Legends – Mirella Freni

Nicknamed La Prudentissima due to the attention given to her voice and the prudent choices of roles she evolved, Mirella Freni was one of the most appreciated sopranos in Italy, but also internationally.

Incorporating the typical lyrical soprano, Freni is known for both, her timbral quality and her special acting skills. Her repertoire includes about 40 roles, especially from the works of composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, but also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Piotr Ilici Tchaikovsky.

Mirella Fregni, known as Freni, was born on February 27, 1935 in Modena. The life and career of the soprano were closely connected to the tenor Luciano Pavarotti, also from Modena. Due to the fact that, the mothers of the two singers worked together at the local tobacco factory, they had known each other since childhood.

As a child, Freni was attracted to opera music. At the age of 12, she sings aria Un bel di vedremo from the opera „Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini, at a radio contest.

She is remarked by Biniamino Gigli, famous tenor and juror of that contest, who warned her that approaching such a repertoire too early can cause her vocal damage. Thus, Freni resumed singing at age 17. Two years later she debuted on the stage of the Teatro Comunale di Modena in the role of Micaela from „Carmen” by Georges Bizet. Even if that event was followed by numerous artistic opportunities, the soprano gave up the stage to establish a family with conductor Leone Magiera, who also became her singing teacher.

Mirella Freni resumed her career in 1958, when she performed Mimì from „La Bohème” by Giacomo Puccini at Teatro Regio di Torino. Her international breakthrough came in 1960, when she appeared in Zerlina („Don Giovanni” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) at the Glyndebourne Festival, being on the same stage with Joan Sutherland (Donna Anna). After that, she performed in Adina („L ‘Elisir d’amore” by Gaetano Donizetti) directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

In 1961, she debuted at the Royal Opera House as Nannetta („Falstaff” by Giuseppe Verdi) in Zeffirelli’s production and the musical direction of Carlo Maria Giuliani.

January 31, 1963 brings her back to the role that enshrined her, Mimì, in a production signed by Zeffirelli, under the musical guidance of Herbert von Karajan. Following this event, the soprano become the favourite conductor’s soloist and one of Luciano Pavarotti’s constant stage partners.

Regarding the repertoire, Freni has always paid special attention to the roles she chooses, confessing in an interview: „I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities.”“

As proof, Freni refused von Karajan’s proposal to performed in Leonora („Il Trovatore” by Giuseppe Verdi) and the titular role of the opera „Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini. She also never sang the main role of the pucciniene opera „Madama Butterfly” on stage, although she recorded twice this work, under von Karajan’s direction, including the famous film in which she played with Placido Domingo.

In December 1964, Freni was encouraged by von Karajan to approach a new role, Violetta Valery („La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi). Even if she was in a rather early stage in her career, the soprano accepts the conductor’s proposal, her debut took place at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. The decision turns out to be a big mistake. Freni replaces Renata Scotto in this production, to the displeasure of the Milanese public. Thus, the debut generated a „revolt” manifested by shouts and whistles from the public. After the first performance, Freni was replaced by Anna Moffo. This experience has been an important lesson for the soprano, who, from this moment, refused any role for which she is not prepared or does not fit her. The approach undoubtedly contributes to the longevity of his career.

On September 29, 1965, she appeared for the first time on the scene of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in the role of Mimì, along with the tenor Gianni Raimondi. Critic Alan Rich writes of this performance in the New York Herald Tribune: „Miss Freni is-well, „irresistible”-will do for a start. Beautiful to look at, and actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence, she used voice and gesture to create a Mimi of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice itself is pure and fresh, operating without seam from bottom to top, marvellously coloured at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text.”

In 1967, she returns to Violetta („La Traviata” by Giuseppe Verdi, 1967), in the black and white production of Luchino Viconti, with Giuliani at the conductor’s desk.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Freni continued to expand her repertoire, approaching more dramatic roles, such as Elisabetta („Don Carlo” by Giuseppe Verdi), Desdemona („Otello”), Amelia („Simone Boccanegra”), Elvira („Ernani”), Leonora („La Forza del Destino”) and Aida. At the same time, she also debuted in the pucciniene roles, Manon Lescaut and Tosca. The repertoire change surprised the audience and the critics of the time, who considered it suitable only for „light” or soubrette roles. The flexibility and intuitive understanding of the demands of a dramatic role allowed the soprano to make this transition without causing damage to her voice.

In 1978, Freni married Nicolai Ghiaurov, one of the leading operatic basses of the post-war period. With his help and support, she approaches roles from works of Tchaikovsky, such as Tatiana („Evgeni Onegin”) and Lisa („Lady of Pic”). Together, they helped establish the Universal Bel Canto Centre in Vignola (Centro Universal del Bel Canto), where they started giving master-classes. After Ghiaurov’s death in 2004, Freni continued their work preserving the bel canto tradition.

In 1990, Freni extended her repertoire and style with Italian verismo, adding to her repertoire roles such as Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora and the Virgin of Orleans.

Throughout her career, she received various distinctions: Italian Cavaliere di Gran Croce and French Legion d ‘Honor (March 1993). In 2002, the University of Pisa awarded her an honorary degree for “great contribution to European culture”. In 2009, she was promoted to the rank of “officer” in the Legion of Honour.

Although she is famous for playing the role of Mimì, asked if there is a role that is close to the real Mirella Freni, she replies: “Not really. I think I am so strange. I have in me some of every role I have done. Naturally it’s difficult because each artist can really believe in what she does in this moment.  I put off my own character in the role, but not too much.  It’s necessary to put your personality more into character.  It’s important to have a nice balance together with everything, but when I study the role, there are always the little things they help me to develop her.  For example, to discover the personaggio [character, personality] of Mimì, I look at the last part, the last act to help me.  There Mimì knows she’s very sick and near to death, but she has a good word for everybody.  She always says, “I’m sorry; I’ve nothing; don’t be worrying about me.”  From there you can build the personaggio of the role, the character of Mimì from the beginning and the end.“

Most of the time when she was not on stage, the soprano was in the studio, where she recorded over 50 works, with large companies (Angel / EMI, RCA, London, Philips and Deutsche Gramophone).

In 1990, Freni published „Mio caro teatro”, together with Giuseppe Gherpelli and Gianandrea Gavazzeni.

Mirella Freni sang on the most important lyrical scenes in the world, retiring from the spotlight on April 11, 2005, at the age of 70. Her last appearance was on the Washington Opera scene, where she performed the role of Joan of Arc in the opera „The Virgin of Orleans” by Piotr Ilici Tchaikovsky. 

After a nearly half-century career, La Prudentissima died on February 9, 2020, at the age of 95, in her home in Modena.

Asked for an advice for younger singer who want a long career, she answered: “Oh it’s easy. They have to love to say ‘no’? They have to work very hard, and be honest with the possibility to wait to sing some roles. No twenty-two year old should sing Butterfly. I said ‘no’, and I never sang Butterfly on stage in my life”.