Italian lyric tenor inspired Pavarotti

Times Staff Writer

Giuseppe di Stefano, an Italian lyric tenor who was a celebrated singing partner of soprano Maria Callas and a role model for the late Luciano Pavarotti, died Monday in his sleep at his home in Santa Maria Hoe, north of Milan, Italy, said his wife, Monika Curth.

He was 86.

Di Stefano had never fully recovered from wounds sustained in a robbery at his family’s villa in Kenya in November 2004, his wife said.

The tenor had been struck in the head during an attack by five assailants at his home in Diani, about 270 miles southeast of the capital, Nairobi.


He suffered the blow while trying to defend his wife as the thieves tried to steal her necklace. She needed 16 stitches to her head at the hospital in Diani.

Di Stefano was first taken to a hospital in Mombasa, Kenya, where he was operated on twice for a severe brain concussion. Doctors placed him into a medically induced coma in an effort to allow his brain to recover.

After he failed to make significant improvement, he was flown to Italy, where he was taken to San Raffaele Hospital in Milan for treatment and rehabilitation.

“He was 100% disabled; he couldn’t even eat alone,” Curth told the Associated Press by telephone. “Lately he frequently had colds and pneumonia.”

Born in Catania, Sicily, on July 24, 1921, di Stefano was drafted into the Italian army during World War II.

A lieutenant, Giovanni Tartaglioni, heard him singing and thought his voice so glorious that he used every trick he could think of to get him removed from the battalion before it shipped out to the Russian front. Not one of the soldiers came back.

Di Stefano kept a picture of the man who saved him on his desk for the rest of his life.

After the war, he made his operatic debut in 1946 in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Jules Massenet’s “Manon.” The following year, he made his La Scala debut in the same role. He first sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1948 as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and went on to sing 112 performances in that house from 1948 to 1965.


“His musical merits have mostly to do with style, for the voice, though neither small nor ugly, is not an organ of great beauty,” composer Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Herald Tribune after the 1948 performance. “But he has an impeccable enunciation, and he projects a phrase with style and authority. Also his personality is fresh and genuine.”

Di Stefano would go on to sing in all the major opera houses in Chicago, Paris, London, Vienna and Berlin, among other cities.

In 1954, however, he began adding to his repertory heavier dramatic roles such as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen,” Radames in Verdi’s “Aida,” Alvaro in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” and even a one-shot go at Verdi’s “Otello” in Pasadena.

Some critics said adding the heavier repertory led to a loss in vocal quality.


Responding to the charge, di Stefano said in a 1988 Los Angeles Times interview, “Who really knows the voice? They’re saying the same thing today about Pavarotti and Domingo, and they’re still alive. I’ve always done exactly as I wanted.

“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 [conductor Wilhelm] Furtwaengler said. I want the music of my character to sound natural, almost like speech.”

Di Stefano met Callas in 1952, and the two forged one of the most legendary partnerships in opera, making numerous recordings and touring together, including for her ill-fated, aborted 1973-74 final tour, which showed both singers in serious vocal trouble.

According to an insider’s tell-all book published in 1992, the two had an affair from 1972 until Callas’ death in 1977.


Pavarotti, who never failed to say that di Stefano had been his idol, received his big break when he replaced the older tenor after he had dropped out of a performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” at London’s Covent Garden in 1963.

Di Stefano’s recorded legacy includes collections of arias, duets with Callas and complete recordings of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” and Puccini’s “La Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Manon Lescaut” -- all with Callas.

His last performance was in Rome in 1992 as the old emperor in Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Di Stefano will be buried in Santa Maria Hoe after a church funeral Wednesday, his wife said.