In 1961 Anita Cerquetti, considered at that time the foremost dramatic soprano of the Italian repertoire, vanished; she disappeared as if she had been kidnapped. The music world is still full of speculation about what actually happened. The loss of her voice . . . a serious heart condition . . . some incurable hormone dysfunction ... a sudden call to some religious order -all these reasons were circulated. I made it my business to investigate, and after one year's search I finally located her right in Rome. At first the former prima donna was not eager to see me, but eventually she received me in the most cordial manner. With her were her husband, handsome Edo Ferretti, and her beautiful daughter, Gioia.
A large, tall woman with ash-blond hair and a superb junoesque face that seems to have been sculpted out of white marble in ancient Greece, she is strangely self-conscious and totally sincere. She soon realized, however, that I had taken an immediate liking to her, and she spoke about why and how she had withdrawn from the operatic world just when every important international opera house was clamoring for her.
I have known about all the talk and gossip," she declared, "and the more it developed, the less I wanted to discuss my retirement. But you broke down my resistance. Actually, none of the rumors were true, but often reality is difficult to explain. When my father got hopelessly ill, I canceled all my performances so that I could be with him, as I loved him with all my heart. After the shock of his death came another terrible blow. My beloved maestro Mario Rossini, to whom I owed everything, passed away unexpectedly, and I was plunged into despair. I kept postponing the signing of contracts, and then I found myself pregnant. After the birth of Gioia a perfect name, for she has given me and my husband every possible satisfaction -once more I could not make up my mind to resume. She needed care, attention, and love, and who was going to give it to her with a mother always on the go?
"So I waited and waited, and in the meantime precious time had flown. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to begin again. The conditions of the lyric theatre kept changing for the worse, and the level of performances had taken a nasty nose dive. In my estimation this was caused by the increasing infiltration of politics and the rising influence of stage directors with their preposterous ignorance. I became disenchanted.
"I had been blessed with twelve wonderful years, and I finally decided that they had been sufficient. Why was I not willing to discuss all of this until today? I don't know, unless it is that being immensely sensitive, I feared that in the increasingly inhuman world we live in, people could not understand. Don't think for a moment that it was easy to close the doors on what had been my life's motivation and for which I had worked so hard. But I am a highly emotional person, and that is perhaps why I was able to stir audiences when I sang. One pays for everything in life, and had I been more rational and less impulsive, I would not have sung the way I did."
As she spoke, I recalled the deep impression she had made on me as Abigaille in Nabucco at La Scala and as Norma at the Arena in Verona. She had sent shivers down my back, not only with the immensity of her instrument-a cascade of sound-and the warmth of its color, but with the solid technique, innate taste, and enormous dignity she brought to these murderous roles. As I sat there, I could only deeply deplore the chain of circumstances that had cheated so many listeners out of hearing so unique an instrument.
"I was born in the small village of Monte Cosaro in the Marche," she recalled, "a province of Italy to which we owe the voices of Gigli, Corelli, and Tebaldi. When I was in my teens, though, my parents moved to Città di Castello, a very pretty town in Umbria. I studied the violin for eight years but always sang for my own pleasure. At the wedding of a friend, when I was not yet sixteen, I was asked to sing Gounod's 'Ave Maria,' and as we left the church a stranger came up to me and said, 'Are you aware that there is a treasure in your throat?' I replied that he must be joking. 'No,' he replied seriously, 'I really mean it. He turned out to be a member of the faculty of the Conservatorio Morlacchi in Perugia. He persuaded my family to send me there for an audition, and I was immediately accepted into the classes of the third year by Maestro Zeetti. My instrument was naturally placed, and all it needed was polishing up and breath control. There were no discrepancies in my voice, and I had such facility in the top that, until I stopped, for exercises I always sang the Queen of the Night's arias from The Magic Flute in the original key. In concert I always sang the first-act aria of La traviata with great ease and never had it transposed.
"When I was ready, I began going from one vocal competition to the other, winning every single one, including the very important one of 'Voci Nuove' for the RAI on television; this led to performances of Il trovatore in Modena. And after I won the Spoleto first prize and appeared as Aida there, all the cards fell into place. Every opera house showed interest in me, and my career exploded like a meteor.
"But when Tullio Serafin, who was not only a very great conductor but a remarkable connoissieur of voices (which is not always the case, unfortunately), expressed interest in me to sing Abigaille under his direction, I was undecided. I knew that in many ways it was Verdi's toughest heroine. My maestro, however, who stopped me from singing many operas, thought I could tackle this particular score. I went to Rome and spent one afternoon with Serafin playing the entire opera on the piano, and the walls shook with the vibrations of my voice. Fortunately, I had learned every note. 'You have been prepared most beautifully,' he said in dismissing me, 'and you must congratulate the person who is responsible. It is as if you had been singing Abigaille for many years.' And then, just as I was about to leave, he added, 'And your voice is one that will go as far as you want it to.'
"When I sang this very arduous role under his direction a few weeks later, I became famous overnight. But I was sparing with the number of performances I sang of this part. It has an unbelievable tessitura, and, as you know, it ruined forever the voice of Giuseppina Strepponi, who later became Verdi's wife. But I was made for Verdi's music and sang practically all of his operas, with the exception of Macbeth and La traviata. I did not have the figure for Violetta, but Caballé, who is bigger than I am, has made a great success with it. I learned it, but the opportunity never came, as there were many Violettas around but hardly any dramatic sopranos. For ten years I was asked to sing Norma everywhere, and it will forever remain the opera closest to my heart. It combines bel canto at its purest, the stylish elegance of those happier days, and deep, over-whelming emotion.
"I was a great admirer of Callas, despite her vocal shortcomings. She was very clever too. I shall never forget when in an interview they asked her how she compared herself with Tebaldi. 'I am built by an unknown artisan,' she replied, 'but my instrument is played by Paganini. She, instead, is a Stradivarius played by an amateur.' Basically, she was completely righ tjust as she was when she compared herself to French champagne and Tebaldi to beer.
"In 1956 when I was appearing in Florence in Don Carlo, Callas was appearing as Violetta at La Scala amid ovations, and Tebaldi was singing the same role at the Comunale. I felt so sorry for Tebaldi, seeing how nervous and uncomfortable the opera made her, and I kept thinking : But why do you do it? Who obliges you, when there are so many other operas that are so right for you and in which you have no equal? I have never understood why an artist of her tremendous stature should be afraid to admit that something is not right for her. Puccini was not for me, and every year I turned down innumerable offers to do Turandot, Tosca, Fanciulla, and Manon Lescaut. My maestro always warned me against verismo roles; in fact, I never even accepted Santuzza, though the actual singing is only about half an hour. I did sing Loreley, which suited me, but that is about all.
"Another opera I was constantly in demand for was La Gioconda, and, like Abigaille, I would accept only a few performances from time to time. I loved the role, but every time I was aware that my voice had dropped, and this meant time to recover and pull it up again. Serafin advised me never to sing it in the open air, and I obeyed him. Year after year the Arena of Verona asked me to do them this great favor, but I never complied. Every time I undertook Ponchielli's heroine, Serafin would say 'Attenta, attenta.' He knew what he was talking about.
"I sang relatively little at La Scala because of Callas. She was the reigning lady there, and I was always being asked to take on her roles after she had finished a certain number of performances. But in that I was a diva: first, yes; second, never-despite my high esteem for the Greek prima donna. At one point, after agreeing to sing Ballo, she insisted they change it to some other opera, and-amazingly enough, for her word was law-they refused. So then they offered Amelia to me, and I accepted. When Callas learned this, she changed her mind again and decided to sing it after all. I was not in the least angry; on the contrary, I was most flattered. The reason I never sang at the Metropolitan was that Mr. Bing not only wanted to sign me to a long contract, which meant my having to be in New York for very long periods, but he wanted me to be available for roles such as Tosca and Santuzza, which I refused to sing. So I sang in Chicago and Philadelphia and had my satisfactions there.
I had the great fortune of singing with fabulous partners-from Gigli to the unsurpassed Simionato, from Bjoerling to del Monaco, from Gobbi and Bastianini to Siepi and Christoff-and the privilege of singing with conductors of the stature of the late Dimitri Mitropoulos (I sang many Ernanis with him) and Carlo Maria Giulini. I always sang bel canto operas. I was particularly fond of Rossini's Mosè, I also enjoyed resurrecting an interesting Cherubini opera, Gli abenceragi. I was also considering taking on Medea. When I sang at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in a gala concert, I had no idea that this would be the last time I would sing in public.
"I never accepted contemporary works, and it is my conviction that today's composers Berio, Nono, Stockhausen, and a number of others loathe singers and are hell-bent on wrecking their voices. It is a form² of sadism which perhaps is unconscious. Those who take on their works are insane, for in no time they tear their instruments into shreds. Have you ever looked at one of their scores? They might as well be written by a machine. The most extraordinary aspect of this phenomenon is that they find lambs to immolate, so one can only conclude that some singers today are masochists.
"It is extraordinary too, how many colleagues who started with me have fallen by the wayside. The only one left is Carlo Bergonzi. His was a beautiful lyric tenor-I sang with him when he had just made the switch from baritone-but despite a good technique, the heavy roles he has undertaken have, alas, taken away the bloom.
"Not only do I have no advice for those who are beginning, but I feel deeply sorry for them. I would not like being in their shoes. It is not bitterness-you do understand, don't you?-but great sadness at seeing the operatic ship sinking, sinking, sinking."
No greater compliment bas been paid to Cerquetti than by the tenor Mirto Picchi, a remarkable singing actor who for twenty-eight years was considered Italy's greatest interpreter of difficult contemporary operas. In his fascinating autoblography, Un trono vicino al sol (published in Italy in 1979), he writes, "I was Anita Cerquetti's Ismaele in her debut in Nabucco at the Arena of Verona in 1956, and that same year we sang in a triumphant Norma at the Liceo in Barcelona and in 1957 Oberon at the RAI. To sing with her was a joy, for she was simple, genuine, open, and without any sort of dissimulation. Her triumph in Norma in Barcelona was the greatest of all I have experienced in this opera, and there were more than a few. [He had sung Pollione frequently to the Normas of Callas, Caniglia, Caterina Mancini, and Maria Pedrini.] This voice so full of light and velvet created such hysteria that at the stage exit the crowd around this soprano was so dense that the police had to be called. One looked at her, quite rightly, in those years as the last great dramatic voice, never to be replaced-she is remembered by everyone, and justly so."
But the mystery of Cerquetti's retirement lingers on. In Tito Gobbi's autobiography, My Life (published in England in 1979), he states that "she had a beautiful 'stage' face, and her voice was absolutely stunning.... Hers was a splendid talent, and it was indeed a tragedy that ill health cut short her career before she arrived at her full powers."
Whatever the truth, her withdrawal from the lyric theatre meant the loss of the greatest dramatic soprano of the time.