Baritone  Rolando  Panerai

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Rolando Panerai (born 17 October 1924) is an Italian baritone, particularly associated with the Italian repertory. He was born in Campi Bisenzio, near Florence, Italy.

Panerai studied singing at the Florence Conservatory with Raoul Frazzi, and then in Milan with Armani and Giulia Tess. After winning first prize in the Adriano Belli Singing Competition at Spoleto, he made his operatic stage debut in 1946 as Enrico / Lucia di Lammermoor at the Teatro Dante in Campi Bisenzio, followed the next year by the role of Faraone (Pharaoh) in Rossini’s Mosè at the San Carlo, Naples. During 1951 he undertook a number of leading baritone roles, notably those in Aroldo, Giovanna d’Arco, and La battaglia di Legnano, in Italian radio broadcasts marking the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death. He sang in several of the major Italian opera houses, and made his debut at La Scala, Milan as the High Priest / Samson et Dalila.


Note that Panerai sings the title role in this recording made in March, 1983.
See my interviews with Ghena Dimitrova, Carlo Bergonzi, and Ruža Baldani

During the following quarter century Panerai sang frequently at La Scala, both in the main house and in the Piccola Scala. Roles included Enrico, Sharpless / Madama Butterfly and Apollo / Alceste; and in contemporary opera, the Husband in Menotti’s Amelia al ballo (1954) [original LP jacket shown farther down on this webpage]. Panerai took part in the premieres of Pizzetti’s Il calzare d’argento (1961), Turchi’s Il buon soldato Svejk (1962), and Rossellini’s Il linguaggio dei fiori (1963, Piccola Scala), as well as in the first Italian performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1958). He sang Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia in the first opera broadcast to be made by Italian Television, in 1954; and the following year Ruprecht, in the Italian premiere of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel, given in Venice.

At the Salzburg Festival Panerai first appeared in 1957 as Ford / Falstaff. He returned often, as Guglielmo / Così fan tutte (1958–1959), Masetto / Don Giovanni (1960–1961, 1968–1970), Paolo / Simon Boccanegra (1961), Malatesta / Don Pasquale (1971–1972), Don Alfonso / Così fan tutte (1972, 1974–1977) and Ford once again (1981–1982). He also appeared at many other European festivals, including Aix-en-Provence, the Caracalla Baths in Rome, Glyndebourne, the Florence Maggio Musicale and Verona.

In 1958 Panerai made the first of many appearances at the Vienna State Opera, and in the same year made his American debut with the San Francisco Opera, singing Marcello / La Bohème and the Figaros of both Mozart and Rossini. He first sang at the Royal Opera House, London in 1960, as Rossini’s Figaro with Giulini conducting, returning there to sing Don Alfonso, and the title roles in Falstaff and Don Pasquale in 1984 and Dr Dulcamara / L’elisir d’amore in 1985 and 1990.

Panerai’s career was very long-lasting and took him to many international opera houses, including those of Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, Lisbon, Monte Carlo, Munich, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, Stuttgart and Zürich, as well as all the principal Italian houses. His repertoire featured most of the great Verdi baritone roles, including the title part in Rigoletto, di Luna / Il trovatore, Posa / Don Carlo, Amonasro / Aida and Germont père / La traviata. He sang the title role in Gianni Schicchi at the Florence Maggio Musicale in 1988, in Chicago in 1996, and again in Florence in 2006; Count Douglas in Mascagni’s rarely-heard Guglielmo Ratcliff at Catania in 1990; Dulcamara in Barcelona in 1998; and Germont père for Italian television in 2000, with Zubin Mehta conducting.

A most engaging and versatile stage presence enhanced Panerai’s voice, a relatively light high baritone. He recorded extensively, and can be heard on several major recordings featuring Maria Callas.

--  Biography above by David Patmore, from the Naxos website (text only - photo and links added for this presentation) 
--  Links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

[From a different source]

Panerai often partnered with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano in Il Trovatore [shown directly below], Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani and La Bohème. He also recorded a notable Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, opposite Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi, and Germont La Traviata, opposite Beverly Sills and Nicolai Gedda. He recorded excerpts from Rigoletto with Mattiwilda Dobbs, and later committed the complete role to disc. He plays Ford in three different recordings of Verdi's Falstaff, opposite interpreters of the title role Tito Gobbi, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Giuseppe Taddei (the latter on video, under Herbert von Karajan). He also recorded the title role. He can be heard singing Wagner in Italian translation, the role of Amfortas in a recorded performance of Parsifal with Maria Callas as Kundry and Boris Christoff as Gurnemanz. He can be seen on video as Ford, Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Rigoletto, Silvio in Pagliacci, and in concert in A Bolshoi Opera Night (DVD). He is active as a teacher in masterclasses, and has directed Il Campanello dello Speziale, Gianni Schicchi, La Traviata, La Bohème, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore.


Near the end of his long and distinguished career, Rolando Panerai made his only appearance in Chicago in the title role of Gianni Schicchi in the fall of 1996.  The production also featured Catherine Malfitano as Lauretta, as well as Giorgetta and Angelica in the other two operas of Il Trittico, and Bruno Bartoletti conducted the entire evening.


Panerai graciously agreed to an interview, and we met on the last day of October in a conference room of the office suite of Lyric Opera.  My thanks to Marina Vecci of Lyric Opera for translating during the conversation.

Bruce Duffie:   First, thank you for finally coming to Chicago!

Rolando Panerai:   I thank Chicago for having called me.

BD:   In fifty years, you have sung an enormous number of roles.  Are there any roles that you have not sung yet, that you still would still like to sing?

RP:   For instance, in Verdi I haven’t sung Iago in Otello, and I would very much like to.  I’ve never done Otello.

BD:   Why not?

RP:   Because nobody has ever offered me the role.

BD:   So if they had offered it to you, you would have sung it?

RP:   Certainly!

BD:   Have you done other evil characters?

RP:   Gianciotto [Giovanni lo Sciancato] in Francesca da Rimini [by Zandonai] is a bad character.  I have done about 150 roles, so maybe there were more bad characters than just that one.

Giovanni Malatesta (died 1304), known, from his lameness, as Gianciotto, or Giovanni, lo Sciancato, was the eldest son of Malatesta da Verucchio of Rimini.

From 1275 onwards he played an active part in the Romagnole Wars and factions. He is chiefly famous for the domestic tragedy of 1285, recorded in Dante's Inferno, when, having detected his wife, Francesca da Polenta (Francesca da Rimini), in adultery with his brother Paolo, he killed them both with his own hands.

He captured Pesaro in 1294, and ruled it as podestà until his death.

panerai BD:   Do you prefer playing evil characters or comic characters?

RP:   My nature lends towards the brilliant characters, but I also very much like dramatic roles.  For instance, very soon I will be doing Tosca and Falstaff, which are two dramatic characters.  In Tosca, Scarpia is, of course, is a very dramatic character.  As for Falstaff, in spite of the fact that this is normally called a ‘buffo’ part, for me Falstaff is a very dramatic character.  The character of Falstaff has many facets.

BD:   Should the audience be completely sympathetic with Falstaff?

RP:   Yes.  Because of the many facets of the character, the audience should feel pity, sympathy, and some sort of dislike for Falstaff, too.

BD:   Do you have to bring out all of these facets in one evening?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Marilyn Horne.]

RP:   Certainly!  It is not so much that I bring them out, as Giuseppe Verdi does draw them out.

BD:   Is it Verdi that brought them out, or Boito that brought them out?

RP:   I would say more Verdi.  Boito did a beautiful translation from Shakespeare, but the colors of the character have been made by Verdi.

BD:   Do you bring any of Rolando Panerai to that, perhaps?

RP:   Yes.  Every evening we sing somewhat differently because of the way we are on that particular day, and we bring certain different things to the character at every performance.  But most of all, I like to stay very close to what Verdi has written.  I have a big respect for the composers.

BD:   Do you only sing in operas where you respect the composer?

RP:   No, I sing everything because we are mercenaries.  [Laughs]

BD:   Then, from the roles that are offered to you, how do you decide yes or no?

RP:   For one thing, I don’t accept anymore any contemporary music roles.  I have sung much contemporary music in the past, and sometimes I have found I have had some difficulty with my voice.  I was prepared for bel canto operas, and my voice gets ruined, or deteriorates a bit, by singing too much contemporary music.  At least that was the case me... it’s not a general rule.

BD:   If someone could write an opera today in the bel canto style, would you consider it?

RP:   Yes, certainly.  For example, one composer I would be able to sing is Menotti, which is very close to the classic opera.


BD:   Do you have any advice for composers who want to write operas today?

RP:   [Laughs]  It’s not possible.  I couldn’t see myself going to Berio and asking him to write an aria in the style of  Il Balen from Trovatore.  It’s very difficult.

BD:   Is opera going to die, then?

RP:   No!  Some authoritative music critics claim that opera is going to die, but I don’t believe that, even though I realize that operas that are written today don’t have the same appeal to audiences as they did in the past.  For instance, we have right now the classic example of Berio, who’s a composer who is very much liked all over the world.  In my opinion, contemporary opera is not dying.

BD:   Does the Nineteenth Century opera still speak to us today, the contemporary audience?

RP:   Yes, classic opera is still very valid today.  My opinion is that for some contemporary operas the audience goes for reasons different than just that of listening to the opera.  They just go to show off their new dresses and finery, whereas when you speak about the classic repertoire, people go to listen to the opera.  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you change your vocal technique for the size of the house?

panerai RP:   No!

BD:   Not at all???

RP:   No, because the way you produce your voice is the same.   The voice is like an instrument.  If you have a violin, you don’t change the sound of the violin according to the size of the house.

BD:   Do you like being used like an instrument?

RP:   [Thinks a moment]  No, not much.  I would rather be considered as an interpreter than as an instrument.  I try to sing as an instrument because the technique is foremost for a singer.  Without a technique, you can’t sing, but I like to think that I use technique to express something else.

BD:   Let me ask the
Capriccio question, then.  Which is more importantthe music or the drama?

RP:   For me, it’s always the music that is the foremost in importance.  The music is the essence of the whole thing, and it’s also part of the stage direction of the composer himself.  When Verdi wrote an opera, he didn’t write it in a vacuum.  He wrote it thinking of how each character speaks, or when one character speaks and everyone else listens.  It is the composer of the music that dresses up the characters, that forms the characters.  Therefore, the most important thing in an opera is the music.

BD:   Is it special, perhaps, with some composers who are also their own librettists, like Wagner?

RP:   Yes, it’s certainly an advantage.  Donizetti wrote a few of his own librettos, but it’s not absolutely necessary to be both composer and librettist.

BD:   Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

RP:   Yes, for me.  In my opinion, Mozart needs to be sung with natural ease.  Mozart has to be sung as Mozart has written.  If you look at his scores, they seem to have been written by a boy.  They are so clear and terse, and they’re without mistakes.  If one has the natural ease in the voice, then this is the way to sing Mozart.  If one is fortunate enough to have that facility in the voice, it is then great to sing the natural line.

BD:   Can you bring some of that to Verdi as well?

RP:   It’s a bit more difficult, because melodrama is central to another type of music.  Then the attitude for Verdi is different than the attitude for Mozart.  However, if one has the good fortune of having a good technique, then it is also possible to sing Verdi very simply.

BD:   Is there any way of imposing this natural ease on the new composers?

RP:   Yes, however it is very much more difficult.  In so many there are some basic figurations in contemporary music that it’s not possible to sing them naturally.  The contemporary music is written in a somewhat abstruse way.  The natural ease in singing is not going to work.  I would like to give you a very short example to prove the point.  This is from Trovatore... [sings the opening of the aria Il balen].  That would be an example of singing with natural ease.  Now I will sing the same thing in a way of contemporary music... [sings the same words, but as if it was modern music with wide and extraordinary intervals].  This is not what I would call singing with natural ease.

BD:   I understand.  [With a gentle nudge]  By the way, you’d better copyright that new little tune very quickly, or someone else will use it.  [Laughter all around]

RP:   Yes, I think so!


See my interviews with Graziella Sciutti, Renato Capecchi, Florindo Andreolli, and Heinz Rehfuss

BD:   Is there any role that you sing which is perilously close to the real Rolando Panerai?

RP:   There is one in particular... Figaro.  
[Note that Panerai sang Figaro in both the Rossini and Paisiello versions of The Barber of Seville, as well as Mozarts Marriage of Figaro, shown directly above.]

BD:   Do you sing any pre-Mozart such as Monteverdi?

RP:   Yes, I’ve done Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

BD:   There are some operas where you’ve sung two different roles in the same opera.  Is it difficult to keep them separate?  

RP:   Yes.  In Falstaff, for example, I’ve done Ford and Falstaff.  In Così Fan Tutte, I’ve done Alfonso and Guglielmo [shown directly below].  In Don Pasquale I’ve done Malatesta and Don Pasquale, and in L’Elisir D’Amore I’ve done the Sergeant and Dulcamare [recordings of both shown at the bottom of this webpage].


See my interviews with Léopold Simoneau, Sesto Bruscantini, Brigitte Fassbaender, Hermann Prey, and Peter Schreier

BD:   When coming to the second character, do you have more understanding having done the first character?

RP:   I don’t know.  They usually are very different characters, so it’s not so difficult to keep them apart.  As far as I’m concerned, to change character or to do two different roles is mostly a factor of age and of maturity.  For instance, when I was younger I sang the Sergeant in L’Elisir, which is a character I wouldn’t feel like doing anymore.  Right now I could do Dulcamara much more easily, and the same thing with Falstaff.  Ford is a character I did a lot in my youth, and now I prefer Falstaff.

BD:   When you were doing the younger characters, were you looking ahead to the older character?

RP:   No.  I used to smile very much at the characters that I do now, but I wasn’t really thinking that I would be able to sing them because I never thought I would be still singing at my age.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  Didn’t you plan for a long career?

RP:   No, it just came.

BD:   How can we get the younger singers to make sure they have long careers?

RP:   The young singers should just think about singing well, and not necessarily worry about a long career.  It is best to sing well and not become big-headed.  The rest comes all by itself.


See my interviews with Mirella Freni and Nicolai Ghiaurov

BD:   Without naming names, are you pleased with the younger singers you hear coming along?

RP:   There are very many beautiful voices, and what I really recommend to the young singers is what I just said before.  But unfortunately, a good percentage of young singers do not do these things.  The success of one day, or a short-term success doesn’t mean anything.  One should not really think that they’ve made it, but stay very much with one’s feet on the ground.

panerai BD:   It’s too bad we can’t put an old head on young shoulders.

RP:   [Laughs]  In fact, one should be old first and then young.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made a number of recordings.  Are you pleased with the recordings you have made?

RP:   I will say a strange thing... I never listen to a record that I’ve made, because you tend to listen to them a lot while you are working on them.  So, after they’re done, I don’t listen to them.  I usually suffer if I listen to them again, and so I won’t.

BD:   But the last time you listened to them in the studio, are you pleased with what is going to go out?

RP:   Never.

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  Ah, but the public says your record was wonderful.

RP:   Yes, but I am very critical of myself.

BD:   Are you too critical?

RP:   Yes, too critical.

BD:   Why?

RP:   Because I would always like to do better and better and better than I’ve done.

BD:   Either in the theater or on record, but mostly in the theater, is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

RP:   I have two productions that I remember.  One was Lucia di Lammermoor, conducted by Karajan with Callas and Di Stefano [shown in photo at right], and another was La Bohème with Freni and Gianni Raimondi.  These two operas where I was part of the cast were the best as far as I’ve experienced.

BD:   Why?

RP:   Because by responding to the demands they were close to perfection as I got, or as I experienced.

BD:   Was that the participation of those involved, or was that some sort of supernatural force?

RP:   Yes, everything.  The orchestra, the chorus, the artists.  I remember, for example, in Lucia, Maria Callas was magnificent, and Di Stefano was magnificent.  In the Sextet, the whole performance was interrupted with twenty minutes of applause, so it was a performance not to be forgotten.

panerai BD:   Were performances with Maria Callas mostly unforgettable?

RP:   I think really yes.  Unfortunately, it lasted a very short time, but she was the greatest singer I ever listened to or worked with, without any doubt.

BD:   On stage and on record?

RP:   I haven’t listened to any of her records, but on stage.

BD:   Thinking of Lucia, is it gratifying for you to play a character that is ‘the rat’, such as Ashton?

RP:   Yes, we
re back to a bad character, Ashton.  I liked it very much.

BD:   So, he’s not evil, he’s just bad?

RP:   Certainly.  When one needs money, one does a lot of bad things.  He can sell his own sister in order to achieve this goal, yes.  It was the first opera I did.  It was my debut, and I remember it with great fondness.

BD:   Are these characters that you play on stage real people, or are they just fiction?

RP:   This is a very debatable point.  I do think that theater is fiction, and always and should be.  However, in certain rare moments, the artists get taken into it all, because if one let’s himself be dragged into becoming the real thing, then one damages one’s body.  I am used to acting with a certain detachment or coldness, and by acting that way you can act better.  One has to be present and be thinking in order to succeed in saying what the composer meant to say.

BD:   But you must remain apart from it?

RP:   Absolutely.  As far as I’m concerned, you have to be detached from what you’re doing, because if you get into the character and you become the character, after ten lines you’ve lost contact with the orchestra and everything else.

BD:   Going one step further, here is the big question.  What is the purpose of music?

RP:   The purpose of music is like the purpose of poetry and painting and sculpture, which is to go out to give something to the people who listen.  It’s not a very deep answer, but it’s what I feel.  It doesn’t have a precise purpose because it’s born in each and every one of us.  If nobody had written any music, we all would sing something for ourselves.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You sing comic roles and dramatic roles.  What percentage of comic and dramatic?

RP:   Half and half.  Maybe I do more dramatic roles now, but it’s more of less half and half.

BD:   In the dramatic roles, would you rather kill or be killed?

RP:   For the final result, it’s much better to be killed, because death is always a great success on the stage!  [Laughs]  When one dies on the stage, the audience really takes part in that and likes it.

BD:   Coming over to the comic roles, how can you make sure that the comic role does not become slapstick?

RP:   Right now there’s the danger of that.  Getting into slapstick is something that is done a lot nowadays.  What I was saying before
to act with a certain detachment and coldnesshelps.  Keep the comedy on some sort of rails and guidelines so that you don’t go outside and make it becoming slapstick.


BD:   What happens when the director demands that it becomes slapstick?

RP:   When I was very young, I became very mad about this.  I used to get very mad about these requests of the stage director.  But with age, I have matured in my views.  We have an old saying,
You have to put the donkey where the master wants the donkey’.  However, one always has the option of saying ‘no’ to something that one doesn’t like to do.  If I should have a very big contrast and conflict with the stage director, I always have the option of saying, that I don’t like doing this, and walking away.  One tries to resolve this very amicably, trying to make the stage director change his views.  But if it becomes a political matter, one looks for a compromise.

BD:   And most of the time it works?

RP:   Yes, most of the time it does work.

BD:   Good.  Do you like some of these new ideas of staging opera?

RP:   Yes, when I find a good director.  I’ve worked with many, such as Visconti, Strehler, Eduardo De Filippo, who really give something new on the stage.  I really try to absorb them like a sponge.  I am really blessed doing rehearsals when there are inventive stage directors who say something, and one can put those ideas to use in other operas.

BD:   Is it possible to keep the whole thing fresh for the second, the fifth, the ninth performance?

RP:   Yes, usually.  Of course, there are some moments where one is low, but one can feel it.  Performance number five of any opera may start a bit shakily from this point of view.  One can feel that kind of tiredness, and usually we all react to that, and pull out of it.

panerai BD:   Are there times when it gets even better and better and better?

RP:   Usually yes, because within the cast people mature, and everybody is growing together in what they’re doing, so it’s a natural process.  When you get to the dress rehearsal after so many days of rehearsal, you can really feel the tension and the expectations that are there.  Then the tension somewhat relaxes as you enter into the performances, and everything becomes more normal and more natural and better.

BD:   Is it possible something could get over-rehearsed?

RP:   Sometimes it does happen and, of course, it’s very bad for the performance itself.

BD:   Do you sing only opera, or do you also sing concerts?

RP:   I do some concerts, but it’s usually not a recital kind of thing, as you do here, mostly.  In Italy you have two or three singers for recitals.

BD:   Like a little ‘gala’?

RP:   Yes, exactly, a small ‘gala’.  That’s what I tend to do, concerts in which more than one singer is involved.

BD:   So then there’s arias and duets and trios?

RP:   Yes, arias and duets and trios.

BD:   That sounds like fun.

RP:   Yes, it’s good because the tradition in other countries, like Germany, Austria and America, the recital or concert is for one singer.

BD:   Do you ever sing symphonic works with orchestra?

RP:   I have done concerts with orchestra, but not symphonic works.  They are always operatic concerts.

BD:   One last question. Is singing fun?

RP:   Very much!

BD:   Good.  Thank you for such a huge career.  I hope it continues.

RP:   Thank you.  I have said that I don’t want to die on the stage.  I have sung for fifty years, and therefore in maybe twenty-five or thirty years I will close my career.


See my interviews with Gösta Winbergh, and Barbara Bonney



© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 31, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1998, and again in 1999 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2018, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.