Giuseppe Di Stefano, 86, Famed Post-War Italian Tenor and Frequent Callas Partner, Has Died

March 03, 2008 ||| Opera News


July 24, 1921, Catania, Sicily — March 3, 2008, Milan

Italian tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano, whose nearly twenty-five-year career in all the world's most important opera houses established him as one of the most significant voices of the post-World War II era, has died at the age of 86. The possessor of a naturally beautiful, lyrical instrument notable for its warmth, dynamic control and tonal precision, Di Stefano was a frequent stage and recording partner to Maria Callas, singing opposite the soprano in recordings of Lucia di Lammeroor, I Puritani, Tosca, Rigoletto, La Bohème and Manon Lescaut, all on the EMI label.

Di Stefano had been in poor health after he was brutally beaten by unknown assailants in a 2004 attack that occurred as he and his wife were leaving their villa in Diani, Kenya. The attack initially left Di Stefano unconscious and in intensive care, suffering from severe head injuries that required multiple operations. "He was 100 percent disabled, he couldn't even eat alone," Di Stefano's wife Monica Curth told The Associated Press. "Lately, he frequently had colds and pneumonia."

Considered a successor to prewar tenors such as Caruso and Beniamino Gigli, Di Stefano himself became an important operatic link between both halves of the twentieth century, serving as a precursor to the likes of Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.

Born in Motta Sant'Anastasia, in the Sicilian province of Catania, Di Stefano received his early education at a Jesuit seminary. Prompted to explore singing as a career by a fellow pupil who had heard his renditions of popular songs, the tenor went to Milan to study with baritone Luigi Montesanto — who premiered the role of Michele in Il Tabarro — and later Mariano Stabile, with whom Di Stefano credited as having conveyed to him the importance of enunciation. The tenor won a vocal competition in 1938 in Florence, but was conscripted the following year; he was discharged shortly thereafter, having been deemed a second-rate soldier by an officer who thought he might be of more service as a singer on the home front. As the war spread across Italy, Di Stefano fled to Switzerland where he began performing in Radio Lausanne opera broadcasts that included L'Elisir d'Amore, La Cambiale di Matrimonio and Il Tabarro.

The tenor's proper professional debut arrived in 1946, when he sang Des Grieux in production of Manon Lescaut at Reggio Emilia's Teatro Municipale. Less than a year later, he found himself on the stage of the Rome Opera, and the following year he again assumed the role of Des Grieux at Teatro alla Scala, which would become one of his most frequent performing venues. In 1948, Di Stefano made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the Duke in Rigoletto, and, over the next eight years, would go on to sing roles at the New York house that included Wilhelm Meister in Mignon, Alfredo, Nemorino, Rinuccio, Fenton, Rodolfo, Rosenkavalier's Italian Singer and, famously, the title role in Gounod's Faust, which marked the tenor's Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast debut. Rudolf Bing, then the Met's general manager, would later recall those performances in his memoirs, remarking that Di Stefano's diminuendo on the high C capping Faust's famed Act III aria, "Salut! demeure chaste et pure," remained in his memory as the most beautiful sound to emerge from a human throat during his tenure at the house. Still, Bing and Di Stefano had an uneasy relationship owing to the tenor's nonchalance over contractual obligations, and in 1952 Bing banished Di Stefano from the company stage for three years. During that time the tenor continued to sing in other North American houses that included San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

A 1951 Traviata in São Paulo marked Di Stefano's first performance with Callas, and, over next five years the pair went on to make their seminal recordings on EMI. In 1955 at Lyric Opera of Chicago Di Stefano sang Pinkerton to Maria Callas's only on-stage Cio-Cio Sans. During the mid-1950s, Di Stefano began adding increasingly dramatic roles to his repertoire, including Don José, Canio, Turiddu, Radamès, Calaf and Alvaro in Forza — a shift that many felt his essentially lyric voice never recovered from and, along with professional imprudence, precipitated his vocal decline. The tenor's British debut came relatively late, in 1957, as Nemorino at the Edinburgh Festival, and his first performance at Covent Garden, in 1961, was as Cavaradossi. A 1963 run of Bohèmes at Covent Garden found Di Stefano replaced, after the first performance, by Pavarotti.

Di Stefano's performance schedule became increasingly intermittent throughout the '60s. He retired from the opera stage following a 1972 Carmen at La Scala. In 1973 Di Stefano convinced Callas to undertake an unfortunate international recital tour that was halted the following year because of vocal difficulties experienced by both singers.

In 1949 Di Stefano married Maria Girolami, with whom he had two children before they separated in 1980. In 1994 the tenor married Monica Curth and shared homes with her in Brianza and Diani, Kenya.