Thursday, May 29, 2014

ANNA MOFFO







I'm going to write what I know, for the hell of it. She was a wonderful person, right to the end of a protracted, gruesomely painful fight with cancer. Even at the end she answered fan mail (there was always a lot) promptly and by hand. She was generous to talk with, by which I mean she was funny, observant and emotionally available. Sick as she became there was something healing about her.

She was a phenomenal musician; the best among singers that I met before Renee Fleming (who can reduce an orchestral score at sight and play an arrangement of it at the piano without preparation). Moffo could also read a partitur, she was a master of solfege, she was harmonically very sophisticated, she could dissect modulatory movement like a professor and she had broad tastes in serious music. She adored music with both an emotional and an intellectual passion (I have met singers who didn't much like music at all, they just happened to have the sort of voices and training that let them support themselves better by singing serious music than they could have by doing any other kind of work that was feasible for them). 

I think she had one of the most beautiful natural voices ever documented. The audition tape she made at seventeen, "dead with nerves" to get considered at Curtis, is a heart-stopping, beautiful and deeply felt "un bel di". Her performance of that aria on her complete recording sounds IDENTICAL.

That suggests an amazing innate ability, musical (she taught herself the aria), emotional (it is really felt and utterly sincere but within the style and line of the piece as indicated in the score) and vocal (it is a gorgeous sound). Of course she got in, and that began the odd mixture of great and awful luck that characterized her career,

That she sang the same way after an extensive course of study meant she was singing as she felt, not with awareness or understanding of the process. But at Curtis she was snatched up by Madame Gregory (nee Eufemia Giannini of the Giannini family, as prominent a musical family as ever was native to Philadelphia, her sister was the great if eventually rather steely toned Dusolina Giannini, and her brother was the very gifted composer Vittorio Giannini, who though born in the wrong time, given how conservative he was, was really gifted and ideally would be rediscovered.)

In Moffo's time, Madame Gregory wore a hearing aid and seems to have been largely ignorant of vocal production (she also taught the wonderful Frank Guarrera, whose family were neighbors of my family). As with Frank, whose early self-made records show a gorgeous voice, and who recorded some tenor arias showing such bright richness and squillo that he was very likely a tenor, Madame Gregory tended to miss overtones and the "hints" of potential in young voices. Moffo thought she was (improbably) a mezzo, and when she won her Fulbright, the only arias she took to Italy to audition with were mezzo and contralto arias, including Dalila's from Samson, as well as a sheath of songs in the contralto keys!!!! 

It was Mercedes Llopart who taught Moffo for a time in Italy, Llopart also taught Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus who swore by her, Kraus thought she was a genius as a teacher (she also taught Cossotto and then, yes, Elena Suliotis!!!) Llopart identified Moffo's voice as a high set lyric coloratura and was supported in that belief by Luigi Ricci, the great coach, sometime conductor and best musical friend of all the verismo composer (he was personally devoted to Mascagni). 

Moffo said these two got her to vocalize higher and higher, and to do scales and fioriture. They also thought she had to sing Lucia (she had never thought in those terms, and would have agreed to a degree that it wasn't much musically). But from a working class family, having studied for four years with only a year in Italy paid for by Senator Fulbright, she had to make a decision. She needed to start a career. So she started auditioning around, instead of staying at least another year with Llopart.

She did not secure her breathing, or the way she managed register shifts, and although she had the high notes easily, was insecure singing them and was apt to force and move off the breath (the earliest habits a singer develops very often become what governs their singing for their entire career; if they are bad habits, problems will occur. It takes someone made of steel to change, the good kind as with Birgit Nilsson, who abandoned most of her training after being forced to sing Salome over a bad cold and having a triumph by doing exactly the opposite her teachers had recommended, or the Krupp's kind of Madame Schwarzkopf who invented a technique for herself and kept it going).

But the Butterfly RAI film was a sensation and she worked constantly after it. For a while she still sang high, florid roles but her temperament and musical taste was geared more toward the challenges of Pamina (she was the first person to point out to me that the g minor tonality of the aria is a "secret" in the way the aria is written with its shifting dominants, showing up only as Pamina accepts death at the end, until then, the unthinkable; Violetta and Melisande for example (where her looks were a great asset).

Sadly, she made a bad first marriage to a husband who micromanaged her career and never let her rest. Besides her stage engagements, she had TV shows in Italy and Germany, sang concerts at the drop of a hat, sang live on radio in various countries, acted in movies, made tons of records, and needing to fulfill contracts, got through indications of vocal trouble, papering over nascent but obvious vocal problems. She had at least one physical collapse. But she often had to sing ill, and she did not have the technical savvy not to damage herself by doing so. 

Born in 1932, she was from a generation and background that was not sophisticated socially. Her first husband was gay. Many heterosexual female opera stars who have weathered vocal or emotional crises have told me that the love of their husbands (or a caring man in their lives) had helped them survive. Moffo had neither and no one to save her from the crazy schedule or to point out that increasing evidence of vocal decline was not a passing indisposition.

Her voice remained quite beautiful (heard when she was relaxed) into the early eighties, but by the late sixties she was often exhausted, her nerve and courage was shot, her marriage was a shambles and even getting away to think was difficult for her.

She began seeing teachers for quick fixes but had to maintain her schedule. I believe, as Beverley Johnson did -- she was the person who really tried to help her -- that had she simply taken two or three years off, practiced a sensible vocal routine every day under the microscopic ears of an expert, she could have regained much of her earlier form and sustained a career. However one issue was never going to be solved, she had barely had the power and stamina for singing in a house the size of the Met at her best, and she might have had to limit herself to European houses and concert tours in America.

But this was hard for her to hear, as inexorably waning success while still relatively young is hard to bear for anyone. However, luck struck again, with a wonderful second marriage to a wealthy man, Robert Sarnoff. He provided the love and support she had needed all along and helped in the early years of her illness, but he predeceased her by almost a decade.

I think in her best work, Moffo is ideal. She sang gorgeously into the sixties, is wonderful musically, always expressive and loves the words. On records, she manages some heavier music memorably for she retained the enticingly ripe lower octave that had misled Madame Gregory. She also made unforgettable records of lighter music; this rep has rarely been sung with a timbre so beautiful, such lively words and such musical sense, which does not cause her to condescend to the material or tempt her into mannerism. 

She had some very bad luck and that included a documented wildly circulated disaster during a Met broadcast. But I can't tell you how visceral my loathing is for pigs who have done NOTHING with their lives but pirate the work of others, who on the face of it are unmusical fools, who are stupid scum, mocking this wonderful person who might well have been a vocal genius for a time (if such can be said to exist). We can all grant that after about twelve years at the top (sensational Salzburg debut 1957), she declined and then fell precipitously. But that at her best, she was great; and the documents, live and canned are there.


29 comments:

  1. What a lovely tribute to a lovely artist. Just listened to her first album for RCA Victor (thank you, Spotify), and I couldn't agree with you more. Thanks especially for your insights and knowledge about her musicality and musical ability.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This post is shot straight from the cannon: wonderful in depth, breadth, and feeling for a most beautiful voice and person. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you both and I am very glad some people have come back and are reading. As always I'm partly motivated by the idiocy of the camp followers who wallow in ignorance (is this the death of opera or has there always been such idiocy as from the "legendary" Charles Handelman endorsed by so many). That scum goes way beyond not liking a particular singer or finding someone "hyped" -- although someone of enormous gifts with an intense work ethic who was hyped as Moffo was is the worst to them, but someone who was hyped merely because she was nice looking (Netrebko) is great. Moffo has one unfortunate document and some late, equivocal ones, but so much that is spectacular in accomplishment, musical (which matters not at all to them, they can't recognize it), vocal and stylistic that not to think of her as one of the most gifted American opera singers of her time is perverse. Preferring someone else isn't the issue; recognizing what this music demands and that she could deliver, is. (Is that English??)

    ReplyDelete
  4. As ever I gain insight from your writings. That is a wonderful gift and I am so glad you share it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks a lot, Jeff, I am happy you are looking in!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks again for such a beautiful even handed post. Moffo was one of my first loves. Alas, only on records, but that debut recital is enchanting. I’ve never heard, again, on records, a more natural and sensual delivery of musical text. I thought she tried a little too hard above high C, but the rest of her performances are swoon worthy. And those looks! Roland Barthes could have written one of his mythologies about her. Glamorous opera singers today are so overly manipulated you can practically hear the grinding of their publicity machines when they make an appearance. It came so naturally to Moffo. I wish she had sorted out her problems, but it isn’t like she didn’t leave a great legacy. I’ve heard some of the late lamentable stuff. It is nothing to laugh at, and the people who dismiss her are, like Kathy Griffin said, aggressively proud of their own ignorance. We are all fragile, after all, and it is amazing she managed to do as much as she did given those circumstances.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Unfortunately, I had only two live performances with her: Manon and Melisande. In both she was quite beautiful--vocally as well as physically. I bought her Butterfly recording because I had the idea that an intimate Butterfly might be very interesting; it became a favorite performance for me. I felt very badly for her when it all began to fall apart but still find a great deal to enjoy in the "L'amore dei Tre Re recording. The voice is just so sensuously lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anna Moffo had one of the most beautiful natural voices ever. Many of todays sopranos have evidence of extreme vocal training which often works against the natural voice. Yes, I totally understand the comment that "she was a genius" . Her love of good music and the language, is so apparent to me.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is a sad story ; but, yes she had an amazing voice and ability.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Albert:
    Thanks so much for this great but very sad story. I was only a teenager when Moffo came bursting onto the scene. I thought her to be as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor, and her performances of Mimi, Liu, Susanna, Ninetta, Violetta, and many others were like balm for the ears. Her sudden and very rapid plunge into vocal decline really bothered me. Then came that horrendous RCA recording of "Thais", which I'm sure will never be reissued. Still, she gave us so much beauty and so much beautiful singing that for me she will remain in the pantheon of the great sopranos of the late 1950's and into the early 1960's. Thanks so much for writing this very beautiful appreciation of her.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thought you might want to know...Anna Moffo : The Complete Rca Recital Albums is scheduled to be released on November 13, 2015 via Sony Music Classical.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks for this informed appreciation of a wonderful singer. I hadn't thought of Moffo for years but happened to hear a bit of La Boheme today and her voice shone through. It was so arresting. I was almost in tears.
    So, my late New Year resolution is to reacquaint with my past. . .

    ReplyDelete
  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A great tribute to a talent that perished far too quickly--her Mimi in her recorded LA BOHEME (early 1960's) remains the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) I've ever heard---and there's some great competition!

      Delete
    2. A great tribute to a talent that perished far too quickly--her Mimi in her recorded LA BOHEME (early 1960's) remains the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) I've ever heard---and there's some great competition!

      Delete
  14. JB Steane is interesting about Moffo in that he clearly isn't that sure about the voice type he is listening to, but he echoes your comments regarding the beauty of the voice. Never heard her live, and I don't mean faint praise, but is there a better Nanetta? And the music isn't that easy.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Beautiful tribute,Albert. I remember a live Lucia w/the Met in Central Park ca.1965-1966 with George Shirley. I was sitting up front and somewhere in the mad scene way up hi in the coloratura, a dog near me started wailing. Anna's eyes popped out startled but she continued singing w/o losing a beat.

    ReplyDelete
  16. What a pleasure to hear Anna and read these testimonies. Heaven may be with us. Jasa.

    ReplyDelete
  17. A wonderful tribute to a great lady and singer. I saw her many times in FLorida in the 70's: recitals/concerts/Fille du Regiment in Miami and Tosca in St Petersburg. She was always prepared and the voice was truly lovely.The only time I saw her on the Met tour was in Atlanta and she sang a moving Violetta that night with Maestro Bonynge in the pit. She is greatly missed.

    ReplyDelete
  18. She is always in my cellphone. I hear her each day. She inspires me to be a better artist. Definitely an angel. Wherever you are Anna, you're alive. I love you!
    Thank you very much for the tribute!

    ReplyDelete
  19. When i was 17. I went backstage at met and met anna moffo. She was glamerous and had just finished a perf on traviata. She was very gracious and i was studying voice then. I asked her for some points and she was helpful. My little nephew age 8. And mother were with me and she kept teasing him. She was at the ht of her career and i was in awe. My teacher was madame julia drobner at ansonia. Im sad her voice took a tragic turn and her illness but i will always remember me as the aspiring opera singer in awe of this lovly woman. A good memory of the great anna moffo as i seen her

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thanks for this informative and human piece on Anna Moffo.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Thanks for this informative and human piece on Anna Moffo.

    ReplyDelete
  22. I adore Anna Moffo. Though sometimes after reading some of the commentary on Youtube, doubtless given by the same "unmusical fools" you mention, I felt I had to explain or apologize. No more. Sing on bright angel.

    ReplyDelete
  23. She had a truly natural, stunning instrument. It moves like clear water meandering over smooth rocks. The mismanagement of her voice is truly a tragedy for humanity. When I selfishly consider the many more recordings we could have had of her healthy voice, it truly saddens me. Her story is akin to that of a beautiful swan that simply flew too much, too far, too early and improperly. I am grateful that we had her voice in full health, if only for a little while.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Anna Moffo my all time favourite! I started listening to this great voice in 1962 and have NEVER stopped listening to her recordings or forgotten her greatness and her beauty.

    ReplyDelete
  25. It was wonderful to read this tribute to such a bright and shining lady. Thanks for writing in such a sensitive way about the problems that overtook her too early. She's still my favorite to listen to in most of the music she sang!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Oh dear! I just watched her 1957 Madame Butterfly movie on YouTube and I feel so tearful - Not only from the ending of the plot, but the ending of the life of my dearest babysitter in Wayne who was eight years older than me but who was not only a mentor but so loving and generous and kind to me. She encouraged me to sing and I tried to remember and copy the pieces she sang in the High School concerts. I even stayed with her parents, just a few doors from our house, a couple of times when my parents went to conferences. And I would stop by her amazingly skilled father's shoe repair shop to watch him as he nailed and glued and then ran the long wall of grinding and polishing wheels to finish up his project. My parents adored her and wrote letters introducing her to Ed Sullivan to get her on his show and they stayed close for years. I tried to too - despite years of international moves. When I lived in New York, my husband and I enjoyed her invitation back stage at the Met after her amazing performance, and years later after we moved to Milan, our penthouse was only two blocks from La Scala where we heard her and saw her again. I collected every recording of hers I could and tried like heck to "sing just like her". Truthfully, I have never heard another soprano who I liked nearly as much. But, most importantly, I have never met another woman who was as kind and human and lovely as my dear baby-sitter, and later hero, Anna Moffo. She deserved far better care than she received. I thank you for writing this about her.

    ReplyDelete