Famed Italian soprano Mirella Freni dies at age 84

Mirella Freni, an Italian soprano whose uncommon elegance and intensity combined with a sumptuous voice and intelligence to enthrall audiences for a half-century, has died at age 84.

Freni died Sunday at her home in Modena, Italy, from a degenerative muscular disease and a series of stokes, according to her manager, Jack Mastroianni of IMG Artists.

She was the last in a line of Italian sopranos whose very entrance prompted ovations, a link to singers from the golden era and earlier such as Renata Tebaldi, Licia Albanese, Magda Olivero, Maria Caniglia, Amelita Galli-Curci and Luisa Tetrazzini. Playwright Albert Innaurato dubbed her "the last prima donna."

When Freni made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Mimi in Puccini's "La Bohème" on Sept. 29, 1965, at the old house, Zinka Milanov went backstage and told assistant manager Francis Robinson: "She's so wonderful, this girl, she sounds like a young me."

From her professional debut at Modena's Teatro Municipale as Micaëla in Bizet's "Carmen" on March 3, 1955, to her opera finale as Joan of Arc in Tchaikovsky's "The Maid of Orleans" at the Washington National Opera on April 11, 2005, Freni chose roles with care and caution.

As video became increasingly important during the second half of her career, she thrived for her ability to connect as expressively with viewers at home as she did with the “loggionisti” up in La Scala's gallery.

In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, she recalled telling students during master classes to be wary of thinking solely about the notes on the score.

"It's not enough to have a beautiful voice," she said. "It's the depth of interpretation that is different. To be a gifted artist, you have to be able to interpret in a certain way. Last year, I had a young Japanese singer, a lyric soprano. Beautiful. But it was just technique. I said, `My dear, listen a moment. If you have a scene with your lover and you have to tell him, `I love you,' do you scream out `I LOVE YOU!'?"

Born Mirella Fregni on Feb. 27, 1935, in Modena, she changed the spelling of her stage name, thinking it would be easier to pronounce.

Her aunt was the soprano Valentina Bartolomasi, and young Mirella had the same wet nurse as Modena's most famous singer, who was born 7 1/2 months later, Luciano Pavarotti.

"You can see who got all the milk!" she once told author Fred Plotkin.

Their mothers worked in the same factory, and Freni said they dressed young Mirella and Luciano in identical clothing at times — Freni had old photos as proof.

"There was a special place in the tobacco manufacturer where my mother and the mother of Luciano, they worked together," she said. "When we were little babies, we stayed for a long time. In the evening, when the mammas finished the work, they brought us home."

"Freni and Pavarotti traveled with each other to Mantua to study with Ettore Campogalliani, who also taught Tebaldi, Renata Scotto and Carlo Bergonzi. Two years before his death in 2007, Pavarotti called Freni "a colossal, beautiful artist and person."

After her debut at age 20, she married her teacher, the piano player and conductor Leone Magiera, in 1955. She took a break after marriage to start a family and resumed her career in 1958 as Mimi the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.

Freni gained attention at England's Glyndebourne Festival, where she sang Zerlina alongside Joan Sutherland's Donna Anna in a 1960 staging of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Adina two years later in a Franco Zeffirelli production of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love)."

She debuted at London's Royal Opera on May 10, 1961, as Nannetta in Verdi's "Falstaff" and at Milan's Teatro alla Scala as Mimi on Jan. 31, 1963, with Herbert von Karajan conducting in the premiere of the Zeffirelli staging. Karajan would become a significant supporter, and they left a rich recorded legacy that includes "La Bohème," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," and Verdi's "Aida," "Don Carlo" and "Otello." Among her notable recordings with other conductors are Verdi's "La Traviata" with Lamberto Gardelli, "Simon Boccanegra" with Claudio Abbado and "Falstaff" with Georg Solti.

Notable videos from her career include Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's movies of "Madama Butterfly" and Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), and John Dexter's Met production of "Don Carlo" with Freni as Elisabetta. But she chose never to sing a complete "Butterfly" on stage, though she performed the third act at a 1991 Met gala; she turned down Karajan's entreaty to sign the title role in "Turandot," and she limited a full performance of Puccini's "Tosca" to a recording.

She and Gianni Raimondi made their Met debuts on the same night in a performance led by Fausto Cleva.

"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," Alan Rich wrote in the New York Herald Tribune.

After an absence from the U.S., said by some to be caused by the tax issues that ensnared many singers, she returned with the Paris Opera's tour in 1976 and gave memorable performances at the Met that included Freni as Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust" and Susanna under Solti's baton. She expanded her repertoire late in her career, including verismo roles such as Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" and Giordano's "Fedora." At age 54, she joined Pavarotti for ravishing performances of the young lovers of "La Bohème" in conductor Carlos Kleiber's Met debut.

She and Magiera divorced in 1977, and in 1980 she married renowned Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov. The relationship led to Freni exploring Russian roles. He died in 2004.

Always a passionate soccer fan, Freni said there was tension between husband and wife when Italy played Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup semifinals. She banished Ghiaurov to a different part of the house.

"If you stay in the living room, I will go in the bedroom," she said.

Ghiaurov died in 2004 and Freni returned to the Met the following year for a farewell gala. She spent the remainder of her life teaching master classes, living in Modena.

She turned down repeated requests to return to the stage.

"I say, `Sorry, I am busy,'" she told the AP ahead of the Met gala on May 15, 2005, that became her farewell concert. "If I say `yes,' I could sing every day - every day. Terrible. I want to have a normal life. I now have time for myself, I have time for my family, I have time for my garden."

She is survived by her daughter, Micaela Magiera, author of a book about the lives of her mother and Pavarotti, “La Bimba sotto il pianoforte (The Little Girl under the Piano)”; stepson Vladimir Ghiaurov, a conductor; stepdaughter Elena Ghiaurov, an actress; two grandchildren; and sister Marta.