NEW YORK — Aprile Millo sweeps into the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, not far from the apartment she still maintains in Hell's Kitchen.
She looks and sounds every bit the diva she unquestionably is. All in black, with an antique cross nestling in her decolletage, her hair chicly frizzy, she has been described by some as belonging among that all-but-extinct breed, the Verdi spinto soprano--that category between the lyric and dramatic soprano for whom Aida, the Lenoras in "Forza del Destino" and "Trovatore," Amelia in "Ballo in Maschera," and Elvira in "Ernani" were written.
She has been praised for her ability to ride a Verdi orchestra with ease in great climaxes and scale down the voice for particularly ethereal pianissimos. Reviewers are smitten with her warm voice with great color variety. She is good and she knows it.
Millo appears tonight and Thursday at Orange County Performing Arts Center singing a program of Verdi. Sunday evening she is due at Ambassador Auditorium in a recital of songs and arias.
Millo's mood swings are mercurial. She can speak humbly about her art, charm a photographer or waiter, and tell a ribald, unprintable story about trouble with tonsils all in a few minutes. The one thing that cannot be forgotten at any time is that this is a diva, a "dream maker," as she has called herself.
"I know the way I handled my career was risky," she says frankly, "but I knew what I was doing and it's worked out."
She is referring to the fact that for 5 years at the Metropolitan she has been on a "cover" contract, a stand-by for the more famous sopranos in case of illness. Under such circumstances, there is always the chance the public will perceive a performer as not the genuine article, not the first choice.
Yet when opportunities came, Millo was ready and caused that buzzing in the audience when an unknown appears and has a storybook success. She made her debut in 1983 in "Simon Boccanegra" when Anna Tomowa-Sintow canceled. Later the New York-born soprano did a broadcast Elisabetta in "Don Carlo" after a soprano originally hired did not work out.
"The one thing I would never do at the Met, even as a cover, was to be used in small parts. They couldn't push me into those. Only once did I do one, the Priestess in a San Diego 'Aida' for Tito Capobianco, and I promptly dropped the sword. I vowed never again," she says with a laugh.
Millo is nothing if not determined, even stubborn, and her obstinacy has gained her a reputation as being a young lady who is difficult, not to be pushed around by operatic minions who think they know what is best for her.
The one person she will listen to is conductor James Levine, who led her debut performance.
"He is a modern-day Tullio Serafin," she says, referring to the great Italian conductor who was an expert on voices and guided the careers of such sopranos as Rosa Ponselle, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.
Indeed Tebaldi is the one singer with whom Millo is most often compared. It is evident she adores her great predecessor. "I've just heard a CD of a 1950 Verdi Requiem she did with Victor de Sabata. How is it possible to make such gorgeous sounds?"
Millo is trying to learn how. Two years ago she went to Milan to coach the role of Maddalena in "Andrea Chenier" with Tebaldi and hopes to do the same with Desdemona, though she says with satisfaction that the part is "coming around pretty well already."
"I am an Italian soprano who happens to be an American," she says proudly. "Now don't get me wrong, Leontyne Price is a gift from God, but she wasn't a true Italian Verdi soprano the way Ponselle, Zinka Milanov and Tebaldi were."
As to her competition or rivals, Millo admits to none: "One has rivals when you are a mistress of your part. And I'm not that--yet. I have so much to learn. I want to serve music, my art.
"The one instance where I have not been fortunate is working with the great conductors who can teach me. Levine is the only one. I almost did a Verdi Requiem with Karajan in Berlin, but he got into a fight with the orchestra and canceled. I want to sing for Claudio Abbado and Giulini and Carlos Kleiber. I haven't gotten to them yet, but I will."
Most of Millo's reviews have been glowing, but this season the soprano did not have a happy time with a concert version of "Il Pirata" put on by the Opera Orchestra of New York. Most critics agreed she was not helped by a substandard cast or the often brutal conducting of Eve Queler, but the reception by Peter G. Davis in New York Magazine particularly hurt, when he accused her of putting on grand prima donna airs worthy of a Callas, Tebaldi and Sutherland.