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The "Bad Boy" of Opera this week on The Lyric Stage

This week on the Lyric Stage we have examples of the early recordings of Giuseppe Di Stefano, who some have called the "bad boy" of opera. His post World War 2 rise to international fame was about as fast as it could be, beginning with his 1946 debut at Reggio Emilia as Des Grieux in Manon, and then with the same role at La Scala a year later, when he was only 26 years old. He was a major star into the 1960's. But one recurring theme in criticism about Di Stefano is frustration that he squandered his gift. For example, one writer says this:

"…Di Stefano was the perennial 'bad boy' of opera – a flamboyant, volatile, willful and sometimes erratic opera star, who enjoyed his position as a macho figure of undoubted attraction. He preferred the lifestyle of smoking and the fast track to that of a dedicated artist: by the mid-1960’s he was virtually a spent force, though he was only in his mid-40’s."

And that is all true. But what is also true is that his early recordings place him, for many, as one of the great tenors of the last century, no matter what else went on in his life. 

The audience at DiStefano's debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1948 gave him a tumultuous ovation, even given that a claque might have helped. But even on this night there were warnings about di Stefano’s use of his gift. Virgil Thomson wrote in the New York Herald Tribune the next day "I do hope that Mr. Di Stefano does not mistake the warmth of his reception for evidence that his art is without blemish…" Other critics of his debut - a surprisingly lukewarm lot - also pointed out that in spite of his obvious natural gifts, they needed refinement and technical perfection.

It was not to be. By the 1960's he had lost his beautiful vocal line and also developed pitch problems. But Di Stefano had no regrets. He told a reporter from Opera News in1999 that "I wanted to enjoy life -- not just the opera." He said jealous critics in the opera world used his exuberant "live life to the full philosophy" as an opening to criticize his singing. And besides, he said, allergies caused his vocal problems. He summed up "… Let people today judge me by my recordings, not by rumors.” Giuseppe di Stefano died in 2006 at the age of 86