OPERA / The true story of Milva the diva: The nearsest that a cabaret singer gets to opera is a seat in the stalls. Unless, that is, they have a voice like Milva and an admirer like Luciano Berio. David Hirst on 'The Panther of Goro'

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The Independent Culture
For Giorgio Strehler to have cast Milva as Jenny in his 1973 revival of The Threepenny Opera at the Piccolo Teatro, Milan, was a bit like Peter Hall casting Shirley Bassey as Mother Courage at the National. Of course, Hall didn't, but Strehler did. It says a lot about him, Italian theatre and Milva, whose reputation is still, over 20 years on, something of a legend.

It's a legend she began as the 'Panther of Goro'. You might assume that Goro is a very appropriate place for a panther to come from. Actually it's in the Po valley, a suburb of Ferrara, and Milva's nickname is roughly the Italian equivalent of the 'Cheetah of Cleckheaton'.

It was in her early days as a pop singer, taking part in (though never winning) the annual competition at Sanremo and playing the dance-hall circuit, that Milva's mane of flaming red hair (now assisted by a regular application of henna) and her method of attack first earned her the title. As she is the 'Panther', so her (erstwhile) rival Mina is the so- called 'Tigress' (of Cremona). Between them, they divide the nation.

Milva (born pure and simple Maria Ilva Biolcati in 1940) has seized one half of the country's hearts as the local girl made good - singer, actress, to say nothing of 'opera star' - and as another example of the Cinderella - or, more accurately, Ugly Duckling - story. The other half of the country - the gay part - stays faithful to Mina, an equally celebrated vedette (but of prodigious size) who does not make public appearances but, rather more discreetly, an album a year.

Mina is a subtle chanteuse, with a wide repertoire and a remarkable command of English. She is immortalised in a marvellous short story by Fiorenzo Lancini in which the hero recalls his long sequence of unhappy love affairs in relation to her songs. Mina is all tenderness, sentimentality if you like - Milva all attack, all force. That's what real Italian men go for.

Not that Milva's earlier songs were lacking in sentimentality. She has never drawn back from pulling out the emotional stops. Her first big hit was called, surprisingly, 'Il mare nel cassetto' (which roughly translates as 'The water in my drawers') and she went on to other successes with 'Tango Italiano' and 'Stanotte al luna park' ('Tonight at the fairground'). As Vito Saturno has somewhat unkindly remarked: 'All the songs were the same - colourful and soulful, yes, but exploiting the same cliche. She pumped them out one after the other, demonstrating a total mastery of style but an unbelievable poverty of invention.'

So who is Milva, what is she that all the swains commend her? (Milva sings Schubert? Well, she is in fact thinking of a Schumann recital.) One swain - the critic Paul Griffiths - was particularly unimpressed by her Brecht recital at the Almeida in 1986, pointing out that the idea of a Berlin cabaret-style show was already a cliche and that Milva's performance was so wildly over the top that he couldn't take it seriously. Yet she has conquered Paris (she won them over with her Threepenny Opera in 1986) and is a great success in Germany - where, you might argue, they like that sort of thing. What sort of thing?

To answer this you have to consider the Italian tradition of acting and singing. Years ago, convinced that Strehler's production of Goldoni's Le baruffe chiozzotte was a masterpiece of naturalistic staging, I showed a video of it to a group of English students. They fell about laughing. All the screaming and shouting and the hand-waving was too much for them. That it was a model of understatement by Italian standards only serves to underline the cultural divide. If Milva, true to her roots, comes over as a panther, no one should be surprised.

The number three seems to haunt Milva; or is it just an obsession on the part of the critics? There are the three Bs in her musical life, as pointed out in La Repubblica last year: Brecht, Berio and Batti. Then there are the three 'voices' of Milva, as identified by the Gazzetta del Popolo in April 1976: Milva the pop singer, Milva the actress and Milva the diva.

It was Strehler who gave her the status of actress, though not straight off: he devised an evening exploiting her skills as a singer in 1965, then joined her himself in a Brecht soiree, before casting her in his Threepenny Opera. She had previously appeared in his production of Weiss's Song of the Lusitanian Bogey in 1970 (during his notorious 'divorce' from the Piccolo Teatro) but, apart from the Paris revival of The Threepenny Opera, she has not acted for him again. She did take on the role of Lulu in the Wedekind drama in 1986 (though with little success) and is currently appearing in a piece called The Story of Zaza. In 1968, when Olivier complimented her on her Brecht show in Rome, she commented disingenuously: 'Just think, he called me an actress. He doesn't know I'm the girl who sang 'Stanotte al luna park' and 'Tango Italiano'. ' Somehow I don't think Lord Larry was that unaware of her origins.

Another trio that haunts her life is that of her three men: her ex-husband Maurizio Corgnati, a radio and TV director whom she married when still a pop star; the actor Mario Piave, whom she met in 1968; and Massimo Gallerani, a much younger teacher of moral philosophy at Milan University, who became her companion in 1974.

The Italian press has never tired of exposing and exploiting her private life, not least the two suicide attempts: her own in 1969, when she created a scandal by appearing in public with her wrists covered in jewellery to hide the bandages, and that of Piave, who (unsuccessfully) took an overdose when she left him in 1974. This is what myths are made of. This and Strehler, the Italian Svengali and a dab hand at making silk purses out of sow's ears.

But what is she like as a performer? Very forceful, I'd say. I find her Weill and Eisler interpretations far too hard-hitting and remorseless. A fascinating exception is her 'Surabaya Johnny' (from Happy End), in which at every reprise of the culminating phrase - 'Take that pipe out of your mouth, you rat' - the last word (it is 'porco' in the Italian version) is given an increasing emphasis suggestive of ever-more unspeakable levels of masochistic indulgence.

I prefer her in the more popular repertoire: her version of Gershwin's 'The Man I Love' is all guts and 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina' could certainly teach most Lloyd Webber singers a thing or two.

Her show Canzoni tra le due guerre, an anthology of pieces - from Porter and Weill through popular Italian songs to 'Lili Marlene' - which she has been touring for over a decade, gives some idea of her range. It caused offence in Prague in 1979 since they felt 'Lili Marlene' a tasteless choice. Milva characteristically replied, 'During this period the Nazis had their songs too, so I can't see why it shouldn't be included.'

She has had great success both in Milan and Paris with Berio's opera La vera storia (The True Story), which she sings again at its UK premiere tomorrow. Here, in a part written especially for her, she is not a pop singer, not an actress, not a diva, but a cantastorie - a type of ballad singer, commenting on the events around her. Perhaps this role is nearest to the true Milva, a formidable woman with a wealth of theatrical and musical experience and a 'vera storia' all her own.

'La vera storia': tomorrow 7.30 RFH, South Bank, SE1 (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)