Of Cherubs & Chipmunks
Remembering Mirella Freni
The Mimi of our Time has left this world.
It is hardly next to never that I deem certain performers to be the greatest interpreter of particular roles, but the Italian soprano Mirella Freni was the Mimi of our Time. She was the greatest interpreter of the female lead role “Mimi” in Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera, “La Boheme”.
Quite frankly, the woman had no rivals or even comparisons singing that role. Freni WAS Mimi. Period. End of story.
I saw Mirella Freni sing on a live stage four times in all – 3 times in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, once in Vienna, Austria at the Vienna Staatsoper.
I met her once. This article relays the time I met the singer whom they dubbed “the last prima donna”.
The Cherub Who Filled The Met
It’s been said no matter how big a voice a singer may have, they won’t know if they will fill the Metropolitan Opera House until they are on stage there.
The Metropolitan Opera House is a truly massive place and is the largest building of its kind in the world. With its 6 levels of seating space (see image below) the Met can seat over 3,800 people at any given performance.
Although well reputed for its excellent acoustics, many singers are unsure their voices will fill the classical music venue like no other until they are physically present on stage. Some singers find their voices without thw assistance of a microphone fall short and are unable to sail above the orchestra’s competing wall of sound, failing to reach the furthest most row of seats. Other voices, bloom above and over everyone’s head where their sound can clearly and easily be heard all the way to the opera house’s last and highest row of its Dress Circle seats,
…like Mirella Freni’s voice.
The Met’s top row of seats or the ”Dress Circle” with another 5 floors of seating rows directly below it to the opera house’s main auditorium of seats located at the ground level. (Wikipedia.org)
Mirella Freni’s voice was a prime example of one of those “other” vocal instruments that bloomed over everyone’s heads and could cut right through to the furthest back, highest possible seats in the opera house.
The woman was nothing short of tiny, standing in at 5 feet 2 inches at the very most, but her voice was absolutely huge.
The Very Definition of “Italianate” Singing
As an opera singer, I was trained in the “Italianate” technique of singing. This technique demands that all consonant production be done only with the very front of the tongue without any use of the jaw. For the most part the tongue must always be in the same relaxed position when producing a vowel with the back of the tongue being arched up and resting against the furthest most row of back teeth in the upper jaw. The front of the tongue arches downward and rests along the gumline of the bottom jaw, as if hammered into it. If the tongue should ever need to leave its nestling place at the lower jaw’s gumline, it must do so stealthily fast, saying whatever consonant needs to be pronounced but returning back to the lower gumline immediately afterwards every time. This results in a connected sense of line and purity of vowel intonation. Additionally, one does not hear the voice “shift gears” when going from low to high register or vice versa. There is a constant sense of a vocal line that is seamless as well as uninterrupted.
Mirella Freni was like a textbook manual for this “Italianate” technique of singing. Every note she sang had a rounded fullness that was never pushed or forced whether in the high or low registers or whether triple forte or in the softest of pianissimos.
But none of this was known to me when I first became exposed to opera in the late 1980’s. Much to my regret I held off on seeing Ms. Freni perform while she was still singing her world famous interpretations of the role of Mimi in “La Boheme”, “How much vocal power can a person have who has the adorable face and button nose of a cherub?” I foolishly thought to myself back then.
I soon enough was shown the grave error of my ways when I first heard Mirella Freni sing live in her own element of Puccini in March of 1990.
It wasn’t “La Boheme” but it was a role she was just as well reputedly known for, Manon Lescaut in the Puccini opera by the same name.
It is the story of a young girl whose love of fine things forces her to experience her greatest fear – dying with nothing to her name after being homeless and exposed to the elements.
Mirella Freni singing the title character’s Death Scene from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”
What I remember most about Freni’s performance that night was how crisp her acting was due to being so vocally comfortable singing within her repertoire.
One could see the character’s materialism sink further and further into obsessive greed because it was made so undeniably clear from the singer’s masterful acting skills. I was surprised that I still felt sympathy for the title character by the time she was shipped off with a gaggle of prostitutes from France to the New World of Louisiana, Freni’s acting was that believable.
From that point on I knew I had to take full advantage whenever the opportunity arose to hear the great Mirella Freni sing in person.
In 1991, I heard Ms. Freni along with the world’s most prominent opera stars at that time perform at the Met’s Opera Gala concert. I earlier spoke of the Met’s furthest away, highest up seats because I had first hand experience – my seat for the Opera Gala was in the last row at the very top of the Met’s Dress Circle.
Mirella Freni sang the aria “Io son l’umile ancella” from Cilea’s opera, “Adriana Lecouvreur”. I can attest from direct experience of being in those nosebleed causing seats of the upper stratosphere that I clearly heard every note Ms. Freni lovingly sang that special night.
Below is a video from the Met honoring Mirella Freni’s career and it shows clips from her Opera Gala performance:
A video from the Metropolitan Opera celebrating the life of Mirella Freni, including clips from her moving performance at the Met’s Opera Gala which Brad attended in the highest nosebleed seats possible.
Mirella Freni made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in 1965. Alan Rich of the New York Herald Tribune had this to say about that performance:
Mirella Freni making her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme”, September of 1965
“Miss Freni is — well, ‘irresistible’ — will do for a start. Beautiful to look at, and actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence, she used voice and gesture to create a Mimì of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice itself is pure and fresh, operating without seam from bottom to top, marvelously colored at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text….The last act eclipsed in musicianship anything, all that had gone on before. Miss Freni spun out a small silvery thread of tone at the end until you felt, rather than heard, the intensity of it all … The audience all but tore the house down and may be at it still.”
Ms. Freni never had a thorough command over the English language where often she would speak ½ a sentence in English and resort to the latter half in Italian or would use rudimentary, generalized terms whenever she wanted to describe something. Its been said this was not the case with her Russian skills which can be directly attributed to her 2nd husband, the Bulgarian basso profundo, Nicolai Ghiaurov, whom Mirella married in 1978.
Mirella Freni and her husband, the Bulgarian basso profundo Nicolai Ghiaurov performing together in the Tchaikovsky opera,”Eugene Onegin” in 1986.
This would also account for the final time I heard Ms. Freni sing at the Vienna Staatsoper in the spring of 1992. At that point in her singing career, Mirella had decided to take on some of Verdi’s heavier dramatic parts such as Desdemona in “Otello” and no doubt because of Nicolai Ghiaurov’s influence she bravely undertook the works of a particular non-Italian composer, the Russian Maestro Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky.
While visiting Vienna, I knew I had to at least try to catch anything being performed at the Vienna Staatsoper. Not expecting to even land a ticket, I not only nabbed a last minute cancellation of a box seat that same evening to see Tchaikowsky’s opera “Pique Dame”, in English “The Queen of Spades” but much to my pleased surprise the female lead role of Lisa was being sung by none other than Mirella Freni.
Being unfamiliar with both the opera as well as the language it was written in, I was led to believe Ms. Freni’s performance was beyond admirable, going by the warm applause and cheers she received from the audience while taking her bow that night, with many of those attending being Russian diplomats I was later told
Either because of her moving performance at the Met Opera Gala or whether she had already been contracted to do so, the Metropolitan Opera launched a production of Francesco Cilea’s opera, “Adriana Lecouvreur” with Mirella Freni singing the title role in the spring of 1992.
After seeing her stellar performance I was determined to meet the show’s headline performer upon her exiting from the theater at the Met’s stage door.
The overall experience sums up Ms. Freni’s unassuming, non-diva like personality quite nicely.
First it must be mentioned how admired and well-liked Mirella Freni was among her operatic colleagues. She was noted for her professionalism and easy-going nature and wherever she went was accompanied with her warm “cute as a button” scrunch-nosed signature smile.
…except on the night Brad met her.
It was mid-March, 1992 and for those who are from New York it just as easily could have been the dead of winter, it was THAT cold outside. The house was in mid-applause of the company curtain calls when I made the decision to meet La Freni and could still hear clapping as I made my way out of the theater to head to the stage door located another 3 floors below ground level. Expecting to be the first to arrive, my hopes were immediately thwarted upon seeing who had already beat me to the punch – Lois.
I had dealt with Lois two years prior to that evening when I met one of my vocal idols, the great Shirley Verrett which I had written about in my tribute to her ljfe and career. Just as on that Valentine’s night in 1990, the cold was equally bitter and biting, except this time around, Lois had on her person at least two additional paper bags filled to capacity with paraphernalia for Mirella Freni to sign. I was thoroughly vexed.
Lois never displayed any camaraderie towards her fellow deranged opera fans. The only reaction made by the extremely tall 70 something Jewish woman with a winter coat made of thick individualized segments that made her look like the Michelin Man on a mission to kill was to move her head in my general direction as I made my way next to her to wait for Ms. Freni in my order-of-importance position of 2nd place. And going by the sheer number of stuffed paper bags surrounding her, Mirella Freni must have been one of Lois’ all time favorite singers.
15 minutes went by. Then 30. When it was nearing 45 minutes of wait time, a large limousine pulled up. The back door opened and the first thing I could ascertain was the grey fur of an ushanka atop a very tall, very miffed man. Going by the Abe Lincoln moustache-less beard, it could only be one person – Ms. Freni’s husband, fellow world famous opera singer Nicolai Ghiaurov. Going by the look on his intimidating Bulgarian face, Mr. Ghiaurov looked more than annoyed to not find his wife waiting for him, so he continued to stand upright against the limousine with its engine running as he, too , waited for Ms. Freni as well.
Another 20 minutes would pass. It appeared that Lois and I were the only opera fans disturbed enough to have been waiting the entire time since no one else stood behind me.
When Mirella Freni finally emerged from the stage door, she was a vision of loveliness, dressed in a sumptuous floor length mink coat and diamond earrings. Naturally, she noticed her waiting limo accompanied by her utterly-sick-of-waiting husband to which I heard her say “Caro” the Italian version of “Honey” as she held her hand up asking him to wait just as bit more while she tended to her fans. As with Ms. Verrett, Mirella Freni addressed the pit bull of opera fans by name, saying in her broken English “Ah Lo-ees, Buona Serra!” to which Lois responded in her gravel-like New York accent, “It’s an ‘onna (honor) to see you again, Ms. Freni. An absolute ‘onna.” while presenting her first shopping bag of things to sign followed by offering up a rather fine felt tip pen.
It must have been at item #10 or 11 that I was ripped from a very cold and very bored stupor to hear something I never thought possible – the voice of the sweet cherub-like Mirella Freni had suddenly taken an exasperated tone as I heard her exclaim “I-a NO SIGN!“, followed by her storming off, getting into the limousine with her husband behind her, and all parties driving away!
Lois and I had no time to even react because the limousine then proceeded to do a U-turn around the stage entrance with Ms. Freni before us once more.
Before concluding this piece, an extra aspect to the “Italianate” technique of singing must be mentioned. When singing the closing line of a piece that ends on an extended high note, it’s recommended that the singer should maintain the brightness of tone and not go flat by exposing one’s two front teeth.
The star soprano handed Lois back her expensive signing pen saying, “Perdoname (I’m sorry) Lo-ees. I-a no sign becuz I look like…ehm….how do you say? Oh yes. I look like Cheep-moonk (chipmunk).”
Vanity or an extra-diplomatic way of avoiding writer’s cramp and getting out of the freezing cold? You decide.
Mirella Freni then turned to me, took a longer-than-usual time signing my program, wished us both a Good Night, and left in her limo for good.
It wasn’t until I got home to see what the opera legend had actually written – “THANK YOU, MIRELLA”.
Once again, Mirella Freni had displayed to me, personally, her unassuming stellar sense of self.
1935 – 2020
**Brad Kronen is the author of over 30 books on both Astrology and History, which includes his astrological dating guides tailor made for every sign of the Zodiac entitled “Love in the Stars”. In honor of Ms. Freni, below is an image of the Pisces edition, her Sun Sign, which is available for purchase on amazon.com. Click on the image below to see a complete listing of all Brad’s published work: