Bass  Nicola  Zaccaria
Νίκος Ζαχαρίου

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In the fall of 1988, Marilyn Horne returned to Chicago for performances of Falstaff of Verdi and Tancredi by Rossini.  It was at that time I had the privilege of doing an interview with her.  [See my Interview with Marilyn Horne.]  Her companion during his later years was bass Nicola Zaccaria and he was with her in Chicago.  At the conclusion of my chat with the mezzo I asked if he would also be willing to do an interview, and it was arranged for the following day. 

Zaccaria had an illustrious career, appearing onstage and in recordings with some of the most famous singers of the age.  Just the fact that he held his own in that company speaks to his own artistry and prestige.  An accounting of his life and achievements is in the obituary which follows this interview.

Though he had never sung in Chicago, we met backstage at the Opera House for our conversation.  My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for providing the translation for us both. 

Like some other older singers, he lamented the current state of the vocal arts, but we soon got onto other topics with a more positive outlook . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you still singing or have you retired from the stage?

Nicola Zaccaria:    I do sing when there is something that is really important for me because I have sung so much in my life.  So if something comes up that is really important and really pleases me, I am tempted.  At my age, it doesn’t really matter that much to have sung a role twenty or twenty-eight times, I guess.  There’s something else that I want to say.  It was better to sing a couple of decades ago.  The casts for certain operas were better.  The maestri, at least for the theaters that I’ve sung in, were better, and the stage directors, especially, were a lot better.

BD:    Is opera dying?

zaccaria NZ:    No.  Opera is not dying, but certainly we are in a time of vocal crisis.  I don’t want to offend anybody, but come up now with a perfect cast for Aïda.  Give me a perfect cast for Il Trovatore.  Give me one Norma!

BD:    Were the casts twenty or thirty years ago perfect?

NZ:    Ninety-nine per cent.

BD:    Okay.  Where did we lose it and why did we lose it?

NZ:    We have lost it because of the less study time that singers put in and because of airplane travel.  My first teacher was a Greek man, and then I had some classes with Elvira de Hidalgo, who was Callas’s teacher.  Later my teacher was Apollo Granforte, who used to say that when people needed to go to Buenos Aires they of course took a ship.  It took forty days to go from Genoa to Buenos Aires and in these forty days the singers had time to rest.  Nowadays, one singer sings tonight here in Chicago and went in the same week in Buenos Aires.  For instance, I used to sing Filippo in French in Paris one night, and the next night I would sing the Inquisitor in Covent Garden with Christoff.  I used to do this for a month. 

BD:    Back and forth?

NZ:    Back and forth.  One makes a lot of money this way, but one loses one’s voice.  The voice gets tired.

BD:    Is there any way to shake the singers today and say, “Slow down!”?

NZ:    Yes, absolutely.  Slow down!  If I were a theater general manager, I would say to someone, “You’re coming to my theater, and you’ll stay two months and will do one opera.  During these two months, you’re not allowed to come and go.”

BD:    And you would get away with that???

NZ:    Excuse me.  In Scala’s theater they still have the wording in the contract that the singer is not allowed to go away from Milan during the period in which he is engaged.  Another thing that you see nowadays, to take an example, is that of a tenor whose voice would be suitable for Sonnambula or for Elisir d’Amore but you see them sing Rigoletto or Bohème.  Without mentioning any names, there was a wonderful tenor with a wonderful voice, who just for this reason completely disappeared.  He had one of the most beautiful voices along the style of Carreras.  I loved his voice.  It was beautiful, and now he doesn’t sing anymore.

BD:    Is the raw material in the throat today as good as the raw material years ago?

NZ:    The raw material should be even better nowadays because nowadays you have vitamins and you have better nutrition.  All these famous names
Callas includedcome from the war period in which food was terrible.  I didn’t have any bread for two years in ’41 and ’42 because there wasn’t any.  Callas was singing Fidelio in Athens, and all she had to eat was a very small piece of bread that was given to them at ten o’clock in the morning.  That has to last for the whole day, I guess.  But the study was different then, and the teachers’ competence was much greater, in the sense of understanding what a voice can really yield and what it can be used for.

zaccaria BD:    Can we not prevail on someone like you, with your experience, to go into the studio and teach a few great, promising voices?

NZ:    This is not only something that they can do, but that they should do.  It is a duty because they have taken something from singing and they should give it back.  I listen to a lot of beautiful voices, and I feel like saying, “Why doesn’t someone go and tell him you have to sing this way?”  Today’s young singers listen to records.  They trust records and what they hear.  We have a young tenor who has a beautiful voice that is suitable for L’Elisir or Sonnambula, and he listens to Del Monaco singing Otello and of course he wants to go out and sing Otello.  If I were to be asked a good teacher’s name, even now in Italy, I wouldn’t want to take the responsibility or wouldn’t feel like taking the responsibility of saying, “Go to this person.”

BD:    Because none of them would have the guts to stop that tenor from doing Otello?

NZ:    I feel that either teachers nowadays are not truly competent or they’re just after making the fast buck.  I have direct personal experience of a fairly famous voice teacher
who was a former tenorand who I assisted with a lesson being given to a young soprano.  I pointed out to the voice teacher, “Why are you letting her do this and this and the other?” and the teacher answered, “I don’t want to offend her.”  So my conclusion was then what was the point of teaching her?

BD:    He doesn’t want to offend her, but he offends the career and the stage.

NZ:    Yes, right. 

BD:    Is there any hope?

NZ:    I think so.  It doesn’t feel like calling this a time of decay, necessarily, but just a slight going down from the past.  As it happened for many other things, there will be a coming back up because there are talents coming out at all times.  There are now a few very talented singers and the only thing is that opera will never die.  Opera is immortal because it is music and word.  What I would want to say to young singers who study now is to take very good care of pronunciation
whether this is Italian, French, or Germanbecause what one hears most of the times is some beautiful vocalizing but not the real words and the meaning of it.  There is something to be said at least for Italian pronunciation.  If one pronounces the words right, the voice comes out right but forward.  It projects forward automatically because it’s the way that the word is pronounced that the sound is made.

BD:    Has the composer set the words so perfectly that he welded them to the music?

NZ:    It might be.  One of the problems always is to bring the voice forward.  Every beginning voice lessons and singing lessons starts with Tosti’s songs and little Italian songs just to make the singer bring the voice forward.  At least for Italian singing that is a very centered thing.  One who starts studying singing must study Monteverdi, with all the words sung in time.  It’s not the line; it’s sung recitatives which brings the voice forward.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What is the role you sang most in your career, or which ones did you enjoy the most?

NZ:    Mostly the Italian repertoire, and all the roles of Verdi.  I also sang Bellini
Sonnambula, Puritani.  I sang Lohengrin in Italian at La Scala with Del Monaco, Marcella Pobbé, Elena Nicolai, Anselmo Colzani.  Antonino Votto was the conductor.  In German I did Tristan with Vickers in Dallas.  [See my Interview with Jon Vickers.] There was also a Fliegende Holländer on radio, and Fidelio, naturally.  I also sang in French, Pelléas et Mélisande with Karajan at La Scala, Vienna, Aix-en-Provence, Bordeaux.  I sang with Ansermet in The Tempest by Frank Martin.  There were also oratorios such as the Verdi Requiem, the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven, the Mozart Requiem and the Stabat Mater of Rossini.  Now I am very happy that there are pirate records of things like the Medea from Dallas with Callas, Vickers and Berganza [See my Interview with Teresa Berganza], and the performance from London with Callas, Vickers and Cossotto, and the Medea from Kansas City with Olivero and Bruno Prevedi.  As for the Lucia in Berlin with Callas, de Stefano, Panerai and Karajan, there are eight different companies that issue that pirate disc.  I also made many commercial recordings.

zaccaria BD:    Are the pirate records better than the commercial records?

NZ:    I think the pirate is true because it represents the truth.  There is no touching up of anything in studio.

BD:    Are you pleased with the commercial records you made? 

NZ:    I like them for two reasons.  One reason is that the commercial records had casts that would remain eternally
Callas, di Stefano, Tito Gobbi [See my Interview with Tito Gobbi], Panerai, Tebaldi, del Monaco, Bastianini.  Also because I get royalties out of them.  They are very stable throughout the years and now they are all coming out in CDs.

BD:    Is making a record piecemeal a fraud?

NZ:    I can’t say that it’s a fraud because I have done it, too!  Commercial records try to take out of an artist the best that the artist can do, so they help the artist to give the best that he can give.  When an artist sings in the theater, if he gives 65% of what he can give, it’s already a big success.  For an artist to give 100% in a theater performance is very rare.

BD:    But is the public not expecting in the theater the same thing they hear on their records?

NZ:    It’s a tricky thing, because people buy the records and then they listen to tenor X, and they hear this great, powerful voice which is, of course, helped by all kinds of mikes and things in the recording studio.  Then they go to the theater and they hear the same tenor with a much smaller voice.  The lyrical art is the singer.  Whether he is in front of the mike in the studio or in the theater, what he does is give the best of himself, the best that he can give, and that is the truth of performing and of all performing artists.

BD:    Did you change your vocal technique from small theaters to large theaters?

NZ:    No.

BD:    Not at all?

NZ:    No.  In a small theater, of course, the artist is a lot happier because his voice is heard a lot better.  One of the examples is Glyndebourne which is a very small place.  So how do you compare Glyndebourne with Salzburg Festspielhaus?  Or with this theater in Chicago, or San Francisco, or the Metropolitan?  How can you compare?

BD:    But you give the same artistry in each performance?

NZ:    Absolutely.  Everything that I can do, yes.  Always.

BD:    Tell me the secret to singing the true bel canto style.

NZ:    First of all is the heart.  Secondly, the vocal cords and the head.  From the heart to the head is the study of the voice.  I don’t want to make any names, but who taught Callas do it like she does?  One can tell a singer, “You can put more passion into this,” or, “This is the measure that you have to sing louder.”  Sometimes some people become ridiculous by thinking they put in too much passion.  They do that kind of
sigh business, which is thought to be the Italian way of singing.  Toscanini thought that really was the worst thing that one could do, and has thrown it away.

BD:    Are we revering Callas too much today
— even more than in her lifetime?

zaccaria NZ:    I have known Maria for a long time because we were together in Greece way back.  I am Greek as you know.  Maria Callas, of course, had a very strong personality.  This personality suited her very well in everything that she could do.  Some people felt antagonistic when faced with her personality, and so some hostility was created.  People were saying that she was not a nice person.  Other people, who adored her since then, today keep adoring her.  It seems like today there is a secret sect of people that keep adoring Callas — the famous widowers of Maria.

BD:    Can that be kept alive strictly through the recordings, or is it just going to be people who remember her stage performances?

NZ:    Even though they listen to the records, if one hasn’t seen Maria on the stage they can’t have the exact idea of how grand she was.  Today everybody writes a new book on Maria Callas and they write all kinds of things in the books.  I have had many requests to take part in the documentaries and movies that they have done about Maria Callas.  I have always refused because it’s true that while they convey memories of Maria Callas, many times they gave a wrong impression or memory of her.  The people that make these documentaries make money out of it, or out of her.  I had a guy approach me, and he wasn’t even born when Maria was singing.  I told him, “Please, let her rest in the Aegean Sea where her ashes are buried.”  It makes me feel very peculiar, very strange because I know that in this theater here in Chicago, Maria sang this wonderful Trovatore.  I believe Maria should remain as a light, guiding singers whether they are young or old.

BD:    Is there a chance that we will get another artist of this same stature?

NZ:    Probably yes.  Every once in a while nature shows what it is capable of producing in one person
giving one person all kinds of natural gifts.  Not to name any names, but there are many singers that are very good.  Usually the audience understands who’s the greatest.  Today I was listening to the radio and a record of Leonard Warren was being played.  I had my debut with Warren at La Scala in Rigoletto on December 16, 1953.  The rest of the cast was di Stefano and Rosanna Carteri, and the conductor was Nino Sanzogno.  I still feel in my ears those wonderful voices.  It is very hard for me to listen to other singers.  Not only Maria Callas, but what about Renata Tebaldi?  What about Nilsson and her repertory?  [See my Interview with Birgit Nilsson.]  Also Corelli and Bergonzi, and finally Carreras, Pavarotti and Domingo.  When we say a beautiful voice, we talk as if we were talking about cashmere wool.  There are many, many mezzos, but when you hear Marilyn Horne’s voice, it’s something else.  When you hear Mirella Freni it’s something else.  When you hear Ghiaurov it’s something different.  [See my Interviews with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Ghiaurov.]  Something else is to have a big voice, a strong voice, but it is the beautiful voice that is something else.  [Laughs]  You may contradict me if you don’t feel that is correct.

BD:    No, no, I agree with what you are saying, of course, but I’m the eternal optimist.  I am hoping that maybe tomorrow or the day after we will stumble on someone who may rise to that level.

NZ:    I think what is also needed is that the great conductors of today go to the theaters and stay and work with the singers.  One December at La Scala, I was there from morning until past midnight with Maestro Serafin.  We were doing rehearsals at the piano a long time before we even went into orchestra rehearsals.  Today’s conductors are going all over the place, and they leave the rehearsals at the piano to some associate conductor, who will not have the courage of telling a Freni or Sam Ramey — whom we haven’t mentioned as one of the big ones, but he’s such a wonderful singer — “I don’t like you doing this.  You should do this other thing.”  Whereas the real conductor in charge could say these things.

BD:    Is opera art or is opera entertainment?

NZ:    An art!  Opera is, of course, art.  It is double art, especially now, with singers who have demands from the stage directors of acting and not just standing there doing a concert.  Today’s singers must be actors, too.  I have worked with all those big stage directors, Visconti and Wallman and Ponnelle and Strehler.

BD:    All right, then the
Capriccio question — where is the balance between the music and the drama?

NZ:    It is music in terms of a time frame only up to the composer Pizzetti.  It is like a marriage — or it was, until Pizzetti — between music and drama.  There was a union between then.  For instance, in Forza del destino, the bass comes out on the stage and sings the music, and the conductor must make the music reflect what the action is.  But the singer is doing what the music is telling him to do, so you have the perfect union.  A big production, a great production, is a good ensemble.

BD:    Did you get enough of these great productions in your career?

NZ:    Yes.  I have been accustomed to them because I got many very great ones.  For example, I did a Trovatore in Salzburg with Price, Corelli, Simionato, Bastianini.  [See my Interview with Giulietta Simionato.]  I had the good fortune of being very well treated in my profession.  I was doing a rehearsal of La Vestale at La Scala and Giulini was the conductor, and De Sabata and Toscanini were listening to the rehearsal.  In those days they also had great coaches.  Now when I feel like I hear a beautiful voice of a young singer, I go and say, “Bravo, bravo.”  I was doing Debora e Jaele by Pizzetti at La Scala once, and Antonino Votto was the conductor.  Votto was addressing me by my Greek name, Zachariou, and he said to me, “Where I am now, Toscanini was standing.  Where Tonini is standing at the piano, I was standing once, and where you are now standing, Pinza was standing.”  I said, “What a decay, Maestro!”  [Laughter all around]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is singing fun?

NZ:    Yes, when one is in good voice and one feels well, of course it is fun.  When you are not well, then it’s tough.

BD:    But when you’re not feeling well, do you do extra to get yourself back in shape?

zaccaria NZ:    Oh, no... leaving aside all the drugs and medications and things, because singers go around with small piece of luggage full of treatment for the voice.  When one doesn’t feel well, one saves oneself in certain parts so that he can give in those parts of the opera in which the audience expects more or expects the big things.

BD:    Do the American audiences appreciate Italian opera enough?

NZ:    Very much.  There are certain cities in which the audience is more responsive
— for instance at the Met because it’s a more international audience in New York.  In San Francisco they are more responsive.  In Dallas, I was made twice an honorary Texan and honorary citizen of Dallas.  When we went to London with the Dallas Medea, the sponsors of the production all went to London with the production because opera in America means sponsors.  People give money to produce the operas.  In my opinion, the sponsors should have more control over how their money is used in the various productions.

BD:    [Surprised]  Oh, my!

NZ:    It’s the truth.  That’s what I think, and I think it is an unfortunate thing that there are no tribunals of music — courts and judges to stand in judgment of music.  [Uproarious laughter all around]

BD:    Is opera for everyone?

NZ:    Yes.  It’s like drinking wine or smoking.  Opera is a habit.

BD:    A good habit?

NZ:    Yes, a very good habit, of course.  Luther said that those who do not have music in their heart have the devil in their heart.  This is the gist of the quote.  I think that here in the States, a lot is done for music.  In Chicago, for instance, not only do you have this wonderful theater, but you also have a symphony.  The other day I went to listen to Sinopoli conducting the orchestra, which is just magnificent.  It was a pleasure to listen to it.  [See my Interview with Giuseppe Sinopoli.]  By direct experience, I have never known or seen an American singer who was not absolutely perfectly prepared, musically and otherwise, in the part that he was supposed to sing.

BD:    That’s very high praise!

NZ:    It is true.  We Mediterraneans sometimes take things a little bit more lightly, not as seriously.  We always trust in the help of God.

BD:    Thank you for all the performances that you have given in the theater and on recordings.

NZ:    Thank you for the chance to let me speak about this.

[Note: Mr. Zaccaria then asked to have a copy of this interview for his archive, just as Ms. Horne had requested of our chat the previous day.  I told him it would be a pleasure to make a duplicate of the cassette, and we briefly discussed how and where to deliver it since he was leaving Chicago in just a few days.  He then continued talking about Marilyn Horne and a couple other singers whom he highly regarded...]

NZ:    I believe that as far as lyric singer is concerned, his or her career wouldn’t be complete if he were not accepted as a successful singer in Italy.  You have three American singers that are very well accepted and saluted in Italy as singers
Marilyn Horne, who is considered a great diva in Italy, Sam Ramey and Chris Merritt.  Also Maria Callas can be considered American, of course!  Italian reviewers, who are very well known people, speak of Ms. Horne’s Italian performances and all the Italian titles that have been bestowed on her.  The city of Milan gave her great honors.  She doesn’t say much about this, but she has been covered with honors and titles.

BD:    Deservedly so!

NZ:    She won the Rossini Prize, which is given by journalists, and it’s not very well known in the States, or at least it’s not made a lot of, let’s say.  The most difficult and well-known critic in Italy, Rodolfo Celletti, writes just wonderful things about her, and he doesn’t write very well of everybody!  She is also loved by the audience.  After two concerts that she did at La Scala in the last few years, she had one entire hour of encores.  One full hour of encores because the audience wouldn’t let her go.

BD:    Should we spread the word about this or should we just keep it quiet?

NZ:    Spread it because it is not known!  She donated the fee from one of her concerts at La Scala
which is something that amounts to more than $30,000to the home for retired singers, the Casa Verdi.  When she gave another concert fee to a Milan Hospital, the President of the Republic made her Commendatore, which is a very high title.  She gave her TV royalties to the city of Pesaro.  Of course, she doesn’t say anything about this, and it is not known because people don’t read our newspapers.  This is to connect with what we were saying before, that these three great American singers are so especially well known in Italy.  Chris Merritt, who is singing with Ms. Horne in Chicago, is opening La Scala this year with Muti.

[Obituary from The Independent]  [Photo added for this website presentation] 

Nicolas Angelos Zachariou (Nicola Zaccaria), operatic and concert bass singer:
born Athens 9 March 1923; twice married; died Athens 24 July 2007.

The Greek bass Nicola Zaccaria, whose career took him all over Europe, sang for two decades at La Scala, Milan. During that period he was frequently in performances whose prima donna was Maria Callas and he also appeared with her at Covent Garden and in Dallas, where he made almost yearly visits. He also made many recordings with Callas. His repertory was mainly Italian and French, for which his resonant, smoothly produced and warm-toned voice was best suited. As his second wife he married the American mezzo Marilyn Horne, and sang in a number of operas in which she was the star.

zaccaria He was born Nicolas Angelos Zachariou in Athens in 1923. He studied at the Royal Conservatory there and made his début in Athens in 1949 as Raimondo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. His international career began as Nicola Zaccaria in 1953 when he made his Scala début as Sparafucile in Verdi's Rigoletto. He first sang with Callas in 1954 as the Oracle in Gluck's Alceste and during the next couple of years appeared with her as the Soothsayer in Spontini's La Vestale, Rodolfo in Bellini's La sonnambula (also given at the Edinburgh Festival), Raimondo in Lucia and Oroveso in Bellini's Norma. He made his Covent Garden début in 1957 as Oroveso (with Callas as Norma) and his fine voice was greatly admired.

Zaccaria first sang at the Salzburg Festival in 1957 as Don Fernando in Fidelio and the Monk in Verdi's Don Carlos, followed in 1960 by the Commendatore in Don Giovanni and in 1962 by Ferrando in Il Trovatore. Meanwhile he created the Third Tempter in L'assassinio nella cattedrale, Pizzetti's adaptation of T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral at La Scala in 1958. The following year he made his US début at Dallas as Creon in Cherubini's Medea, with Callas in the title role and Jon Vickers as Jason. This scored a tremendous success and the production, with Callas, Vickers and Zaccaria, was staged later in 1959 at Covent Garden, where it was received with equal praise.

Zaccaria's roles at Dallas during the 1960s included Melisso in Handel's Alcina (with Joan Sutherland as Alcina), Palemon in Massenet's Thaïs, Colline in La Bohème, Banquo in Verdi's Macbeth, Rochefort in Donizetti's Anna Bolena and Cirillo in Giordano's Fedora. In Europe it was a particularly busy decade for the bass. In Vienna he sang Timur in Turandot (with Birgit Nilsson as Turandot), Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande and, in 1962, King Philip II in the Italian version of Don Carlos. The following year he sang Philip in the French version at the Paris Opera (in French) and the Grand Inquisitor at Covent Garden in the same opera (in Italian).

In Florence in 1962 Zaccaria sang the really villainous role of Caspar in Weber's Der Freischütz, but though his singing was praised he was found not malevolent enough. As Pimen in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov in Turin, however, he received nothing but compliments. Count Walter in Verdi's Luisa Miller was another villain, but Arkel at Aix-en-Provence exuded kindliness, as did the Padre Guardiano in Verdi's La forza del destino at Salzburg in 1966. He sang Ramfis in Aida at Naples and Giustiniano in Donizetti's Belisario at Venice in 1970 and at Bergamo the following year, returning to Venice in 1972 for Stromminger, the heroine's father in Catalani's La Wally.

At Dallas in 1974 Zaccaria sang Lothario in Thomas's Mignon, with Marilyn Horne as Mignon. In 1975 he took on the heavy role of King Mark in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, apparently with some success. Rossini's Tancredi was mounted for Horne in 1977 in Rome and Houston, with Zaccaria as Orbazzano in both cities. He sang Astolfo in Vivaldi's Orlando at the Teatro Filarmonico in Verona, with Horne in the title role. In Rossini's La donna del lago at Houston in 1981, Horne sang Malcolm and Zaccaria was Douglas. Finally Tancredi was revived at Aix-en-Provence in 1981 and at Venice in 1982, with Horne and Zaccaria in their usual roles.

-- Elizabeth Forbes  

© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in a dressing room of the Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 16, 1988.  The translation was provided by Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera.  Portions were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1993 and 1998.  The transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2013.

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.