It is difficult to capture in a few words what makes an opera singer a diva, but a diva in the truer sense of the word, not in its altered meaning of someone temperamental, demanding, and entitled. Diva means, at its root, goddess. It implies a direct connection to the divine, a transcendental quality that enthralls and instills worship among fans. And when the human being behind the artist is as generous, noble-spirited, and rich in sentiments and humanity as her artistry, while remaining down-to-earth, that, to me, is what it means to be a true diva. That is the core essence of Aprile Millo, the legendary soprano who took the Metropolitan Opera and the entire operatic world by storm at a young age with a voice that awed and mesmerized countless spectators. I had the privilege of speaking with her, coupled with the joy of learning that she has several projects in discussion for her return to opera, which will be announced post-pandemic and will undoubtedly make her many fans happy.
You were only 20 years old when you won the Grand Prize at the Concorso Voci Verdiane which launched your operatic career. A Verdi soprano voice ready at a really young age is such a rarity! What was it about your voice that made it perfect for Verdi so early in your development?
By the time of the Verdi Grand Prize, I had already won the San Diego Opera competition which allowed me to work with Licia Albanese, Lee Strasberg, Beverly Sills, Tito and Gigi Capobianco. There as well I was confirmed a young Verdi soprano. My mother and father were both very accomplished opera singers prepared to protect me. They believe as do I, that a voice is what it is from birth. One has to be careful to let the body catch up, to grow up and not to push or sing too heavy but naturally and free. At nine, my voice was already placed and sounded like I was a 30 year old midget. Most marveled. I stayed calm. Verdi always felt like balm for the voice. Something about his message rang in my soul and the dramatic accents were natural and mixed equally, when called for by Verdi’s score, with ethereal piani… I found it easy.
I was trained to support a firm tone with great and slow air, to sing legato and never louder than needed. Happily, there is, naturally, some metal in my voice so it could be heard easily over an orchestra. Whenever I sang Verdi it would always be well-rehearsed, fully supported by Maestri aware of my talent. When the great composers wrote for singers like Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran or Adelina Patti, these early vocal creators of bel canto glories were all around 16 and 17 years of age. Their technique was sound, and they were allowed to mature in it. The same voices that sang Norma sang all the early Verdi. So, singing with a correct voice in a good technique is what protects the instrument. And a life that’s not crazy around music: rest, a careful diet, and well-spaced performances.
Your parents were your first voice teachers. What did you learn from them that served you well throughout your career?
I was very blessed to grow up in a talented family, my mom sounded like Claudia Muzio and my dad sounded like Caruso. They had gorgeous instruments and were very fine actors. At first as a bambina, I would see how my mother’s and father’s faces glowed, and became like in church, when they spoke about music. I thought, I want to go to that world they are seeing when they listen to music. What was that world? They introduced me to it, and I was and am madly in love with it. It was a glimpse of Paradise, a world in people’s hearts and in their hopes, a world of love and possibility, and service to a supreme being of great love and goodness. No wonder their faces changed. I decided to work with them whenever they were free and able to teach me. And slowly, wonderfully, I emerged.
I made sure to sing for the greats who could teach me to be the best I could be, including a fabulous teacher in New York: Rita Saponaro Patanè. She was a great friend whom I just lost two years ago, a decent woman of integrity and an impeccable music pedigree. She was also the beloved wife of the great Italian Maestro Giuseppe Patanè, a legendary Maestro in Italy and arguably one of the greatest ever. I recorded my first arias album for Angel EMI with him and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, an album for which I received many awards and accolades. David Stivender, the Mascagni scholar and head of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, was my coach and steadfast musical guardian at the Met. He and Rita taught me all early roles. I will never know how to thank them enough. And with James Levine, I had my trio of God’s protectors, and when it was His plan, I made my debut, and the rest was happy history.
That debut at the Metropolitan Opera happened for you at 26, as Amelia in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra.” Then you continued to sing at the Met: over 160 performances of 15 different roles. What does the Met mean for you, professionally and personally?
It is my home. I was 21 when I arrived in New York City, in a blistering snowstorm from the sunny shores of California where I had lived from age seven. The Metropolitan Opera is the place where all my dreams began and where they came true, a house of incredible history and sublime examples. Most of my role debuts happened there, with only the Vienna Staatsoper as the other opera house where I debuted roles. I was able to stride important eras at the Met. Leontyne Price was still singing. Renata Tebaldi and Zinka Milanov had retired but were still vibrant. I encountered Magda Olivero, Licia Albanese, Leonie Rysanek, Birgit Nilsson, Alfredo Kraus, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. I attended every night to see any opera just to be there soaking it all in.
The night of my debut the entire house was buzzing. It happened three weeks earlier than scheduled, as a colleague fell ill, and I had to substitute. The costume department whipped up something amazing for me, sewing in a part of a Tebaldi dress, and a little madonna inside for luck. Although I had had very little rehearsal, the directors were so supportive, if not a little scared. I remember saying to them, ‘It will be less than I want, but more than you will expect,’ and they embraced me afterwards saying, “You were right!!! You looked so comfortable.” I was. It was home, it was my chance to thank all those who believed in me and to excite an audience with what I hoped would be a love letter to the old school of singing… having grown up listening to my mom and dad, to Rosa Ponselle and Renata Tebaldi, Claudia Muzio and Maria Callas. The theater was packed, even in standing room. To say it was storybook would be accurate. Cinderella-like! My grandmother had died three months before, so I was sure she had had conversations in heaven for me, as this debut was a dream smash success with my mentor James Levine on the podium marking the beginning of my true career. So yes, the Met, the beautiful historical house with great people from the front to the back of the house, is my family. I pray for that gorgeous divine place every day.
You befriended and worked with some of the greatest singers of all time: Renata Tebaldi, Zinka Milanov, Licia Albanese, Magda Olivero, and Beverly Sills, and you carried the flame of their artistic traditions forward throughout your career. Your artistry is a bridge in the transition between the operatic past and the faster-paced, more visually–oriented, and technologically-savvy operatic present. How did the encounters with these iconic divas inspire you? How do you think opera has evolved today, and how can revisiting the operatic past help singers today?
Working with these great singers who then became great friends, meant the world to me. They knew so much. Milanov was always in the first row of every performance I did. Tebaldi and I studied in Italy. She was my idol. Working the role of Maddalena in Andrea Chenier with my all-time idol was like working with a deity… Licia, Magda, Beverly, all have colored my spiritual and vocal canvas. I also sang for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was an amazing inspirational teacher as well and compared me to Elisabeth Rethberg. She took me immediately to Maestro Herbert von Karajan, who arranged for me to record a test disc with DG and audition at La Scala which led to my debut there in 1982. Each of these ladies and divine singers gave me courage to continue the journey.
Opera is always in cycles. We go through periods of great singing and sometimes not so great. The voice is the central component in opera, the composer chose it to be the principal instrument; everything else supports it. Stages used to be built to promote and amplify the voice. The Maestri knew more about the voice, and how to keep the orchestra in check, turning it into a living breathing, nuanced, collaborator with the singers. Wagner, a great exponent of theater and staging, still protected his singers by covering over the orchestra pit in Bayreuth. Opera survives because the stories are fabulous, and the melodies are timeless, human, and compelling. When trusted and not dumbed down, they enchant. Singers today have a lot to deal with, in an opera world that’s more interested in presentation and effect, and in which the stage director’s name sometimes goes before the composer! Now opera is filmed more, and there is nothing wrong with that as an invitation, a way to say: see how wonderful this is? Come hear it and see it correctly: in the opera house, live! Seeing it up close, with producers tampering with sound, making small voices large and large voices small, is to me a little counterintuitive. But I must add, thank goodness that we have ways to see opera during this dreadful pandemic.
Singers need to constantly know what came before them. We are on a bridge of history, and they need to be aware of the former standards set in their voice categories and styles; very few have this knowledge today. The older singers went to hear each other. The Maestri were amazing. Some had worked with the composers. In the worlds of ballet and sports all know who was great before them. My great favorite, and recently tragically killed, all-time superstar Kobe Bryant knew what the expectation was of him from his knowledge of basketball history. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain inspired him to always be better. Why is this discouraged in young singers? No one can erase the past; they can become better as a result of their knowledge of it. So, I always say, listen to some great singers in your Fach, your vocal category and hear what they sounded like, how they treated the music, how they phrased. What words excited you in their singing? How did they make that line so beautiful, so even? Evenness in singing is so difficult to find today. There are people who yelp on high notes, and for me that makes it sometimes hard to hear what note they are on. Some voices are not as firm as I would like and they rattle sometimes, while the vibrato is out of control. The old school voices had melody. New singers can too. I root for all the young ones because they truly have it very difficult.
Looking back at your astounding career, what are you most proud of? Any regrets?
I am deeply grateful for it all. For the fabulous people I got to know and work with, for the places I have been to and audiences I have sung for, and for the glorious people all over the world that love it like I do. I’m very proud to be a part of it all and to have taken care of my voice enough to be singing still. My only regret is getting heavy.
In 2015, you launched the Operavision Academy that became an official summer program for Verdi’s city of Busseto. Please share with us your mission for this academy.
My young colleague, fabulous soprano Maria Vetere came to me with this amazing invitation to start a summer program. We are now in our soon to be 7th year and we are packed each year with wonderful young people from all over the world. I wanted it in Busseto, Italy, because I wanted them to experience where Verdi lived. That human being walked those streets, loved there, laughed and cried there and ultimately died there, in his beautiful home, Sant’Agata. You can see the piano and the room where he composed Aida and many of his great operas. There are seats in the garden and coaches in his stables that still show where he sat.
We also travel to visit Puccini’s house in Torre del Lago and see the piano where he composed his operas up against the wall where, on the other side, he is buried. Busseto is a location of great importance as it allows us to top the traditional study of music, vocal freedom, body work, and drama by aligning it with the possibility to envision these composers as human beings. Their music notes are more than just notes; they are part of their soul on paper brought to life by the voices of today! The young artists get to feel a part of history as they make their own, and they are never the same afterwards. One of them called it a “Disneyland for singers.” Every year we have been blessed to have the great bel canto champion, Richard Bonynge, working with us and conducting the final concert, which is so inspirational.
After a break, you returned to the New York stage in January of 2019 with a sold-out, critically acclaimed recital with New York City Opera at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. How did it feel to be back onstage again?
In 2009, I had sung a 25th anniversary concert of my time with the Opera Orchestra of New York at The Rose Hall at Lincoln Center, and in 2014 did another 25th anniversary concert with Teatro Grattacielo. That was also the year I made my return to opera debuting as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. Here, in New York I had not sung for 5 years. The January 2019 recital felt amazing, with all that “sold-out” energy and marvelous press coverage. I had had a great success in London at Cadogan Hall for the London Bel Canto Festival and so I was more than thrilled when asked to do this concert. It was very emotional and exciting. There is much more to come once this pandemic is resolved and people are safe. I’m looking forward to a post-pandemic announcement of all the lovely news soon. And I have been asked to write a book.
Top photo of Aprile Millo – Credit: J.Astor
Discover more about Aprile Millo on her website.