She was considered Herbert von Karajan’s favorite singer, was a friend of Maria Callas, and grew up with Luciano Pavarotti: Mirella Freni.
At the age of ten, after winning a singing competition, Mirella was advised to protect her voice: That way she would become a great singer one day, tenor Beniamino Gigli prophesied to her. She followed the advice: Mirella didn’t sing for many years, leaving her voice enough space to develop.
Debut as a teenager
At the age of 19, Freni made her debut at the Teatro Communale in Modena: she played the role of Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen. Following the advice from her childhood years had paid off: Freni was celebrated.
It wasn’t easy for Mirella to wait so long to sing: the desire to finally perform grew stronger in her teenage years. But she always remembered the advice that the tenor Gigli had given her…
The ability to know the limit of her own voice accompanied Freni throughout her career. She didn’t sing roles that would ruin her voice.
Once Karajan invited her to sing the title role in Turandot (Giacomo Puccini). It was an offer that did not come in every day: The honor of singing under Maestro Karajan was not given to every singer.
But Freni turned it down: she was convinced that the role of Turandot was beyond her vocal range.
One of the secrets behind Freni’s decades-long singing career was not to accept the first available engagement. Even if the offer came from Karajan.
It was not economic interests that came first, nor the prestige of a role, but the music and the quality of what was performed.
It was not without reason that Mirella Freni was christened La Prudentissima (the careful singer) by Italian opera lovers.
After her successful debut, she did everything in her power to gain more experience in the opera world: in 1961, she took on the role of Nanetta in Falstaff (Giuseppe Verdi) for a performance at Covent Garden London.
A year later she made her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart).
On January 31, 1963, a new production of La Bohème premiered at Teatro alla Scala: Herbert von Karajan conducted, Franco Zeffirelli directed. The role of Mimì was played by Mirella Freni.
Herbert von Karajan was enthusiastic about Freni’s voice – from then on he became an influential supporter of the Italian soprano.
That production also made a guest appearance in Vienna on November 3, 1963 – but not without incident:
When the Vienna State Opera union noticed that Karajan had hired not only the entire Scala ensemble but also the maestro suggeritore, the conductor’s assistant from Italy, Karajan and the union broke up: Karajan was already on his way to his conductor’s podium and the Austrian president had taken his seat when the strike order came.
No performance took place that evening – but that was in no way to hinder the career of Mirella Freni.
Flop or hoax?
One year later, a small shadow came across her rising star: Karajan had the idea to initiate a new production of Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi). Karajan’s last new production of the Traviata went anything but well: it was 1957 when Maria Callas agreed with Herbert von Karajan to sing the Traviata seven times during the festival summer. When the contract was to be signed on May 4, 1957, no agreement could be reached: Karajan had to stage the Traviata without Maria Callas.
With these forecasts, Karajan made a new attempt – this time Mirella Freni was to sing Violetta. The maestro was convinced that Mirella Freni was the right one for the Violetta. But again the maestro had no luck with his new production: there were no contractual difficulties, but Mirella Freni was booed, the audience did not appreciate her interpretation. Later, Mirella Freni made insinuations that it had been a hoax: She was pelted with all sorts of objects from the audience that opera-goers usually didn’t bring to the opera. It was to remain the only flop in Mirella Freni’s decades-long career.
Herbert von Karajan was not dissuaded by this flop and continued to support the soprano: The year 1963 marked the beginning of a 17-year musical collaboration between Karajan and Freni, which manifested itself in particular through numerous recordings.
Transition to dramatic roles
In 1964 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimì in La Bohème: with this debut she achieved international fame. The role of Mimì became her signature role from then on.
In the following years she sang many roles at the Metropolitan Opera until 1968, when she decided to perform mainly in Europe. Herbert von Karajan suggested that she move on to dramatic roles. This was in particular aimed at the role of Desdemona in Verdi’s opera Otello. Freni followed the suggestion, to the surprise of the opera world. Until then she had been known mainly for singing “lighter” roles – now she reinvented herself as a dramatic soprano….
She succeeded: in 1975 she played Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlos (Verdi) and in 1979 Aida in Verdi’s opera of the same name. Both roles were demanding and required a lot of training and endurance from a soprano.
The acting aspect of opera was not neglected in her career either: in 1974 she appeared on camera with Plácido Domingo for the opera film Madama Butterfly – with Karajan conducting.
When Freni turned down Karajan’s offer to sing Turandot in 1980, the two musicians broke up: They did not work together again after 1980.
In the nineties, Freni decided to add a new operatic style to her repertoire: The Verismo. This style of Italian opera had its heyday between 1890 and 1920, and Freni shone in roles such as the title role in Adriana Lecouvreur (Francesco Cilea) or the role of Caterina Hubscher in Madame Sans-Gêne (Umberto Giordano). In the nineties, the soprano once again succeeded in adding a new style to her repertoire.
In a 1990 interview Mirella Freni said:
“People ask me all the time what is my secret, what is the magic? Why am I still here? I love and respect my instrument. I was born with an instinct for what is right, the correct technique, and I have worked on that mostly myself.”
In 2005, at the age of 70, Mirella Freni sang in a production of The Maid of Orleans (Tchaikovsky) at the Washington National Opera. That same year, the Metropolitan Opera held a gala to celebrate 50 year-long opera career. It was her farewell to the opera stage.
Together with her husband, bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, Mirella Freni established the Centro Universale de Bel Canto in Vignola (in the province of Modena), where opera singers of all registers were trained. From 2002 the couple taught master classes here.
Mirella Freni is not without reason considered one of the most influential sopranos of the second half of the 20th century: her fifty-year career is unparalleled. In addition, there is the diversity of her repertoire: with roles such as Mimì in La Bohème, Verdi’s Aida and Adriana Lecouvreur, Mirella Freni covered large parts of European opera. But Freni did not shy away from Russian opera either: Tchaikovsky operas such as Eugene Onegin were equally part of her repertoire, which included a total of over 40 operatic roles. Thanks to over 30 complete recordings of operas, Mirella Freni remains unforgotten by her audience to this day and continues to win the hearts of opera lovers even after her passing.
Simon von Ludwig
Cover picture: Mirella Freni (far right) with Luciano Pavarotti (center) and conductor Ino Savini (far left) during rehearsals for I Puritani (Bellini) in March 1969
© Gibi Savini, Ino Savini – Luciano Pavarotti – Mirella Freni, ‚I Puritani‘ Bologna 1969-03-18
Cropped by von Simon von Ludwig, CC BY-SA 4.0
The main source is the documentary “Mirella Freni – A Life Devoted To Opera”, 2010 Arthaus Music