Magda Olivero was born on March 25th 1910 in Saluzzo (near Turin). After having taken singing lessons with three different teachers and without apparent success at the Conservatory of Turin an audition for the chairman of EIAR (predecessor of RAI), Ugo Tansini, ended with a devastating verdict: “This girl has neither a voice, nor musicality, nor personality. She has nothing.” Luigi Gerussi, an experienced teacher, nevertheless believed in Olivero`s potential and accepted her to become his pupil. Looking back on these days the soprano likes to recount a picturesque scene of Gerussi standing in front of her with clenched fists continually shouting: “Sustain, sustain!” Until his death, for another eight years after the beginning of her career Olivero stayed with her teacher who, with no doubt, had laid the crucial foundations for the singer`s solid breathing technique and hence for her unusually long career.
Olivero made her stage debut as Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi” at Turin`s Teatro Vittorio Emanuele on October 31st 1933. Only two months later, on December 26th of the same year, she appeared for the first time at the stage of the Teatro alla Scala as Anna in “Nabucco” (with Galeffi, Cigna, Pasero and Stignani under Vittorio Gui). Tullio Serafin advised her to sing roles such as Adina in “L`elisir d`amore”, Lucia and Gilda but the singer`s temperament and her truly dramatic intensity on stage soon made her switch to Mimi, Violetta, Liù, Butterfly and Adriana Lecouvreur. Especially Cilea`s heroine was to become something like the soprano`s trademark during the “second stage” of her career. 1938 marked the year of her first and at the same time last commercial recording of a complete opera: as Liù in Puccini`s “Turandot” with Gina Cigna and Francesco Merli under the baton of Franco Ghione. Until 1941 Olivero`s appearances were restricted, with rare exceptions, to Italian stages. With an appearance as Adriana Lecouvreur in Ravenna on May 29th 1941 the soprano decided to seperate once and for all from the world of opera. On numerous occasions she made it clear that her marriage with an Italian buisnessman in the same year had nothing to do with her retirement but that there were much less “romantic” reasons: most of all the working atmosphere in the theatres, something which she had always hated.
Facts and details about Olivero`s spectacular comeback as Adriana Lecouvreur on February 3rd 1951 in Brescia (in January of the same year she had already tried out Mimi in “La bohème” at the Teatro dell`Opera) and that the aging composer, Francesco Cilea, longed to admire once more “his” Adriana on stage (regrettably he would not live to see his heart`s desire fulfilled) are common knowledge. From that point on the soprano was in demand all over the world and enjoyed one triumph after another. She also created numerous works of modern composers: among them Felice Lattuada`s “La caverna di Salamanca”, Angelo Costaguta`s “Santa Rita di Cascia”, as well as the Italian premiere of Gottfried von Einem`s “Der Besuch der alten Dame”. In the late Fifties she added Minnie in “La fanciulla del West” and Tosca to her repertory as well as Charlotte in “Werther”, Santuzza and Medea a little later. On February 3rd 1975 Olivero gave her first performance at New York`s Metropolitan Opera – these three “Tosca” performances were to remain her only ones at the MET. In 1971, already, the soprano had divided the city after a concert in the Philharmonic Hall. She made her last appearance on stage in Poulenc`s “La voix humaine” in 1981 in Verona. From then on she would occasionally sing in concerts and until today, apart from being a highly esteemed singing pedagogue, frequently can be met as a jury member in singing contests.
The Italian critic, Rodolfo Celletti, describes Magda Olivero`s voice as “actually not beautiful and slightly tremulous, but this artist captures her audience with her aristocratic dignity and her incredibly finely shaded and colorful art of phrasing. The dramatic intensity of Olivero’s stage presence is simply bewitching.” The great singing actress once put her artistic credo in words: “The voice itself only amounts to 40% of a performance. The remaining 60% consist of thousands of tiny details.” – The resulting 100% produce the unmistakeable Magda Olivero-style in operas of the verismo repertoire.