Interview: Legendary Tenor Luigi Alva On His Major Career Moments & Maria Callas

By Tony Villecco

He has sung in practically every major opera house in the world. Specializing in the roles of Rossini, Mozart, and Donizetti, his career at the Metropolitan alone has garnished over one hundred performances from his debut in 1964 until his last performance there in 1975.

Working with the major singers of this period, including a favorite, Maria Callas, he sang under such luminous conductors as Bernstein, Levine, Bonynge and Rudolf and has performed in every major opera house.  His recording of Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia (also with Callas)” still remains one of the most respected renditions in the catalog.

Peruvian tenor Luigi Alva never planned on an operatic career. Like his compatriot, tenor Juan Diego Flórez, of whom both share the same bel canto repertoire, Flórez initially planned to be a pop singer and Alva hadn’t thought much about opera.

From Peru to Italy

“I wanted to be a marine. I entered navy school in Peru, but singing was always there inside me,” he recalled in a recent chat with OperaWire. He had studied at an English school until he finished at 18 (“that served me very well for my future”) but as with life, events and opportunities can turn on a dime. While in navy school, he was heard singing by Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales from the Conservatorio Nacional de Música in Lima. She told the young man point blank: “Son, your future is not in the navy, but in your voice!”

“She pointed a finger at me, which hit me like a punch in the stomach and I believed her. So I left the navy,” he stated.”

Working under de Morales, he would go on to make his debut in 1949 in Lima, performing “Luisa Fernanda” by Federico Moreno Torroba. Alva also found himself singing “a lot on the radio” when he was approached by acclaimed operatic conductor and coach, Anton Guadagno, who invited him to sing the role of Beppe in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

“It was my very first opera, after which, in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, ‘La Traviata’ was being performed.”

Guadagno invited him to sing the role of Alfredo. “It was my debut in that opera. But I knew deep inside that I wanted to do something. I wanted to get out, I wanted to go to Italy,” he said. Alva decided to leave Peru with his parents’ blessing and go to Italy.

“I had saved some money and I came to Italy by ship in 1953.”

A New World

It was while there that he met his teacher, Emilio Ghirdini with whom he had my first lesson in vocal technique.  Then things started to progress rapidly.

“He had me perform in a competition, Voci nuove, where I was chosen just to sing Alfredo in ‘Traviata.’ So I debuted in Milano at the Teatro Nuovo. At the second performance, a man named Giulio Confalonieri, the director of School of Singing Academy of La Scala, came to hear ‘Traviata.’ He invited me to take some courses at the Academy. This was 1954.”

But that wasn’t the only thing happening in 1954. After five years and one half million dollars later, “La Piccolo Scala,” La Scala’s “sister” opera house would open in 1956. “La Piccolo” was a 600-seat theater compared to La Scala’s 3,200 seat opera house.

“Maestro Guido Cantelli was the director of the inaugural opera, Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte.’ He wanted to hear me since I was a student at the Academy; he wanted to hear this student, ‘Alva.’

“So I prepared the aria ‘Un aura amorosa’ and I did an audition on the big stage of La Grande Scala! In front of me in the audience were Cantelli, (Victor) de Sabata, and the cream of the crop of La Scala,” Alva narrated. “When I finished the aria, Cantelli told me; ‘Go learn the whole role because on December 26th of next year, La Piccolo Scala will open with ‘Così’ and you will be Ferrando.’ So I prepared myself for the first time to sing such an important opera. After one month, Maestro de Sabata, artistic director of La Scala calls me and tells me: ‘Alva, prepare the aria from (Cimarosa’s) ‘Il matrimonio segreto,’ because I would like to hear you sing it.

“After a few days, I go to his house and sing the aria. He tells me, ‘Good. Now go learn the whole opera.’ And I tell him, ‘But maestro, I’m learning ‘Così’.  He says, ‘No, leave that for later. Right now we’re doing ‘Il matrimonio segreto,'” Alva continued.

So on December 26, 1955, La Piccolo Scala opened. The conductor was Nino Sanzogno and the stage director, Giorgio Strehler.’ Alva was joined by a stellar cast which included Graziella Sciutti, Giulietta Simionato, Franco Calabrese and Carlo Badioli.

Maria Callas

“After the performance, I was in the bathroom and there was a knock at the door. A very distinguished gentleman presented himself and says ‘Bravo Alva! We’ll see each other in a little while,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t understand what you mean,’ I answered. ‘Didn’t they tell you,’ he says. ‘At La Scala Grande in ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ with Callas!’ I was stunned. It was Maestro (Carlo Maria) Giulini who was telling me this in person! And so on February 16th, 1956, was the first performance.”

Although much has been written and even asserted about Maria Callas and her explosive temperament, Alva found this to be on the contrary.

“People have talked a lot about Callas; that she was a difficult artist, that she was a diva, but I think Callas was a great professional artist. For example, there was a rehearsal at 10 in the morning so she arrived at 9:30. She sat down at the piano and started vocalizing to get the voice ready for rehearsal. At ten o’clock not everyone arrived on time and she got mad because it wasn’t right. She had arrived there on time, why didn’t the others? Then at one point during rehearsal, she was singing at full voice and no others-they were just marking. And she got mad because she couldn’t balance the phrases. She was just a great professional and I learned a lot from her.”

At the Met

And finally, in March 1964, Alva made his Metropolitan debut (along with Leonard Bernstein and Franco Zeffirelli) as Fenton in Verdi’s “Falstaff.”  Mezzo Soprano Shirley Love (over 1,000 Met performances) had made her debut in 1963 and was often paired with Alva.

She specifically recalled Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and ‘L’Italiana in Algeri.”

“I had worked with him quite a bit and he had a lovely light voice. He was perfect for the Rossini,” she recalled. “He had a lot of agility in the sound and when you have Teresa Berganza, Fernando Corena, Alva and myself, with that quartet you’re going to have a good time!

“But Luigi was a wonderful singer and we had an ensemble which worked so well together. He had a wonderful sense of humor that always came out in his singing. With Corena and all of his wise-cracking and ad lib, the two of them had such a good rapport. He was a lovely, charming man and I would say his only counterpart now would be (Juan Diego) Flórez who sings basically the same repertoire.”

Although Alva performed other composers such as Verdi, Schubert, Haydn and Handel, it was his Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart in which he was most recognized. Music critic Harold Rosenthal found Alva’s voice particularly well suited to these three composers, stating he processed an “elegant, refined style.”

His discography and youtube performances show a voice of lovely, warm timbre, impeccable flexibility, and long, elegant phrasing.

“I was really very lucky,” says Alva. “Because of ‘Il Matrimonio Segreto,’ ‘Così’ at La Piccolo and ‘Il Barbiere’ on the big stage, I started my path.”



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