singing
we’re no longer dealing with whether plenty of people can hit all the notes and get to the end.  There are so many things now, so you have to be able to offer a little bit more than that.

BD:   This is artistry?

Moffo:   It’s artistry to a degree.  It is also a unique color of the voice.  If you listen to a lot of singers, you’ll have to agree that there are very few singers that you immediately know who it is.  These are the ones who have a real vocal personality.  It has nothing to do with their own merits, they’re just born that way.  You have a lot of people who are able to do a lot of things well, who do their jobs, but then you come out of a performance saying, “So what?”  You don’t get any thrill, you don’t get any excitement, you don’t cry, you don’t laugh, and the main thing that bothers me is that you don’t remember what they sounded like.  I’m not going to name them, but I can still tell you the performers who have interested me.  I can hear them still sing certain phrases.  I’ll never forget them because they’re in my mind, in my memory bank.

BD:   If you are then singing that role, does that influence how you will make a phrase sound?

Moffo:   Oh, no, because they were themselves, and I am myself.  I never in my life have even thought of imitating anybody.  When I first did my debut, the first thing I was tagged with was The Second Callas.  I was very flattered, but I would be just as happy to be The First Moffo.  That wasn’t a vanity on my part.  I just thought there could never be, and there never was, another Callas.

moffo BD:   Without naming names, are there occasionally young singers that you say that could be The Second Moffo?

Moffo:   When I hear young singers, I can always tell whose records they’ve been studying with.  I never studied the records. When I first began singing, my first teacher always told me not listen to other people’s records.

BD:   [With a big smile]  That was good advice.

Moffo:   Yes, not because you can’t learn, but without meaning to, you sacrifice your own idea about a role, about a melodic line, about a phrase by hearing somebody do it over and over and over again.  Maybe it worked for them, but I only listen when I know something very well, and I form my own opinion about it.  I’m not so conceited that I think my opinion is the only one.  It may not work for me, but I may hear somebody else do a phrase and I’ll think it’s really beautiful.  But, I don’t just turn around and do it that way.

BD:   Unlike going to a number of performances, you could listen to a record once and get something out of it, but not over and over and over again.
 [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Carlo Bergonzi, Shirley Verrett, and Giorgio Tozzi.]

Moffo:   You’d be surprised... a lot of the students get very lazy, and it’s much too easy to just keep playing it in your ear until you’ve got it, mistakes and all.  There are many fine recordings that have a dotted something that was never dotted, or vice versa, or absolutely a wrong note, but since it fits in that harmonic, it’s in a triad, so nobody cares.  I can always tell a person who’s listened to Callas.  I can always hear a person who studied Tebaldi, or de los Angeles, or even today’s singers.  But, it’s wonderful to go to performances a lot, and I must say in my lifetime I haven’t had a chance to go because if somebody else is singing, then I’m someplace else if it’s something I want to see.  Otherwise, I would be singing.  So, most of the operas that I have seen in my career were always operas I never thought I was going to do.  My repertoire was being done by me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.  However, I did see a lot of the things that I do now.

BD:   Do you remember them?

Moffo:   Oh, I do, yes.  There were a lot of Toscas, a lot of Strauss things.  I love Strauss, and there was a lot of unknown Verdi.  There’s a lot of stuff out there still to learn and to hear and to see.  I don’t know if you know this, but I was a string player.  I was a pianist first, because in those days all nice little girls studied the piano.  But then I played viola for a while. I was even in an orchestra.  It was a pathetic ensemble, but I learned a great deal.

BD:   Interesting that it was viola rather than violin.

Moffo:   I was a big strong girl with strong arms, so they preferred to give the heavier instrument to me.  But I did learn an awful lot from being a string player
sensitive intonation, sensitive phrasing, bowing.  It is all invaluable.  There’s nothing you can really learn, or tell somebody to go out and learn.  It just comes.  Your ears get very acutely tuned in from that.

BD:   Then you’re a better singer because you played the viola?

Moffo:   Oh, yes.  I’m a better singer for all the things that I’ve done that are not singing.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Even playing basketball?

Moffo:   Yes, exactly.  I never had the problem that a lot of people have, which is coordination.  I had played so many different types of sports, that if someone told me to move my right arm and my left big toe, I did it.  I didn’t have to figure this out.  When you’re singing, all of your attention is directed toward singing, and remembering the words, and remembering here I go left and there I go right.  Sometimes you don’t move the arms or the feet.  People can be very uncoordinated, not because they’re born uncoordinated, but because they’re too busy coordinating all the other things that go with singing.

BD:   Is being an opera singer today too complicated?

Moffo:   Being an opera singer was always complicated.

moffo BD:   Too complicated?

Moffo:   No.  Nothing is too complicated if you’re willing to work at it.  Young people want to talk to me about this.  To them, I am a person who started so young, that they think there is some secret that I have.  It is not a secret at all.  I was at the right place at the right time, just like the guidebook said.  Now, they’re not willing to grow, or wait.  They think life is passing them by because the big accent in the whole world is Youth now.  Even in business, if you’re 40, they want to retire you.  So, when some singer gets to be close to 30, I’m inclined to agree they should have been doing something, but not all voices are mature by then.

BD:   But doing something doesn’t necessarily mean singing Traviata at The Met.

Moffo:   No, but it means having been recognized as being at least a potentially important artist.  So, they get nervous and they don’t want to wait, or they get to a place where they’ve got to work, otherwise they can’t study.  One time, a very fine tenor told me that he wanted to keep being an operatic tenor, but in order to keep living, he would have to go off to do Les Miserables.  I told him, “It seems like that will keep you living, but please take into account that you have come to a certain place operatically.  If you now go out and do eight shows of anything, even a Mozart opera, it will take a toll on tiring you out.  During those eight performances a week, you will have no time to even do a scale.  Then, when the run is over, you will need some time off.  It’s just too tiring.”  This also involved touring, and they think it’s great they’re traveling, but they have no idea how hard it is to tour.  Anyway, to get back to your question, I don’t think it’s too complicated to be an opera singer, but it’s more complicated than a lot of people realize.  Too many singers think all they have to do is basically learn some kind of breathing technique, and open their mouth to sing, and that’s not it.

BD:   Are they looking for shortcuts?

Moffo:   Sure.

BD:   What advice do you have for signers coming along?

Moffo:   Just that
there are no shortcuts.

BD:   They must take the

Moffo:   [Smiles]  The
longcut, to them, represents a longer time, but it doesn’t have to.  You can take the long way by doing all that you should be doing, but instead of five years, you do it in three years.  You shouldn’t eliminate your basicsyour theory, your languages, your basic kinds of coaching, how to study roles.  Just don’t eliminate those things.  I know for a fact that when somebody gets a chance to do a role that has nothing to do with what they should be doing, just because they think then they’ll be heard, it will harm them.  To be heard in something which is not for you is much worse than never having been heard at all.

BD:   How difficult is it to say no?

Moffo:   Saying no is very difficult, very difficult.  I often think I should have said no when I was offered Butterfly, but I studied it with a wonderful coach.  I truly studied something like two pages a day, and by the time I did it, I knew it all.  I knew I shouldn’t push it, but I should sing it for my age at the time.  The great success that I had with it was mainly for the reason that they had never heard a Butterfly for years who really sounded so young.  I was not fifteen, but I was close to being that age, whereas they were used to a thirty- to forty-year old woman singing it who sounded mature.  I always will tell a student not to do it.  I did it, and I lived through it, but then I was catapulted into a strata of singers that were all so experienced
, such as Tito Gobbi, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Tebaldi, and Simionato.  I would stand there just hoping that when I did sing, it would be acceptable and that great.  [In my interview with Jon Vickers, he remarked how he loved singing with Simionato because he took vocal lessons all night.]

BD:   So, you got on the job training?

Moffo:   Yes, but I worked very hard.  I was always having this feeling that I’ve got to catch up to where these people are, which I couldn’t.  They were all people who had been singing twenty, twenty-five, thirty years.  But, some of it
a lot of itrubbed off, and I was very happy to be a blotter.  [Laughs]  Above all, I had the wonderful good fortune of working with the great maestri, such as Tullio Serafin.  They would say that it doesn’t have to go that slow, or it doesn’t have to be that loud.  What you’re doing is just fine, don’t change it.

serafin Tullio Serafin (September 1, 1878 - February 2, 1968) was a leading Italian opera conductor with a long career and a very broad repertoire, who revived many 19th-century bel canto operas by Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti to become staples of 20th-century repertoire. He had an unparalleled reputation as a coach of young opera singers and famously harnessed and developed the talents of both Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas.

Born in Rottanova (Cavarzere), near Venice, and trained in Milan, he played viola in the Orchestra of La Scala, Milan under Arturo Toscanini, later being appointed Assistant Conductor. He took over as Music Director at La Scala when Toscanini left to go to New York, and served 1909–1914, 1917–1918, and returned briefly after the Second World War, 1946 -1947.

He joined the conducting staff of the Metropolitan Opera in 1924, and remained for a decade, after which he became the artistic director of the Teatro Reale in Rome. During his long career he helped further the careers of many important singers, including Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi,and most notably, Maria Callas, with whom he collaborated on many recordings.

Maestro Serafin was very appreciated in Buenos Aires. During nine seasons at the Teatro Colón between 1914 and 1951, he conducted 368 opera performances of 63 different operas. This included many operas that are seldom performed, by composers such as Alfano, Catalani, Giordano, Massenet, Montemezzi, Monteverdi, Pizzetti, Respighi, Rimsky Korsakov, and Zandonai.

Serafin was instrumental in expanding the repertory, conducting the Italian premieres of works by Alban Berg, Paul Dukas, and Benjamin Britten. He also conducted important world premieres by both Italian and American composers, such as Franco Alfano, Italo Montemezzi, Deems Taylor, and Howard Hanson.

BD:   Did they mean that what you’re doing is fine for you?

Moffo:   No, I found out later that a lot of times they enjoyed working artists that they could mold, as opposed to people who are to the point where they’ve gotten into bad habits, and they tear up the scenery, while never looking at the conductor.

BD:   You’ve done, for instance, so many Traviatas.  Were the earlier ones easier than the later ones in terms of unlearning and relearning, and redoing and remolding and reshaping?

Moffo:   Basically, my Traviata today is exactly the same as when I debuted.  The only thing is that when I made my debut, I knew that I had not lived as much as Violetta, and that bothered me.  She lived an awful lot in a very short time.  I later realized that she got accused of a lot of things she never could do because she was too busy coughing.  [Laughs]  But my hang-ups were that I just didn’t have enough experience as a woman, not as a singer, because Traviata is one of those few parts you’re so lucky to find.  It’s not that it’s easy for you, but it fits.  All you have to do is do it, be well, and be at your best.  A lot of people go through a whole career and never find a part like that.

BD:   And you had several of them?

Moffo:   I’ve had several of them.  Everybody thinks that Violetta is my best role.  It’s certainly one of my best roles, but I was always very happy in operas like Lucia and Puritani.  I just love Puritani.  I have done every Bellini opera now, and Norma is my graduation pride.  [Laughs]  I did an awful lot of other Verdi.  I did a lot of Gildas, and boy, that’s a very difficult part.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Even before she gets thrown in the sack?


moffo Moffo:   It’s difficult from the moment you run down those stairs to papa.  I did an awful lot of Verdi, and I did an awful lot of Donizetti.  I did quite a bit of Rossini, and I did a lot of French opera, which was unusual for a voice, which is Italianate, or Latin.  When I started to sing a lot in Germany, my repertoire was mostly Italian, but they loved the sound of my particular voice in Lieder, and in classical operetta.  They would always want me to do recordings of Gypsy Baron, and The Merry Widow, as well as Bettelstudent [Millöcker] and Zarewitch, and other works by Lehár and Kálmán.  These were things that I had never heard, and they brought another facet, another coloring, to my voice.  I really had to buckle down because German was extremely hard for me.  Now, I’m very conversant in German.  So, that’s all goes in the minestrone.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you get out on stage, are you portraying a character or do you really become that character?

Moffo:   That’s very interesting.  During a lecture I gave, someone remarked that they always had the feeling that I was Violetta, or I was Mimì.  Of course, you try to be, but you’re always busy singing.  I have to really concentrate all day before any performance
even a recitalto get myself totally in the character.  But I must say, I’ve been toldespecially at The Metthat when I walk off stage and am called by the name Anna, I do not turn around.  If you call to Lucia or Mimì, until I get to my dressing room I will respond.  So yes, I would say I’m really the character.

BD:   Are there any of these characters that are perhaps a little too close to the real Anna Moffo?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, Moffo recorded Lucia again (released on Eurodisc), with Lajos Kozma, Giulio Fioravanti, and Paolo Washington, conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.]

Moffo:   Too close?  I would have to think about that.  They’re all close to me.  When people think of me, they say that I seem very fragile, and I’m not.  I’m very strong, but I’m fragile in my soul.  I don’t throw fits of temper, but I can be very easily upset on stage.  I don’t think temperament is bad temper.  I do have a lot of temperament, but that’s just because I’m very sensitive in general.  But all the girls I play also are basically fragile, and very feminine.  But when the chips are down, they’re strong.  Actually, I don’t know that I’ve ever played a character that I don’t identify with a little bit.  I don’t really identify with the girls who are a little shallow, and I think Rosina is a little shallow, for example.

BD:   Even though she manipulates the whole scene?

Moffo:   Of course, but she’s something I’ve never been, which is a little bit conniving, a little bit naughty.  In many ways I don’t identify with Manon because I’m very faithful, very loyal, not only to people I love, but people I like.  Other than that, I identify a lot with Butterfly, and I very much identify with Liù.

BD:   [Surprised]  Because these are victims?

Moffo:   Well, they’re self-sacrificing, but so is Gilda.  She is a part that I’ve sung so much.  I never thought of her as being terribly intellectually bright.  She’s just a spontaneous person.  I never identified much with Marguerite, or with Juliette.

BD:   Are they more a product of their own time and their own upbringing?

Moffo:   Probably.  That’s why it’s so important.  One of the main things that young people don’t do is really study enough about who these characters really are, and why they’re that way.  In Rome I once worked with a very fine director, and was asked to do Manon set in 1890.

BD:   Was this Puccini or Massenet?

Moffo:   Massenet.  You can do Butterfly in Vietnam, but if you think about it, Manon wouldn’t be sent off to a convent in 1890.  She would be maybe get thrown out of the house, but nobody would really make such a fuss.  They certainly wouldn’t send her off, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all not to go.  In the end, it really didn
t work.  [In the conversation, Ms. Moffo actually referred to the character of Manon as I or Me.  However, it has been changed to ‘she’ and ‘her’, so the anecdote would read more smoothly.]

BD:   She’d have more opportunities?

moffo Moffo:   Yes.  The world had become much larger by that time.  People had assignations without everybody else knowing about it, and without having to hide behind the nearest screen or tree.  The white wig and all these things had had its time and its reason.

BD:   But you still have to be out there portraying it, and bringing those feelings to all of the women and men in the audience.

Moffo:   We all work at it, but when people go to the opera, I don’t think they pose problems like that to themselves, if they like the singing and they know the opera.  But as an artist, you have to pose those problems, and understand that every time I sit on this bustle, I know I’m a hundred to a hundred fifty years earlier.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Even if you’re portraying it in the correct period, you’ve got to be able to communicate the feelings of this woman to a modern audience.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Helen Donath, and Arleen Augér.]

Moffo:   Yes, but you have to be absolutely sure what time period you’re in.  I’m sure you could do Traviata as if it were Star Trek, but when you do it that way, you really have to make a big adjustment.

BD:   Does Manon as Massenet and Prévost conceived it really speak to the women who have been through couple of World Wars and the Depression and all the ups and downs of the Twentieth Century?

Moffo:   Oh, sure because it’s the oldest profession in the world.  [Laughs]  It started long before Manon, although I really can’t say she is exactly a prostitute, but she’s a little gold digger.

BD:   She’s willing to do what it takes to get what she wants.

Moffo:   Right, whatever it takes, especially if it entails the beautiful jewelry, and clothes, and admiration.  She needs the security of being admired all the time.  That’s why the worst thing that happens to Manon is not that she dies, but that she knows she loses her great beauty.  That’s more evident in the Puccini version.  There she is dragging alone in the desert, and it’s true with Mimì when she says it’s not no longer a sunrise, it’s a sunset.  No woman wants to get any older, and certainly she does not want to lose whatever has led her on this path of having so many men in her life.  For another thing, young singers should study the period because of the costumes.  People move differently in a fan skirt than they did with the bustle.  They need to understand the way they walk with the white wig, which might fall off any minute.  This is much different from other head pieces.

BD:   This is their carriage?

Moffo:   Their carriage.  Or, if you were a soldier, if you were Lensky as opposed to Rodolfo, who can barely tie his tie because he’s always in a hurry between the girls and the poetry.  That’s all very important.  I was an Art History minor in school, and I learned so much just from looking at paintings all day long, and colors and the way costumes were designed.

BD:   You learned how they felt?

Moffo:   Yes.  There is an Italian painter, Gentileschi (1563-1639), whose paintings show the way fabrics fell.  Their texture
whether it was a brocade, or a damask, or a silksays it all.  If you’re going to be doing things like Don Carlos or King Philip, you have to really see those capes.  Now, we make them out of light stuff, so the artist doesn’t have to get tired, but they were very heavy, and the jewelry was heavy, and the crowns were heavy.  It was a big thing to be a czar or a king.  It was hard work.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In the course of your career, you’ve made a lot of recordings.  Did you sing the same way in the recording studio that you do in the opera house or on the concert platform?

Moffo:   I tried.  It wasn’t always possible, because a lot of things I recorded I never did on stage, or I had not done them on stage at the time of the recording.  For example, I recorded Manon before I did it on stage, and it became a much more dramatic, fuller part after I’ve done it on stage for awhile.


BD:   You did that nice album which is half Puccini and half Massenet.

Moffo:   It also had the arias from Portrait de Manon.

moffo BD:   Thats right, the small additional disc!  [See photo above.]  Was it special to do all those sides of Manon?

Moffo:   Oh, it was very special.  The funny thing was, even at that time the Manon Lescaut were only excerpts, which makes a difference.  I mention it because had it been a whole opera, Manon Lescaut was the closest to me.  Manon was also very close, but she was much more frivolous than I am.  Of course, she was French, but one of my next projects is Manon Lescaut, the Puccini, and I wonder how it will feel having done so many Manons.  I also did so many different kinds of Juliets.  I’ve done the Gounod Romeo and Juliet, the Bellini Capuleti, and just on a radio broadcast I did the Zandonai Giulietta e Romeo, and they are all so different.

BD:   Do you find a linking thread amongst all of them?

Moffo:   The linking thread is usually the story.  In the various settings of Faust, Goethe is always present.  That’s the line that goes through everything, but they all treat the characters in a very different way.

BD:   Do they all expose different sides of Goethe, or do they go off wrong-headed, or perhaps add something new that wasn’t there?

Moffo:   Even though it’s not an opera, the closest Goethe to me is the song Gretchen am Spinnrade of Schubert.  But that’s logical because he was German.

BD:   And you hear the spinning in the piano [thrumming sound]. [Laughs]

Moffo:   On the other hand, I don’t know how many people think about how much writing Wagner did in Bologna, and not for this reason do I find Lohengrin and Tannhäuser to be very Italianate.  They are more Italian than things he wrote in other places.

BD:   [With mock horror]  You
re not going to sing Wagner, are you???

Moffo:   [Laughs]  I don’t identify with that.  I don’t think it’s right for me, but, as I say, I am very interested in the Strauss repertoire.  I’d like to do Daphne, and Arabella I like very much.  I keep getting offers for Lulu, and I definitely don’t think that’s for me... but never is a long time.  I get a lot of offers for Salome, which I don’t think is for me.

BD:   What makes it not for you
is it the range, or the orchestration, or what?

Moffo:   It doesn’t reward me vocally.  I’m not quite sure if I can explain what that means.  All my life I wanted to sing Tosca.  I lusted for it, and I had decided I would never sing it.  Every time I do a role for the first time, I always go into my dressing room at the end, and I sit in front of the mirror and have a long talk with myself about how I felt, because you never feel the same after the first performance.  It’s such an experience to do a role for the first time... to me, anyway.  The first time I did Traviata, I remember I looked in the mirror, and said, “Kid, if you never sing again, you have sung Traviata.”  After I did Tosca, I couldn’t believe I did it, but I was not vocally as rewarded at the first Tosca as I was with other roles.  What can be more rewarding than a Violetta, or a Lucia for my type of voice?  My first Tosca was in Caracas, and I jumped twenty feet (down off the parapet at the end), and I thought the hardest thing about this opera is jumping.  [Laughs]  But, every opera has something difficult in it.  I may end up trying Salome one day just for fun.

BD:   [With a tasteful but lustful glance]  Will you strip down to nothing?

Moffo:   [With mock-modesty]  Well, I think there’s a lot more to Salome than stripping... maybe, maybe not.  [Both laugh]  The first time I saw Salome, it was with a very, very heavy soprano, who just walked up stage, and in walked the most gorgeous ballerina I’d ever seen.  I don’t remember what she had on or took off, but she was so beautiful to behold.  Then, after the dance, back out came this heavyweight, and that was not right.  That was totally incorrect.  I look in the mirror a lot
and I don’t mean for vanity reasonsbefore I accept a part, and even though I think I’d like to sing it, and I think it’s right for me, I look in the mirror to see if I were going to the opera, would I like to see me in that part?  Do I look like that part?  I always thought that I had to work three times as hard as anybody else when I did Butterfly.  I felt extremely tall, and extremely put upon.  As much as I love the part, I really turned it into a female Rigoletto.  I crouched all night up and down, mostly on my knees, so I wouldn’t look so tall... and I’m really not that tall.  However, when I look at myself in the mirror for Traviata, or Manon, or certainly Tosca, I said, “Yes, I think I would buy a ticket to see this person, or this type of person.”  It’s not just the figure, it’s something in the eyes, something that I have to relate to in the part.  I felt that I never looked like Nanetta [Falstaff], who bobs all over the stage, and I never looked like Susanna [Marriage of Figaro], but they were awfully good parts for me.  I think I was born Alicia, and I think I was born Countess.  I look in the mirror and I see Countess, I don’t see Susanna.  I never did.  But, that’s just me.

BD:   I’m glad it’s you.  Is there a secret to singing Mozart?


See my interviews with Fiorenza Cossotto and Ivo Vinco, and Piero Cappuccilli

moffo Moffo:   There’s a secret to singing everything, and that’s just to have your technique really down.  Most arias are more exposed, but the Italian counterpart of Mozart is Bellini, and he is as hardif not harder to singthan Mozart, because with the long melodies, it also has a different kind of sweeping line that Mozart has sometimes, and sometimes doesn’t.

BD:   Is that as rewarding?

Moffo:   I don’t think it’s any more rewarding than the bel canto masters.  I would narrow it to three, because, as you know, Rossini really wrote mostly for mezzos.  We (sopranos) all sing it interpolated, but he really wrote for mezzos.  If a person could spend their career and love it as much as I do only singing Mozart and just the three Italians
Verdi, Bellini, and Donizettiyou should consider yourself very fortunate.  Your voice would always be healthy, and in good shape.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  Is opera art, or is opera entertainment?

Moffo:   Both.

BD:   Then where is that balance?

Moffo:   That comes up in discussions, and with my lectures.  When someone asks what I think of subtitles, I personally don’t like to be on stage with them, and it just happened that I never sang in a theater with them.  If you need to put subtitles in the opera, then you should also put them in the ballet as well, because it means that we’re not showing you with our bodies and with our gestures what we’re doing.  It’s impossible to translate everything, every nuance with the same effect.  So, I am not in favor of them, but I know that this is going to be coming to every house now.  I just feel that people are distracted if they’re so busy reading.

BD:   [Being Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  You don’t feel that the extra closeness of getting people involved in the drama compensates for what is lost?

Moffo:   I don’t think you’re getting them more involved because they read, and then they look at the action.  Then, when there are five people on stage, maybe you’re not sure who is talking to who.  It’s very good for a comic operas more than anything, so you do get the jokes, but if we have titles for Madame Butterfly, we’re not doing our job as artists.  On the other hand, an opera was done in English recently in a very big theater, and they used titles.  Maybe their diction wasn’t good enough.  I don’t know.  We don’t have any titles on Broadway.

BD:   No, but you have amplification on Broadway.

Moffo:   Yes, but we don’t have titles because you can’t hear us.  It
s because you don’t know what we’re saying.  It also has to do with pitch.  Higher voices could be singing in Chinese and no one would know.

BD:   Yes, you can understand the diction a little better from altos and basses.

Moffo:   Because they’re lower.  But no matter how many subtitles you have, when Lucia gets going, she’s in the stratosphere most of the time.

BD:   Do you like singing in the stratosphere?

Moffo:   Oh, I love it, but I like to come down, too.

BD:   Thank you so much for spending this time with me today.

Moffo:   Is that enough?

BD:   Oh, it
’s never enough, but this will be fine.  [Both laugh]


See my interviews with Paolo Montarsolo, and Graziella Sciutti



© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in November of 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1992 and 1997.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.

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.