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
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?
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?
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?
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
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
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.”
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 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?
BD: He doesn’t
want to offend her, but he offends the career and the stage.
NZ: Yes, right.
BD: Is there any
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 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.
BD: Are the pirate records better than the commercial
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?
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?
Everything that I can do, yes. Always.
BD: Tell me the
secret to singing the true bel canto
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
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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.
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