A Callas-era star is 95 today

A Callas-era star is 95 today


norman lebrecht

October 21, 2020

Happy birthday to Virginia Zeani, one of few sopranos who could look Maria Callas in the eye and not blink first.

She created the role of  Blanche in Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmelites.

Zeani, a Romanian, lives nowadays in Palm Beach Florida and continues to teach privately.

Read more here.


  • Daniel Poulin says:

    Florida, land of happy retirees. I wonder if she knew Ida Haendel?

  • Novagerio says:

    Unfortunately very neglected by the former record industry. Teresa Stratas once said “Virginia Zeani was the most beautiful Violetta I have ever seen or heard”.

    As a young singer studying in Milan she sought out the tenor Aureliano Pertile who had long been one of her idols for the beauty of his phrasing and diction. She called at his house and according to Zeani, when he opened the door she burst into tears and was unable to speak. Pertile’s wife ushered her inside and after talking to her Pertile accepted her as a student on a non-paying basis, giving her private lessons and allowing her to attend his master-classes. She repaid him by running errands and helping his wife with household chores.
    I’m glad and thrilled that Poulenc gave her the honour to sing the world premiere of his Carmelites in Venice under Sanzogno in January 1957. Poulenc-favourite Denise Duval sang the French Premiere later the same year.

  • A.L. says:

    I believe she is hospitalized suffering from Covid.

  • Le Křenek du jour says:

    It is perhaps not commonly known that Angela Gheorghiu, who used on occasion to style herself in public as a latter-day Callas, patterned her early career very intelligently on that of Viriginia Zeani. She even reported sporadically consulting with Zeani from afar, although the two did not meet in person until quite late, circa 2008.
    Zeani later told that she felt ‘vindicated’ by Gheorghiu’s career decisions.

    Zeani buffs would be rewarded to look into her most important early teacher (prior to Pertile), Lydia Lipkowska. Or Lipkovskaya. Or Lipkovski. Or Marszner.
    The different forms of her name are but a faint indicator of her colourful life and tribulations in a complex and changing environment, mirroring the upheavals experienced in Eastern Europe.
    Gheorghiu, Zeani, Lipkovskaya, three generations of high opera encompassing a long century of musical history, and history ‘tout court’.

  • David says:

    A consummate artist not the tantrum toddler

  • Terry Blackburn says:

    The first Blanche in “Dialogues” was Denise Duvall.

  • Bruce says:

    Fabulous singer & artist.

  • Slipped Chat says:

    After the end of her active operatic career, Zeani taught for 24 years at Indiana University’s School of Music.

    According to online sources, her students who later went on to substantial careers of their own include sopranos Angela Brown, Sylvia McNair, Elizabeth Futral, Ailyn Perez, and Vivica Genaux.

  • Robert Black says:

    I collected Zeani. I always found her artistry so beautiful: Her Tosca with Domingo (best ever Vissi D’arte); Perfect Adina; First ever time I heard Zelmira. ..Happy Birthday!

  • Greg Bottini says:

    Happy Birthday, Madame Zeani!
    Your voice is heavenly.
    Best wishes and good luck!

  • papageno says:

    I never got the Callas hype. Enlighten me.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      My pleasure, papageno.
      Callas was a consummate actress as well as a superb singer. Yes, she developed some trouble in her high register as she aged (and lost 70 pounds in 1954), but the SOUND of her voice was thrilling and dramatically potent, and you can hear that on many of her records.
      Check out her live Lucia with Karajan, her live Macbeth with de Sabata, her live Sonnambula with Bernstein, and one of her live Traviatas (I prefer the Ghione as a total performance).
      Not to mention the studio Tosca, her Mad Scenes recital, her Puccini arias record, and her first Verdi arias record.
      If those don’t convince you of Callas’ greatness, nothing will.

      • Paul Carlile says:

        Very funny! A few days after “Not a big Horowitz fan”… from you, Greg, with, admittedly, a solid reasoning to defend your viewpoint, here we have a “big fan” type panegyric in favor of Callas…(with most of which i concur), but will no doubt leave the “not big Callas fans”- i know many, as mystified as ever.
        Just to show once again that certain artists remain legendary for many, yet over-hyped, (“overrated” said Greg!) for others. In this extraordinary category i would put such as Horowitz, Heifetz and Callas….. add any others you can think of…(Toscanini…?). A discuter.
        And: “La multi ani,” (belated), à Mme Zeani!

        • Greg Bottini says:

          I’m not sure what your problem is here, Paul.
          I am just expressing my own personal opinions.
          Even you admit that I have “solid reasoning to defend (my) viewpoint”.
          I like Callas tremendously (although I did mention one of her faults); I don’t care for Horowitz. So what? I know many people who don’t care for Callas (I used to work at Tower Records and I heard countless differing opinions). Again: so what?
          I grew to admire Callas’ art by LISTENING to it and forming my OWN opinion, not by blindly following others’ opinions. The same goes for my disdain of Horowitz.
          If YOU haven’t heard the records I listed, Paul, I suggest you do so. And if you have listened to them, and you still don’t care for Callas, well, then – that’s just the way it goes.

          • Paul Carlile says:

            Greg…no problem, indeed, sorry if it seemed that way. It was simply a remark on the amusing differences of perception between enthusiasts (or not!), particularly where legendary artists are concerned. As i kno several fanatics/sceptics on both sides for both these artists, (usually finding myself in the untenable middle: “if you’re not for us, you’re against us…!”), your original comment interested me, and i appreciated both your for/against analyses.
            Incidentally, i have much of Callas in my head at the moment, having just returned from a visit to Puccini’s house at Torre del Lago, where selections from her recordings were frequently in the background.
            All the best to you.

          • Greg Bottini says:

            Thank you for clearing that up, Paul. And I’M sorry if I sounded a little testy.
            To other commenters who might be reading this: isn’t that what the comment section of this blog is for: stating opinions? It just becomes tiresome to write “in my opinion” (or some equivalent phrase) each time I state a like or a dislike, and sometimes I neglect to do so.
            In my Horowitz post, I never made a blanket statement such as “he is garbage”, like a certain sciocco said in a previous comment about Bartok. I always try to avoid presenting my opinions as if they are facts, and I often try to describe why my opinions are what they are.
            I don’t personally care for Horowitz’ playing, and I attempted to explain why.
            I happen to love Callas’ singing, and I referred papageno to recordings that might illustrate my position, as words are incapable of describing her unique artistry. That’s all.
            Paul, I envy your trip to Torre del Lago (of course it must have been before The Plague struck), and I’m curious why Callas’ recordings were played in the background. One would think that recordings of singers familiar to Puccini (Caruso, Farrar, De Luca, etc.) would be played.
            – thanks again, Greg

          • Paul Carlile says:

            Greg, just quickly (as we’ve been reprimanded for continuing a MC discussion on a VZ post!): chez Puccini, the soundtrack, very discreetly in the background, seemed based on the CDs available in the bookshop, from what i could gather; therefore the accent was on “acceptable” recorded sound with modern legends- (MC very present!). Rather strange when one considers the hi-qual remasters these days, altho i’m sure i heard Caruso somewhere! The sound level was not consistent in different rooms. Some details were a little disorganose; foto credits could have been a bit better.
            I do agree, singers he’d known would have matched the superb atmosfere of yellowed, curling-edged fotos, sepia images and barely legible faded ink.
            Fascinating to see him with locals and pals….Tosti, Mascagni…. and unexpuct friendly greetings and admiration from G. Mahler!

            (It WAS plague time; i was there on the 2th of october!).

      • papageno says:

        Callas’ voice might have sounded ‘thrilling’ thanks to recording engineers but in the flesh it’s small and not at all pretty.

        • Dan white says:

          If you merely think of the soprano voice as being something ‘pretty’, then you will never understand the genius of Callas. It was never about the beauty of her voice, it was about how she used her instrument to portray every human emotion. If you listen to enough Callas you start to forget about the ugliness of the voice. The conviction and potency of her musical and dramatic gifts make the word ‘pretty’ a ludicrous description.

          I hated Callas for years but was more and more drawn to her recordings because she was one of the very very few artist that could make one feel the anguish of the heroines and villains she was portraying. You felt immersed in the story without being in the theatre. Do Sutherland and Caballe have more beautiful voices? Absolutely. Do they take you on the same emotional journey that Callas navigates? Definitely not. When talking about Callas it is redundant to talk about her purely in vocal terms. Her acting, her musicianship transcend her voice. She most certainly does not have the most beautiful voice, but she is amongst the greatest musicians to step on to an Opera House stage.

          In the words of Leonard Bernstein
          “Callas? She was pure electricity”

        • Greg Bottini says:

          But all we have left are the recordings, right? I never had the pleasure of hearing Callas in person.

    • This posting is about VIRGINIA ZEANI reaching her 95th Birthday and I hope it will not turn into yet another Callas-fest as there are many other sites for that.

      Of course these two great sopranos knew each other and admired each other’s work. Giovanna Battista Meneghini, Callas’s husband even told Mme Zeani (who personally told this to me) “Virginia, you are one of the very few sopranos my wife is frightened of”.

      Callas was inimitable and a magnificent artist, but she was aware that Virginia Zeani, a very passionate performer and a convincing actress, was vocally more secure.

      • Greg Bottini says:

        It may have escaped your notice, Charlotte, but I wished Madame Zeani “Happy Birthday” before the discussion of Callas even got started.
        I happen to agree with your statements about Madame Zeani’s gifts, but you are not the moderator of this blog. Don’t be a policeman.

  • Edgar Self says:

    E vero, Greg. Callas’s 1953 live “Qui la voce” from Mexico City is absolutely in order. One of many regrets is that I never saw her on the stage. Thas De Sabata “Macbeth” sounds interesting and could rival Judith Anderson’s.

    Callas, Claudia Muzio,Magda Olivero, Lotte Lehmann, Licia Albanese were great singing actresses not without faults that they put to dramatic use, as we oncediscussed. I sw only the last of them live. Ari Onassis, luckier and a little richer, courted the first two. Thank Heaven for records.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Hi Edgar,
      Yes, I admire every one of the artists you mention, and I have written so before on this blog. Marvelous singing actors, every one of them.
      None were faultless, but all were timeless and all were superb.
      And Onassis was a fool!
      – best regards, Greg
      PS Interesting that you should bring up Judith Anderson. I wonder if she ever did any singing?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Hola, Greg. Not that I know of. I met Judith Anderson at a Jeffers seminar atTor House in Carmel, the home of Robinson Jeffers, who wrote and adapted Euripides’s “Medea” for her, and saw her play Medea, the Nurse, and Lady Macbeth, but we talked about Jeffers and those performances.

    She was imposing on the stage and in film, but a small woman, although imperious, with a sonorous, deep voice. An Australian, she lived with her husband on their ranch in the Santa Lucia mountains east of Santa Barbara.

    William Everson (Brirother Antoninus) and Kenneth Rexroth’s former wife were there, and Donnan, one of Jeffers’s twin sons, and granddaughter Una, namesake of his wife.

  • What happens when a guest comment is posted and ready to be moderated? Will I be informed as to whether or not my 3 factually based comments made earlier today are or are not approved?

    • Edgar Self says:

      From sundown Fridays to sundown Saturdays there is little activity here, but then resumes in full spate. The discussion heading already introduces themotif Callas; the rest follows, but I take your point and felt guilty about subverting the discussion, though I wasn’t alone, and it is in any case imopossible to control. But you are right, Mme Zean’s great birthday and achievements are enough and deserve all honour.i

      Allusive discussion and the myriad ways of greatness are something you might discuss with the great friend of your youth when next you visit Weimar, as in “The Beloved Returns: or “Lotte in Weimar”, Thomas Mann’s delightfully absorbing and ingenious pastiche olf Goethe and the Kestners.

  • Edgar Self says:

    As we’re a;ready off topic, I’ve left a post on the Poulenc-Horowitz thread with some Horowitz titles for non-fans for Paul Carlile and Greg Bottini, who probably don’t need them at all.

    In youth he played operas and accompanied singers from memory, so there’s a slight, tenuous conneion.