Serafina Di Leo

Operatic soprano and film actress
Click to follow

Serafina di Leo, opera singer and actress: born New York 7 May 1912; married 1945 Major Adrian Fitzpatrick Cooke (died 1957; one daughter); died Bognor Regis, West Sussex 23 October 2007.

Serafina Di Leo was a very successful opera singer during the 1930s and 1940s, both in her native America and in Europe. She had a strong, vibrant soprano voice, ideal for many of Verdi's heroines and also for those of other 19th- and 20th-century Italian and French composers. In addition, she was an excellent actress, and after she stopped singing in the 1950s, she appeared in several films, including The Singer Not the Song (1961), starring John Mills and Dirk Bogarde.

Born in 1912 in New York City, Serafina was the daughter of first-generation Sicilian immigrants. At the age of 16 she knocked on the door of the Manhattan apartment of Giovanni Martinelli to ask for a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera for La Juive, in which the tenor was appearing. The door was answered by the singer's wife, who asked her why she was so keen to hear the opera; Serafina answered that one day she would be singing in it herself. Intrigued, Signora Martinelli asked the girl to sing, and was very impressed by her voice. She arranged for various rich, opera-loving patrons of her acquaintance to pay for Serafina to study in Italy.

Di Leo stayed in Italy for nearly three years, and in 1930 made her début as Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore at La Scala, Milan. There she was heard by the director of the Chicago Civic Opera, who engaged her to sing Leonora the following year. Her American début took place in November 1931 and according to Time magazine, the 19-year-old soprano woke up the next morning famous and with a five-year contract with the Civic Opera.

This contract did not materialise, however, for in 1932 Di Leo, after singing Leonora in Boston, returned to Italy, which remained her base until the end of the Second World War.

During her first two seasons in Italy she appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Amsterdam, singing among other roles Verdi's Aida, Puccini's Tosca and Maddalena in Giordano's Andrea Chénier. These were all examples of the full-blooded Italian roles in which she excelled, but in Amsterdam she also sang two Mozart roles: Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Back in Italy she sang the Trovatore Leonora in Naples and another, equally passionate Leonora, in Verdi's La forza del destino. After Tosca at La Fenice in Venice, she sang Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in Rome.

Di Leo also took part in several premieres of new operas, including Ghedini's Maria d'Alessandria at Bergamo in 1937 and Wolf-Ferrari's La dama boba at La Scala in 1939. That year she visited Spain, and sang Aida in Barcelona and San Sebastian, as well as Massenet's Manon in Madrid. An entirely new departure was Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, in which she sang Isolde (almost certainly in Italian) at Parma.

Continuing to sing in Italy throughout the Second World War, Di Leo was in Venice in 1945. There she met a British officer, Adrian Fitzpatrick Cooke. They found themselves going to the same party in the same gondola, and were married three weeks later.

After her marriage, Di Leo sang only sporadically. She appeared with the New London Opera Company at the Cambridge Theatre in 1947. Its repertory included Tosca, La Bohème and Don Giovanni. Then in March 1952 she acquired a new Verdi role, Abigail in Nabucco. The opera, not performed in Great Britain since the 19th century, was put on by the Clydach & District Operatic Society in Powys, mid-Wales; Tom Williams, the baritone who sang Nabucco, was a professional, but the conductor, Dai Maddocks, was the local window cleaner. The performance was apparently a huge success. The same year she made a guest appearance in Trieste and in 1955 she sang Isolde in Bari.

In 1960, the year that Di Leo appeared as Jasefa in The Singer Not the Song, she also took the part of Senora Zumara in the Hammer horror film The Curse of the Werewolf (which is set in Spain), directed by Terence Fisher and starring Oliver Reed. After suffering the terrible fates that lie in store for so many operatic heroines, Serafina Di Leo would not have turned a hair at a mere horror film.

Elizabeth Forbes