One of the most popular and pre-eminent sopranos of the 1960s and 70s, Renata Scotto, who has died aged 89, was a singer who relished the role of a diva both on and off stage. The title of her 1984 autobiography, More Than a Diva (a sourcebook of her acerbic put-downs of colleagues), implicitly acknowledged the persona for which she was renowned.
Not afraid to slap Giuseppe di Stefano across the face mid-performance (he had wandered off the stage to eat an apple during a duet with her), she knew her own worth and demanded it be recognised. Early in her career she was perceived as a rival to that other great diva, Maria Callas, and was also subjected to invidious comparisons with singers such as Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland.
The chief source of Scotto’s appeal lay in her feeling for the inner meaning of the text, the dramatic intensity with which she invested her delivery, and her stage presence. In terms of pure tone she was arguably not the equal of Tebaldi; nor could she rival Sutherland for technique. Like Callas, her strength lay in the spine-tingling conviction with which she inhabited a role and the thrillingly charged tone generated to project the character’s emotional state.
To experience Scotto’s voice at full throttle was like holding up a diamond to the light: it scintillated, but, as most diamonds are, it was flawed. Her tone had a distinctive metallic edge, and although she could use that to profoundly expressive effect in the middle range, there were many occasions on which the voice hardened as it sailed into the stratosphere.
Intonation was often compromised in that range too. As her colleague Sherrill Milnes, while admiring her range of tonal colour, suggested: “She will also sacrifice vocal beauty to get the word or the emotional intention across.” Or as Scotto herself more optimistically put it: “I prefer to have one unbeautiful note in my voice than perfection that doesn’t mean anything.”
Her perceived rivalry with Callas, it has to be said, was often perpetuated (even after Callas’s death) by over-zealous admirers on both sides, so there is some irony in the fact that it was Callas who helped to launch Scotto’s international career. Refusing to appear in a fifth performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula – inserted by the management against her wishes – at the Edinburgh festival in September 1957, Callas proposed Scotto as her substitute. Her performance as Amina was a huge success, earning her a dozen or so curtain calls and enthusiastic approbation from Callas.
The latter, now retired, was again in the audience at La Scala 13 years later, when Scotto sang the role of Elena in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani for the first time. No sooner had Scotto walked on stage than a Callas claque began to shout “Maria, Maria!” and “Viva Callas!” Fanatical passions were enflamed further by Scotto’s withering personal comments about Callas in a post-performance interview.
Similar incidents occurred subsequently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on the opening night of Norma in 1981, for example, when Callas’s name was shouted as Scotto walked onstage, and on the evening of a telecast of Luisa Miller, when an attention-seeking idolater shouted “Brava, brava Maria Callas” as Scotto was about to begin Luisa’s cavatina (the outburst was later eliminated from the recording).
Scotto was nevertheless enormously popular at the Met, giving more than 300 performances in 26 roles between 1965 and 1987. That popularity was hard won, however. Scotto complained to the redoubtable general manager, Rudolf Bing, that in the three seasons after her 1965 debut she had only been offered the same operas: La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, L’Elisir d’Amore and Lucia di Lammermoor.
On Bing’s refusal to offer any new roles, she declined to appear at all once her contractual obligations had been met. She carried out her threat and it was only after Bing’s retirement in 1972 that she returned to the Met, two years later, to sing Elena in I Vespri Siciliani under the baton of James Levine, who became musical director in 1976.
The two established a harmonious partnership and Scotto’s popularity soared higher than ever. In 1975 she drew an estimated 100,000 people to a concert performance of Madama Butterfly in Central Park. The following year she became the first soprano to sing all three leading roles in the trilogy of one-act operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico at the Met in the same evening, while in 1977 she featured as Mimì, alongside Pavarotti as Rodolfo, in La Bohème, the first live telecast from the Met.
For all her accommodation to the lifestyle of a diva, Scotto was born into a deprived fishing community at Savona, on the Mediterranean coast near Genoa. Her father, Giuseppe, was a police officer, her mother, Santina – in a poignant echo of Mimì, one of her favourite roles – a seamstress (a parallel to which she liked to draw attention).
At the age of 12 she was inspired, by the experience of hearing Tito Gobbi live in the title role of Rigoletto, to become an opera singer. In her teens, she was sent to Milan for lessons in voice (initially as a mezzo-soprano) and piano, lodging at a Canossian convent, which she later described as “somewhere between a jail and a very austere kindergarten”.
She made her operatic debut in the house at Savona at the age of 18, singing Violetta in La Traviata, appearing the next day in the same role at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan. Her La Scala debut in 1954 came in the trouser role of Walter in Catalani’s La Wally.
At barely 5ft tall, she was considered by some to be too short to play a male role; she was also obliged to wear a false nose as her own was felt to be too small. She nevertheless received more curtain calls than her distinguished co-principals, Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco, combined. With her 1957 Edinburgh success as Callas’s surrogate, her star was in the ascendant. She performed in major houses all over the world, including Covent Garden, where she sang several Puccini roles, as well as Gilda and Violetta in the 60s.
Returning to the house in 1981, after a 10-year absence, she sang the first Lady Macbeth of her career, a compelling portrait of a woman in the grip of a demonic obsession. London critics noted the stridency frequently entering her tone – long familiar to New York audiences – resulting in a performance that was squally but riveting in equal measure.
It was to roles such as Lady Macbeth – and to other heavier ones such as Leonora (Il Trovatore), Amelia (Ballo in Maschera), Desdemona (Otello), Elisabeth de Valois (Don Carlos), Manon Lescaut, Adriana Lecouvreur and La Gioconda – that she gravitated in the middle part of her career from the lighter bel canto roles. Later still she essayed even more challenging roles such as Kundry, Elle in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, Klytämnestra, the Marschallin and even the unnamed woman in Schoenberg’s Erwartung.
At the Met in 1987 she became the first woman to direct an opera (Madama Butterfly) while also singing in it, and went on to direct, with a certain amount of success, such operas as La Traviata at New York City Opera, Norma at Finnish National Opera, Turandot in Athens and Un Ballo in Maschera in Chicago. Her final performance as a singer came in 2002, after a career lasting 50 years.
Her husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, was at the time of their marriage in 1960 a violinist in the La Scala orchestra. He abandoned his career to become her voice coach and business manager, and died in 2021. She is survived by their two children, Laura and Filippo.
• Renata Scotto, opera singer, born 24 February 1934; died 16 August 2023