At age 96, Italian verismo soprano Magda Olivero still had one of opera’s most remarkable voices.
Footage of Olivero singing Franck’s ‘Panis Angelicus’ in an Italian Catholic church has gone viral on Facebook, with everyone remarking on her crystal-clear sound and deeply beautiful tone. Every year on Ferragosto, Italy’s public holiday on 15 August, Olivero would perform in the Church of Sulden (Parrocchia di Solda).
Often described as the “last verismo soprano”, Olivero is remembered as one of the great singers of the 20th century.
Her style, ‘verismo’, was highly stylized and dramatic, her signature roles fittingly including title parts in Puccini’s Tosca and Luigi Cherubini’s Medea.
In 1951, a critic observed: “Hers is an astonishing talent [with] an intensity, both musical and dramatic, which was quite extraordinary.”
Check it out below. You hear a longer rendition — including “Ave Maria” — at this link.
Her long second act — she made her Metropolitan Opera debut at 65 and continued to sing elsewhere for decades — was driven in no small part by the ardor of her fans. “Magdamaniacs,” The New York Times called them in 1979, and the coinage entailed little hyperbole.
For decades, bootleg recordings of Miss Olivero’s voice, tenderly husbanded, passed from hand to covert hand among her legions of acolytes. At live performances, she took the stage to screams of ecstasy and left it to thundering ovations.
Singing the title role in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” in Verona, Italy, in 1970, opposite a young tenor named Plácido Domingo, Miss Olivero required police protection from the hundreds of audience members who tried to swarm the stage.
Though the instrument with which nature endowed her was not Olympian, her arduous training gave her such immense technical facility — crystalline diction, superb breath control, exquisite mastery of tone and dynamics — that she could imbue her work with a level of interpretive nuance that can elude even great singers. On Miss Olivero’s lips, as her admirers often observed, song sounded almost as natural as speech.
The net effect, at once titanic and intimate, was the experience of opera in amber, for Miss Olivero was almost certainly the last avatar of the grand histrionics, and genuinely grand singing, that typified a shimmering era in which opera was pitched to the last balcony.
May we all be as fortunate to have such a remarkable “second act”!