Opera Daily 🎶 — Mirella Freni, When to know when to stop singing and how magic cannot be explained
“When I was on stage, I never thought about my voice.”
“I went to the mirror, and I asked myself, is it time to stop?”
That was the question Mirella Freni asked herself before she decided to end her performing career a week later and start to focus her life on helping young singers.
“I was never sad that my career was coming to an end. I wanted it that way since I had started to teach students. I am still surrounded by music and singing. It’s my second life. I want to give something back for what I’ve been given.”
There is a reason Mirella Freni’s had one of the longest active singing careers ever.
Knowing when your singing days have ended seems to vary amongst many professional singers, but it sounds like Freni knew when it was time. I imagine an incredible career that spanned 50 years coupled with a meaningful second act teaching had a lot to do with the ease of the transition.
When Freni is asked why there are fewer great singers today than 20 years ago, she attributed it to going too fast and too soon. She said that today, we are obsessed with finding new young talent and giving them too much to sing, too quickly.
Freni was known for the role of Mimì in La bohème, but she liked all the roles she did. When asked if there are any roles that she sings where she doesn’t like the character? She said no because if she didn’t like it, she didn’t sing it. It seems so simple!
🎧 Listening Example (5 minute listen): “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” from Act 2 of the Italian opera, La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, La Scala, 1965
Freni’s humanity, naturalness, and complete devotion to what she was doing came through in everything she did.
Her voice was pure and fresh, top to bottom, with an unmistakable color.
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): “Sul fil d'un soffio etesio” from Act 3 of the Italian opera Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi
Freni died in February 2020 at her home in Modena, but until that point, she was teaching voice at her music school, which was located in a former hospital in Modena where she was born. She says it was a funny coincidence, but I am not sure you can call it a coincidence that she was completing her final act of life in the place it all began back in February 1935.
While Freni had a reputation for being a very demanding voice teacher, after watching her give some voice lessons, I was surprised how much wasn’t said about how great sounds were produced.
After studying the world's greatest singers, athletes, and investors, there seems to be a theme amongst them: geniuses can't tell you how they do it.
Like the golfer Tiger Woods demonstrating how to hit the shot, he does not know how he is hitting the shot. When asked, Wood relays to others the "highlights" of the action most available to him when he is doing it. But many of the ingredients of his technique are not available to his conscious mind at the moment. And those contain all the magic.
After I understood this, I started to view the knowledge from the greats as inputs rather than “prescriptions” that I needed to follow directly.
I think this is what Freni was trying to pass on to her students — trying to get them to be the most natural version of themselves first so they could create their own magic.
This is often the opposite of what young singers do — they copy other singers early in their career and fail to create that magic themselves because they are merely copying the "highlights" from others.
I’ve learned from Freni that the most important thing to do is sing with your own voice first, and the rest will follow.
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): “Come in quest'ora bruna” from Act I of the Italian opera Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi
Everyone is a colleague: Freni treated everyone the same. Everyone was a colleague at work. She knew she was a diva, but never acted like one.
Master the voice; then everything is about the character: “When I was on stage, I never thought about my voice”. Freni knew it was essential to nail her technique early on to stop thinking about the voice and focus on the character when she got on stage. This idea seems to be a theme amongst the great singers.
She loved and respected her instrument: Freni’s career spanned 50 years, and it’s clear why. There is little that Freni has done which she regrets. She says she sang La traviata at La Scala in 1964 when she was too young, but she learned from that experience.
Don’t overcomplicate things. She was an uncomplicated artist. She ate spaghetti before every performance and rehearsal. When she talks about herself, she says, “I made a lot of sacrifices along the way, but I am a normal person who sang, that’s it.”
🎧 Listening Example (4 minute listen): "O soave fanciulla", Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti singing the duet from Act 1 of Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera La bohème, 1964
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Her voice is exquisite and she sings with such ease and comfort so her statement about her performance is so on point
She has a real ease, but you know too, that she has put in the hard work and dedication. Knowing when to bow out is a sure sign you have been on top of your game. Great pieces too