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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.