By Bruce Duffie
[Note: When this interview took place in 1988, I knew it would be
published in The Massenet Newsletter, as well as have its
usual airings on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago. This is why there
is a particular emphasis on French opera in addition to the general
questions about her career and her views on singing, etc. What
follows is the material that was published July of 1991, with the
addition of a few small sections which were cut in that presentation,
and photographs which have been found on the internet.]
Even though her name evokes many of the great verismo Italian operas,
Renata Scotto has done a number of French roles, including Manon as
early as 1963, and more recently Charlotte.
Born in 1934, Scotto studied in Milan and made her debut
at the Teatro
Nuovo when she was only 19. Immediately engaged by La Scala, she
has appeared there and in many other opera houses around the world
regularly ever since. It was in 1957 that she stepped in for
Callas and made a name for herself by not disappointing those who had
come to hear the reigning diva.
In this country, she has been heard at the Met many times since 1965,
and has been seen on several “Live from the Met” telecasts including
the very first one of the current series. But it was in Chicago
that she made her American debut in 1960, and she has sung here several
times since in various operas, including Manon with Alfredo Kraus.
Besides her opera and concert appearances, Scotto has made many
recordings, two on the Hungaroton label (HCD 31037 and HCD 31116) being
of special interest since they contain French repertoire. She has
also recorded many of her roles complete on various labels over the
It was during a visit to Chicago in 1988 that I had the opportunity to
meet with Miss Scotto at her apartment between performances of
Tosca. She was kind and
gracious, and delighted in showing me her
current project – designing costumes for upcoming productions.
Her English was quite good, though it occasionally frustrated her not
to be able to speak as quickly and as easily as she was obviously
Here, then, is much of what was said that afternoon.....
Renata Scotto: My dream
and desire is to design costumes.
In my Butterfly in Verona, I
did design my own costumes. I have
to improve my study, so I have books on fabrics and period styles all
Bruce Duffie: Will you do
set design also, or just costumes?
RS: No, just costumes,
and staging which I did already and liked
BD: I’m impressed that a
singer with your experience would want
to share some of that with others and bring it to life elsewhere.
RS: I like it very much,
but I have to study because it’s a
completely different perspective. You have to forget that you are
BD: Have you done both at
the same time?
RS: The first time I was
also in the production; later, I was the
BD: Which is better?
RS: When you’re
directing, it’s better not to also sing.
It’s very difficult to do both, and I like to direct and I like to
sing. But it should be two separate people. In my directing
debut at the Met, I also sang. In Verona, I also sang, but only
the last two performances. The show was already running for 8
performances before I stepped onstage to sing in my staging.
BD: Tell me about the
secret of singing Puccini.
RS: Oh my god. There’s no
secret as long as you can sing
what Puccini wrote. Often, I see young people who start their career
with Puccini because they think it’s easier than other composers like
Verdi. If you take the score only (just the notes), of course
it’s easier. Verdi, and other composers of the romantic 19th
century, need bel canto technique. So, when I see the young
people sing Puccini, I know they’re making a big mistake. In
order to sing Puccini, you have to know how to sing first. You
have to know the meaning of being a singer who knows how to act and
make a character believable. That is the great secret of Puccini
– theater, words in music, but in the verismo style. Many times
“verismo” is misunderstood and they think “melodrama” is the same
thing. Verismo is a style, like bel canto. Verdi is his own
style, as is Wagner. Verismo includes many composers from the
late 19th to early 20th centuries. From my experience and
study, verismo is a very precise style where everything is
concentrated, and there are only a few pages of music to express a
situation either dramatic or comic. The structure is different –
fewer recitatives or duets and trios. They are there, but they
BD: Was Puccini the
supreme example of the verismo style?
RS: I would say that it
didn’t begin with Puccini. We could
speak of Ponchielli, and then we’re back in the 19th century. The
verismo is drama in music. You do not have the long recitatives
to explain the situation followed by an aria with a cadenza. The
beginning of verismo is in the
late Verdi, like Otello and Falstaff. Verdi for me is the
greatest opera composer, the same as Wagner. I don’t do Wagner so
I don’t know much of his music even though I love it. I’m crazy
about it, but I need to
sing it in order to know it, so I cannot. But the
difference between the early Verdi of 1844-1848 and late Verdi toward
the end of the century is immense. There is
a line from the beginning to the end.
BD: You sing both Verdi
and Puccini. What are the differences in the vocal style?
RS: For Verdi, you need a
special technique because you have everything. He is very
much a demanding composer from the point of view of the singer.
for the voice, but asked everything from the voice.
BD: Did he ever ask too
RS: [In a matter-of-fact
tone] No. No, not too much. Verdi is just perfect. He
demands a good singer, which is a lot! You have to study
very much to sing Verdi. You have coloratura, you have legato and
legatissimo, pianissimi, fortissimi, parole – words. Every
different, and even if the music looks alike, the difference is
great. I sang a lot of Verdi, and the difference between Gilda in
Rigoletto and Violetta in La Traviata, which is already a
dramatic character, or even Lady Macbeth or Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, is in the drama
because the music looks almost the same. It has coloratura,
dramatic moments, legati, high notes, low notes, everything is
there. It depends on the character – the right
expression, the right words. He requires more voice, more
temperament. Gilda is a young and inexperienced woman
and you have to keep this shape to the character.
BD: Did Verdi put all of
this into his music, or did he expect you to bring this understanding
of each character?
RS: He puts everything
into the music, but it’s up to you to
understand. He wrote everything, but not everything that he wrote
is understood. When a writer pens a book, sometimes you
misunderatand what he is trying to say, or perhaps you don’t
BD: Is that the beauty of
Verdi – that you can keep discovering things for years?
RS: For everything, not
only for Verdi but especially his music. Violetta is one of the
roles that I sang most in twenty years of my career and each time I
found something not different but to undertand better. That is a
very difficult role because musically it is very sophisticated, but not
in the orchestra. He leaves everything to the singer to phrase
the meaning of the words, to find what is underneath the
character. When she meets Alfredo in the first act, she thinks he
is just one of the many men she has met. But when she is alone
and she thinks about him, something goes on in her mind. The way
he was talking about her makes her think that maybe this was the man
she was waiting for. In the first part of her aria, there are
some words which are very sad. I thought about that a lot and had
a feeling she wanted much, much more. She knows that it will
change her life. She was very sad and knows she is sick, and is
waiting for this big change. In the music you have everything so
those words have different meanings if you think about it. It
is not superficial. Nothing is superficial in Verdi, especially
for Violetta in the first act. So there is always something
BD: When you portray
Violetta, does this woman, living in the
remote past still speak to women (and men) at the end of the 20th
RS: The romantic period
had its own style, which is absolutely
different than the style today. At that time, in order to meet a
man and say, “I love you” would take much longer than it would take
today in the modern way when everything is fast. One of the
beauties of romanticism is its slow pace. If you want to talk
about romanticism, Massenet, in some of his operas shows the real
romantic period. To have them kiss each other in Werther you
wait three hours, and to die takes 20 minutes! This is
romantic. I’m a romantic and I like romanticism, but it doesn’t
go with our life, even though I feel the modern audiences love to see
it on the stage. They cannot have it in their lives, so they go
into the theater to identify with some character. For two hours,
you go into another world.
BD: Does it change their
RS: I think so. It
changes mine when I’m onstage, and I
believe I change the life of my audience – at least for two hours.
BD: Well, where is the
balance between an artistic achievement
and an entertainment value?
RS: From my side, the
artistic achievement is to be able to take
the audience away from their outside life. To understand the
artistry of the composer and of the theater, and to be able to transfer
this from me to the audience is the achievement I’m waiting for every
step onstage. I know I’m there to entertain. Hopefully, I’m
not only an entertainer.
BD: Let’s stay with
Massenet for a bit. How are his operas
written differently for the voice from Puccini or Verdi?
RS: I believe that
Massenet is the Puccini of the French. I
say that because in the same way, he brings life onstage to the
character and romanticism of verismo. He likes theater very much,
but in a different way. Puccini brings the Italian temperament
and Massenet brings the French temperament, which is more
sophisticated. As a woman, I like fashion and design very much,
and the French have a more soft taste in what concerns color and
design, even perfume.
BD: More delicate?
RS: Not delicate, but
more suave. Massenet is not always
delicate. The St. Sulpice duet in Manon is not delicate. It
is very forceful, very dramatic. The Puccini setting of the Manon
story is temperamental and passionate. Massenet is also
passionate, but different. It’s French passion. On the
other hand, the “Dream” is delicate but not superficial.
Delicacy can be profound. All this, of course, is only my opinion…
BD: But it’s what you
have discovered in singing the music.
RS: I made a recording of French music –
mostly Massenet – and
included an aria from Sappho.
It’s a beautiful aria, and the
story has nothing to do with the mythological character. It’s a
love story. The man discovers that she posed nude for a
sculpture, and he’s very jealous. It’s a beautiful story. I
put the aria in the record and it’s fabulous. It’s quite close to
what Puccini would have liked to write about this passionate woman who
asks him to give her back the love he once felt. She wants him
back, and the aria is very much like Puccini, but in the French
style. Massenet is fascinating, and I love it. I’m a
Massenet fan. I discovered, when I sang Werther, how beautiful
Charlotte is and how deep the character is. I have also another
dream. It’s impossible, but I would love to sing in one day both
the Massenet and Puccini Manon! The two together make the
Prévost. What happens in one doesn’t happen in the other.
BD: Tell me about
Manon. Is she the original liberated woman?
RS: Yes... Well, it
depends on what you mean by
“liberated.” If you mean that she has to work for her money and
pay for her own life, no. Manon wants the man to pay all the
time. If you mean that she does what she wants all the time, then
yes she is liberated. Today, liberation for women means
that they have to work twice – the domestic chores in the home and a
job outside! Manon is very selfish. She needs a man and
needs everything, and she pays for it emotionally. I think there
is a little bit of Manon in every woman. Many women won’t say so,
but I think it’s true.
BD: If Manon were around
today, might she have stayed with Des
Grieux but gone out and gotten a job to help support their lifestyle?
RS: [Quietly giggling] I
don’t think so. She’d still change
men and find a rich one!
BD: Well, would Manon
have been happier if she’d gone off with
the rich man first without ever meeting Des Grieux?
RS: Mmmm, no.
Everything that she does is what comes at the
moment. We see this young girl who has been sent away from home
to the convent because she was a bad girl. She finds a way to
avoid the convent.
BD: So even before we
meet her, she’s already been in trouble.
RS: Oh yes, of
course. She was one of those girls.
It’s a very modern story but you cannot live that way. The
girl always pays in the end. A girl like that today would finish
like Manon. It’s tragic. In life you have to think and do
the best you can to make your life good for yourself first. I’m a
mother and I’m very organized. When you have respect for
yourself, you have respect for others. Respect is what your life
BD: So the opera is
essentially a morality play.
RS: Yes. It
instructs you what can happen and how you can
BD: Then is Charlotte the
complete opposite of Manon?
RS: Yes. Charlotte
is in charge of her life, and we can
blame the society which makes you do things you don’t want to do.
Charlotte was not free to do what she wanted – not
because of her,
but because of her society. Manon didn’t care a bit about
society, but Charlotte was forced by her bourgeoisie family and her
education and her small town, and her very strong religion.
Society can change your life. You have to be in charge, and know
what you want to do, and not be forced by others, like in the case of
Charlotte, to marry whom they tell you.
BD: If Werther hadn’t
come into her life, would Charlotte have
been quietly happy with Albert?
knows? Maybe not.
BD: If she hadn’t been
forced to marry Albert, might she have
been happy with Werther?
RS: It is my belief from
what I’ve read that Werther would never
be happy. He has to be unhappy in order to be happy. He’s
that kind of character.
BD: Do you sing
differently in the recording studio that you do
in the theater?
RS: No, I don’t sing
differently. The only thing is that
when I do a recording, I have a much, much larger audience. A
record is a document and it’s forever. People, audiences,
students can go to it to understand or to listen or to compare.
So when I do a recording, I am very careful and do it knowing that I
have an audience of millions and millions of people. I like to
do, if I can, long takes. Each scene once, twice, maybe three
times until I like it. But not piece by piece or note by
note. That’s fake. You lose the spontaneity and stage
presence and the drama. So, when I’m in front of the microphone,
I try to picture the audience, and often it works. I am often
asked which are my favorites…
BD: ...but I don’t ask
that question! However, let me ask a more general
question: are you basically pleased with those recordings you
RS: Basically, yes.
BD: Do you ever feel
you’re competing onstage with the recordings
you have made of that role?
RS: Oh yes, oh yes.
When I make a record I think about the
audience, so in performance I have to think about the record because I
want to do the same performance.
BD: The same – or better?
RS: Same, better, worse,
whatever. It’s a performance.
BD: When you’re preparing
these roles, do you dig as much as you
can into the characters and the background of the work?
This is the first homework you have to
do. For me, first I have to know why the composer thought about
writing an opera about this character. If there is a play or
book, I read it. Then I go to the composers’ letters. I’m
so glad that they used to write letters so we can read them. I’m
not sure composers write so much any more. By reading them, you
can understand what the composer was thinking before he even starts the
first note. The choice of librettist was often forced upon the
composer by the publisher. Sometimes the subject was a
historical event that really happened, so you read about it. I
like to do the homework before I start learning the music, so when I
come to the music I know what I’m going to be dealing with, and I put
myself into it.
BD: When you’re offered
roles, how do you decide which ones
you’ll learn and which ones you’ll turn aside?
RS: When that happens, I
look immediately at the music. I
sing through it and sometimes I know immediately it’s not for
me. Other times, I have to do a bit of research. I also ask
maestri for advice, but you must be careful. Sometimes they see
the singers all the same. One soprano will be different from
another soprano. All will be different. Once, a maestro
told me not to do a certain role, but I did, and it became one of my
greatest parts. I judge for myself, but I need advice.
BD: What advice do you
have for young singers coming along?
RS: That is always a very
difficult question. Everyone must
gain their own experience. You can tell youngsters many things,
but until they experience things for themselves, they never
learn. So I encourage them to start as soon as possible because
they have a lot of time ahead to make mistakes. We have a saying
in Italian that translates, “By making mistakes, you learn.”
BD: Is singing fun?
RS: Ah, yes! Yes
singing is fun! I always enjoy
singing very much. The moment before you go onstage is the most
terrible moment. A thousand things come into your mind. You
need to be able to go out and please an audience. You need to do
what you’ve been studying. You have so many questions in your
mind before you go out, and then you start. As soon as I start, I
enjoy it very much. It’s like I have a second life. Every
morning when I wake up, I thank God that he has given me this
gift. It is something special and it’s something that is not
mine. It’s for people who share with me, and for one or two or
three hours we share the same joy that I’ve found in this gift.
It makes me so happy and I hope that I can make others be happy, too.
BD: Is there any role
that you especially identify with?
RS: In every role there
is a moment that you identify with.
I don’t identify with Lady Macbeth… [laughter] But there is always a
moment that I identify with – as a woman, as a lover, as a
mother. There are many moments. When you go into a
style like the Bel Canto style or the Romantic style, it’s harder to
find the identification. But even there, there is always one
phrase that takes you back to yourself. Even with Manon!
[laughter] As I said, every woman has a little bit of Manon in
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© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 21,
1988. Portions were used on WNIB
(along with musical examples) in 1989, 1991, twice in 1994, and once
again 1999. A short segment was given to Lyric Opera of Chicago
and used on their website as part of their group of Jubilarians to celebrate the
50th anniversary season of the company in 2004. The
transcription was made in 1991 and published in The Massenet Newsletter in July of
that year; it was re-edited and posted on this website in November of
2008 with the addition of photographs.
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.