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The Great Dramatics – Claudia Muzio & Leontyne Price

Claudia Muzio was born to the opera. Her father was stage director at Covent Garden in London and her mother was a chorus singer. She sang most of the great dramatic roles and her “La Traviata” was considered the greatest of her time.

The incomparable soprano Rosa Ponselle said: “Claudia’s voice was not the best one. … but on stage she was not Claudia Muzio singing La Traviata. She was Violetta Valéry falling in love, and dying before our eyes… She was the best actress-singer of all times.” Her voice was nor particularly loud, and it had a veiled tone, somewhat like that of Maria Callas who would often be compared to her, but there was a beautiful warmth and tonal coloring to it, which deepened as she aged. A simple popular melody in her hands could reveal unexpected emotions.

Muzio was adored in South America and in the late 1920’s, a young Aristotle Onassis was living in Argentina, struggling to survive by importing cigarettes. Onassis didn’t actually like opera, but he ardently pursued Muzio and became her lover, just as he would do with Maria Callas almost 40 years later. Muzio introduced Onassis to Argentine society, guaranteed his success, and she even posed for pictures in advertisements smoking his cigarettes.

Muzio’s earliest recordings show her in freshest voice, but recording quality is poor and even occasionally distorted. In her final recordings her health and her voice have deteriorated considerably, but her artistry has greatly improved. Sadly, the ten year period during which her artistic interpretation reached it’s zenith and her voice was still at it’s finest, is precisely the period during which she made no recordings. Claudia Muzio died of heart failure at the age of 47.

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Leontyne Price is the only soprano in the 20th century with a voice that can be mentioned in the same breath with Rosa Ponselle and Claudia Muzio. As a teenager she heard Marian Anderson sing and was inspired to make a career of music, initially intending to become a music teacher. Her voice was noticed, however, and the great bass Paul Robeson helped raise funds for her to attend Julliard School in New York. After graduating from college, She married the bass-baritone, William Warfield, and sang with him in a revival of “Porgy & Bess.”

She was invited to sing at a Metropolitan Opera fund raiser in 1953. But she would sing for 8 more years throughout the world before finally appearing on the stage of the Metropolitan, in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” with tenor Franco Corelli, who was also making his Met debut.

She sang the premiere of Samuel Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra, ” written especially for her voice, on opening night at the new Lincoln Center home of the Metropolitan but she soon became frustrated with the quality of the Met’s productions and cut back on her opera performances, singing instead in concerts and recitals. In spite of occasional vocal problems, she sang for the next 25 years until she retired in 1985.

Miss Price was often quoted as saying that a singer should sing “on her interest, not her principal.” That’s a formula for longetivity, but one that often results in a lack of excitement. Here, singing three encores in a concert given the year after her retirement, she apparently abandoned that principle because the lady simply rocks!

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