Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Giuseppe Di Stefano

The tenor Giuseppe "Pippo" Di Stefano died yesterday at the age of 86.

He's best known for many performances and recordings alongside Maria Callas; they were both under contract to EMI in the '50s and he was the tenor lead on most of her complete opera recordings. (They also had a brief, unhappy reunion tour in the '70s; the recital recording they made at that time was so bad that it was never released.)

He was a bit similar to Luciano Pavarotti (whom he outlived) and Jose Carreras in that he had what was basically an exceptionally beautiful lyric tenor voice but pushed it too hard in big, heavy roles. But while Pavarotti continued to sing well for many years, Di Stefano combined his over-heavy roles with a lack of discipline -- record producer John Culshaw recalled that his party-hard lifestyle seemed to mean more to him than singing -- and so he'd all but ruined his beautiful voice by the early '60s. You can hear this very clearly if you compare two excellent recordings of Puccini's Tosca. Di Stefano sounds great on the famous 1953 recording with Callas; in 1962 he recorded the opera again in Vienna with Leontyne Price and Herbert Von Karajan conducting, and he sounds very strained.

Here is what Culshaw wrote about his first encounter with Di Stefano in his (not always reliable) autobiography, "Putting the Record Straight":

At the mere mention of his name, stage and recording producers had been known to turn white and run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. He had little respect for most of his fellow artists and hardly any at all for conductors. Rehearsals bored him. Above all, he liked the elegant pastimes of life (such as fine food and fast cars), and he was a compulsive gambler with a very unreliable track-record. Yet I took to him at once. Although he was still a relatively young man, his voice was already beginning to show signs of the wear and tear imposed by the life he lived; but he was in all other respects intelligent, and as a musician he was a natural. The eventual, almost total breakdown of his voice some ten years later was attributable to a life-style he could not abandon because it meant more to him than singing. Even at his worst, almost everyone forgave him everything, partly because of his intelligence, partly because of his Sicilian good looks, but mostly because of his charm. It is apt to use the cliche that he could charm the birds out of the trees, except one would have to add that Pippo -- as just about everyone called him -- would then doubtless proceed to eat them alive.

Here he is sometime in the '50s (not sure what year) in Rigoletto:

Here's an audio clip of him in 1950 (in his prime, in other words) singing Madame Butterfly with Renata Tebaldi in a broadcast recording from San Francisco.


Don Firenze said...

The notion that di Stefano lost his voice because his vocal technique was imperfect (too "open" in the high notes, a way of singing which produces the most beautiful and natural sound but at the price of tiring the voice) or because he sang roles which were too "heavy" for him is without a scientific basis. It is nothing other than a speculation based on the fact that if you sing too loudly or with too much tension you lose your voice for a day or so. If this sort of trauma produced permanent damage the quality of the voice would diminish rateably, but it does not. Unlike singers, all athletes believe that strain only makes them physically more proficient: no pain, no gain. Even more unsupportable is the notion that di Stefano's life style--his gambling and lack of self-discipline, and the like--was a contributing factor to his early and drastic vocal decline. Callas lost her voice at virtually the same time as di Stefano did--they were both in their early 40's. But no one accuses Callas of having a poor technique or of assuming roles which were too heavy for her voice or of having led a profligate life. Satan hates God not because He has faults, but because He is perfect. I have always believed that the same impulse has been the unconscious motive behind the lack of generosity which so many have shown toward Pippo, who gave us so much.

Unknown said...

I have always loved opera, but I know very little about music, and in particular about the human voice. Are there any alternative theories about why some singers seem to 'loose their voice'? People have said that about Josep Carreras, giving the exact same arguments. I won't comment on the fact that I find later Carreras breahtakingly expressive, and in many ways, a lot better than early Carreras, despite the obvious strain in his voice. I am strictly interested in whether there is some other explanation for the voice strain that occurs in some singers. And, if indeed this was due to their singing style or repertoire, we must respect their choices for what if gave them emotionally, for their courage in taking risks, and for the interpretations of amazing beauty that precisely these singers have given us.