Baritone Rolando Panerai was one the world’s most acclaimed singers and remains unequalled in both his repertoire and commitment to the art of opera. Now 94 and still living in Florence, Italy, he reflects on a career which was momentous and exceptional in the world of opera, conductors, directors, and recordings. Particularly associated with the Italian repertoire, his interpretations of Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi as well as Mozart’s Figaro and Leporello, and both baritone leads in Così fan tutte, among many others, have secured a legacy.
But how and where did it all begin, and who were those who influenced him and shared their musical careers alongside this riveting artist? “My first and only singing teacher was Maestro Raoul Frazzi from Parma,” recalls Panerai. “I was greeted at his large school at the age of 18 and studied alone singing with him. My opinion is that you cannot change teachers. When studying and having difficulty, [one] should always discuss the merits but always with the same person. My experience has confirmed [that] those who change many teachers create a lot of confusion.”
Things started to develop rapidly for Panerai with the role of Lord Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor. “I began to study the work,” he says. “I do not remember how many hours per day. At night I would fall to sleep with the score of ‘Lucia’ on my pillow.” Then on June 29, 1946, “the curtain opened for my debut. It is said that your first love you never forget, and I never forgot that night.”
“For me, one of the most important teachers I’ve ever had was the stage . . . you must study it, love it, respect it. It is a living thing. It is something that comes over you like a seed that contaminates and transforms your being as an artist in anything, whether singer or actor.”
Panerai’s career encompassed many roles, but his signature role became Ford in Falstaff. Eventually, he would also take on the title role in both stage performance and recording. “I sang 14 operas by Verdi,” he recalls, “almost from the first to the last work by the master. Of these, I sang the role of Ford and Falstaff. Perhaps the change of these characters was born on grounds of age.
“In my youth, singing Ford, for me, was the most beautiful. It is a part of a large vocal range and very difficult but of great dramatic satisfaction. Mature age, for me, has come and also the time for Falstaff. It requires great emotion, great responsibilities, and large study. Deciphering the complexity of the character is very challenging as there are many facets and vocal colors typical of the role of Falstaff.
“So, what should be the characteristic of a Verdi [baritone]? In addition to the range of two octaves, which is characteristic of all baritones, should be a dark brownish tint like bronze. When we imagine the color, we usually think of silver or gold. To get an idea of what I mean, think of the bronze and not only as a color but as the quality of the metal, which reminds us of the power and strength.”
For Panerai, there were explicit examples of the Verdi singer. “According to my opinion,” he says, “the greatest baritone of all time was Titta Ruffo. [He] had indisputable color and the power of his voice. Carlo Galeffi also had beautiful low notes, as well as Leonard Warren, Cornell MacNeil and, in more recent times, Ettore Bastianini, Piero Cappuccilli, and more.”
Panerai also emphasizes the importance of good vocal training for young singers. “When I was young, I was a cyclist,” he says. “I have learned that with good training you can do the steepest climbs. So it is for singing. We’re in a real gym [where] you can complete the training of an artist.
“My repertoire includes around 150 works in all genres including early music to romanticism. It became easy to have relationships with the music of Mozart to Puccini. It was not difficult to move from Prokofiev to Donizetti by careful training.
“This was demonstrated by the fact that after 65 years of singing, in 2011 I sang Gianni Schicchi at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. Surely my voice has aged with me, but it is always sound in every sense. I have always had health as the barometer. When I’m in good voice, I’m in good health. So, in taking care of my voice, I have taken care of my body.”
Panerai, however, never sang at the Metropolitan Opera. “Early in my career I had a proposal from my agent to move to the Met for eight months and be at the disposal of the theater for any occasion,” he explains. “I did not accept the invitation as I was too close to my home life. I was recently married and decided not to stay away from Florence for more than a month at a time.
“Many colleagues, including [Ferruccio] Tagliavini and [Cesare] Valletti and others, told me I was wrong because America was a beautiful country and I would be fine. They said America had become their second home. It is true that I refused offers from them for long-term contracts. A lot in the agency I was with insisted I accept a contract for San Francisco.
“I sang Figaro, Bohème, and Barber of Seville. These were works I loved very much. These were under Kurt Herbert Adler. Then there was a period of about a month of inactivity when I was offered to sing in Chicago for three performances of Falstaff. Adler refused me permission, stating it was not in my contract, so I was in San Francisco for an entire month without being able to do anything.
“There was so much reason to hate not only Adler, but even America. It was a month that I spent in inertia. I endured the situation only to say to myself that I would not come back to sing in the U.S.
“Then, when I was about 40 years old, I received the invitation from my friend Maestro Bruno Bartoletti, artistic director at Lyric Opera in Chicago, to go and sing Gianni Schicchi. I accepted the invitation, and in that theater I found wonderful ambience. It seemed to me to be part of a large family. I had the good fortune to attend the Columbus Day [Parade] and was touched to see the love that Americans have for the Italians. It was a relief for me that I ended my hatred against America.”
But it was Maria Callas who perhaps left one of the most lasting impressions on Panerai. “We worked together until 1951,” he remembers. “We did a Parsifal for RAI [Italy’s national public broadcaster]. Maria was already in possession of an incredible voice that years later would make it unique in the world.
“Maria was a good friend and colleague. We attended the same restaurants in Rome, Berlin, and Vienna. She used to joke or exchange jokes among her colleagues.
“I remember once we were doing Il trovatore at La Scala. Giuseppe Di Stefano would come [late] always in one of his Rolls-Royces while we took the taxi. One day Maria said, ‘You know what we do tomorrow? We rent a carriage drawn by six horses and try to get there late as well.’
“I still remember another time when she and I were doing ‘Lucia’ at Scala with Karajan. The set [had] a veil in front of the proscenium, and during our duets we were unable to see the conductor. She said to him to take it off, but he was very annoyed and said it had to stay because of the lighting. So she said to him, ‘Then you sing it!’ He walked off. Karajan was too smart of a person to renounce Callas. In fact, the show had a great success without the veil.
“Many people still ask me if it’s true that Callas was haughty. Yes, it’s true. That she was quarrelsome. Yes, it’s true she was difficult. It’s equally true that all these negative things were aimed at people who were ignorant and mediocre. I think we can summarize by saying that her character did not like mediocracy as her work bordered on perfection.”
In addition to Callas, Panerai worked with many legends in opera’s stratosphere, from singers to conductors to stage directors. He highly admired Luchino Visconti, who directed Callas in many of her most famous roles. “I remember a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Rome Opera,” he says. “I had imagined finding myself in the presence of a despot with a lot of melodramatic gestures. None of this. Since our first day of rehearsal, I noticed that simplicity and naturalness are based on the teaching of Visconti.
“From him I learned that you comply strictly with the text of the work with rigor and logic. Figaro is there under your eyes. Da Ponte had taken Beaumarchais and created this Figaro. Mozart had created music with a divine call that is almost an understatement. Now if [we] do not respect and do not perform what Da Ponte and Mozart have written, it means that we are wrong. And if we feel superior to Da Ponte and Mozart so as to modify their work, then it gets really serious.”
Though Panerai worked and sang with the greatest, one of his regrets was that he never had an opportunity to work with tenor Franco Corelli. “I have wonderful memories of him,” he says. “Despite the celebrity he attained, he was basically a simple guy at heart, one of the greatest voices. It was heroic par excellence.
“Carlo Bergonzi—I always admired the versatility he could muster from L’elisir d’amore, Aida, and Il trovatore to Bohème. [Nicolai] Gedda was a singer of great style and was excellent in Mozart. I remember he could sing long phrases distributing the breath in a way that I have always tried to snatch his secret.”
But one thing is certain: don’t ask Panerai who his favorite composer may be. “It would be like asking a child who was best, their father or mother? Inevitably anyone faced with this question would be embarrassed. Do you love Verdi more than Rossini? Bellini or Donizetti? Mozart or Puccini?”
While opera houses abound in Europe, it is La Scala which held a special place for Panerai. “I started working there in 1952,” he says, “almost continuously for 25 years. La Scala is a point of arrival for all singers and opens many doors for artistic credibility.”
A singer with many recordings to his credit, he recognizes their importance as well. “Worth much more [was] a 15-day stay in Berlin to record La bohème with the great philharmonic, Karajan, Freni, Pavarotti, Harwood, Ghiaurov, and Maffeo,” he says. “Rather than doing eight performances of Rigoletto, where maybe a few thousand hear you, unlike the millions who will listen to you with a Bohème recoding.”
Panerai credits his career longevity to his diet and to nature. Originally a smoker, he gave up both cigarettes and drinking early on. “I understand the importance of the lungs,” he shares. “Also, the duration and quality of our lives depends on the genetic makeup of our parents. If you want to live well, feast off the Mediterranean diet.”
And, in retrospect, Panerai agrees that opera’s landscape has changed. “There is no doubt that opera was loved more in my day than today, at least in my part,” he says. “This is because of audiences being distracted by television, cinema, and the computer. Add some new and misleading productions and the cost of opera, and the picture is complete.
“I do not teach singing and rarely do masterclasses, but I do discuss problems of voice with young singers and am pleased to provide my experience. I would like to appeal to young people and tell them that this job is not easy and should be undertaken with commitment of much study, seriousness, humility and, above all, honesty.”