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

"I've been smoking for over 20 years and it hasn't harmed me yet," says Giuseppe di Stefano as he lights up a black cigar and leans back in a chair in the den of his villa. Behind him is a window with a spectacular view of a typical mountain valley in the Como region. He is in a witty, friendly and expansive mood.

The 67-year-old tenor has been singing for 42 years and is in the twilight of what has been a great, if controversial, career.

After World War II, the United States was parched for the sound of a real Italian tenor. Ferruccio Tagliavini, preceded by recordings, had arrived and enjoyed a big success. Then RCA released two 78-rpm recordings of an unknown young tenor named Giuseppe di Stefano singing the two arias (in Italian) from "Mignon" and two Sicilian folk songs, "Cantu a Timuni" and "A Barcillunisa."

Those grooves captured the sound of a voice that was hailed as the greatest since Gigli's. It was liquid, creamy, capable of a seamless legato that nonetheless made every syllable comprehensible throughout its impressive range, up to a brilliant and effortless high C.

While Tagliavini's debut at the Met caused some disappointment--the voice was not as large as recordings had suggested--Di Stefano's bow as the Duke in "Rigoletto" in 1948 caused no such reservations. He, along with Jussi Bjorling, became RCA's favored tenor.

Di Stefano became general manager Edward Johnson's favorite too, and in the two remaining seasons of the regime of the Canadian, he was given most of the plums.

It was during this period, however, that Di Stefano learned his first lesson about American musical politics. He had had a huge success with Rise Stevens in "Mignon" (sung this time in the proper French) and was promised the broadcast. The Met sponsor, Texaco, also sponsored a "semiclassical" radio program on Sundays called the Texaco Star Theatre with James Melton. "Mignon" was one of the few operas in Melton's limited repertory. He got the broadcast. The memory still irritates the Italian.

When Rudolf Bing took over as manager in 1950, it seemed almost inevitable the austere, disciplined Austrian would clash with the easy-going, life-loving Italian. And clash they did.

After performances with the tenor in Mexico in 1952, Maria Callas urged La Scala to engage him for "La Gioconda." When he asked Bing for time off, the general manager, who wanted Di Stefano for "Faust" and "Boheme," reluctantly agreed and then refused to pay him $2,000 owed for travel money. For one of the first in a number of times around the world, Di Stefano walked out.

This devil-may-care attitude has manifested itself in the tenor's choice of repertory, which dismayed many in critical circles.

After mostly lyric roles, he began to branch out into the spinto and dramatic repertories. He added such parts as Alvaro in "La Forza del Destino," Calaf in "Turandot," Radames in "Aida," Don Jose in "Carmen" and, once in Pasadena, even an ill-prepared Otello.

In the mid-1950s, some critics heard signs of vocal wear in Di Stefano's voice when the top began to spread. Some felt he never achieved the full potential of his lyric gifts after he took on heavier roles.

Di Stefano is contemptuous of those who disapproved. "Who really knows the voice?" he asks. "They're saying the same thing today about Pavarotti and Domingo and they're still alive. I've always done exactly as I wanted.

"Once when I was having some vocal problems, they said it was because of repertory. Actually it was because the architect in a new house I was building put the heating system under the floor. That, combined with a rug made of acrylic, affected the voice, dried it out, constricted the range. Fortunately, I found out in time.

"The three most satisfying performances I ever gave were of a role I supposedly shouldn't have done. It was Alvaro in 1965 in Florence, Vienna and Cologne. I don't care about a C. To me the only important thing is expression, as Furtwangler said. I want the music of my character to sound natural, almost like speech."

He returned to the Met, of course, on and off until 1965, when he was contracted for four performances of "Les Contes d'Hoffmann." He had sung a "Tosca" a few weeks earlier in Philadelphia; it was very well-received. At his first Met appearance, however, he was not feeling well and thought he sang poorly. The public still loved him and Bing urged him to continue, but the tenor canceled the other performances and never sang at the Met again.

Today, in his typical, relaxed manner, Di Stefano says he bears no grudges or resentment.

"The company under Bing wasn't a theater, it was a concentration camp. Once in 'Carmen' he wouldn't let me wear boots I felt comfortable in because they weren't from the original production. Actually, I liked him. Even with our troubles, he did acknowledge in his book that my diminuendo on high C at the end of the 'Salut! demeure' in 'Faust' was one of the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard.

"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."

Although it has been widely reported that the soprano and tenor were more than mere colleagues, nothing further is said of the relationship. In the mid-1970s, Callas and Di Stefano ventured an ill-fated co-direction of "Vespri Siciliani" in Turin and an even more questionable final worldwide recital tour.

Today, Di Stefano seems a happy and contented man. He has just made a new recording, "Dedicato a te . . . Mamma," released in Italy for Mother's Day, 1988. He returned from concerts in Japan, where he is a great favorite and well-known among the current generation for his Hitachi commercials on television.

He was touched that people from the Met, then on tour there, came to his concerts. Di Stefano says Aprile Millo was particularly worshipful.

"James Levine was there hugging and kissing me. He doesn't know me. What was that all about?"

He is off to Vienna for 12 performances of "Eine Nacht in Venedig" ("Of course, I'm singing in German; I've known the language from the beginning.") He has a concert at the Barbican Center in London. Performances in Turkey are coming up. He is pleased the CD re-releases of his opera recording are selling so well.

When will he quit?

"I don't know. I told you I have never made plans. Del Monaco told me once he would kill himself when he couldn't sing anymore. I told him I'd kill myself if I couldn't stop."

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