The opera singer Teresa Berganza has died this Friday in Madrid at the age of 89, as confirmed by her son to EL PAÍS. At the artist’s request, there will be no wake or public burial. The family has issued the following statement: “Addio de Teresa: ‘I want to leave quietly… I don’t want public announcements, or wakes, or anything. I came into the world and no one found out, so I wish the same when I leave’. The whole family respects her will. Our tribute will be to remember her in all her fullness and continue to enjoy her through interpretations of her to always remember her”.
Teresa Berganza leaves an immense void that fills the history of opera. From few people could you learn so much what it is to know how to maintain the dignity of your art. As funny and unpredictable as it is rigorous and serious for its own thing. A great witness to time, she possessed a realistic radar into the past and a keen eye for the future. She was always castiza and very modern. She was a young woman who knew how to defend herself and manage in post-war Europe and she soon assimilated cosmopolitanism with a great international career without giving up a strictly Madrid point of view on life. She, who was born on San Isidro street, very soon ate the world.
He was armed for it. Forming thoroughly. He studied piano, harmony, chamber music, composition, organ, and cello. But he dedicated himself to singing after passing through the classroom of Lola Rodríguez Aragón. He already stood out in his first recital in Madrid. This took place at the Ateneo, on February 16, 1957, something that gave him wings to enter for the first time with a role on stage: a Trujamán de The altarpiece of Master Pedro (Falla) at the RAI Auditorium, that same year in which she also had the opportunity to debut with the role of Dorabella in Così fan tutte within the festival of Aix-en-Provence (France).
Later came more successes in the United Kingdom at the Glyndebourne Festival or his debut with Maria Callas in a Medea a year later in Dallas (United States). From there, to Vienna, in 1959, together with Karajan with The Marriage of Figaro, also with Giulini and a trip to the 17th and 18th centuries at the hands of Purcell, Haendel, Monteverdi, which occupied him at the beginning of the 1960s. From Mozart and those baroque challenges he went on to bel canto together with Alfredo Kraus, with The Barber of Sevillethen the Metropolitan and the Scala received her with The Marriage of Figaro mozartianas and the aforementioned opera by Rossini with Claudio Abbado. The one that consecrated her as an icon and expert in the devilish repertoire of the creator of Pesaro, which did not keep her from risks such as getting into a production of don giovanni, directed by filmmaker Joseph Losey and with Lorin Maazel in the pit. Berganza’s career took place at that level, which continued in the seventies with various milestones in Salzburg, Edinburgh, the Lyceum, along with Karajan, Abbado, Kubelik… Those of a true figure who has known how to swim among what is closest to tradition without fear of a radical modernity. That instinct to know himself as a bridge was built with a fascinating mentality, a way of seeing his career and life outside the norm.
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Berganza is today a reference for everyone who wants to unravel the present and past complexity of opera, where she has known how to shine and keep her feet on the ground without giving up high flights. An unusual and exemplary case of a lasting career at the top, without this making him feel prey to past greatness or glory. She was the first woman accepted with a number at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, which elected her in 1994.
Since I met her, she has never been afraid to tell the truth, to sit down spontaneously and casually or to laugh at everything around her, starting with herself. She always showed amazing mental health and intelligence to analyze her job and the environment in which she developed. She pulled irony to ensure that she was confused by things that she had very clear. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad that there is so much confusion everywhere, and also in the world of singing. That’s where artists come in. Everyone wants to sing, there are very good voices, but what goals do they have? That’s where the mess begins. What type of voice defines this or that? Follow the confusion. Sopranos are given roles of mezzo and vice versa. The light sopranos get into dramatic repertoires… What’s up? Well, when they are eight years old they run out of careers”.
Berganza is today a reference for everyone who wants to unravel the past and present complexity of opera
The melé, the mess, she found everywhere and she was overwhelmed: “The problem is that we only think about quantity. The power and the money. No one says to you anymore: ‘What a beautiful voice’. Now everything is: ‘What a great voice he has!’ The amount. They take a singer and it’s throwaway. No one is clear here.”
When he saw a posh wedding in El Escorial, where he lived, he would burst out laughing: “I live opposite the monastery and I see them all. Little displays. They arrive with some models, some cars, some heels. Total… For what? Why do they have to get married? Why do people want to get married if today you can go with whoever you want? I, who have had two husbands and each one has lasted 20 years, never thought how much fun I was going to have alone, like now, that I am free and enjoy my freedom, like my Carmencita.
He was referring to Bizet’s creature. Rarely has anyone identified so much with a role. Berganza is a world reference in French opera and she continues to be his favorite woman. “It marked me Carmen, I owe him a lot, more than those cheesy papers out there. Now it’s not done right. The ones I’ve seen only insist on screaming. What way to seduce a man is that? The poor don joseph I don’t know how they don’t get scared. You have to conquer a man by ear”, assured the singer.
Seduction is something that she always applied. “A singer is from the tip of her foot to the hairs on her head. To wear every day, you see, anything is good for me”, he assured pointing to his set of shirts, pants and sports shoes in butane, ocher and brown, matching a tone of hair and his punk hairstyle: “But to go out to scene I go with the best dressmakers”.
Orchestra conductors have always had a predilection for it, although with some it ended in cakes. She kept some eminent batons: “They respect me. Why? Because I am a musician. I’ve studied conducting, composition, piano, and they don’t fool me. I have taken the baton from someone and I have shot to the face, but I can’t tell who. Of others, I collect them. Yes, from Solti, from Karajan, from Karl Böhn, from Abbado. Not bad. Sometimes I take them and direct what comes out on the radio. In my next life I will be a conductor”, she confessed.
Death did not frighten him. Before he died he told his family that he did not want wakes or funeral homes. “When I die, I would like them to wrap me in a sheet, burn me and throw me in the river. I am not afraid of death, I think of it with love, I would like to die suddenly so that I and none of those who love me do not suffer. But don’t show me dead, don’t let anyone see my dead face, and don’t sing, that’s what I’m afraid of, because as long as they’re out of tune I’m able to get up…”.
Life is what he longed for. And life he had, life he distributed, as well as art. She was often full, invincible, restless, contagious and a walking personality. “I have been very queenly, yes, but humble. I am good until I am touched, and peaceful if I am not attacked. Now, when they do something to me, good! I become a viper.”
By biting, she could bite even when going to a theater as a spectator. Without flinching, she took the opportunity to confirm that she was the protagonist of an urban legend that circulated around: “There are very rude people who have no idea. Once he took me for applauding an aria in the middle of a performance and the one next to me told me to shut up. I replied: I applaud because I liked it, because I feel like it and because I am Teresa Berganza…”.
Even so, she sometimes complained that she had not been sufficiently recognized in her land. “When they started to notice me, I had already been in my career for 25 years.” Was Berganza a luxury that Spain did not know how to digest? “That is a very good reflection”, she said once before that question. She took pride in having done what she had to do in each era. She “she sang everything and with everyone. Even with Juanito Valderrama, from whom she learned a great deal. And she even made movies with Carmen Sevilla to earn money. Then I started singing and since then I haven’t stopped. I went to Italy, I did 13 or 14 concerts and they said: ‘Would you like to sing at La Scala?’ I replied: ‘Well, why not?’ And I’ve been one of those who entered La Scala without sleeping with the director, who I didn’t like at the time. He did want to, but I didn’t.”
Perhaps because of these things she defined herself as poor but honest and radically devoted to her voice: “Yes, now I am poor because they called me to sing at the Metropolitan in New York, but I took my husband, my three children, my parents , a babysitter and a cleaning lady. So in the end I had $100 left, but I’ve been very happy. I have wonderful children and parents who didn’t give me money because there wasn’t a hard one at home, with a father in jail and a working mother, but they instilled culture and a lot of love in me. I was taught to love. That is why I have had a wonderful childhood in which I went to school, sang in a choir and in between I ate a squid sandwich, ”she assured.
She defined herself as poor but honest and radically devoted to her voice
And the husband? Then she was married to the pianist Félix Lavilla: “Well, the husband, when you go to places in Rolls-Royce and they receive you with a red carpet, at first he likes it, but then he can’t stand it and jealousy arises. There comes a time when you have to choose: leave your husband or leave singing, and my voice would not have abandoned it for the world”.
He never stopped studying and came to teach at the Reina Sofía School. She knew what it was to learn from the greats and wanted to contribute. In that sense, she was always grateful for what her relationship with Maria Callas gave her. “She was the greatest. I believe that in me, what she saw is that she was not bad. She loved me so much… she took me to all the parties and I sat on her lap. She adopted me”. Enough to copy something from her? “Copy, nothing. Learn, I learned everything. Especially that the greatest are the most humble. Later, they wanted to copy me a lot, but they didn’t come out like me. There is no equal artist”, she said.
What no one was able to predict were his departures. Berganza was always pure spontaneity in each response. Like this one, at 75: “I’m three-quarters of a century old. You dress differently. I’m missing the bow. The bun was very successful.” From there we move on to boldness and tact. Both qualities, necessary to sustain careers. “If I had let myself be carried away by what the record companies wanted, I wouldn’t have lasted two years. Records don’t excite me… Although I’ve recorded almost 200. The record may be perfection, but theater is emotion. To me, what I like is making love with the public. They have never been wrong with me…”.
That didn’t mean she herself was sure what she liked. Once, in an interview we had, she asked herself. “Sometimes I ask myself: ‘Will I like the opera? I liked?’. Because you see everything… Hell, they do it hell ”, she said. Even so, she continued to play diva without losing her temper. “You can play that. Hesitating. When they put red carpets on you and rolls royces with bar, you like. When they applaud you for half an hour, of course you feel special. But then you arrive home and you are the one who was born on Calle de San Isidro, number 13, in Madrid”.