"Miss Cerquetti, who was just 26, had already impressed opera lovers in the United States, making her debut with the Chicago Opera in 1955, singing the role of Amelia in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” But while replacing Callas thrust her to a new level, it also took a toll.
For a time, Miss Cerquetti pulled off an unlikely twin billing — alternating standing in for Callas in Rome and performing the role in Naples, more than 100 miles away. In mid-January, suffering from what a psychiatrist called “nervous exhaustion,” she backed out of Bellini’s “The Pirate,” at the Palermo Opera. A psychiatrist, citing her heavy workload, prescribed sedatives and 20 days of rest.
She went on to noted performances at La Scala in Milan and elsewhere, and on Italian radio broadcasts, but just three years after those tumultuous days at Teatro dell’Opera, she abruptly retired and all but disappeared.
This time, it was Miss Cerquetti who faced questions. Had her voice failed? Did she have neurological issues? Heart problems? She blamed fatigue.
“I was very tired because I couldn’t sleep at night and during the day I sang,” Miss Cerquetti said in a 1996 interview with Stefan Zucker
, president of the Bel Canto Society, an organization devoted to the history of opera singing. “It got to the point where I had absolute need of physical rest. Above all, I needed to sleep. This was from stress. But, thank God, my vocal cords remained intact and have remained so until today. This is the truth.”
She added: “So many things were said, understandably, because I had left my career at its most beautiful moment. It’s only natural that people asked why. And since everyone needed a reason, each one invented his own.”
Critics praised her natural talent but saw room for refinement, pointing out what at times was noticeably heavy breathing.
“Miss Cerquetti’s recorded performance of arias by Verdi, Bellini, Spontini and Puccini leaves no doubt that her voice is a remarkable instrument,” John Briggs wrote in The New York Times in 1957 in a review of “Operatic Recital by Anita Cerquetti,” one of a small number of commercial recordings she made. “Whether it is being used with skill is another question.”
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"But in 1961, after a so-so performance of Verdi’s Nabucco,
she dropped out of sight and was never seen or heard on an operatic stage thereafter. For decades, the rumors spread that she had lost her voice due to inadequate training and over-exposure, singing roles too heavy for her too soon and too often. Cerquetti herself stayed silent most of the time, but occasionally issued public statements that this wasn’t altogether true, that she was under heavy emotional stress at the time because her father was dying (which was true) and that she chose not to return to the stage because she didn’t like many of the newer “conceptual” productions which she found distasteful. But of course, this didn’t satisfy the legions of Cerquetti fans who just wanted her to sing again, period, regardless of the cost to her.
Eventually, decades later, she revealed the whole story. Around the time her father died, she had married and had a daughter. By the time her daughter was four years old, her voice had returned to its former glory. But because she had been so young and perhaps because so much was expected of her due of the extraordinary quality of her voice, she was very self-critical. “After a performance,” she said, “I would go back to my hotel room and relive the whole day over again. Did I warm up properly, or enough? What did I do right in the performance? What did I do wrong, and why did it go wrong? How could I prevent that from going wrong in the next performance? It was all very stressful. After 1965, I was offered many chances to return. A few times, I almost gave in. But then I thought to myself, To return under the gun? Enough! (Basta!)”
Italy in the 1950s and very early 1960s was a testing-ground for the kind of operatic programming that neither they nor any other country has done before or since, a mixture of standard repertoire …