As Maria Callas' maestro of choice during the second part of her career,
Nicola Rescigno was also her mentor, as he put it, her "Father Confessor".
I was fortunate indeed to have been the recipient of many of the musical
traditions that they shared when he decided to teach me all of the same
repertoire. We worked together in depth for sixteen years.
Nicola fell in love with singers as a small boy when the Italians who
came to perform at the Metropolitan Opera were always asked to Sunday
lunch around the kitchen table in New York. His father had been invited
over from Rome by Toscanini as principle trumpet in the newly formed
orchestra. First though, Rescigno had to complete his education with the
Jesuits in Rome and then qualify as a lawyer, "after which I told my father
what I was really going to do with my life."
Callas had heard the reputation of this "young lawyer" as a conductor and
wanted to work with him, and after singing Lucia with Karajan at La Scala
where she "told him how it went," began performances with Nicola and
from then on "she usually took whatever I said." He was a meticulous
musician, a lion in the pit with a real gift for helping a singer through
difficult phrasing, yet always scrupulously adherent to the score and its
When he opened the first season at the Lyric Opera of Chicago the board
would not pay the fee of a second Maestro and Rescigno funded this out
of his own pocket, so insistent was he that the season would be one to
which all the world would come....and they did.
"The opening of the second act duet of Norma was such that when
Simionato sang her first long phrase with a trumpet-like sound and legato,
I saw Maria (then in her blond period) looking more and more astonished,
wondering what she could do to better it, and when she began her own
entrance, transformed her sound into a half-spoken whisper of a voice,
as the only way in which she could trump the Mezzo."
The following night at the opening of Aida with Serafin and Tebaldi, Maria
and Nicola sat in the front row of the balcony as Tebaldi "ground her way
through the Nile Scene" when Maria decided that she wanted to go to bed.
They climbed over everyone to get out and were halfway up the gangway
whenshe realised that she had lost her glove, so "we climbed back again
and everyone spent the rest of the Nile Scene looking for Maria's glove.....
in the front row of the balcony."
His reminiscences were incomparable and fascinating and he would tell me
during lessons how for instance, the Schicchi aria 'O Mio Babbino Caro'
was played as a joke in the first performance, instead of the tragedy that
we see now. One day when I was having trouble grasping the style of the
sleepwalking scene in Macbeth he went to the library and said "Well you'd
better hear how it goes" and played me his own legendary recording with
Callas which, with its spooky atmosphere and extraordinary line was
recorded in a single take, and although "she wanted to redo the top note
or something" Walter Legge wouldn't allow a single change. It remains
unedited, as a testament to their almost metaphysical musical union.
He was a terrific cook and would prepare lunch from 10am onwards while I
practised, sending me upstairs afterwards for a siesta in the room next to
his, having first shared a banana together. We would then work from 4
onwards. He was also a great wag, and one Sunday morning at the age of
85 collected meoff the train saying "let's elope!" and then drove off to buy
Porchetta, backing us into the wall of some Mediaeval castle on the way.
Wonderfully generous with his advice and help, he prepared me in the
transition from mezzo soprano to Spinto for weeks at a time and over
many years, in all of the repertoire that he felt was right for me and
which, to my amazement, suited my voice. It was the greatest voyage
and I had the finest pilot and guide. As he said once when I puzzled over
some tempo change which was not written "This goes right back to the
early 19th century", and proceeded to teach me Pirata, Norma, Bolena,
Tosca, Maddalena, Dinorah, Adriana, Desdemona, Medea, Lucrezia and
many more of the great Italian lyric roles along with arias for concerts,
and Intermezzi rarely heard in this country. Initiating me into his favourite
Neapolitan Songs with an impeccable accent and explaining the reasons
for the obscure language, Nicola said that all the Greats sang them and
that I must too.
I could ring him for advice at any time, or try out Turandot in the garden
while he conducted waving a cigarette as baton, and for his 90th birthday
I sang the Cavalleria aria among his roses while Giulietta Simionato, in
sparkling form at 92 completed the last phrase for me. His words never
leave me:- "You have been given Susan, a great responsibility and
inheritance which I hope you will bring to others and use for them,
continuing these traditions in this great period of music.I hope I've been
helpful to you in being able to show you these things, and I hope that
you can be of help to others through singing these things well."
Susan Daniel Rignano Flaminia, Roma. 8 August, 2008.