Claudia Muzio: New York and Buenos Aires interviews
These interviews bring us closer to the artist’s thoughts in 1917, during her first years at the Metropolitan, and in 1928, as she approached the end of the second decade of her career as a world-renowned singer. The first interview was published in the volume Vocal Mastery, in which Harriette Brower interviews legendary singers, many of them her colleagues: Caruso, Farrar, Maurel, Scotti, Raisa, Martinelli, among others. The interviews conducted in the press in Buenos Aires in 1928 were collected in the book Claudia Muzio, La única, by Eduardo Arnosi.
A CHILD OF THE OPERA
In tales of romance one reads sometimes of a gifted girl who lives in a musical atmosphere all her life, imbibing artistic influences as naturally and almost as unconsciously as the air she breathes. At the right moment, she suddenly comes out into the light and blossoms into a full fledged singer, to the surprise and wonder of all her friends. Or she is brought up behind the scenes in some great Opera House of the world, where, all unnoticed by her elders, she lives in a dream world of her own, peopled by the various characters in the operas to which she daily listens. She watches the stage so closely and constantly that she unconsciously commits the roles of the heroines she most admires, to memory. She knows what they sing, how they act the various parts, how they impersonate the characters. Again, at the right moment, the leading prima donna is indisposed, there is no one to take her place; manager is in despair, when the slip of a girl, who is known to have a voice, but has never sung in opera, offers to go on in place of the absent one. She is finally permitted to do so; result, a popular success.
Some pages of Claudia Muzio’s musical story read like the romantic experiences of a novel-heroine. She, too, was brought up in great opera houses, and it seemed natural, that in due course of time, she should come into her own, in the greatest lyric theater of the land of her adoption.
When she returned to America, a couple of years ago, after gaining experience in Europe, she arrived toward the end of the season preceding her scheduled debut here, to prepare herself more fully for the coming appearance awaiting her.
I was asked to meet and talk with the young singer, to ascertain her manner of study, and some of her ideas regarding the work which lay before her.
“It was always my dream to sing at the Metropolitan, and my dream has come true.”
Claudia Muzio said the words with her brilliant smile, as her great soft dark eyes gazed luminously at the visitor.
The day was cold and dreary without, but the singer’s apartment was of tropical warmth. A great bowl of violets on the piano exhaled delicious fragrance; the young Italian in the bloom of her oriental beauty, seemed like some luxuriant tropical blossom herself.
Claudia Muzio, who was just about to take her place among the personnel of the Metropolitan, is truly to the manner born, a real child of the opera. She has lived in opera all her life, has imbibed the operatic atmosphere from her earliest remembrance. It must be as necessary for a singer who aspires to fill a high place in this field of artistic endeavor, to live amid congenial surroundings, as for a pianist, violinist or composer to be environed by musical influences.
“Yes, I am an Italian,” she began, for I was born in Italy; but when I was two years old I was taken to London, and my childhood was passed in that great city. My father was stage manager at Covent Garden, and has also held the same post at the Manhattan and Metropolitan Opera Houses in New York. So I have grown up in the theater. I have always listened to opera —daily, and my childish imagination was fired by seeing the art of the great singers. I always hoped I should one day become a singer, so I always watched the artists in action, noting how they did everything. As a result, I do not now have to study acting as a separate branch of the work, for acting comes to me naturally. I am very temperamental; I feel intuitively how the role should be enacted.
All tiny children learn to sing little songs, and I was no exception. I acquired quite a number, and at the age of six, exhibited my accomplishments at a little recital. But I never had singing lessons until I began to study seriously at about the age of sixteen. Although I did not study the voice till I reached that age, I was always occupied with music, for I learned as a little girl to play both harp and piano.
We lived in London, of which city I am very fond, from the time I was two, till I was fourteen, then we came to America. After residing here a couple of years, it was decided I should make a career, and we went to Italy. I was taken to Madame Anna Casaloni at Torino. She was quite elderly at that time, but she had been a great singer. When she tried my voice, she told me it was quite properly placed —so I had none of that drudgery to go through.
At first my voice was a very light soprano, hardly yet a coloratura. It became so a little later, however, and then gradually developed into a dramatic soprano. I am very happy about this fact, for I love to portray tears as well as laughter —sorrow and tragedy as well as lightness and gayety. The coloratura manner of singing is all delicacy and lightness, and one cannot express deep emotion in this way.
We subsequently went to Milano, where I studied with Madame Viviani, a soprano who had enjoyed great success on the operatic stage.
After several years of serious study I was ready to begin my career. So I sang in Milan and other Italian cities, then at Covent Garden, and now I am in the Metropolitan. In Italy I created the role of Fiora in Amore dei tre re, and sang with Ferrari-Fontana. I also created Francesca in Francesca da Rimini, under its composer, Zandonai. I have a repertoire of about thirty operas, and am of course adding to it constantly, as one must know many more than thirty roles. Since coming to New York, I have learned Aida, which I did not know before, and have already appeared in it. It was learned thoroughly in eight days. Now I am at work on Madame Butterfly.”
“I work regularly every morning on vocal technic. Not necessarily a whole hour at a stretch, as some do; but as much time as I feel I need. I give practically my whole day to study, so that I can make frequent short pauses in technical practice. If technic is studied with complete concentration and vigor, as it always should be, it is much more fatiguing than singing an opera role.
You ask about the special forms of exercises I use. I sing all the scales, one octave each —once slow and once fast— all in one breath. Then I sing triplets on each tone, as many as I can in one breath. I can sing about fifteen now, but I shall doubtless increase the number. For all these I use full power of tone. Another form of exercise is to take one tone softly, then go to the octave above, which tone is also sung softly, but there is a large crescendo made between the two soft tones. My compass is three octaves —from C below middle C, to two octaves above that point. I also have C sharp, but I do not practice it, for I know I can reach it if I need it, and I save my voice. Neither do I work on the final tones of the lowest octave, for the same reason —to preserve the voice.”
“Every singer knows how important is the management of the breath. I always hold the chest up, taking as long breaths as I can conveniently do. The power to hold the breath, and sing more and more tones with one breath, grows with careful, intelligent practice. There are no rules about the number of phrases you can sing with a single breath. A teacher will tell you; if you can sing two phrases with one breath, do so; if not, take breath between. It all rests with the singer.”
“I learn words and music of a role at the same time, for one helps the other. When I have mastered a role, I know it absolutely, words, music and accompaniment. I can always play my accompaniments, for I understand the piano. I am always at work on repertoire, even at night. I don’t seem to need very much sleep, I think, and I often memorize during the night; that is such a good time to work, for all is so quiet and still. I lie awake thinking of the music, and in this way I learn it. Or, perhaps it learns itself. For when I retire the music is not yet mastered, not yet my own, but when morning comes I really know it.
Of course I must know the words with great exactness, especially in songs. I shall do English songs in my coming song recital work, and the words and diction must be perfect, or people will criticize my English. I always write out the words of my roles, so as to be sure I understand them and have them correctly memorized.”
KEEPING UP REPERTOIRE
“Most singers, I believe, need a couple of days —sometimes longer— in which to review a role. I never use the notes or score when going over a part in which I have appeared, for I know them absolutely, so there is no occasion to use the notes. Other singers appear frequently at rehearsal with their books, but I never take mine. My intimate knowledge of score, when I assisted my father in taking charge of operatic scores, is always a great help to me. I used to take charge of all the scores for him, and knew all the cuts, changes and just how they were to be used. The singers themselves often came to me for stage directions about their parts, knowing I had this experience.
Yes, as you suggest, I could sing here in winter, then in South America in summer.” (Miss Muzio accomplished this recently, with distinguished success and had many thrilling adventures incident to travel.) “This would mean I would have no summer at all, for that season with them is colder than we have it here. No, I want my summer for rest and study. During the season at the Metropolitan I give up everything for my art. I refuse all society and the many invitations I receive to be guest of honor here and there. I remain quietly at home, steadfastly at work. My art means everything to me, and I must keep myself in the best condition possible, to be ready when the call comes to sing. One cannot do both, you know; art and society do not mix well. I have never disappointed an audience; it would be a great calamity to be obliged to do so.”
Text excerpted from Vocal Mastery, Harriette Brower, New York, 1917.
In 1928 she gave an interview to the newspaper La Nación in Buenos Aires, in which she described “the life of care and sacrifice that she has been leading for ten years”:
“I live devoted to my art; for the world I do not exist. I have never accepted an invitation to a social party. I apologize, always very gently, but I am not going. I have been coming to Buenos Aires for seven years and I don’t know one family home among the thousand that have been offered to me. I’m very sorry, but I can’t live a social life. […] I don’t go out except to go to the theater, and in the afternoons, to get some sun and air in Palermo. Besides, I wouldn’t have the time. The day I sing I arrive at the theatre at half past five in the afternoon. I study three, four, five hours a day, going over the operas I have already sung, to keep my voice supple. And I have no other fixed idea than the impression I will make on the audience the next night I appear before them. I live for the audience. From the stage, because off the stage I never appear in meeting places. I think the artist should hide a little, and show himself only in the proscenium, to keep a certain aura of distance and mystery. I follow a very sober diet. I don’t go out at night except when I’m working. I can’t give myself any personal pleasure. Suffice it to say that several years ago I bought a residence on the Riviera, which I have not been able to enjoy even for one night. When I pass through Europe I don’t have time to go to Paris, nor to visit museums, which is one of my favorite pleasures. I do not live. I sing. And all this, to be always in full possession of my means and to offer them to the audience, whom I fear, who gives me many troubles, but whom I love because it has also given me the most intense satisfaction.”
The journalist asks her if she thinks the audience is “above the critics.” Muzio “opens her eyes wider, gets serious, throws her head back a little, takes a breath and tackles her thought resolutely”:
“Yes; above all, the audience. Whether we like it or not, all of us who work on the stage live for it. The audience is the sole and unquestionable master. An irascible, sometimes volatile master, but one who is part of our destiny and reaches out to the depths of ourselves. Because it is vibrant and passionate. Criticism I divide in two: what I read and what I don’t read. I don’t read the one that criticizes by default. The one that comes having already decided to criticize even if presented with the eighth world wonder. But I am respectful of the other, of the one that comes with the intention and the desire to find things right, even if it has the misfortune of finding them wrong and is obliged to say so. This criticism seems to me to be worthy of the greatest respect, and I regard it and appreciate it even when it makes some objection to me, which I consider to be fair and contributes to correcting a defect that I had not noticed. I believe, moreover, as a principle, that the music critic can only be so when he is, himself, a professional, a musician who, by his own experience, knows the subject he is dealing with. But I do consider criticism to be a select task that does not reach the masses. It shows ways, it helps to set the criteria of those who lead, but I don’t think it has much influence on the audience. And I don’t think so, because so far neither of us has managed to knock each other out. What the audience likes, it is for the critics outdated. What the critics like, the audience doesn’t get. I give Tosca or Traviata; Carmen is performed. It is said that this is an ancient repertoire, but the audience buys all the tickets. And, I ask, with all due consideration to high criticism: who is the show performed for? […]”
The chronicler asks her if she prefers classical or modern opera. La Muzio “quickly decides”:
“The classical, the beautiful Italian opera. The old and still the very old opera, referring to the generation that preceded that of the masters that are sung today. It has more line and plasticity, it is, more integrally, an artistic performance. It is the great one, the eternal, the one that will last forever. Even if transitory tastes put, for a moment, other trends in fashion. […]”
“And why don’t you like new operas?”
“The artist frowns, moves her hands in the air, as if searching for the phrase that doesn’t come, twists her fingers and finally exclaims with effort:
Because they have nothing to hold on to. Do you understand what I mean? Because they are very skeletal; pure shell, with no substance inside on which to work. Opera is the classical one, the Italian. The one that is beautiful, that is rich, the one that contains all the harmonies of sound, of the stage and of the plastic arts. I am, though of the new generation because of my age, part of the old generation for my schooling and my taste. I realize this myself. Perhaps the last one of the old school. It’s not my fault. It’s just that I learned music, a lot of music, before I started singing. That’s the only way you can tell the differences. And they’re so great!”
In another interview given to a different newspaper in Buenos Aires the same year:
“Do you find deep differences between the old Italian lyric art and the modern one?”
“Vocal lyric art of old is superior to modern lyric art in all matters of vocal technique, but perhaps the emotional content of contemporary expression is more in accord with the times. Without claiming that the former has aged, we can assure, without fear of misjudging, that the latter is more up to date.”
“Which modern composers do you prefer?”
“Pizzetti and Zandonai, if you want to count him among the moderns… […]”
“Which production or productions do you like?”
“I like them all for the character I create. The character possesses me and I make it live in me all the life that its author instilled, or tried to instill, in it. And for that reason, I like and I love every work that has been recognized for its values. If I had to point out my preferences, I would indicate the entire repertoire of Verdi, Puccini, and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.”
“Should the singer blindly stick to the score?”
“Yes, and no… The artist must always respect the will of the composer of the music, while doing “lo sfogo del proprio sentimento,” always within the character that he performs. This is how you achieve the famous singing style that is characteristic of every lyric performer who has reached a certain degree of perfection. On the other hand, the colouring, the brio, that the author wanted to give to his work, comes from the joint and intelligent action of the director with the performers in general, rather than from the artist alone.”
Text excerpted and translated from Claudia Muzio, La única, Eduardo Arnosi, Buenos Aires, 1986.