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Friday, January 13, 2012

The Training of Beniamino Gigli, a lesson for today's singers

Baritone Antonio Cotogni's class at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome
Antonio Cotogni (center row, center), Beniamino Gigli (top row, right), Enrico Rosati (center row, 2nd from right)
Photograph owned by and scan, property of Harmonie Autographs and Music, Inc. no reproduction without credit

Among the fabled tenor names in operatic history is one, Beniamino Gigli.  Gigli rose to prominence after the death of Enrico Caruso in 1921, though due to differences in their voices, the two should never really be compared, even though they shared repertory.  Gigli had a tone and coloration which has been described as "honey" and was closer to a lyric voice than Caruso, though as he aged his voice darkened.  Gigli had a typical Italian tenor's introduction to singing, he was in the choir of his home town cathedral in Recanati. As he grew older, he received some private lessons in his home town. In 1910 he was compelled to join the military and was stationed in Rome.  As Gigli searched for a vocal instructor in Rome, a certain Colonel Delfino recommended he audition for a place at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.  Gigli, a natural singer did not have any formal musical training other than the church and singing lessons in Recanati and had never learned to play the piano, a requirement for entrance into the Conservatory.  However, they made an exception for him due to his natural abilities as a singer and he was selected by legendary baritone Antonio Cotogni for his class.  Now Cotogni literally was considered to be the greatest baritone of his time.  He created the part of Posa in the Italian primi of "Don Carlo" and Verdi actually wept as he heard him sing "O, Carlo, ascolta" during a rehearsal of the work.  Cotogni had a marvelous career in Italy, however, he made his true fame and fortune in Russia as a favorite of the Czar.  Firmly rooted in the technique founded by the Bel Canto composers and singers of the prior generation, he passed along the technique to a rather diverse group of singers including Mattia Battistini, Jean de Reszke and Carlo Galeffi to name three.  By the time Gigli auditioned, he was in his eighties and had been at Santa Cecilia for over twenty years.   According to Gigli in his autobiography, The Memoirs of Beniamino Gigli composer Stanislao Falchi who was the Director of Santa Cecilia took him aside and told him he felt that Enrico Rosati would be a better teacher for him and he would advance more rapidly if he studied with him.  Gigli was stuck in a quandary as he wanted to study with Cotogni, but finally relented and quite unwillingly enrolled with Rosati.  In the book, Gigli says that Rosati said, "You needn't stay if you don't want to" the first time he walked into class. "Please yourself." He remained with Rosati for two years, until the time of his debut.  

At a time when opera was performed by every Tom, Dick and Harry impressario in Italy, Gigli like so many others could have walked onto the stage without training.  Gigli writes about Rosati, "he understood my voice completely, and led me forward with no sense of strain, or effort."  Gigli goes on to say, "The foundations of my vocal training had of course by this time been laid, but my singing still had a number of faults, and these Rosati was determined to cure me of. For example, I had grown accustomed to singing at the top of my voice, with all the strength of my lungs; and the result was the high notes gave me some trouble.  Rosati helped me cultivate the finer shades of tone and taught me a sense of proportion.  He made me leave opera alone for awhile and concentrate of delicate seventeenth and eighteenth Century songs..."  The point is, Gigli sought out the training, found the right teacher and was able to parlay the natural ability and learned technique into a legendary opera career.     

Interestingly, Rosati was able to parlay his tutelage of Gigli and another close contemporary Giacomo Lauri-Volpi into an even bigger career for himself in America.  Gigli's fame brought a number of well known singers to the door of his Manhattan studio, notably; Mario Lanza, James Melton and Karin Branzell among others.

The moral in this story for a singer is multi-fold.  First, even if you have a natural gift, there is always more to learn.  Second, choose the right teacher, reputation only goes so far, one must make sure the teacher is right for you and can help you advance.  Lastly, don't be in a rush to start your career, make sure you have the proper training for career longevity. 

Beniamino Gigli gives a very short master class

Gigli sings "Improvviso" from "Andre Chenier" something the average lyric tenor would never handle

Gigli sings "Spirito gentile" from "La Favorita"


  1. What a great article. This is important information for singers.
    As a matter of fact the "The Ear and the Voice", Tomatis devotes several pages to what Gigli told him about technique.
    Gigli was a superb technician and always cognizant of what he did vocally.

  2. Thank you for sharing your time, your knowledge and your wonderful blog!!! Thank you., More Blessings and *GOD BLESS*

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