Bass Nicola Zaccaria
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 . . . . .
Are you still singing or have you retired from the stage?
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
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?
Ninety-nine per cent.
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
BD: Back and
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!”?
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???
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
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 included — come 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.
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.”
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
tenor — and 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?
doesn’t want to offend her, but he offends the career and the stage.
BD: Is there
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 German — because 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
the Italian repertoire, and all the roles of Verdi. I also sang
Bellini — Sonnambula,
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.
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
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?
BD: Not at
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?
Absolutely. Everything that I can do, yes. Always.
BD: Tell me
the secret to singing the true bel
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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. 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
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?
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?
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.
[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
Yes. It’s like drinking wine or smoking. Opera is a habit.
BD: A good
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.
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
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.
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 $30,000 — to
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.
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
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.
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
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