American soprano Catherine Malfitano is one of opera's most daring stars. Indelibly associated with a stirring, vixenish performance in Richard Strauss's Salome in the 1990s, Malfitano has made a career of choosing dramatic, highly charged roles, and critics and fans alike have commented on her mesmerizing stage presence. She once appeared in a historic live telecast from Rome of the Puccini classic Tosca that was one of the most-watched opera performances ever broadcast, and in 2003 she performed in an opera marathon of three works with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Despite the warnings of some detractors that she could ruin her voice mid-career, Malfitano asserts she has instead grown into the more challenging roles she has taken on. "The voice changes, you know," she told the San Francisco Chronicle 's Octavio Roca. "The instrument just knows what it wants to do, what it has to do. It's a journey, and you are the only one responsible for it, so you may as well decide to just do it. Life is just too short to worry. I think the reason I have the career I have is my courage."
Malfitano was born on April 18, 1948, in New York City, the daughter of Maria, a former ballet dancer, and Joseph, a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera of New York orchestra. Not surprisingly, she grew up in a musical home. "Imagine a child who's been given no sense of fear, which is the way I grew up," she recalled of her youth in an interview with American Record Guide writer Bridget Paolucci. "My parents gave me that sense of total freedom and limitless possibilities." She was no fan of opera, however, until she saw the Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi perform. "As a girl, I hated opera—none of it seemed remotely believable," she told Michael Church, a writer for London's Independent newspaper. "Tebaldi wasn't a wonderful actress, but she was so sincere, so impassioned, that it came through."
Malfitano's performing career began when she was still in her teens, while a student at New York's High School of Music and Art. She enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, planning on a career as a concert soloist, but she was guided into opera by the school's president. She graduated in 1971, and after additional at-home vocal training for an hour each day under the guidance of her father, made her professional operatic debut a year later as Nannetta in the Verdi opera Falstaff with the Denver Central City Opera. Critics immediately declared her the successor to Beverly Sills, one of opera's biggest stars at the time. She joined the Minnesota Opera for a season, and she made her European debut at the 1974 Holland Festival as Susanna in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Her New York City Opera debut came on September 7, 1974, in a production of La Bohème, as Mimi. She performed for the first time at London's Covent Garden reprising the Susanna role, and she made her debut with the famed Metropolitan Opera of New York in December of 1979 as Gretel in a production of Hänsel und Gretel.
"I Could Face Anything"
Early in her career, Malfitano began taking challenging roles. She performed at the 1981 Salzburg Festival in The Tales of Hoffmann alongside tenor Placido Domingo, an experience that entailed learning three roles and performing before one of the music world's most discerning audiences. She went on to appear with the Vienna State Opera the following year, but she began encountering difficulties around 1984 after appearing that year in a production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Paris Opera. The audience booed her opening aria as Constanze, but Malfitano later said that, in retrospect, it was a learning experience. She called that night "transforming," she told Paolucci in the American Record Guide interview. "I learned that I could face anything."
Malfitano began working to re-train her voice, studying under conductor Henry Lewis. Becoming a mother in 1986 helped as well, she noted, but a Met performance of Marion in January of 1987 garnered terrible reviews, which she claims to have never read. "It was a couple of months after childbirth," she told Paolucci, "and I was right in the middle of my studies. My body was different, my voice was different." She persevered, however, and was invited to make her debut at Milan's grandiose La Scala opera hall in 1988 in the title role of Daphne. Two years later came her memorable debut in a Berlin production of Salome, the Strauss classic. The opening night was televised live—a daring move for a soprano in her first time in any role—but Malfitano caused a sensation as the dancer who seduces King Herod and demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The show-stopper was the infamous "Dance of the Seven Veils," and Malfitano was nearly naked at its close. Critics hailed her performance as one of most stunning interpretations of the devious Salome of all time.
Malfitano has said that she trained for the Salome role, in part, by starting a serious fitness regimen, which included running. At nearly 100 minutes, the one-act Salome required terrific stamina of its star, and "I needed to be in condition to do all-out dancing, not just posing, and then sing immediately after in full voice," she told Peter Gambaccini of Runner's World. Eventually she was clocking in 30 miles on the track a week, which she said improved her performance in an unexpected way. "Artists are prone to stage fright and fear," she explained to Gambaccini. "But athletes learn how to keep the moment in front and not to think about the hurdles 10 minutes ahead…. What replaced the nerves was a kind of great excitement, a kind of thrill to be out there."
An Acclaimed Tosca
During the remainder of the 1990s, Malfitano performed regularly with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She starred opposite tenor Ben Heppner in the 1992 debut of a new American opera, McTeague, from William Bolcom, which Time critic Michael Walsh commended as a "marvelously sensual performance." In 1992 she took part in a live telecast of Tosca in Rome with Domingo, conducted by Zubin Mehta and broadcast live across Europe from sites in Rome that were specific to the story of the opera itself, such as the Farnese Palace and the Castel Sant'Angelo. Millions of viewers tuned in to see Malfitano debut in the title role, and it was heralded as one of the opera season's most memorable events. Back in Chicago, she appeared in the Alban Berg opera Lulu, a role that had her descending on rope some 40 feet onto the stage.
Malfitano had another tough turn, however, this time at the Met in 1995, while starring in Puccini's Madama Butterfly as Cio-Cio San, the Japanese woman abandoned by an American G.I. In a negative review, Opera News critic John W. Freeman faulted the stage director for many of the production's flaws, but he asserted that its lead "has been stuck with hard jobs before" and "read the role reliably, hitting her stride as an interpreter with such passionate, expansive phrases as 'Che tua madre' in Act II." Malfitano returned to the Met early the next year in another Salome and two years later tackled a jazz-based Kurt Weill opera, Mahagonny, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Forceful Stage Presence
In opera parlance, roles like Salome, Lulu, and Madama Butterfly are considered heavier ones, risky to a lyric soprano's voice. Occasionally, some opera aficionados have sniped that Malfitano is too much of a risk-taker, plunging into roles that are potentially ruinous to her voice. Writing in Opera News, critic John Von Rhein noted that there are some flaws in her voice, which come through most often on recorded versions of her operas. As a live performer, however, "Malfitano's mesmerizing stage presence and dramatic and psychological involvement more than compensate for the lack of a beautiful sound. At its best, when not pressured, the voice has gleam and a penetrating quality that can slice through a large orchestra."
For the Record . . .
Born on April 18, 1948, in New York, NY; daughter of Joseph (a professional violinist) and Maria (a ballet dancer) Malfitano; married Stephen J. Holowid (an opera administrator), 1977; children: Daphne Rose. Education: Earned bachelor of arts degree, Manhattan School of Music, 1971.
Made professional operatic debut as Nannetta in Falstaff, Denver Central City Opera, 1972; joined Minnesota Opera, 1972; made European debut at the Holland Festival, in the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, 1974; debuted with New York City Opera, as Mimi in La Bohème, September 7, 1974; remained with the company until 1979; debuted with Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1975; debuted at Covent Garden, as Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, 1976; made Metropolitan Opera of New York debut, as Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel, December 24, 1979; made Vienna State Opera debut, as Violetta in La Traviata, 1982; debuted at Milan's La Scala Opera house, in the title role of Daphne, 1988; has appeared regularly with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera of New York, and several other American and European venues.
Awards: Emmy Award, Outstanding Individual Achieve-ment—Classical Music/Dance, 1993.
Addresses: Management— Columbia Artist Management, Inc., 165 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Malfitano has recorded her most famous roles, including Tosca and Salome, and has also branched out into other styles, singing Weill and George Gershwin songs at a New York City bar for the 2002 release Blue Moon Cat: Live at Joe's Pub. A studio session with her father, originally released in 1972, was re-released in 2002 as Songs My Father Taught Me. In June of 2003, she appeared in three works as part of a Cincinnati opera marathon: La Voix Humaine, from Francis Poulenc, based on a Jean Cocteau play about a woman in a phone conversation to a lover who spurned her; Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins, which necessitated dancing as well as singing; and the world premiere of Bolcom's Medusa. For her effort, she earned a massive standing ovation at Cincinnati's Music Hall. Malfitano, declared Cincinnati Enquirer critic Janelle Gelfand, "was not so much a one-woman show in Cincinnati Opera's triple bill on Thursday, as she was a one-woman phenomenon. To say her performance was a tour de force hardly gives justice to Malfitano's stunning achievement."
Malfitano is married to an opera administrator, and their daughter has sometimes appeared in small children's roles alongside her mother. Malfitano remains pragmatic about her life in opera. "The end of a career comes so quickly for singers," she told Von Rhein for Opera News. "It feels too short. It will always feel too short, no matter whether it's five or forty years long. So part of the enjoyment of every moment that happens in one's career has to come from feeling you're doing everything you really wish to do, searching out all your possibilities."
(Richard Strauss) Salome, Polygram, 1995.
(Giacomo Puccini) Tosca, Teldec, 1996.
(Gioachino Rossini) Stabat Mater, EMI/Angel/Virgin, 1996.
(Christoph Willibald Gluck) Orfeo ed Euridice, Gala, 2000.
(William Bolcom) A View from the Bridge, New World, 2001.
Blue Moon Cat: Catherine Malfitano Live at Joe's Pub, Video Arts International, 2001.
Songs My Father Taught Me, Video Arts International, 2002.
Ewen, David, compiler and editor, Musicians Since 1900: Performers in Concert and Opera, H.W. Wilson, 1978.
Guinn, John, and Les Stone, editors, The St. James Opera Encyclopedia: A Guide to People and Works, Visible Ink, 1997.
Kuhn, Laura, Baker's Dictionary of Opera, Schirmer, 2000.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Macmillan, 1992.
American Record Guide, November-December 1995, p. 213; January-February 1997, p. 153; March-April 1998, p. 10; September-October 2002, p. 229.
Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 2003, p. E7.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), May 20, 1996, p. L10.
Houston Chronicle, April 4, 1999, p. 10.
Independent (London, England), September 8, 2000, p. 16.
Opera News, March 4, 1995, p. 42; June 1996, p. 12; November 1996, p. 46; November 1998, p. 12; November 2002, p. 64.
Runner's World, June 1993, p. 38.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 2000, p. 35; August 5, 2001, p. 50.
Time, November 23, 1992, p. 79.
Malfitano, Catherine, admired American soprano; b. N.Y., April 18,1948. She received early training at home from her father, a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera orch., and then continued her studies at the Manhattan School of Music (B.A., 1971). In 1972 she made her professional operatic debut as Verdi’s Nan-netta with the Denver Central City Opera, and then appeared with the Minnesota Opera (1972–73). She made her European debut as Mozart’s Susanna at the Holland Festival in 1974. On Sept. 7,1974, she made her debut at the N.Y.C. Opera as Mimi, and remained on its roster until 1979. After making her debut at the Lyric Opera in Chicago as Mozart’s Susanna in 1975, she sang that role at her Covent Garden debut in London and his Servilia at her Salzburg Festival debut in 1976. She made her first appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in N.Y. as Gretei on Dec. 24,1979, returning there in subsequent years in such roles as Violetta, Juliette, Micaëla, and Massenet’s Manon. She made her debut at the Vienna State Opera as Violetta in 1982. Following appearances as Berg’s Lulu in Munich in 1985 and as Cio- Cio-San at the Berlin Deutsche Oper in 1987, she made her debut at Milan’s La Scala as Daphne in 1988. In 1993 she won acclaim as Salome in Salzburg. In 1995 she made her first appearance at the San Francisco Opera as Cio-Cio-San and won accolades as Janacek’s Emilia Marty at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Her outstanding portrayal of Salome at the Metropolitan Opera in 1996 was one of the highlights of the season. In 1998 she was engaged to sing Weill’s Jenny in Salzburg and Tosca at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. She sang Kat’a Kabanová at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire