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MUSIC : Di Stefano--Still Outspoken, Independent : Looking Back on a Great and Controversial Career

Old Acquaintance: Another in an occasional series in which stars of an earlier age reflect on the musical past--and present.

September 25, 1988|WALTER PRICE

"Look, I believe he was a small man who achieved a position he never thought he'd have. And he became a dictator. But he loved the art of singing, and he was the last competent manager the Met had."

Continuing, Di Stefano says with a straight face, "I've never had any problems. When things haven't been to my liking, I've always been able to walk out for a coffee and not come back."

A case in point was the first recording sessions of "Mefistofele" for London Records. The company had been criticized for not pairing Di Stefano with Renata Tebaldi, thought by many to be the two most beautiful voices in their categories. Especially wanted was a "Boheme," but Tebaldi commanded a high royalty and Di Stefano would accept nothing less than hers. So when the two were finally united in the Boito work, there was much anticipation.

Things went badly from the beginning.

"The atmosphere was terrible. Tebaldi's mother had died. Renata arrived dressed in black. Her maid was in black. Even her dog was in black. The conductor, Tullio Serafin, was getting old. I was sorry to disappoint my old friend, Cesare Siepi, who was singing the title role, but I went out for a coffee and didn't come back."

The final recording was made by Mario Del Monaco. Some years later, London released a single record of some of the music from those sessions Di Stefano did. Though flawed, the disk was enough to put the whole venture in the it-might-have-been category.

Di Stefano's benign manner masks a fierce independence. "I've never made plans in my life and I won't be dictated to by two vocal cords," he says matter of factly but with more than a touch of pride.

There may be a fatalistic streak in the man because of a brush with almost certain death in his youth. During World War II, he was in the army as a draftee. A lieutenant, Giovanni Tartaglioni, heard him singing and thought this voice could be one of the glories of Italy. Using every trick he could think of, the officer got him removed from the battalion. The soldiers shipped out to the Russian front and not one came back.

On his desk today, Di Stefano keeps a picture of the man who saved him.

Years later during an interview with an Italian journalist the tenor told the story, and the reporter's article promptly labeled him a coward. The whole matter was laid to rest after the mother of Tartaglioni wrote an indignant letter to the editor defending her son's protege.

As to colleagues, Di Stefano holds back nothing. He wears around his neck a medal given to him by Toscanini with the maestro's profile and an inscription.

"He adored me," says the tenor without a trace of pomposity. "His supposed rigidity was nonsense. He told me once, 'I'll follow you, but you'd better sing well.' And I did."

Asked which singers he admired, he smiles with a wicked charm that has surely gotten him into trouble in the past and replies, "Only the great ones."

He says he liked Del Monaco and that Leonard Warren was the best baritone around. ("No one sang piano and mezza voce the way he did.")

Then come the zingers.

Tebaldi? "She was just too sweet for me," he grimaces.

Giulietta Simionato? "She was one of those people concerned only with herself. It was always, 'I, I, I.' She never stopped telling about one review of 'Aida' when the critic said the name of the opera should have been 'Amneris.' "

Licia Albanese? "I love Licia and Joe (Joseph Gimma, the soprano's husband). Once I brought her with me to sing in Rio at a very good fee. The manager was furious because she couldn't be heard. She loved Toscanini so much she left her voice with him."

Ettore Bastianini? "He wasn't in the same league with Warren."

Richard Tucker? "He was quite fine until he would let those cantorial mannerisms get into the music."

Tito Gobbi? "He was a pain in the neck. He went around telling everyone he had chosen me for the 'Otello' in Pasadena. Actually I was the one who asked for him to direct the work."

Di Stefano hasn't much to say about the current crop of singers, but he is asked about Chris Merritt, the American tenor currently having a big success in the Italian theaters. "He sings well enough. It's just that the sound isn't very attractive."

The one singer whose name hasn't been mentioned is the obvious one, Callas. There are perhaps a dozen pictures of her on the walls of the living room and den of the villa.

"Tebaldi had the most beautiful voice in the world," he says, "Maria had four different voices, but she was the most expressive singer I ever experienced. She was a true artist. She attracted news stories but she always only wanted to be treated like 'The Other One' (the common term used by the Tebaldi/Callas camps for the opposing diva).

"She wasn't just concerned about herself. No 'I, I, I.' Once she was worried about me and when she didn't know where I was she tracked me down to a party Ben Gazzara was giving."

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