If you're an opera fan, you may have heard of Magda Olivero. If you've never heard of her, opera fan or not, you should check her out. She had an amazingly long and successful career, spanning five decades and two eras in opera. Sadly, Magda passed away in 2014 at the age of 104; yes you read that right!
She managed to surpass Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, which is quite an achievement. Also, like the Queen Mother, she worked almost up to the end of her life. Check out this amazing video of her singing beautifully at 96 years old. It's clear to see why she is considered one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.
Magda's full name was Maria Maddalena Olivero and she was born in Saluzzo, Italy on the 25th of March 1910. It became apparent at a young age that she had a true musical gift and, luckily for the world, she was able to pursue it. She studied musical composition, harmony and the piano at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory (now the Milan Conservatory).
She continued to study even after she graduated and made her musical debut on the radio when she was 22, performing I Misteri Dolorosi, an oratorio by Nino Cattozzo. It was the start of an extremely successful career. Magda stopped singing for around ten years following her marriage, but as she and her husband had no children, she eventually decided to return to her career in 1951.
Over the next thirty years, Magda appeared in opera houses all over the world. She never appeared in the Royal Opera or the Sydney Opera House but she performed at other venues such as La Scala and with prestigious opera companies.
She sang with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera and some of her most notable interpretations include the leads in Tosca, La Boheme, Turandot and La Traviata. Her performance in La Tosca with the Metropolitan Opera was met with ecstatic applause from the audience and is considered legendary.
Sadly, in spite of her blazing talent, she never achieved superstardom outside of Italy. That's why record companies did not offer her a record deal, and so unfortunately, few studio recordings exist. There are two full opera recordings: Turandot singing the part Liù, on Cetra Records, 1938 and Fedora on Decca in 1969. Luckily, far more live recordings have been made and still exist to showcase her exceptional talent.
She was an example of excellence to many in the world of opera. Fellow opera singer Marylin Horne was instrumental in Magda appearing with the Metropolitan Opera. She was a huge admirer and enthused, "she practically gave acting and singing lessons while onstage; honestly, you could learn more from watching an Olivero performance than from reading most books on those very subjects."
Steven Zucker, an opera expert, was also a huge fan of Magda's work and believed her musical training and talent were both huge bonuses. When discussing Magda's musical peers he explained:
"Unlike Olivero, few also were consummate musicians able through rubato (lengthening or shortening notes or groups of notes) to convey the music’s tension and repose. More, hers is “il cantar che nell’anima si sente”—singing that is sensed in the soul."
Magda finally retired in 1981, but as we see in the video above, she continued singing sacred music well into her nineties. She passed away on the 8th of September 2014 and was fittingly laid to rest in Famedio, or the famous people memorial chapel , part of the Monumental Cemetery of Milan.