Soprano Herva Nelli is most known to American audiences through Arturo Toscanini’s NBC opera broadcasts.
Born in Florence on 9th January 1909, Nelli and her family emigrated to Pittsburgh when she was 10-years-old. Aged 17, she took a job as a glass cutter to pay for her singing lesson and later studied at the Pittsburgh Music Institute and in New York.
She made her operatic debut in 1937 at the Brooklyn Academy, singing Santuzza is Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Singing with the Salmaggi Opera Company, Nelli performed roles that came to be staples in her repertoire, including the title roles in Bellini’s “Norma” and Verdi’s “Aida.”
Toscanini’s first operatic broadcast for NBC was Verdi’s “Otello” in 1947. Nelli auditioned and was successfully cast as Desdemona. Critic Olin Downes wrote in The New York Times that her voice “most touchingly communicated Desdemona’s gentleness and purity of soul.” She went on to star in several more of these broadcasts which included other Verdi works. When La Scala reopened after the war in 1948, Toscanini took Nelli with him to sing in eight performances of Aida as well as a concert celebrating composer and librettist Boito. When the conductor died in 1957, he left his baton to Nelli in his will.
Nelli performed across America, appearing in cities including New Orleans, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Chicago. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as “Aida” in 1953 and sang several other Verdi roles, performing with the company until 1961. Nelli created the role of Bethsheba in the premiere of Milhaud’s “David” in 1956 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Returning to her professional beginnings, Nelli’s final performance was given in 1962 in Brooklyn, where she sang Bellini’s “Norma.” In her retirement, Nelli became a noted chef, having opened a restaurant in Poughkeepsie.
She died of leukemia in 1994 aged eight-five.
The Toscanini broadcasts included Nelli singing the roles of Alice Ford (“Falstaff”), Amelia (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Aida and Desdemona, and these Verdi roles were the core of Nelli’s repertoire. She also performed the works of other staple Italian composers, notably “Norma,” “La Gioconda,” “Andrea Chénier,” “Tosca” and “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
In 2005, Ira Siff commented “Herva Nelli may not possess a voice of distinctive beauty, but she is committed to the drama and lives every moment through the music.”
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Watch and Listen
Here she introduces her favourite arias from “Otello,” conducted by Toscanini.
And here is a full performance of the NBC recording of “Aida.”