Giuseppe di Stefano: Tenor who sang alongside Callas

Giuseppe di Stefano, with his dark, Sicilian good looks, and warm, velvet-toned tenor voice of an exquisite natural beauty, was liberally endowed with all the gifts an opera singer could hope to possess.

The generosity with which he used those gifts was part of his charm but, with little technique to support it, his voice inevitably suffered and began to show signs of over-use. The prodigality with which he spent the large amounts of money that he earned at the peak of his career meant that he was obliged to continue singing long after it would have been wiser to stop.

The extended concert tours of Europe, America and the Far East, undertaken with Maria Callas in 1973 and 1974, demonstrated the soprano's affection for the tenor with whom she had so frequently sung, both in the opera house and in the recording studio. Those tours are best forgotten, and the many marvellous performances given jointly by Callas and di Stefano during the 1950s remembered instead.

Born in a village near Catania, Giuseppe di Stefano made his entry into the world at midday on a Sunday when all the church bells were ringing. His early childhood was spent in Syracuse, then, when he was six, his parents moved to Milan. At the age of 14 he became an altar-server and choirboy at his parish church. Imagining that he might have a vocation for the priesthood, he attended a seminary but, having fallen in love with a Venetian girl, he soon left, "imitating without knowing it Massenet's Des Grieux".

While working for a newspaper seller, he was taken by a friend to hear his first opera, Turandot, at La Scala with Lauri Volpi as Calaf. The 16-year-old di Stefano was not much impressed, but after a second visit, to hear Gigli in Poliuto, he decided that he must become an opera singer himself. He won a competition for young voices, singing "Amor ti vieta" from Fedora in the qualifying round and in the finals at Florence. Being under 18, he was unable to take up the scholarship prize, but two benefactors paid for him to take lessons with Adriano Tecchio, a tenor in the Scala chorus.

Di Stefano had just started to study with Luigi Montesanto, a well-known baritone and teacher when, early in 1941, he was called up for military service. He became a medical orderly at Alessandria; when the regiment was ordered to Russia, the army doctor who was his superior, a great music lover, arranged for the young orderly to remain in Italy, thereby saving his life. While on sick-leave in Milan, the tenor, under the name "Nino Florio", sang at the Odeon and other restaurants.

In September 1943, after the capitulation of Italy, the Germans ordered all military personnel to return to barracks; di Stefano prudently took a train to the Swiss border, wading across the river that marked the frontier at Ponto Tresa. He spent the rest of the war interned in Switzerland. At his first camp, the tenor had to lift potatoes, but soon he was entertaining his compatriots in other camps and then, allowed out on parole, he was given his own programme, "Au pays du soleil", on Radio Lausanne.

With the war in Europe over, di Stefano returned to Milan to take up the lessons, begun five years before, with Montesanto. But the young tenor was impatient to start his career; against the advice of his teacher, he made his début on 20 April 1946 at Reggio Emilia, singing Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon. Other engagements soon followed in Venice, Barcelona and at the Rome Opera where, early in 1947, he sang Elvino (La sonnambula), Nadir (Les Pêcheurs de perles), and Des Grieux again, in place of Lauri Volpi, who had had a disagreement with the management. This incident, widely reported in the American press, resulted in di Stefano's engagement at the Metropolitan, New York, the following season. Meanwhile, less than a year after his début, he appeared on the august stage of La Scala for the first time, singing Des Grieux.

Di Stefano's voice at this time was a lyric tenor of great beauty, especially well suited to the French repertory; as well as Nadir and Des Grieux he sang Faust, Wilhelm Meister (Mignon) and Werther. His Italian repertory included Rossini's Almaviva, Edgardo (Lucia di Lammermoor), Alfredo (La traviata) and the Duke (Rigoletto), his début role at the Metropolitan in 1948. Returning regularly to the Met for the next four seasons, he also sang Rodolfo (La Bohème), Fenton (Falstaff), Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi), Nemorino (L'elisir d'amore) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) there.

It was during a visit to Sao Paolo in September 1951 that di Stefano first sang with Maria Callas, in La traviata. The following spring they appeared together again at Mexico City, in I puritani, followed by La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and Tosca. In December 1952 they made a first joint appearance at La Scala in La Gioconda. During 1953 they sang Lucia in Florence and Genoa and, in January 1954, at La Scala.

That summer they appeared in Boito's Mefistofele at the Verona Arena while, in November, di Stefano made his Chicago début as Edgardo with Callas as Lucia; the following year they returned to Chicago for I puritani and Madam Butterfly. The opening night of La traviata (di Stefano only sang one performance, owing to a dispute with Callas over curtain calls), staged by Luchino Visconti at La Scala in May 1955, was followed by visits to Berlin and Vienna in 1956 with Lucia. Callas and di Stefano last sang together at La Scala in Un ballo in maschera in 1957.

Those six years were undoubtedly the most successful of di Stefano's career, but they also carried within them the seeds of his premature vocal decline. The publicity and razzmatazz surrounding a Callas performance must have exerted tremendous pressure on the tenor to stake his own claim to notoriety. It was during this period that he began to sing roles basically too heavy for his voice, when its gorgeous tone-quality first showed signs of wear and tear: compare the live recordings of La traviata at Mexico City in 1952 and Lucia at Berlin in 1955 (inspired performances by both artists) with that of Un ballo in maschera at La Scala in 1957. The tenor's voice is still in excellent condition, but the tone has darkened considerably and there is a slight sense of strain.

Di Stefano made his British début at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957 as Nemorino, one of his finest lyric roles and one in which he demonstrated his ability as a delightful comic actor. Already by then, the peach-like bloom on the voice was spoiled by singing roles such as Don José, Enzo, Cavaradossi, Riccardo and Calaf; later he added Canio, Turiddu, Radames, Loris and Alvaro (La forza del destino) to his repertory. Having made his Covent Garden début as Cavaradossi in 1961, he returned two seasons later as Rodolfo. In 1965 he went back to the Met for a single performance of Les Contes d'Hoffmann. It was in Berlin the following year that he first sang Sou Chong, the so-called "Tauber role" in Léhar's operetta Das Land des Lachelns, which became his war-horse during the latter part of his career.

Di Stefano made 10 complete commercial opera recordings with Callas between 1953 and 1957. Of these the best are Tosca (possibly the best opera recording ever made) and Un ballo in maschera, in which he sings Riccardo with exhilarating spirit and panache. Lucia, La Bohème, Manon Lescaut and Rigoletto are also very enjoyable, while Il trovatore, because Manrico is too heavy for him, has a melancholy interest.

In 1999, Robert Sutherland published Diaries of a Friendship, his account of di Stefano and Callas's disastrous recital tour of 1973-74, for which he was the accompanist. Callas and di Stefano had become lovers, although their relationship both on and off the stage was tempestuous, and Sutherland recounted that di Stefano would provoke Callas into a rage because he thought it made her sing better, although it "simply caused her a great deal of unnecessary distress," said Sutherland. He contrasted the methods of the two: "She spent her career searching for perfection. He believed he was born with it." After the tour, Callas never again sang in public.

In 1989 di Stefano published L'arte del canto; although art was not a quality he brought to his own singing, whose greatest virtue lay in its naturalness, the central section of the book, "Adventures of a young tenor", gives a fascinating and hilarious account of di Stefano's life up to that moment when he sat in his dressing-room at La Scala in 1948 waiting to make his first entry and heard the fateful words: "Third call – third call".

Elizabeth Forbes

Giuseppe di Stefano, opera singer: born Motta Santa Anastasia, Italy 24 July 1921; married 1949 Maria Girolami (one son, and one daughter deceased), 1994 Monica Curth; died Santa Maria Hoe, Italy 3 March 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee