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Classical 101

Today in Opera: Anna Moffo's Birthday

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Simply put; buy this recording.

  Today is Anna Moffo's birthday. She is an American soprano, born on this date in 1932 in Wayne Pennsylvania. She died in New York in 2006.

It's not a significant birthday. But I've noticed an uptick of affectionate greetings to her art on social media in recent weeks. Earlier this year RCA released a, 11 disc set of all of her recital albums, recorded between 1959 and 1974. Several of these have not been in print in years.

There are songs of Debussy and a controversial late career recording of French arias. There are love duets with  Sergio Franchi (look him up) a fun English language recording of Die Fledermaus, aria recitals, and selections from her many complete opera recordings. If you want an celebration of lovely singing, go for this set. It's worth every penny.

I was annoyed by the tone of the big box set's accompanying booklet, and by a recent review of same in Opera News. Moffo is controversial because of a vocal crash and burn in the late 1960s from which she never completely recovered. She's a product of the Curtis Institute, and as a very young girl she auditioned for the revered conductor Eugene Ormandy. The maestro later said,"No one so beautiful could possibly sing so well. I closed my eyes. She won on merit."


Moffo was a Fulbright scholar who studied in Italy. A lady so ravishing was made for TV, which was just coming into use in Italy when she arrived there in the early 1950s. She married a TV producer called Mario Lanfranchi, and with him she became a bona fide TV star in Europe, beginning with a production of Madame  Butterfly that made her name.

Eventually she had a weekly variety show and a career in Italian movies. Yeah, I know. Titles like Una storia d'amore did her career little good, especially with a rumored nude scene. "I was in the shower," Moffo  later remembered. "I. Was. Not. Nude" The movies didn't keep her from being a star in the world's greatest opera houses: in London, Rome, Milan, Buenos Aires, New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Vienna among them.

Naked or clothed, her reputation suffered. Still, she sang 200 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, beginning with Verdi's La traviata in 1959 and ending with the same role in 1976.  She owned the role of the hapless Violetta. "Anna is Traviata", another diva was heard to sniff. She meant that as a compliment.

The great actor Alfred Lunt directed Moffo'sVioletta at the Met in 1967. It's reported that Lynne Fontanne asked her how she learned to walk so beautifully on stage. "On the basketball court," replied the world's favorite Violetta. "I was a jock in high school."

Yes, she went on too long. Yes, she should have retired by 1970. Her voice had succumbed to exhaustion or illness or poor technique.  She divorced Mr. Lanfranchi and enjoyed a long and happy marriage to Robert Sarnoff of the RCA family, until his death in 1997. She herself died nine years later. I was in New York the day she died. In fact, I was out walking near the Met, and look sadly at Lincoln Center Plaza thinking of her loss. 

But for long enough she had a gorgeous voice, like a ruby; dark and shimmering. For all the years it was good, and for many years after, audiences loved her. They should have.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.