Interview with American mezzo-soprano Nedda Casei

By Raymond Beegle
Special correspondent for Classical Voice

                      Photo credit: Michael Winslow

                      Photo credit: Michael Winslow

Rooms tell many things about their occupant. In her beautiful rooms, on the top floor of a fashionable Sutton Place apartment building, I learned a lot about Nedda Casei even before she had passed through the introductory smiles and words of welcome. A terrace with well cared for plants and flowers, a family of birds who considered themselves the rulersof the house, impressionistlandscape paintings, and 18th century furniture, hundreds of recordings neatly arranged, the statue of an angel looking down on us as we began to speak, made it clear that Nedda Casei was a woman of deep thoughts, reverence for life, and an eye for beauty. And in regard to beauty, Miss Casei, in her seventh decade, was very beautiful that afternoon. With a red dressing gown and a radiant smile, sitting before a window that looked out upon her lushly planted terrace, she was a live portrait that Whistler, or John Singer Sargent would have gladly claimed as his own.  As well, her inner beauty became more and more apparent as she spoke about her deep love and devotion to music, her relations with great colleagues,  some magic moments, and a few very challenging surprises:

“The first time I did Amneris I was scheduled to do Carmen! I had never done Amneris.  I had been singing at the Met for three or four years, and of course, if you didn't sing Amneris, 'where did you come from at the Met?!' Well, I was in Czechoslovakia and I had a contract for Carmen - one of the few times I actually carried my contract with me!   I was picked up at the airport and they're driving me into the city, and they said 'the Rhadames and the Aida will be at the rehearsal tomorrow, and you'll start at ten o'clock!'” [much laughter]. “ And I said ‘Don't you mean Don Jose and maybe Michaela??' And he said 'No! Its Aida - were doing Aida! Look at the billboard!' We were passing some big billboard just then.  It was that Russian period of time in the '60's and I couldn’t make out the Cyrillic letters – but I took his word for it!  I had been there earlier in the spring to make some recordings,  and while I was there, the Russian tanks actually crossed the border! I had to flee! I've been in four revolutions! That's why I'm writing a book! 'She likes red, and she causes revolutions!' they say. Well, regarding Aida, and the role of Amneris, you study these roles, but the problem is you're doing it in three days time, and you've never performed it before!  And you're in Czechoslovakia, and everybody's singing in Czech! Well... the tenor sang in Italian - he was Polish. And I go to a piano rehearsal, and then the next time, I'm singing it with the orchestra, in front of a red, white, and blue draped theater because they were so thrilled to have this American after the Russian takeover! I remember in the middle of the performance thinking 'I don't know where all the ‘pieta's’ go in the judgement scene!' and the prompter was giving cues in Czech! I did a lot of cramming between the third and fourth act! Well, I got it right, and had a big success. It seems a lot of my happiest memories took place when the world was falling apart!"

Another surprise involved her first encounter with Zeffirelli:

”I love rehearsals because there's whereI fnd the giving and taking - the creating,  especially if you're working with first class people. I was very blessed. I began with ZeffirellI when I was in Italy. I started at a very good place. Everybody else had already worked with him thousands of times, and there was a great to-do about me, and he said 'who is this Casei? I never heard of her!' And somebody came down to get me in the cafeteria, and said 'Zeffirelli is up on stage and he's never heard of you! He's looking for you!' So I was sitting there- 'oh, my career is over before it began!' I thought. I'm looking into my coffee cup like a beaten down child. Then I heard a stern - but beautiful -  voice: ’Get up!' It had kind of an English accent. (We were doing this performance of Rigoletto ).  I stood up - 'Turn around!' I turned around - 'You'll do! ‘ " [laughter] “That was my great qualification!  The sets were unbelievable! Nobody knew that I had never done the performance before. And of course I had never sung it with the orchestra before, and we never got to the third act.! Zeffirelli cancelled rehearsals. It kept being postponed.  He kept saying ’Well, let’s go over this part in the first act.' We got to the dress rehearsal and still we hadn't done the act completely - just bits here and there! They had trouble getting the third act up and time passed - the orchestra ran overtime and after an extra hour they packed up.  ‘Thats it!' And they walked out, so we did it with piano. And they could never get the whole set put up because t was very complicated. So I just said ’Its in your hands, God. I can just do the best I can!’  So we get to opening night. The gown I had was terrific!  I looked a lot like Zefferraelli's half sister, and we had gone clothes shopping together and become friendly, and he created this costume.  It weighed forty-five pounds... yes, it weighed forty-five pounds!  And we were running up and down stairs! It was all wool! Layers and layers! And ribbons!  It was glorious, but it was also heavy! And as I was about to go on stage, (the stage hands had put the third act together literally for the first time) there was a lot of mist, and a boat that was drawn across, and I was on a ledge, and the house was tilted into another ledge, and Rigoletto and Gilda crawled up the side of this stony rocky cliff -  it was very impressive. Well, as I was going on, the little box I was standing on - split! Luckily a stage hand who was watching at that moment caught me, I grabbed onto the edge of a platform, and he pushed. I stood up and the next second I was running in and singing ..."ah, ah, e vent'altre appresso!" And I thought to myself ‘well, that’s what’s known as baptism by fire!’ ' The set was so beautifully done - the fire in the fireplace looked so real - and the cauldron - I looked for the ladle - there it was! And I went over and ladled some soup for Sparafucille. It was such a unique set, you just knew what you had to do with it! One other thing happened. When I was leaving the stage one of those big big sand bags fell -  just a few feet from me. I thought… ‘is somebody trying to tell mt something??’” [laughter].

She knew at an early age she would be a singer, and built her life around it:

” Even as a young child I said ‘I’m going to be a opera singer!’ I was asthmatic. Nobody thought I had a chance, but I just said to myself ‘Of course I can!’  And you know Jerome Hines was asthmatic, and so was the wonderful baritone Cornell MacNeil. What a voice! And I remember walking with him once - we were in Chicago doing Rigoletto, and I heard him wheezing and I said 'do you have asthma?’ ’yes!’  'And you don't have your vaporizer with you, do you?  (I never go anywhere without it!) ’No!’ 'Well here! Use mine!' And he inhaled it and he was fine! And I thought to myself 'these people have overcome what people might say is impossible - but no - it isn't impossible! I think that perseverance is a talent - wanting it so badly, loving it so much.

“ I never went to school, I just studied music.  My teacher, William Herman set up classes in languages, so that we really spoke them. The most important thing Herman gave me was professionalism. He demanded that you really know your roles: the history, costumes people wore at the time - everything in depth. You had to know a language. You didn't learn it by superficial means. He had a seven year program if you were really serious - it was Roberta (Peters) Eleanore (Ross), Elaine(Malbin) and me - we were all working with him, and became very close. I thought I was a coloratura - I had alight high flute like voice to begin with - which often is the case with mezzos - Roberta, on the other hand, was an alto as a child and I was a coloratura! Coloratura, Hermann’s specialty, was always easy for me and I did stay for the entire seven years, but I didn't think it was truly right for me. I knew there was something not 100%.  What I needed was more roundness of tone - more real mezzo quality.  I was already singing professionally when I met Cesare Siepi.  My accompanist was his accompanist. Leo Taubman.  Taubman got me a place at the Mozarteum where they wanted an Octavian and a Komponist, and I had studied both roles.  Siepi sent me to a wonderful man and I ended up staying in Milan to work with Vittorio Piccinini. He was a fabulous teacher. Piccinini taught me the roundness, the love, the expression, the depth, of singing.

“Finally I went to Fordham University to get my degree - while I was working at the Met!  They were wonderful to me - they gave me one on one teachers because of my schedule of rehearsals and performances.”

She often remarked that one was always a student in one way or another, and that there were many kinds of teachers:

“ I was singing major roles at the Met for 21 years, and even then I was still learning. Of course they have coaches, and one learns a lot by that means. Maestro works with the coaches, gives them his ideas, tempi, what he wants - then you're called into work with the coaches - then there are ensemble rehearsals with the maestro so he can tear you apart! Or put you together depending on how they do it. It’s a process. And then if they worked with you before it makes the process that much easier because they know you and trust you.

“ Also life experience is a great teacher Lifethings - loss or something joyful - how does it affect you - your singing - your voice?]Oh, it does! After a while I think it gives you strength.  Iwent through a very unpleasant four or five months in my life when I was first working in Europe . I was in Basel, and I had some very unpleasant things happen there. But it gave me a lot of inner courage afterwards. Going through it was not so great, but afterwards…, you learn a great deal from a bad spell.  And when I used to feel nervous, or when I was just about to go on stage – I’d think ‘you’ve been through Basel, you can go through anything!’ It gave me that feeling – what I went through in those early stages, gave me a self knowledge – an ability to go through terrible things. I think the voice grows when you grow. When my husband died, - within a month after his death – I was asked to open the new theater in Taipei.  They chose the Lied von der Erde, and I decided to do it in memory of my husband.  If I hadn’t gone through that death, it would have been a totally different performance. But that’s the mysterious thing about music. We experience things – something good, something bad, and the voice changes."

Music is a way of life for Nedda Casei:

“ I lived for my singing. I married very late - almost forty.  I realized it was a good idea not to marry young because you need to share - and being an opera singer you need to be selfish. ’What’s good for me? What’s good for my voice? What’s good for my health?’ After performances I was tired. I really tried to avoid receptions, most of the time. Its not like you just had a performance and then you rest for a month. You have other rehearsals, other performances, things keep going. You're basically earning a living, and to go and be social - the talking, being charming - is wearing! You know, its not like life stops and you can go and enjoy it. You have lessons, coaching, preparations, performances.

There were many opportunities to observe the greatest musicians at close range, from both a personal and an artistic standpoint:

“I love working with colleagues. Zinka Milanov was wonderful! I remember the first time I heard her was in the Verdi Requiem at the very beginning of Bing's regime. Oh! Glorious! She was warm and bubbly - a great cook - and she was much fun. We were neighbors. She had a uniquely beautiful voice and she was a live wire. We had a great time working together - but of course, I wasn't a soprano - maybe that made a difference! We often ran into each other outside the Met and socialized with her and her husband. You know he was a Yugoslavian diplomat - he was ambassador to Mexico when I was singing there. How interesting. During the war he was in the underground - fought against the Nazis, became a distinguished diplomat, and to me he was just Liubo, Zinka's husband, a very gentle man ! Its unbelievable, the histories people have! And hers is even more unbelievable! Everyone has his own story.
“I also remember singing Suzuki in Madama Butterfly with Leontine Price. She hadn’t sung at the Met for a few years and people bought up the tickets instantly. She did only two or three performances at the time The ovation after she sang ‘tu, tu…’ with the child in her arms! It was like a wave that hit us. I was standing next to her and it was overwhelming… overwhelming! The love and passion people felt toward her. Extraordinary! I guess the basis of it all – on both sides of the stage – is love.

“On the other hand, sometimes it’s only admiration.  I was making my Met debut in Rigoletto, and covering Octavian in Rosenkavalier, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was making her debut. Lisa Della Casa – the beautiful Lisa Della Casa -  was doing Octavian. The two women hated each other!   They really did not get along at all.  And Lisa thought that she should be doing the Marchellin so she didn’t come to rehearsals – and I was her cover so I ended up doing all the rehearsals with Schwarzkopf, the leading Marschallin of our day. I remember being so startled at the first session. The singers of that day were glamorous even in rehearsal. They wore fancy clothes and jewelry - they were elegant!  You never arrived at rehearsal without being in your best.  Well… in she came! She was wearing a very ‘Hausfrau’ kind of dress, and no makeup – she looked very tired and worn - you know, nothing that I had thought of as Schwarzkopf – the glamorous Schwarzkopf!  So you know- I was a little disappointed in the outward part - the package was not so great – but I had a wonderful opportunity of working with her - seeing how she worked up close, which was terrific, although she was very cold – who was I to her??  So… time went by, and it came to the final rehearsal. Lisa Della Casa had not been coming at all, and they made an ultimatum: ‘if you don’t come to the final dress rehearsal, Miss Casei is doing the performance.’ Well, it strikes terror in you – as well as hope!  You never know which one is going to dominate! So I went to the dress rehearsal, and Della Casa was there.  I watched intently from the house. When Schwarzkopf raised her head off the pillow in the first act, beautiful in her pristine way, it was stunning. They were in costume, of course, and I was astonished at her transformation. She did her own make-up, her own wigs – everything.  She came two hours or more ahead of everybody else. Nobody was allowed into her dressing room. Lisa Della Casa was an equal in her fashion as a prima donna and, as I said, really wanted to be playing the Marschallin herself. They were doing a scene where she and the maid were bustling around. She was doing this and she was doing that– and she was stealing every scene she could. Schwarzpopf became aware that this was going on, so when Della Casa happened to get close to her, she reached out and grabbed her by the wrist – and held on tight! I was watching everything these two ladies were doing, and it was the battle of the year!  As I was covering the role, if anything went too far wrong, I was going to be up there! What a tussle they had!  But things moved along.  One of the most beautiful things I ever saw occurred when the Marschallin finishes the first monologue and she drops the mirror, and says ‘Time – I sometimes stop the clock.’ – So beautiful the way she did that. And also in the last act, she had another moment that was stunning.  In her final scene she was standing on the stairway and she had on this beautiful silver/white wig with a small feather in it with a diamond quill, and a very beautiful royal purple velvet cape falling on one shoulder. And she stood there – she must have payed the lighting man a special something – there was a silver ray of light – just like moonlight – beautiful! It illuminated all of her as she made her exit, leaving Sophie and Octavian to themselves and their new love.”

These reminiscences brought to mind singers of the era just before her:

“I heard wonderful singers - and they were beautiful! They talk about singers being fat, and this and that - they weren't.  They were beautiful and they were good actors. This idea that this has all happened recently- not true! I heard Flagstad and Melchior, and it wasn't shabby! And Albanese, and Gigli - Butterfly was to die for! They knew what they were singing about! Blood and guts and thunder! Drama!  During the war years the American singers all came out - Tucker, Pierce, Rise Stephens, so many of them very fine.  Its very interesting, isn’t it, that Helen Traubellost her job because she went into night clubs... but look whats happening now! Fascinating!  Later, Bing brought in directors like Margaret Webester,  and singing actors like Siepi. That first cast of Don Carlo was unforgettable ! Bjoerling, and Merril, Barbieri, Hines. The next generation - maybe technically better – but not so good!”

The inevitable subject of “now,” the Gelb regime, followed:

“I think he's doing wonderful things, opening the house up to a larger public - filling the house, using film directors, and television people- its wonderful for TV - or the movie theater, but, you know, I find that I enjoy them much more on the screen than I do in the house. – something to think about!  There's also a big problem and they haven't solved it yet. The house needs the large gesture, the openness, the breadth, and the camera needs smaller, subtler movements.

‘And the singers?’ I asked:

“ The singers of today are definitely different. They're elegant, they're refined, they’re analytical.  Zinka wasn't any of those things!   Well, of course, there's a certain excitement that’s lacking.  Now its about the sets and things like that - being more spectacular. One of the things that disturbs be - (I said it to a friend and he got quite angry with me) - I don't like people leaping to their feet all the time. I think a standing ovation is a rare and special event. That's what people do now. At any performance they leap to their feet at the end. ‘Ah! Bravo! bravo!’ And I don't think they know what they've heard! I don't think they know whether it was good or not. That's our big progress! On the other hand,  its more available to more people - maybe there's a correlation between the two! There used to be a greater number of people who loved opera passionately, and they read the libretto before they went to the performance - people who were really lovers of the art form. Today its - social. Of course its always had a social implication in America. The wealthy families who had their boxes and wore their diamonds. Its always had that strata of those who really didn't know what the singing was about, but it seems to be getting larger.

Views such as these have led Miss Casei into passing on the tradition she believes in through master classes and private teaching:
“After 35 years of performing I was invited to be Visiting Professor at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts in Japan, developing their opera program, and working with singers. As time went on I realized how much one learns from being a teacher. If I had had that knowledge when I was singing at the Met I would have been a far finer singer! Having to communicate something to these students, some who knew a little English, others who knew a little German or Italian, you had to use your imagination in every kind of way to get what you wanted from them. I prefer imagery- because nobody can see a vocal chord -  thank God!   When I hear some teachers describing what the vocal chords look like and how they work I think ‘Oh God! I don’t want to know! I don't even want to hear about it! ‘ Well - it all has to be done with the imagination. People get into trouble when they go too much by theory.  The voice is something emotional - emotional, spiritual, and physical. And you need all those qualities. In master classes and with private students I see that there is often a certain depth of emotion lacking. I blame a lot of that on not knowing the languages. I've had many students, that generally learn phonetically. When I ask them 'don't you study Italian?’  ’Oh, I have a diction teacher, and she tells me how to say it!’ I said, ‘Oh, isn’t that great! And when they're saying something do you know what they're saying back??’   ‘Well, not really!’  I mean they've learned syllables by rote, and I find that very disturbing.”

Work of various kinds had been a prominent subject in our conversation: the work of vocal training, of self discipline, of soul searching, of confronting fear, of producing in spite of a multitude of obstacles. And what had Nedda Casei received in return? One reward among many, perhaps the most precious, and certainly the most mysterious, is the instant when something , a note, a phrase, a dramatic gesture, is produced and time stops, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for an entire evening. Music itself seems to speak, and both the artist and the audience feel its power:

“This might seem strange, but in Camren, at the end of Don Jose’s flower song there is always tremendous applause. The music, however, goes on – becomes quiet, and it is almost never heard. In this case the conductor held up his hand so there was no applause. Silence…  and then I sang ”Non! Tu ne m’aime pas!”  No big notes, no loud notes, but, it cast a great spell. It affected the dramatic tone of the entire scene. It was one of those magical happenings.

“ And I also remember the fourth act of Aida.  There were times… “[a sweep of the hand, but no words followed].

“ Also, my final concert. I sang Schumann, Poulenc, and Britten. It was at the end of my teaching commitment in Japan and they asked me to do a recital, and in a moment of follia I said yes,of course I would do it! As it got closer to the date, I realized I hadn't been singing!  This was the second year of my being a visiting professor, so I hadn't concentrated on my own voice the way I would if I had been performing, and when it got close to the concert - I was terrified!  I realized I'd have all the teachers there - all the students! Well - I worked very hard, and in a high state of nerves I went off to do the concert.  Surprise!  The instant I walked on stage the nerves were totally gone! I realized 'these are your friends! These are people you want to sing for!' and I started singing.  Well, I’ve thought a lot about that final concert… yes… and I made up my mind - I thought to myself – ‘you know… that’s the best singing you’ve ever done!’ And that’s the way I finished!”  [ A long pause, a serious face, then abrupt laughter].

When she closed her door, and I turned to take the elevator to the noisy street I thought about the immense gap between the nuts and bolts of life and the relatively few moments of wonder, and transport we fragile humans are allowed. Nedda Casei has a store of them, won through love, work, disappointment, and many triumphs as well. They are safe in the past, where no one can take them away.

Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.