Backstory: Renata Scotto

by Fred Cohn.

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Illustration by Gary Hovland
From the Archives 
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In 1977, Renata Scotto appeared on two of our covers.

OPERA NEWS DIDN'T EVEN HAVE to put Renata Scotto’s name next to her picture on the cover of its December 17, 1977 issue. Any regular reader would have recognized the Italian soprano, shown in the costume of her signature role, Cio-Cio-San. After all, she had been an international star for two decades. No doubt it was that familiarity that allowed Carlo Faria, in his cover story, “Revelation,” to brush past the usual personality-profile biography and get right to the heart of the matter—her unique artistry. 

The meat of the article consists of Scotto’s penetrating analyses of a handful of arias, along with some of Butterfly’s key moments. A typical observation concerns the moment when Cio-Cio-San tells Pinkerton about her visit to the Christian mission: “Most Butterflys forget that if this is said within earshot of the relatives, they would all depart in shock. So she must sing this in half-voice, as Puccini suggests, as an aside.” In its catalogue of subtle details such as that one, the article becomes a virtual master class in role interpretation. 

“Revelation” provided an early glimpse of skills that Scotto now has regular opportunity to exercise as a globe-traveling pedagogue. She works with the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and she has taught master classes all over the world. “I love teaching,” Scotto tells me by phone. “I don’t want to be a professor, but a friend who says something to maybe help. I try to be always nice. It’s very difficult to be nasty or scream. I prefer to listen and change the singing, and make them understand. Bring me something that you really know—not just the music, but the story, the background of the composer. Many singers only hear themselves sing, and that’s all—‘Listen to my voice! I sing so beautiful!’ No, no, no! If you listen to someone and you have a feeling you won’t get through to them—I get bored myself. There are more interesting things you can achieve by having the voice that is a special gift.

“When I teach, I’m thinking of my own teachers and of the great conductors I learned so much from. They gave to me so much—and I gave to them a lot, I believe. In the beginning, I had a great teacher—Luigi Ricci, who had been a coach at Teatro di Roma and did Butterfly with Puccini. I got directly what Puccini told him. I feel it’s my duty to pass it on to young singers. Ricci spoke a lot about the words. Puccini was very much interested in the interpretation, the passion, the love. ‘Un bel dì’ is not an aria—you tell a vision. Ricci told me, ‘Don’t sing too much—don’t make a big sound. Have a visionof that nave bianca.’”

In that same 1977 opera news issue, then editor-in-chief Robert Jacobson devoted his “Viewpoint” column to a consideration of Scotto’s Cio-Cio-San. “Not a note, not a syllable or an orchestral color is thrown away or overlooked in building the character,” he wrote. The soprano herself comments, “The joy of singing for me was entertaining the audience by explaining what I wanted to say.” Anyone who ever saw Scotto knows that what she had to say was limitless. spacer 

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