// Opera Fanatic
// Lee Milazzo, American Record Guide
Virtually every opera lover has heard Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Leyla Gencer, and Magda Olivero; but precious few have actually seen these great singers. So Stefan Zucker, in a van loaded with video cameras and tape recorders, plus an expert staff, criss-crossed Italy to interview not only them, but also Anita Cerquetti, Gina Cigna, Iris Adami Corradetti, Carla Gavazzi, Marcella Pobbe, and Gigliola Frazzoni.
The result is a riveting portrait of these singers as they are today--some still amazingly vital and active (Olivero, Barbieri, Simionato), some frail (Cigna, who managed to describe the importance of breath, and Corradetti, who died last year, making this only footage of her even more valuable), some unaffected and down to earth (Barbieri and Gavazzi), some still divas (Gencer agreed to be interviewed only at La Scala, and Pobbe acceded only after three attempts and then still proved to be very difficult). Interspersed are brief film clips and 'sound bites' that allow us to see and hear them as they were yesterday.
Always armed with an appropriate gift, usually flowers or sweets, Zucker drew from his subjects a wide variety of opinions even as he concentrated on two themes, the decline of expressive singing in the present and the employment of the chest voice in the past. 'Never' use the latter, insisted Barbieri, offering a revealing example from Falstaff; Simionato agreed. Nonsense, countered Gavazzi, insisting that they all fell into that practice. On a different matter, Gencer says she immersed herself so totally in a role that she wept on stage. Simionato, who says she would not become a singer if she had her life to live again, emphasizes creating beautiful legato--and when she demonstrates, you are carried back 40 years. Olivero performs the monolog from Adriana Lecouvreur and bursts into song at the conclusion, proving that at 88 she is still a more commanding artist than sopranos half her age.
Of course, a few shreds of gossip enliven the proceedings, such as Simionato's statement that she had enemies who kept her in small roles for years, or Pobbe's initial desire to discuss her affair with Nicolai Gedda and her later refusal to speak about it on camera, or Barbieri's dismissal of a particular sexual stereotype. Don't think that this brief summary has covered everything in the tape.
// Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe
'Opera Fanatic' is a videotape presenting divas of the past in interviews with the opera fanatic himself, Stefan Zucker, tenor ('the world's highest,' according to the Guinness Book of World Records), entrepreneur, radio personality, and raconteur.
Director Jan Schmidt-Garre intercuts the interviews to stress thematic links and weaves in film clips showing singers in charismatic action. Divas will be divas; all of these women have presence, command and emanations--even frail Gina Cigna, interviewed at age 96--and some of them show flashes of temper too. There is something indomitable and irresistible about all of these women; they are all opera fanatics themselves, but they also led real lives that gave them something to sing about.
// Statement of the "Golden Prague" jury
This film, at the same time delightful and infuriating, superficial and profound, manages to introduce us to an amazing array of Italy's legendary opera divas through the eyes of a real opera fanatic.
// aus der Begr├╝ndung der Jury beim Internationalen Dokumentarfilmfestival M├╝nchen
Zehn Diven und ein Tenor - eine geballte Ladung Skurrilit├Ąt und Eitelkeit. Die Suche nach dem Geheimnis der Bruststimme wird zu einem Roadmovie, das nicht nur Opernfreunde begeistert. Jan Schmidt-Garre vertraut auf die Exzentrit├Ąt der alten Damen und setzt ihnen mit dem Tenor Stefan Zucker einen Experten gegen├╝ber, dessen Originalit├Ąt zu einem gro├čen Teil das Vergn├╝gen an diesem Film ausmacht. Erz├Ąhlt wird diese Hommage an die Oper der 50er Jahre mit Bildern, die beweisen, da├č der Dokumentarfilm auch im Kino seinen Platz hat.
// William R. Braun, Opera News
So you're planning your next slumber party. (And don't give me that ÔÇô you know who you are.) Along with the avocado facial and the H├Ąagen-Dazs, you'll be wanting this video.
Filmmaker Jan Schmidt-Garre has assembled a collage of interviews with ten divas (mostly Italians, plus the Turkish Leyla Gencer), and the results are never less than striking. Gencer, Gigliola Frazzoni and Iris Adami Corradetti all insist they cried onstage, especially as Butterfly. Giulietta Simionato, who looks smashing, tells us, "You don't get a personality by studying." Magda Olivero, probably eighty-six years old at the time, performs the monologue from Adriana Lecouvreur. (Schmidt-Garre undercuts the moment halfway through with a distancing shot of the room.) A frighteningly frail Gina Cigna laments that opera has lost "spontaneity, beauty and freedom." At this point, you'll probably need to answer the door, because Frazzoni is obviously a party girl (she sings and dances along with her video of La Fanciulla del West), and she looks as if she sent you a strip-o-gram and charged it to your credit card.
There is an extraneous Roger and Me device involving the repeated attempts of interviewer Stefan Zucker (himself a noted divo) to arrange some of these sessions. Gencer will only be interviewed at La Scala. Anita Cerquetti is embarrassed by her loudmouth, sluttishly dressed daughter. The "Roger" is Marcella Pobbe, who, when she finally works Zucker in around her hairdresser appointments, doesn't like the questions because they aren't entirely about her. But the film leaves camp behind in a haunting final sequence, as night falls and the interview with Carla Gavazzi goes on far longer than planned. Her career was sadly cut short by illness and family crises, but she is generous toward her colleagues and remarkably specific and practical about singing.
The Gavazzi sequence alone makes this film worthwhile, but there is also valuable footage of seven of the divas in some of their famous roles. Unplug the phone before you put this tape on, so you, like Pobbe, can say, "I didn't make mistakes."
// Hal de Becker, Las Vegas Weekly
Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas provides 93 fascinating minutes with ten prima donnas, all former stars of operatic stages from La Scala to the Met. Interviewed in 1996 at their homes in Italy, the artists share their private and professional lives as well as their wisdom and singing voices with Stefan Zucker, publisher of Opera Fanatic magazine. Their demonstrations and discussions of vocal technique could be master classes. Some of the divas are in their 80s and, particularly Magda Olivero and Giulietta Simionato, still possess impressive voices. But in film clips from their heyday they are sublime. Zucker's knowledge and humor are responsible for much of the video's success, and, as the divas talk about rivals, roles and critics, there's plenty of temperament. (Marcella Pobbe is asked which singers have impressed her most and she recoiled at the very idea of mentioning anyone's singing but her own.)
//John Shulson, The Virginia Gazette
I've long ago given up Christmas lists for the arts-inclined. There's just so much out there that it's hard to cover adequately the possibilities. However, I just received a video from the Bel Canto Society and, after having watched it, couldn't stop thinking of the people I know who would get a kick out of seeing it.
Thus, I share with you a few specifics. The delightful video is called "Opera Fanatic: Stefan and the Divas" and finds Stefan Zucker, a tenor, writer, editor, and broadcaster, interviewing such divas of the past as Marcella Pobbe, Giulietta Simionato, Carla Gavazzi, Fedora Barbieri, and Magda Olivero. The absolutely delightful interviews cover the divas' views concerning careers in singing, singing techniques, and the world of opera. And it allows a glimpse of diva-dom.
Beyond the dialogue, some of which is rather risque, there are also many moments of historical operatic excerpts, among them Gavazzi in "Tosca," Simionato in "Samson," Barbieri in "Falstaff," and Olivero in "Adriana." Plus there are some great vocals that take place over dinner and wine.
Zucker is great fun to watch and hear. If you're an opera fan and appreciate divas, you might give this a Christmas thought or two. It also comes with a 32-page booklet.
// Peter Krutsch, Leipziger Volkszeitung
Nearly fifty years after their triumphant period, Stefan Zucker went on a trip to the divas of his childhood. From Rome to Florence to Bergamo the risque New York intellectual visited the wonderfully eccentric prima donnas in their homes overflowing with memories.
The result is an opera road-movie full of theatricality and entertaining extravagance. With clashing colors and surging romantic music, director Jan Schmidt-Garre paints the picture of a forgotten epic, with obsessive people, extreme feelings and radical views. An ironic love-filled bow before loquacious elegance, bitchy entrances and heartfelt warmth of the decadent yet vital ladies. A handkiss of a film with a twinkle in the eye.
"Music is what I'm most interested in. It's more important to me than film. But film also is a way to deal with music." Happily for the public, despite six years of music study, Schmidt-Garre decided in favor of celluloid instead of instruments. But the old passion for music colors even his sixth production, Opera Fanatic, which the Leipzig Passage Cinema presented at the documentary festival. Classical music is the great leitmotif that connects the work of the Munich-based director. He studied with Sergiu Celibidache and made two films about him, Celibidache: You Don't Do Anything, You Just Let It Evolve and Sergiu Celibidache in St. Florian. He also made The Tenors of the 78 Era, which was so successful that ARTE recently rebroadcast it.
As part of the preparation for that series, the director was in New York where he came upon Zucker, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as "the world's highest tenor." Zucker is "a funny, very intelligent fellow" with an amazing voice. A sensitive opera lover, Zucker undertook this trip into the lion's lair with empathy and delicate irony. The onlooker laughs so hard that he cries when with his eunuch-like voice Zucker tickles the vanity of the old ladies with searching questions about their sex lives. Their voices are weaker today but their diva pride is unbroken. According to Schmidt-Garre, "He and they are the two elements that make up the film. The lasciviousness is integral to opera, which suffers if one merely understands it rationally."
With "Opera Fanatic," Schmidt-Garre opens a new and different avenue not only to an art form but to an almost forgotten way of living. Opera is a subject often seen as leaden. This film makes it accessible through a healthy mix of reverence and irony.
// Alan Blyth, Gramophone
Essential viewing for opera fanatics with a leaning towards the great sopranos and mezzos of the post-war years
This bizarre but fascinating film is well worth watching for the glimpses it gives us of some of the leading ltalian-based sopranos and mezzos of the 1950s and 1960s, both in action at the time and then interviewed at their homes by the zany opera fanatic Stefan Zucker, who is also seen and heard discussing with his film crew and helpers the whys and wherefores of great singing, particularly as it relates to those taking part. Eldest of the group is the 96-year-old Cigna, frail but still with her wits about her. Olivero, also in her 90s, has much--not unexpectedly--to say about her art. So does the perfectly groomed and coiffured Simionato, in her late 80s but not looking a day over 65, and reminiscing with firmness and charm. Barbieri is enormous fun and even entertains a dinner party with a song, Pobbe rather grand and difficult (on film impressive in a duet with Barbieri from Adriana Lecouvreur).
Most persuasive of all is the much-underrated Turkish soprano, Leyla Gencer, encountered singing the Trovatore Leonora's Act I aria from a 1957 film of the opera. The poise and magnetism of her presence is felt both in her singing and speaking. (Zucker declares she is the only interviewee he has ever found to be erotic!). Her voice expresses all Leonora's yearning in classically etched tones. A real discovery is the little-known and diminutive soprano Carla Gavazzi, caught on film as a moving Santuzza. All the artists emphasize that what they miss in singing today is expressive colouring and attention to the meaning of the text, both to create character. How right, in most instances, they are.
Imagine traveling through Italy with stopovers to meet the great prima donnas of the past. In 1996 this dream came true for the ebullient founder and editor of the magazine Opera Fanatic, Stefan Zucker, whose interview-visits with ten retired divas are documented on this video.
He comes across as an astute communicator, especially when discussing the singers with the Munich film crew. Director Jan Schmidt-Garre shoots with two cameras, one for the interview proper, the other capturing priceless behind-the-scenes moments that remove these stars from their pedestals and show their down-to-earth and vulnerable personalities.
First up is the legendary Anita Cerquetti, who had an amazing vocal instrument: a true dramatic soprano with a perfectly even scale, a large and brilliant sound, and agility. Getting down to work, as she puts it, Cerquetti sings a phrase from Norma illustrating three different moments of expressivity. "I sing it with my voice of today. Yesterday I would have sung it better," she apologizes, though her feeling for the words is shattering.1
After three attempts, the interview with Marcella Pobbe finally takes place. The quintessential prima donna, Pobbe dictates how the interview should begin, saying: "I made myself available to you, so please do it." When asked what she would do differently if she could go back and begin her career anew, she replies: "Nothing. All I did was right....I didn't make mistakes." When Zucker implies that after one season at the Met she did not return because of a love affair with one of the company's leading tenors, she avoids the gossipy subject and simply states that Rudolf Bing broke the contract.2 During a break in the interview she asks one of the director's assistants, "Why does [Zucker] ask such stupid questions?...The highest note, the lowest note, my breathing..." In a pair of excerpts from her 1955 film of Adriana Leconvreur one gets a glimpse of Pobbe's striking beauty and interpretive refinement.
The outspoken Fedora Barbieri, who had retired only a year before this interview (after a fifty-five-year career), demonstrates a bit of her Mistress Quickly; her voice sounds exactly as it did when she sang her Met Falstaffs in the 1960s and 1970s. When Zucker asks the feisty diva to comment on the alleged lascivious carnal appetites of mezzo-sopranos, her response is, "You ask questions that are too difficult. I'm going to spank you!" Later, at a gathering in a restaurant with the entire film crew, Barbieri flirts with her interviewer, sings a Neapolitan song for him, and then predicts: "You'll see that none of your other interviewees will sing!"
Magda Olivero, at age eighty-six, performs the Phaedra monologue from Adriana Lecouvreur, and a very frail Gina Cigna is on screen for barely a minute. Although Cigna cannot recall the year of her debut (it was in 1927), she is alert and succinct in describing her dissatisfaction with the current state of opera. In her last interview Iris Adami Corradetti (1903-1998) sings snippets of her Cio-Cio-San in steady tones. Carla Gavazzi, interviewed at an outdoor cafe, stops traffic while demonstrating various ways of singing "Amami, Alfredo!" and then adds a self-critique: "My vocal cords are perfect even now. I could still sing." The visit to Gigliola Frazzoni shows the soprano acting and singing along with a video clip from her own 1956 film of Fanciulla as it plays on her television screen; at its conclusion Zucker tenderly kisses the former Minnie.
The most illuminating interview takes place inside the Teatro alla Scala with Leyla Gencer. Clips of "Ritorna vincitor" from her intense Aida at the Verona Arena in 1966 are shown. Gencer, who always felt that if she couldn't sing at La Scala she wouldn't sing at all, reveals: "I was very ambitious. Either I have a great career or none." And she admits, with a mischievous laugh, "Yes, once in a while a note would issue forth that was not orthodox."3
Asked about chest voice, mezzo Giulietta Simionato denies ever using it and demonstrates with an excerpt from her Azucena sung high and on the breath (even though in performance she sang the phrase in chest voice).4 Interestingly, Barbieri also vehemently denies singing chest voice, as do some of the sopranos Zucker interviews. Gencer skeptically observes, "This from [singers] who all their lives used chest voice; apparently they all have short memories!" while Gavazzi flatly insists that chest voice is "indispensable!" The video ends with three excerpts from Gavazzi's 1956 film of Cavalleria rusticana.
After analyzing the answers to his favorite question posed to the divas ("What are the different aspects of expressive singing?"), Zucker concludes that their expression was intuitive.
The tape comes with an informative thirty-two-page booklet that includes biographies of all the singers interviewed, the name of Pobbe's Met lover, Barbieri's diatribe against Simionato, and Cerquetti's explanation for her premature retirement. Some of the rare film sequences on this video haven't been seen in over forty years. This is a video that you will want to watch repeatedly to relive the memories of these great artists of the twentieth century.
// Robert Prag, The Opera Quarterly
1. When I heard Cerquetti sing a group of arias in her only New York recital (Carnegie Hall, 26 October 1958), her voice showed no signs of wear, even though her brief career was coming to an end. She retired from singing in 1960, when she was only thirty years old.
2. Pobbe sang three performances at the Old Met in March 1958. She had a radiantly beautiful lyric soprano voice, silvery pianissimos, and a bright upper register.
3. I heard plenty of those "unorthodox" notes in Gencer's performance in Attila; her high notes were explosive, and she tore up the scenery with her acting. However, in Caterina Cornaro, a bel canto opera that suited her to perfection, she floated some lovely pianissimos and displayed an even legato and a solid top register.
4. At her Met performances of Trovatore Simionato sang the phrase in chest voice. Her Amneris and Santuzza also included chest-voice tones. Only as Rosina in Barbiere did I hear her sing low notes high and on the breath.
// Opernwelt Apr. 1999, Dieter David Scholz
Geheimnisse des "Canto espressivo" - Jan Schmidt-Garr├ę bittet zehn Diven von gestern vor die Kamera
Wer die Geheimnisse des "canto espressivo" l├╝ften will, der mu├č sich an die Diven von einst wenden, denn nur sie k├Ânnen Auskunft geben ├╝ber Belcanto alter Schule und das "Singen aus den Eingeweiden", das heute nahezu ausgestorben ist. Das sagte sich auch der Opernfreak, Autor und Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre und schickte ein ganzes Team nach Italien, die Spuren der gro├čen Primadonnen von gestern und vorgestern zu suchen und sie noch einmal vor die Kamera zu locken und sie zu befragen nach dem, was Gesangskunst ausmacht. Da├č Schmidt-Garre die kauzige New Yorker Kultfigur (jedenfalls einer gewissen Szene) Stefan Zucker, nach eigenem Bekunden "der h├Âchste Tenor der Welt", tats├Ąchlich ein kleiner, dicker, alles andere als attraktiver Mann mit schwer ertr├Ąglicher Fistelstimme und nicht eben virilem Gebaren, ├╝ber den Brenner schickt, gen Rom, dem Ausgangspunkt einer so bewegenden wie interessanten Spurensuche, nimmt dem Film leider jenes Quentchen, das ihm zur wirklichen Gr├Â├če h├Ątte gereichen k├Ânnen. Der Film ist zwar f├╝r den, der sich f├╝r das Thema interessiert und der ├╝ber die Stimme und Erscheinung Zuckers hinwegh├Âren bzw.-sehen kann, trotz Zucker eine gro├čartige Dokumentation, aber doch mit einem Wermutstropfen eingetr├╝bt. Nicht, da├č es Stefan Zucker an Sachkenntnis, Beherrschung der italienischen Sprache und Geschick des Fragens mangelte, aber er wirkt, mit Verlaub gesagt, doch eher grotesk, als da├č er als seri├Âser Gespr├Ąchspartner der zweifellos gro├čen Pers├Ânlichkeiten, denen er gegen├╝bersitzt, ernstzunehmen w├Ąre. Zuckers "Tuntigkeit" verleiht dem Film den Hautgout dessen, was Wayne Koestenbaum (in seinem Buch "K├Ânigin der Nacht") "schrillen Camp-Stil" nennt.Vieleicht ist dies eine Reverenz Schmidt-Garres an das Zielpublikum seines Films. Auch der beliebige, nichtssagende, ja geradezu in die Irre f├╝hrende Titel "Opera Fanatic" scheint vor allem auf ein spezielles New Yorker Publikum zu zielen. Schade, denn der Film enth├Ąlt sehens- und h├Ârenswerte Interviews, wertvolle historische Ton- und Filmdokumente in selten zu sehenden Ausschnitten, er stellt intelligente Fragen und gibt aufschlu├čreiche Antworten. Er ist dar├╝ber hinaus atmosph├Ąrisch dicht, schon die nostalgischen F├╝nfziger-Jahre-Farben, in denen er gedreht ist, verzaubern. Auch die Einbeziehung einer Rahmenhandlung mit Stra├čenfahrten in einem Chevrolet-Van durch Mailand, Florenz, Bologna, Padua und Rom, die Tankstellensequenzen und Lagebesprechungen in Treppenh├Ąusern, Interviewvorbereitungen wie auch Geschenkk├Ąufe und Telefonate mit den Diven ist orginell und verleiht dem Film aufregende Authentizit├Ąt. Auch die Gegen├╝berstellungen der verschiedenen Divenantworten mit schnellen Schnitt- und Bildfolgen. geben dem Film animiertes Tempo, das durch die stimmungsvoll ruhigen Bilder nostalgischer "Italianit├á" einen sch├Ânen Pulsschlag bekommt. Was die zehn h├Âchst unterschiedlichen S├Ąngerinnen angeht, die noch einmal vor der Kamera zitiert werden, mit mehr und weniger gro├čem Aufwand: es sind Kabinettst├╝cke und Kostbarkeiten darunter, die man nicht vergessen wird. Anita Cerquetti etwa, die vor dem Interview erst einmal ihre temperamentvolle Tochter verjagen mu├č. Sie erl├Ąutert das Geheimnis des "canto espressivo" mit dem gesten- und mimikintensiven Hinweis darauf, da├č man eben wissen m├╝sse, mit wem man singe, wovon man singeund wof├╝r man singe. Dann finde man schon Ausdruck und Farbe. Leyla Gencer, die sich partout nur in einer Loge der Scala filmen l├Ą├čt, hat nur Spott ├╝brig f├╝r steriles und akkurates Singen, das sei "Musik mit Wasser und Seife". Die Mezzosopranistin Fedora Barbieri, die sich vehement gegen den Einsatz Bruststimme ausspricht und bestechende Beispiele ihrer stimmlichen M├Âglichkeiten vorf├╝hrt,droht dem Interviewer mehrfach angsteinfl├Â├čend, ihn zu verhauen, als er sie nach den Anfechtungen des Fleisches und anderen pers├Ânlichen Dingen fragt. Wie ungeniert und impulsiv sie sich beim angeheiterten Abendessen mit dem Filmteam in einer Trattoria geb├Ąrdet, darf als sch├Ânste Best├Ątigung italienischer Mentalit├Ąt aufgefa├čt werden, die dem ganzen Film eine sinnlich-heitere Aura verleiht. Marcella Pobbe, die man eindrucksvoll in einem Adriana-Film erleben darf und alle paar Minuten ihr Kost├╝m wechselt, in ihrer Miniatur-Wohnung posiert und Fragen diktiert, best├Ątigt hingegen Primadonnen-Vorurteile. R├╝hrend ist die Begegnung mit der greisen Gina Cigna, die zitternd vom Zwerchfell als der Seele und dem Atem als der Basis allen Gesangs spricht.
Magda Olivero, die unangefochtene Diva des veristischen Belcanto (man sieht sie in einem gro├čen Filmausschnitt als ├╝berw├Ąltigende Tosca), beeindruckt durch ihre Klugheit und Ernsthaftigkeit des Redens ├╝ber Gesangskunst, aber auch durch die nach wie vor Ges├Ąnsehaut erregende Darbietung einer Kostprobe aus "Adriana Lecouvreur". Ihr Credo: Es komme nicht nur auf Sch├Ângesang an, sondern vor allem auf den "Gesang der Seele", das Singen von innen. Auch die Simionato, die, ganz Grand Dame, in schwarem Kost├╝m, dreifacher Perlenkette, hinrei├čender Frisur in rotem Sessel thront, pflichtet der Olivero bei. Singen sei eine Auszeichnung, eine Gnade, aber auch der Gebrauch eines Instruments, das nicht nur nach optimaler Technik verlange, sondern zur Wahrhaftigkeit verpflichte. Sie stellt ├╝brigens stimmlich imposant ihre s├Ąngerische Autorit├Ąt unter Beweis, indem sie Legatogesang und Einsatz der St├╝tze demonstriert. Die Simionato ist die einzige der zehn Opernstars der drei├čiger bis siebziger Jahre, die sich offen zu den Kehr- und Schattenseiten einer so hoch angesiedelten S├Ąngerinnenexistenz bekennt. Nicht noch einmal, sagt sie, w├╝rde sie diesen Beruf ergreifen! Nachdem sie zwanzig Jahre unbemerkt auf der Reservebank der Mail├Ąnder Scala gesessen habe, h├Ątte man sie nach ihrer Entdeckung regelrecht ausgepre├čt, bis sie keine Luft mehr bekommen habe. Ein Leben auf Flugh├Ąfen, in Hotels und Theatern. Was f├╝r ein aufrichtiges Bekenntnis. Zugegeben: Vergleicht man die zehn Primadonnen des Films mit den heutigen Gesangstars der internationalen Opernszene, w├╝nscht man sich zur├╝ck in Zeiten, in denen es noch solche singenden Pers├Ânlichkeiten auf der Opernb├╝hne gab! Insofern darf man diesen nostalgischen Blick zur├╝ck durchaus als einzufordernde Utopie eines Nicht-mehr-und Noch-nicht auffassen: Erinnerung beleuchtet Gegenwart.