Skip to main content

Renata Scotto, 89, Star Soprano Who Seamlessly Merged Singing and Acting, has Died

Scotto as Violetta in Traviata
Scotto as Violetta in Traviata


RENATA SCOTTO, who died on August 16 at the age of eighty-nine, was a star of the world’s leading opera houses for four decades, noted as a distinctive and versatile interpreter of a vast repertoire, a vocal virtuoso who was also one of the true “singing actors” in the field. After her international breakthrough in florid bel canto roles, the soprano put her personal stamp on a nucleus of standard works by Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti. Scotto gradually embraced other Italian roles of diverse periods and styles, also venturing into French, Russian and German repertoire. She left a legacy of more than one hundred audio and video recordings.

Scotto was born in a working-class neighborhood in the coastal town of Savona, Italy, thirty-eight miles west of Genoa, on February 24, 1934. Her mother, Santina, was a seamstress and her father, Giuseppe, a policeman. Her 1986 memoir, More than a Diva, recalls a childhood marked by wartime hardship, poverty and work; she had to assist her mother with needlework, and she later said that the family’s main room would have fit into a stretch limousine. A constant theme was her love of singing. As a child, she sang for neighbors in exchange for sweets, as well as at home, along with the radio, and in church; by the age of twelve she had resolved on an opera career. 

At sixteen, Scotto began a four-year residence in a Milan convent, where she worked as a seamstress in exchange for room and board along with regular schooling. Outside the convent, besides private piano lessons, she studied singing, first with baritone Emilio Ghirardini and then with a teacher identified in her memoirs as “Professor Merlini.” After a trial Violetta in La Traviata in Savona in 1952, she made her debut at the Teatro Nuovo, Milan, in the same role in 1953. Soon thereafter she sang the title role in Madama Butterfly in provincial opera houses and bowed at La Fenice in Venice as Micaela in Carmen. 

Following a successful audition with conductor Carlo Maria Giulini, she made her debut at La Scala, Milan, in December 1954, in the trouser role of Walter in Catalani’s Wally. She claimed to have received more curtain calls than the headliners, Renata Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco. When management offered her only secondary roles, Scotto boldly left La Scala, declaring, “I will be a prima donna or nothing.” This was the first of several breaks she was to make with opera companies after treatment she considered unfair, or in pursuit of career advancement. She appeared soon thereafter at the San Carlo Theater in Naples, in the role of Butterfly. She widened her repertoire in other Italian opera houses in the 1950s, in such operas as The Queen of Spades, La Serva Padrona, Der Freischütz and Khovanshchina.

The year 1957 proved decisive in Scotto’s career. She made her first recording, singing the role of Glauce in Cherubini’s Medea in a cast headed by Maria Callas, and she scored a great success during La Scala guest performances at the Edinburgh Festival, replacing Callas on short notice in Bellini’s Sonnambula. “That performance changed my life,” she stated in her memoirs. “I got to replace a great diva, and my success was noted. I became a celebrity, I could choose my roles, I felt more responsibility, and I began to grow as an artist.”

Her London debut also occurred in 1957, at the Stoll Theatre, where her repertoire included Mimì, Donna Elvira, Adina and Violetta. On advice from Alfredo Kraus, whom she encountered in Venice around this time, she began to study with his teacher, Spanish soprano Mercedes Llopart, who helped Scotto to overcome some vocal difficulties and gave her useful advice about repertoire.

The Sonnambula triumph was followed by leading parts in major La Scala productions, along with her starring roles in recordings of Lucia di Lammermoor (1959) and Rigoletto (1960). Those early issues reveal a richly colored, pliant lyric-soprano timbre with sufficient range and dexterity to handle the sustained high notes, trills and runs of so-called coloratura roles. Decades later, Anna Netrebko spoke glowingly of Scotto’s recorded Rigoletto, saying, “Everything is there—the middle voice, the heaviness, the line, the top notes, the holding piano. Nobody else can do it right now.” Even at this stage, Scotto was also adept at the “verismo” style of certain Puccini heroines. Her American debut occurred in 1960 in Chicago, as Mimì in La Bohème. She reached Covent Garden two years later as Butterfly, and would return to that house in later years.

A crucial event in the period was Scotto’s marriage, on June 2, 1960, to Lorenzo Anselmi, first violinist in the La Scala orchestra, who gave up his instrumental career to become her coach and manager. The couple eventually had two children and took up residence in the U.S. Scotto relied on her husband’s artistic advice throughout her career. They studied and rehearsed her roles together, and he served as conductor on two of her recordings of musical excerpts.

After an ecstatically received Lucia during La Scala’s visit to Moscow in 1964, Scotto made her Metropolitan Opera debut in Madama Butterfly on October 13, 1965, initiating a twenty-two-year-long association with the company and a warm bond with its audiences. She became frustrated, however, with the limited repertoire offered to her by general manager Rudolf Bing and stayed away from the company for a season. Bing’s successors invited her back to the Met in 1974 for a highly successful revival of Verdi’s Vespri Siciliani. In 1976, Scotto became the first singer to appear as all three heroines of Puccini’s Trittico in a single Met performance, and eventually her Met repertoire totaled twenty-five roles, representing composers from Mozart, Bellini and Meyerbeer to Ponchielli and Zandonai. 

After her Met farewell in 1987, and until her retirement from the stage in 2002, she assumed new soprano or mezzo-soprano parts elsewhere, including the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Klytämnestra in Elektra and the heroine of Poulenc’s Voix Humaine. She went on to coach young singers (including Netrebko, in 2002, in preparation for Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi) and conducted highly acclaimed master classes. Scotto also designed costumes for several opera productions and served until 2010 as stage director in Europe and the U.S. of more than ten operas.

DURING HER PRIME, the arc of her singing career encompassed all soprano categories, from light coloratura to lyric, spinto and dramatic parts, a versatility that she attributed to vocal discipline, sound assessment of her capabilities as her voice matured, and painstaking study in partnership with her husband. She recorded several of her key roles twice, several years apart, displaying growth in characterization along with striking contrasts in style, as she moved from freewheeling virtuosity to stricter adherence to the written score. In studio recordings she preferred to work in long, uninterrupted takes, “closer to the feeling one gets in the theater.” 

Throughout her career, encompassing some fifty roles, Scotto merged her singing and acting seamlessly, achieving convincing, sympathetic dramatic portraits. Vitality and subtlety were the keynotes. A panoply of physical gestures and vocal nuances contributed to the dramatic impact and to the depth of her characterizations. Perhaps most typical of her vocal and visual acting, and her warmth as a performer, was the illumination of characters’ inner lives, their restrained feelings and cherished hopes—even her heroines’ “mad” scenes, in which she stressed fantasy more than frenzy and seemed to be hearing some far-off music all her own. Very often it’s her softest singing that achieves the major impact, just as her barely perceptible facial expressions convey such feeling. In videotaped performances as Butterfly, Mimì or Violetta, she exerts a mesmerizing impact as she listens intently to other characters and reacts visually, with mute eloquence. 

At the same time, her singing typified kinetic energy, with a vital pulse even at pianissimo level. Although her tone had more gleam in her early years, Scotto’s technical control, nearly three decades after her first recordings, held firm. Her televised concert performance of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in 1984, kept the audience spellbound to the end, with its haunting, perfectly floated high D-flat. Her 1977 recording of Nabucco, with Riccardo Muti, puts fast fioriture as well as harsh tone to dramatic use. The soprano consistently infused realism into bel canto style, and conversely she aspired to a certain classical purity—no “lazy and rude” glissandos, as she put it—in singing Puccini or Cilèa.

One of Scotto’s richest, most balanced accomplishments was undoubtedly her Cio-Cio-San, the role of her Met debut and her Met farewell, and a pillar of her career. (She also served as stage director of Madama Butterfly during her final Met season.) Her 1965 house debut inspired widespread commentary, including this excerpt from Ira Siff’s retrospective essay in OPERA NEWS: “With her Cio-Cio-San, [Scotto] seemed to bring back the Italian tradition—already, even then, being lost to international casting and big record labels—yet fuse it with a modern theatrical sensibility. In other words, her performing style was timeless—and entirely her own.”