Franco Corelli (1921 – 2003) had dark, brooding eyes, an aquiline nose, and a shock of wavy black hair atop his six foot one inch tall frame, and the lithe grace of a panther. He was probably the sexiest opera star who ever lived. And, with a powerful and thrilling genuine world-class voice, he could sing, too!
Born in Ancon, Italy, Corelli originally studied to be an engineer until entering a musical competition where his voice was praised. He felt that his early musical training at the Pesaro Conservatory of Music had harmed his upper register and determined to teach himself, for a short time as a baritone and then, using recordings of famous singers as a guide, becoming a tenor. He made his operatic debut at the age of 30 and two years later sang opposite Maria Callas at the Rome Opera.
In his early performances he sang with energy, intensity, and power. A Corelli performance was exciting to see as well as to hear. His Don Jose was filled with nervous energy and repressed violence. Carmen should have been scared to death. If Marlon Brando had been a singer, he would have been Franco Corelli.
Corelli was adored by the public and had a grand sense of theatricality and drama. He was not without faults. Music critics often complained about what they saw as grandstanding and his stylistic carelessness and crudity. He developed a reputation as a prima donna, demanding special foods and special treatment, holding his high notes to upstage his co-star, fighting with his wife backstage, and even once cancelling a season at the Paris Opera because no red carpet greeted him at the airport! His later performances became more stylized with posturing replacing acting, but to the end he remained thrilling to hear.
By the early 1970’s, however, his voice began to lose it’s luster, his nerves became raw, he suffered extreme stage fright and became angry, nervous, and even more temperamental. But when he tried he could still summon the old excitement.
Performances became a test of will and Franco Corelli finally retired in 1976. He did attempt a comeback in 1981, but it was short-lived. After suffering a stroke, he died in Milan ate age of 82.