Brava for the Diva
Documentary about local soprano Virginia Zeani honors her singing, teaching career
Virginia Zeani in Act 1 of “La Traviata.” Inset: Now, with her dog Rocky. WITH OPERA SINGERS, IT’S ALL about the voice — those notes and nuances, inflections and tones and colors that tell a story musically.
But with Virginia Zeani, it almost is as much about the eyes as it is the voice.
Watch her as Violetta in “La Traviata.”
Even at the age of 54, a time when most singers are beginning to curtail such roles, the voice is sumptuous and well supported, the trills beautifully executed.
And her knowing eyes, those limpid pools of green, foretell Violetta’s unhappy fate in a video from 1980.
Thirty-three years later, those eyes sparkle like emeralds as Madame Zeani, who lives in suburban West Palm Beach, talks about her career, first as a performer then as a teacher.
“I was the age of 6 in the countryside and I was singing all the time to my mother,” she says.
She sings a ditty in a low, even tone.
“I cannot say that there was a moment in my life that I did not sing or whistle,” she says. She whistles, letting loose a brilliant trill that resonates throughout her elegantly appointed living room.
“I was 5 or 6 and I would whistle in the garden for the birds.”
Rocky, her perky bichon frisé, barks his approval.
Madame Zeani will turn 88 in October, and she still draws applause, whether it’s at home or in public.
Lately, she has drawn accolades.
In 2010, Classical Singer magazine named her Teacher of the Year. Also in 2010, King Michael of Romania awarded her his highest honor, “Nihil Sine Deo.”
The eyes have it: A glamour shot of Virginia Zeani taken in the 1950s or ’60s. COURTESY PHOTOS And on Sept. 28, the Venetian Arts Society of Fort Lauderdale will hold a golden anniversary salon in Madame Zeani’s honor, including the screening of a documentary that will offer highlights of her career.
“She’s such a charming woman. The audience is going to eat her up with a spoon,” said William Riddle, executive director of the Venetian Arts Society.
Still quite elegant, she is every inch the diva, but she is very approachable.
“She is very positive, but very strong. An international diva is not a wallflower, so I found out from the very beginning what a strong persona this woman has,” said one of Madame Zeani’s former students, Marilyn Mims, herself an internationally known soprano, and now a vocal instructor at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Virginia Zeani and her husband, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, star in “The Tales of Hoffman.” Madame Zeani honed that personality in a world that was much as it had been centuries before.
“I was born in the countryside in Romania, where there was no electricity, no water, nothing. It was a peasant place, so I stayed there until the age of 6,” she says. She was born in 1925.
No electricity meant no radio and little exposure to the outside world.
“I heard always the gypsies and I was so enchanted that every time they played for Sunday afternoons singing with, as the French say, “bouche bée,” open mouth,” she says, her accent revealing her Romanian roots.
Then at age 9, she fell in love with opera after seeing a production of “Madama Butterfly.”
“I saw ‘Butterfly’ and I came home and I told my mother I would be an opera singer. She told me to forget these stupid things,” she says.
Virginia Zeani and her husband, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, in the 1960s. That exposed her to a bold, new world.
“For me, the first important thing was to hear the radio. The second was to see the bathroom in porcelain,” Madame Zeani says, laughing.
At 13, she moved to Bucharest and began to study music in earnest. She sang in a church choir and she paid for lessons with the nominal fee she received for her choral work.
She came of age during World War II, and in March 1947, at age 21, she traveled to Milan to study with tenor Aureliano Pertile. She also learned from conductor Arturo Toscanini’s coaches at La Scala, the world-famous opera house in Milan.
By then, Romania had come under the communist government that would rule for more than 40 years. She did not see her parents for 16 years after she left Romania for Italy.
She learned major roles and worked toward winning leads at regional opera houses.
Then, in 1948, her big break came.
Soprano Margherita Carosio fell ill and the Teatro Duse in Bologna needed a replacement for its Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
Madame Zeani was available.
She was all of 22, and she was a sensation. She sang Violetta more than 600 times over the course of her career.
That led to tours all over Europe, including performances in England during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation year.
It was at Milan’s La Scala that her personal destiny was fulfilled.
She made her debut there in 1956 as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar.” Bass Nicola Rossi Lemeni, with whom she had briefly sung in Bellini’s “I Puritani” in Florence, had the title role. He had been costumed as an older man in “Puritani;” she had not realized they were close in age.
ABOVE: A recent portrait of soprano Virginia Zeani. RIGHT: Madame Zeani as Violetta in “La Traviata.” This time, it was love at first sight.
Within a week, Mr. Rossi Lemeni asked her to marry him. She accepted three weeks later, and they married in Rome the next spring.
Her pregnancy with their son Alessandro may partially explain her absence from the American stage.
Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, had tried to engage her.
She had signed a two-year contract, then married and then was awaiting the birth of her son.
“I didn’t come, and Bing was upset for years,” she says.
He was powerful, and could make or break singers’ careers in the United States. His firing of soprano Maria Callas in 1958 created a scandal.
Madame Zeani managed to avoid that. After all, she enjoyed following her husband and had a solid career in Italy. She even created a role, that of Blanche in Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” for the opera’s premiere at La Scala.
Traveling back and forth to dates in America was exhausting, she says. One winter, she performed four separate dates, making the trans-Atlantic crossing each time.
“I was not trying to have celebrity. I was trying to work hard and to have an honest career. This was my idea, and I am so happy when I see people of a certain age that heard me on the stage and they say, ‘Oh, we had a big emotion, we were so happy.’ They never make publicity of this,” she says.
She does remember much of the publicity surrounding Callas.
“When she died, I passed from here to there, I arrived in Bucharest to record ‘Tosca’ and I called home and the housekeeper said my husband was not home because he was called to the Italian television network because Callas was dead,” she says.
Madame Zeani’s husband had traveled on the same ship as Callas from the United States to Italy shortly before Callas made her famous debut in “La Gioconda” at the Arena in Verona in 1947. Both had been engaged to sing in “Turandot” in Chicago but the company folded before the show opened.
In Verona, Callas had wowed the crowd while singing at a home. Madame Zeani’s husband introduced her to the artistic director of the Verona Opera Festival.
“She was this big woman, and she sings Norma. And everybody says, ‘My God, she can sing Gioconda,’ because she had this immense, solid sound, with which sound she sang a lot of Wagner in the beginning of her life,” Madame Zeani says. “People forget these things. They write stupidity. She died for stupidity. I’m sorry.”
It never was easy for Callas, who was a teen in German-occupied Greece during World War II, had a brilliant career, a failed marriage, an ill-fated romance with Aristotle Onassis, then died under mysterious circumstances in 1977.
“Maria was always unhappy with everything,” Madame Zeani says.
There would appear to be nothing unhappy about Madame Zeani.
For more than 30 years, Madame Zeani has been known as an inspired teacher.
Around the time she and Mr. Rossi Lemeni were curtailing their stage careers, they received an invitation to teach at Indiana University in Bloomington, academic home to some of the nation’s top musicians, including Joshua Bell, Sylvia McNair, Chris Botti, Leonard Slatkin, Hoagy Carmichael and Ms. Mims.
“I think I was one of the first to enroll as one of her private voice students. I had only been studying singing for, like, two or three years at that point,” Ms. McNair says by phone from Bloomington, where she also has followed Madame Zeani’s path as a singer and a teacher. “I was an idiot. I didn’t know anything. I had no idea the legendary career this woman had had and was still having at that point. I had no idea that she was an artist on the same level as Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi — the great divas. They were the reigning prima donnas at the great opera houses for two to three decades.”
Ms. McNair, a soprano who has had an impressive international career of her own, was in awe. Madame Zeani and husband had moved from Rome.
“So she moved to the middle of a cornfield in southern Indiana and all I knew at that point was what I heard on a recording or two. I didn’t realize what I was walking into,” she says.
Madame Zeani says her husband had been invited to teach in Bloomington.
“We were thinking, no it’s not possible. We refused. Then the dean called again and called again,” she remembers. “And at a certain point, I said to Nicola, ‘You have to go see this university. It’s the best in the world, very well organized.’”
He liked the campus and persuaded his wife to come see.
“My friends in Rome said, ‘You are here so important. In Indiana, you have to go with the Indians.’ But I was curioso so I came to visit him,” she says.
She also liked the town and the campus.
“I was 56, he would be 61 and we said, ‘What the hell?’ … I came to Indiana and lived with the Indians and they didn’t kill me, so I stayed there 24 years.”
Mr. Rossi Lemeni died in 1991; Madame Zeani continued to teach in Bloomington until 2002, when she settled in West Palm Beach after visiting former student Marilyn Mims.
Ms. Mims met Madame Zeani after auditioning in 1984.
“I sang two very difficult arias with my audition at 10 a.m., and I wrote her a note. She immediately called me on the phone, and I’ll never forget that phone call because I couldn’t understand a word she was saying,” Ms. Mims says.
Madame Zeani did not really learn English until she settled in the United States.
“Bless her heart, I doubt she spoke five words of English, so she did a lot of her teaching by demonstration, which meant I got to hear her sing a lot. That meant I was hearing this voice as beautiful as the purest diamond coming out of the face and body of this drop-dead gorgeous woman. I was a graduate student,” Ms. McNair says. “I didn’t have a hundred dollars, and here swans into my life a prima donna assoluta.” And a prima donna she remains.
On a busy afternoon, Madame Zeani holds court in the living room as two vocal students, sopranos from Romania and from Switzerland, greet visitors.
She helps those students train their voices and they help her around the house. In the past year, arthritis in her knee has made walking painful, and she frequently uses an elegant silver-capped cane.
When she needs assistance, she sings out to the students, who match her note for note, tone for tone.
She still drives, calling it “my great joy.”
But beyond that joy are her legacies of music and family.
“It’s not just about her gift, or my gift. It’s about the gift that we’re passing down to future generations. It has such tentacles in the world of singing,” said Ms. Mims, who named her daughter Virginia, also a classical singer, after Madame Zeani. “Thank you, God, that they did come to America, because I do not think that there would be a lot of Italian bel canto singing going on.”
As for family, her son, Alessandro, a physician, lives around the corner from her with his wife and son.
“I have family who are ex-Italian who are American. Everybody has to find the country of the dreams of every European, America. Now, if our dreams are not the same, who cares? It’s a great, great country. After Italy, which is difficult at this moment, I would never want to live in another place.”
She muses some more, then, with a prima donna’s largesse, she calls for Champagne and the laughter continues. ¦