The name Franco Corelli is often mentioned in the same breath as Fritz Wunderlich: Both are considered the most important tenors of the 20th century and set standards in the opera world that are still valid today.
When he was young, Tito Gobbi gave a concert in Corelli’s hometown of Ancona: Corelli received the advice from Gobbi that singing was nothing other than a sport: even when you get tired, you keep training to the limit. Corelli once said: “I see notes in my dreams. I never rest because I am always trying to improve myself. If I have three months of absolute freedom, I use them to protect my technical instrument: without it, I am nothing.“
When he was young, his voice was anything but beautiful, Corelli once said in an interview: At first, singing was nothing more than fun; he possessed a powerful voice, but it was completely untrained.
Training and signature role
Fascinated by the art of singing, Franco Corelli began vocal training at the Rossini Conservatory in Pesaro in 1946. There Corelli was classified as a tenor – but he considered himself a baritone and ended his training at the Rossini Conservatory shortly afterwards.
It was not until the fifties that Corelli’s singing career gradually took off: Realising that he was indeed a tenor, he began singing on Italian radio and on smaller stages.
In a competition in 1951, Franco Corelli won the prize of rehearsing the role of Don José in Carmen (Bizet): In the course of his career, the role became his signature role.
At the beginning of the fifties, Corelli overtaxed himself vocally: his still untrained voice became a problem. Corelli was forced to take professional singing lessons and to adapt his voice to the operatic roles he wanted to sing. This was the only way he could realise his vocal potential.
Not a typical Italian tenor
The vocal fatigue had not least to do with the fact that at the beginning of his career Corelli sang a completely different repertoire than was usual for most Italian tenors at the time. Only gradually did Corelli find out which roles were compatible and could be sung in parallel. At first, Corelli sang mainly works by Handel, Prokofiev and Guerrini because he was simply not offered any other roles.
Thus his voice developed differently from that of a classical Italian tenor, who was trained almost exclusively with Italian roles: Later in his career, when Corelli began to interpret the typical Italian operatic repertoire, he sounded different from many of his colleagues: Many opera connoisseurs found this exciting and attributed it not least to his training, which was different from that of other Italian star tenors.
Franco Corelli was known for a robust, virile-sounding voice: To this day, Corelli is considered the ideal of a typical spinto tenor voice. In contrast to a lyric tenor, a spinto (Italian for “driven”, “daring”) is characterised by a larger, heavier-sounding voice, but one that also sounds less dramatic than a lyric tenor voice. Spinto tenors are often known for taking a boisterous approach to the art of singing: This was by no means the case with Franco Corelli. Although many of Corelli’s passages sound much more exuberant than those of other tenors, Corelli always found the balance between singing and emotional outbursts.
Callas and La Scala
In the 1950s, Franco Corelli performed at numerous Italian opera houses and gained stage experience: at the same time, he took singing lessons to get the most out of his voice.
In 1954, Franco Corelli made his debut at La Scala in Milan, at that time the most prestigious Italian opera house: he played the role of Licinius in La Vestale (Spontini) alongside Maria Callas.
This performance alongside Maria Callas catapulted Franco Corelli into the ranks of the most sought-after Italian opera tenors: between 1952 and 1960, Corelli gave well over 400 performances at European opera houses. He performed at opera houses in southern and northern Italy, at numerous German opera houses and in France.
The names Maria Callas and Franco Corelli often appeared together on the posters of opera productions in the course of the fifties and sixties: The two shone together in Norma (Bellini), Fedora (Giordano), Tosca (Puccini) and Il pirata (Bellini), among others.
Their stage partnership lasted until the end of Callas’ career as a soprano:
In one of the last Norma productions with Maria Callas in the leading role, Franco Corelli played alongside her.
In the early sixties, Franco Corelli’s career was at its peak: in 1961 he signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. Whoever appeared at the Met at that time was automatically an internationally sought-after opera singer: Corelli was a member of the Metropolitan Opera ensemble until the end of his career in 1975. During this time he performed 19 different roles in over 300 performances.
The future of opera
In addition, Corelli gave guest performances all over the world: These guest appearances took the opera tenor around the globe, including Spain, Serbia, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.
In the 1990s, almost twenty years after the end of his career, Corelli began to think about the future of opera: apart from professional journals, the art form of opera had little presence in the Italian media and was thus gradually disappearing from the collective memory of the Italians. The times when the front pages of the Italian daily newspapers reported on the next Callas performance or the latest diva scandal in the morning were long past.
A young tenor – forever
Franco Corelli’s stage presence differed significantly from that of his colleagues: when Corelli appeared on stage, he never seemed stiff or cramped. Especially in the fifties and sixties, he impressed opera audiences with his youthful ease: he never shied away from a vocal challenge and tried every role he thought possible.
This stage presence also explains his early departure from the opera stage: in 1976, at the age of 55, he completed his last opera performance. For an opera tenor, that was not yet an age to retire from the stage: Corelli, however, was anxious to preserve his youthful image and thus remain in the memory of posterity.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig