Mirella Freni is not as instantly recognizable as opera stars Luciano Pavarotti or Maria Callas, but she is among the great sopranos of the twentieth century and holds a special appeal for opera lovers worldwide. Her gentle, fresh-sounding voice coupled with a simple and direct performing style made her ideally suited for romantic leads, vaulting her into the top ranks of the opera world in the early 1960s. In later years, in response to the urgings of her mentor, Herbert von Karajan, and her own desire to enlarge her horizons, she adapted her performing style to encompass more dramatic roles, easily making the kind of transition that has caused other singers’ careers to founder. Since her debut in 1955, Freni has enjoyed a near-continual string of stage successes, something few other singers can claim. In the 1990s she remained one of the dominant figures on the opera scene.
Freni, the eldest daughter of Ennio, a civil servant, and Gianna Fregni, was born on February 27, 1935, in the northern Italian industrial town of Modena. She began her artistic development as a toddler, telling her mother at the age of two that she wanted to be an opera singer. Her grandmother, Valentina Bartolomasi, was a well-known soprano of the 1920s, and Mirella, growing up in a musical family, manifested a natural ability for singing. In fact, it was one of Freni’s uncles who first recognized her talent when he heard her singing along with a recording of nineteenth-century Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
When she was ten years old, Freni made her first public appearance at a music pupils’ concert, singing “Sempre libera,” a difficult aria from the first act of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La Traviata. At age 12, she won an international contest for young singers with the aria “Un bel di” from Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. One of the judges, renowned tenor Beniamino Gigli, warned her that she should not begin performing before her voice was fully developed, and Freni heeded his words, spending most of her teenage years training with maestro Ettore Campogalliani of Mantua, Italy, and watching operas from the upper galleries of Modena’s local opera house, the Teatro Communale.
On January 3, 1955, Freni made her stage debut at the Teatro Communale in the role of Micaela in French composer Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Though she was an immediate success and attracted notice from scouts for major opera companies, she chose to put her career on hold after marrying Leone Magiera—an instructor at the Bologna Conservatory who would serve as her
For the Record…
Born Mirella Fregni, February 27, 1935, in Modena, Italy; professionally known as Mirella Freni (surname pronounced “Fray-nee”); daughter of Ennio (a civil servant) and Gianna (a factory worker; maiden name, Arcelli) Fregni; married Leone Magiera (a choral instructor and conductor), 1955 (divorced 1982); married Nicolai Ghiaurov (an opera singer), 1982; children: (first marriage) Micaela (daughter). Education: Studied with maestros Ettore Campogalliani and Leone Magiera. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Opera singer. Made stage debut as Micaela in Carmen at Teatro Communale, Modena, Italy, 1955; Glyndebourne Opera Festival debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, 1960; debuted as Nannetta in Falstaff at the Royal Opera, London, England, 1961, and at La Scala, Milan, Italy, 1962; made Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in La Bohème, New York City, 1965. Has also made operatic appearances at New York City’s Carnegie Hall; Houston Grand Opera; Lyric Opera of Chicago; San Francisco Opera; Paris Opera; Bolshoi Opera, Moscow; Amsterdam Opera; Vienna State Opera; and Salzburg Music Festival. Starred in film adaptations of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly.
Selected awards: First prize, Concorso Viotti, 1958; Cavalier of the Great Cross, 1989.
Addresses: Home —Modena, Italy. Management —Columbia Artists Management, Inc., Wilford Division, 165 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
teacher and mentor for the first two decades of her career—and giving birth to their daughter, Micaela, in 1956. Word of her talent was spreading, however, bringing numerous offers of roles with smaller Italian opera houses, and in 1957 Freni, at the urging of her husband, resumed performing.
The next year Freni won first prize in the prestigious Concorso Viotti in Vercelli, Italy. The award had a catalyzing effect on her career. After a round of appearances on mid-level Italian opera stages such as those in Palermo, Bologna, Naples, and Rome, Freni appeared with the Netherlands Opera for the 1959 season. In 1960 she made her debut at the Glyndebourne Opera Festival as Zerlina in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni and the following year debuted at the Royal Opera in London as Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, a role she took on less than ten days’ notice to meet a casting emergency. In 1962 she appeared again at Glyndebourne as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a performance that Andrew Porter of Opera described as “bewitching,” adding, “Everything she did, vocal and dramatic, was alive, credible, and unforced.”
Discovered by von Karajan
On January 9, 1962, Freni bowed for the first time at La Scala in Milan, Italy, once again as Nannetta in Falstaff. Then she tackled the role of Liù in Puccini’s last opera, Turandot, during the 1962-63 season. Appearing at the most prestigious of all Italian opera houses was a considerable personal benchmark for Freni; of greater consequence was that she came to the attention of Herbert von Karajan, the reigning conductor in Milan, Berlin, and Vienna and one of the foremost maestros in the world. Von Karajan, immediately taken by Freni’s stage manner and the lyric quality of her singing, played a significant part in her rise into the opera elite, serving as her mentor over the course of the next decade and pushing her to accept new and challenging roles.
At von Karajan’s insistence, Freni was cast as the female lead, Mimi, in a new production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The opera had its debut on January 31, 1963, and Freni’s performance was greeted rapturously by audiences and the opera press alike. Mimi became a signature role for Freni, and her interpretation of it set a standard against which other singers attempting the role are often judged. In November of 1963 she performed the part with the State Opera in Vienna, Austria; two years later she reprised the role with the Metropolitan Opera in New York for her American debut. Critic Alan Rich of the New York Herald Tribune wrote of that performance: “[Her voice] is pure and fresh, operating without seam … marvelously colored at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text.” Freni recorded La Bohème for Angel in 1964, and in 1965 starred in a Franco Zeffirelli film of the opera. The role remained her favorite throughout her career, and she continued to perform it into the 1990s.
A Career Setback
Intending to capitalize on the enthusiasm for Freni, von Karajan pushed for her to sing Violetta, the female lead in Verdi’s La Traviata, at La Scala. Freni was reluctant at such an early point in her career to take on a role that is considered one of the most difficult in the soprano repertory, but she eventually acceded to von Karajan’s urging. Her decision turned out to be a serious misjudgment. Renata Scotto, a veteran singer and favorite performer at La Scala, had originally been cast as Violetta, and her replacement by a relatively inexperienced newcomer deeply angered many Milanese opera fans. Although Freni was probably up to the demands of the role, she never had a chance to prove herself.
The opera’s debut in December of 1964 degenerated into a near-riot of shouting, whistling, and disturbances in the audience, and after a single performance, Freni was replaced by Anna Moffo, another well-known soprano. The experience must have been disheartening for such a young singer, but it taught her a valuable lesson. Thereafter, Freni refused roles for which she was ill-prepared, artistically unsuited, or that she thought might overtax her voice. This approach no doubt contributed to her longevity as a singer.
Freni recovered quickly from her setback with La Traviata. Throughout the winter of 1964, she toured with the La Scala company in the former Soviet Union. In 1965, in addition to her debut as Mimi, she appeared as Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. During the 1966 season, Freni performed the roles of Marguerite in nineteenth-century French composer Charles Gounod’s Faust and Liù from Turandot, both at the Metropolitan, and the following year she sang the female lead in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, solidifying her reputation as a reigning queen in the transatlantic world of opera. In spite of the adulation she received in the United States, however, Freni was increasingly reluctant to spend so much time away from her family, and her portrayal of Juliette at the Metropolitan in 1968 was her last American appearance until 1976.
The Dramatic Transition
Although Freni limited herself to European performances after 1968, she was hardly idle. She had debuted at the Salzburg Festival in Austria in 1966, and it was there in 1970—again at the urging of von Karajan—that Freni made the transition to dramatic roles, in this case that of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Her move surprised audiences and critics, who had previously thought her suited only to light or “soubrette” roles. Although taking the part could have been disastrous for her career, Freni’s flexibility and intuitive grasp of the demands of a dramatic role allowed her to make an easy transition. English critic Noel Goodwin, writing in Music and Musicians, remarked, “Her radiant innocence and tragic despair ensured that our sympathies were with her throughout. In the last act, her expressive inflection of the vocal line was deeply moving in its warmth of character.”
Freni followed this success with other dramatic roles, notably Elisabeth de Valois in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 1975 and the title role of Verdi’s Aida in 1979. Exhibiting her usual caution in career matters, she worked on each new role for at least a year before performing it, avoiding the problems singers often face when rushing into dramatic parts without sufficient preparation.
In the summer of 1976, with her daughter grown to adulthood, Freni returned to the United States, touring with La Scala and the Paris Opera. In October of the same year, a film version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly —starring Freni and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and conducted by von Karajan—was telecast as part of the Great Performances series. Later that fall Freni appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem Mass. The enthusiasm she left behind in 1968 was quickly revived, and Freni subsequently became a fixture on the American opera scene, appearing in such locales as Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago, as well at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Freni’s personal life underwent a transition in tandem with her career. Her marriage to Leone Magiera gradually dissolved, and in the early 1980s they amicably divorced. In the meantime, she had fallen in love with Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, a frequent stage partner, and they were married shortly after Freni’s divorce from Magiera was finalized. Just as Magiera helped in the development of Freni’s early career, Ghiaurov strongly encouraged her to branch out in later years. It was with his help, for example, that in 1985 she undertook the role of Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a project she had refused in the 1970s out of reluctance to sing in Russian.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, having reached the height of her career, Freni performed widely in the United States and Europe. She appeared in numerous television opera broadcasts, including Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro with Kiri Te Kanawa, Verdi’s Don Carlo and Aida, both with Placido Domingo, and La Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti. She also continued to expand her repertory, adding the title roles in Adriana Lecou-vreur and Manon Lescaut, along with other parts in Eugene Onegin and La Pique Dame. When not performing, she spent a considerable amount of time in the studio. By the mid-1990s Freni had recorded over 50 complete operas with most of the major classical record companies, including Angel/EMI, RCA, London, Philips, and Deutsche Grammophon.
As she approached the fortieth anniversary of her Modena debut, Freni remained much in demand, with a solidly booked schedule. In the 1993-94 season alone, she performed in Barcelona, London, Paris, New York, Zurich, Milan, Athens, and Lisbon. Her operatic skills are largely undiminished, thanks to judicious choices in the roles she accepts, a constant attention to not straining her voice, and a simplicity and ease of manner that has allowed her to maintain a strong rapport with her audiences and fellow performers. Freni is an audience favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the mid-1990s—at an age when most singers would be contemplating their retirement—she stood on the threshold of a fifth decade at the pinnacle of the opera world.
Alcina, London, 1963.
La Bohème, Angel, 1964, reissued, EMI Classics, 1988.
Don Giovanni, Angel, 1966.
L’Elisir dAmore, Angel, 1967.
Donizetti & Bellini Arias and Duets, Angel, 1967.
French and Italian Opera Arias, Angel, 1968, reissued, 1985.
Mirella Freni Sings Favorite Arias, Vanguard, 1969.
Romeo et Juliette, Angel, 1969.
L’amico Fritz, Angel, 1969.
Carmen, RCA, 1971.
Messa da Requiem, Deutsche Grammophon, 1972.
La Bohème, London, 1973.
Don Giovanni, Philips, 1973.
Madama Butterfly, PolyGram, 1974.
Mirella Freni—Arias, Angel, 1977.
Simon Boccanegra, Deutsche Grammophon, 1977.
Turandot, Angel, 1978.
Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, London, 1978.
Faust, EMI Classics, 1979.
Aida, EMI Classics, 1980.
Guglielmo Tell, Decca, 1980.
The Great Voice of Mirella Freni, London Jubilee, 1982.
Emani, EMI Classics, 1983.
Don Pasquale, EMI Classics, 1984.
Manon Lescaut, Deutsche Grammophon, 1984.
Mefistofele, London, 1985.
La Forza del Destino, EMI Classics, 1986.
Great Sopranos of Our Time, EMI Classics, 1986.
Madama Butterfly, Deutsche Grammophon, 1988.
Otello, EMI Classics, 1988.
Don Carlos, EMI Classics, 1988.
Opera Arias (recorded 1964-67), EMI Classics, 1988.
Eugene Onegin, Deutsche Grammophon, 1988.
Carmen, Philips, 1989.
Falstaff, London, 1989.
La Traviata, Rodolphe, 1991.
La Forza del Destino: Highlights, EMI Classics, 1991.
La Pique Dame (“The Queen of Spades”) —Highlights, RCA Victor Red Seal, 1992.
Tosca, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Manon Lescaut, London, 1993.
Hifi/Stereo Review, October 1964.
High Fidelity & Musical America, March 1965.
Music and Musicians, June 1967; October 1970.
New York Herald Tribune, September 13, 1965.
New York Times, November 13, 1965; March 23, 1980.
Opera, autumn 1962; June 1963; April 1967; July 1972.
Opera Monthly, January 1990.
Opera News, October 1977; October 1987; September 1990.
Ovation, March 1989.
Stereo Review, September 1965; November 1990.
Time, August 3, 1981.
Variety, December 30, 1965.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Columbia Artists Management, Wilford Division, New York City, and EMI Records publicity materials, 1994.