Renata Scotto, soprano hailed for her thrilling characterisations and as ‘a prima donna or nothing’ – obituary

Renata Scotto (New York, 1981): Placido Domingo described her  as ‘the closest I have ever worked [with] to a real singing actress’
Renata Scotto (New York, 1981): Placido Domingo described her as ‘the closest I have ever worked [with] to a real singing actress’ - Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images

Renata Scotto, the operatic soprano, who has died aged 89, described herself in a memoir as “more than a diva”; a diminutive 5ft tall (she was once criticised as being “too short for Tosca”) she made up for what she lacked in height with a piercingly accurate voice, a fierce sense of dramatic characterisation and a refusal to be taken for granted.

She was launched to international stardom at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival when Maria Callas pulled out of an unscheduled fifth performance of La Sonnambula and Renata Scotto, a 23-year-old rising star in Italy, was called in to take her place. Callas had pleaded illness, though according to Renata Scotto she had a party to attend elsewhere.

Although she had never sung the title role before, Renata Scotto’s performance was, as the Telegraph critic put it, “a story-book success”. Miss Scotto, the critic went on, “possesses a sweet, strong true voice that (apart from a certain intrusive piercing quality at the top) is evenly and expertly controlled.” The standing ovation she received was, he noted, “no less than her due”. “I became a celebrity, I could choose my roles,” she recalled. “The applause at the end would not stop, with 10, 12 solo calls.”

In fact, this was not the first time she had sung in Britain. Earlier the same year she had appeared in an Italian season at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, London, as the consumptive courtesan Violetta in La Traviata opposite Alfredo Kraus’s Alfredo. The Telegraph’s Alan Blyth later recalled that “for once the young lovers seemed just that, and both singers delighted the ear with their innately stylish singing.” She also took on the role of Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, the Telegraph critic “DCPM” describing her as “a real find with her entrancing voice, looks and personality”.

Renata Scotto made her Covent Garden debut in 1962 as Cio-Cio-San, the title character of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the role for which she became best known, the Telegraph’s Donald Mitchell marvelling how “to an extraordinary degree she both looked the part and made a reality of it in vocal terms.” Also at the Royal Opera House the same year she was a “moving Mimi”, and the following year her Manon was described as “sweet, ecstatic and psychologically brilliant”.

The “intrusive piercing quality” in her upper register remained a problem for some. When she took the Covent Garden stage as Gilda in a revival of Zeffirelli’s production of Rigoletto,  the Telegraph critic noted that while at her best her singing was “of the school of Callas” she sometimes, unwisely in his view, felt the need to “strike out on her own”.

Meanwhile, of her performance in 1965 as Violetta, the paper’s reviewer confessed that “so completely did I fall under her spell that it became clear only in retrospect to what extent her high notes are an acquired taste.”

“I prefer to have one unbeautiful note in my voice,” Renata Scotto said in 1982, “than perfection that doesn’t mean anything.”

Metropolitan Opera's Manon Lescaut starring Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo and Pablo Elvira, 1980
Metropolitan Opera's Manon Lescaut starring Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo and Pablo Elvira, 1980 - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It was probably not so much pique at the occasional criticism of shrillness, or her typecasting as Covent Garden’s Puccini heroine “par excellence”, that meant that from the mid-1960s she was seldom seen in Britain. Rather, it was the fact that she had achieved wider international stardom after making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Butterfly in 1965 and becoming, by the mid-1970s, the Met’s unofficial house soprano.

As they sang so many of the same roles, Renata Scotto could never shake off comparisons with Callas. Like the great Greek soprano she had a voice that was electrifying without being traditionally beautiful and she was known, like Callas, for the huge dramatic conviction she brought to her roles. However, Callas devotees resented suggestions that Renata Scotto was Callas’s heir.

When she sang the role of Elena for the first time in Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani at la Scala in 1970, Callas was in the audience and the great diva’s fans kept interrupting the performance with shouts of “Maria, Maria!” and “Viva Callas!” In a post-performance interview in her dressing room, Renata Scotto protested pointedly: “Let them get Callas to come and do Vespri – if she can sing.”

Later, at the Met in 1981, when she sang the title role in Norma, hecklers taunted her with cries of “Brava Callas, Brava Callas!” even though Callas had died four years earlier, and kept up the barrage until Met staff intervened to bundle the worst offenders out of the opera house. Back in her dressing room, Renata Scotto, who struggled to keep her weight down, was greeted by a Miss Piggy doll, delivered by hand earlier that afternoon.

Notwithstanding such provocations, Renata Scotto denied suggestions of a feud with Callas, though in a 1984 memoir, Scotto: More Than a Diva (with Octavio Roca), she showed herself to be more than capable of dealing with conductors who took issue with her interpretations, fellow stars who failed to show her the respect she felt she was due and opera-house managers refusing to give her the roles she wanted. “Many times I have had discussions, sometimes fights, and always I win,” she said.

Rehearsing Il trovatore with Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, 1976
Rehearsing Il trovatore with Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, 1976 - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In 1964, she returned abruptly from Russia, where she was touring with the La Scala company after its general manager, Antonio Ghiringhelli, withdrew his promise to cast her as Violetta. She refused to sing with the company while he remained in post, and only returned to the Milan house after he stepped down in 1972.

Nor would she take any nonsense from the Met’s formidable general manager Rudolf Bing. In 1972, after Bing had cast her in the same roles for three successive seasons – refusing her request for “opportunities, growth and new challenges” with the words “Sorry, miss, you’ll have to wait your turn” – she made a much-publicised exit, complaining of “Bing bondage”. She only returned to the house after his tenure ended, stepping in for Montserrat Caballé for a well-received run of I Vespri Siciliani in 1974.

She returned to Covent Garden a couple of times, but British opera lovers for the most part had to remain content with her extensive discography. This included two recordings of Madame Butterfly, the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen writing in 1999 that her 1966 recording, with Barbirolli and Bergonzi, “stands in my view supreme”, the soprano exploiting the “steelier elements of Butterfly’s personality to lift the opera out of the realms of picturesque pathos”.

The daughter of a police officer and a seamstress, Renata Scotto was born on February 24 1934 in Savona, a fishing port west of Genoa. When Savona came under Allied bombardment during the Second World War, Renata, her mother Santina and older sister took refuge in a nearby Alpine village, where Santina made ends meet sewing uniforms for Italian fascists – and later American GIs.

Renata Scotto in a production of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera, New York
Renata Scotto in a production of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera, New York - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Renata Scotto would later write that when singing the role of Mimì the seamstress in La bohème, she would “understand Mimì’s sweet desperation and her happiness by remembering Santina the seamstress as she worked and sang”.

During the war she entertained neighbours by singing from her bedroom window, for which she was paid in sweets, while back in Savona she would often join her uncle, a fisherman, on his boat, singing arias “to attract the fish”.

She was 12 when her uncle took her to her first opera – Rigoletto with Tito Gobbi in the title role – at the opera house in Savona. She decided then and there: “I wanted to be a star, and prima donna.” Indeed she believed herself, so she claimed in her autobiography, to be the reincarnation of the sensational 19th-century diva Maria Malibran.

Aged 16 she moved to Milan to study, supporting herself by working as a cleaner in a convent. In 1952, aged 18, she won a competition with the prize of the role of Violetta in La traviata at Milan’s Teatro Nuovo. Two years later she made her debut at La Scala in the secondary role of Walter, the strolling minstrel in Catalani’s La Wally, a performance that reportedly earned her 15 curtain calls, more than her more famous co-stars, Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco.

For the most part in her early years she preferred regional opera houses – “Leading roles in smaller theatres are better than second leads at La Scala,” she said. “I will be a prima donna or nothing.” This the tenor Giuseppe di Stefano would find to his cost in 1963 during a performance of L’Elisir d’Amore in Bergamo: he left the stage to eat an apple in the wings and, when he returned, she slapped him across the face for his lèse-majesté.

Renata Scotto’s greatest professional partnership was with James Levine, who conducted her in Vespri on her return to the Met in 1974 and became the Met’s music director in 1976. “With him it was like I was flying finally,” she recalled. “ I found my way. Because he wanted to explore me as much as I wanted to explore me, he wanted to explore my possibility.”

With Plácido Domingo, left, and Pablo Elvira, in a production of Manon Lescaut at the New York Met in 1980
With Plácido Domingo, left, and Pablo Elvira, in a production of Manon Lescaut at the New York Met in 1980 - Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

She plunged into an entirely new set of roles: all three heroines in Il trittico, and leading roles in Il trovatore, Le prophète, Adriana Lecouvreur, Otello, Luisa Miller, Don Carlo, La Gioconda, Manon Lescaut, Norma, Macbeth, Francesca da Rimini, La clemenza di Tito, Tosca and more.

She got on with most of her co-stars, particularly Plácido Domingo, who described her  in 1978 as “the closest I have ever worked [with] to a real singing actress”.

She appeared, as Mimi, with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo, in the 1977 performance of La bohème that inaugurated the “Live from the Met” broadcasts, but fell out with him (he is referred to in her memoir as “a certain tenor”) after a 1979 televised performance of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda when he turned up for rehearsals without adequately preparing his role, got top billing over her and then, to add insult to injury, took two unscheduled curtain calls, when she had only been allowed one. Renata Scotto was seen retreating to her dressing room in high dudgeon, swearing in Italian.

Curtain call for Renata Scotto
Curtain call for Renata Scotto - Ira Nowinski/Corbis/VCG via Getty

Between 1965 and 1987, she delivered more than 300 performances in 26 roles at the Met, ending her career on the stage there with a final performance as Cio-Cio-San in 1987. By then, she had begun to turn her hand to stage direction and she went on to direct, to mostly modest reviews, at opera houses around the world, also conducting masterclasses and coaching singers.

In the 1990s she trod the boards at smaller venues and festivals, trading in lyric soprano roles that no longer suited her voice for lower-lying ones, and exploring corners of the repertoire she had never tried before, her roles including Klytaemnestra the maniacal queen in Strauss’s Elektra, the Marschallin in his Der Rosenkavalier, Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal and even the title role in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium and the desperate, lonely woman in Poulenc’s La voix humaine.

She continued until shortly before her death to be a highly valued coach and mentor, always happy to impart her wisdom and experience, if impatient when she came across mediocrity.

In 1960 she married Lorenzo Anselmi, former first violinist at La Scala, who became her manager and coach. He died in 2021 and she is survived by their son and daughter.

Renata Scotto, born February 24 1934, died August 16 2023