Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli

Beniamino Gigli: The Extraordinary Voice of an Italian Opera Legend

In a new series, Jimmy Bilimoria discusses a work from the Stuart-Liff Collection he oversees at the NCPA. This month, he writes about the distinctive talent of Italian opera singer Beniamino Gigli

“I was born with a voice and very little else; no money, no influence, no other talents. Had it not been for the peculiar formation of my vocal cords, I should probably at this moment be planning tables or sewing trousers, or mending shoes as my father did in the little Italian town of Recanati where I was born on 20th March 1890. I should still be poor, as my father was. But God gave me a voice, and that changed everything. I was good at singing, and nothing else. I enjoyed singing, and nothing else; what else could I do?” reads a candid account in The Memoirs of Beniamino Gigli.

“Singing had become so necessary and so delightful to me that I could scarcely bear to stop. I sang at home, I sang in the streets; and best of all, when young, I loved to climb the steps of the bell tower and sing out at the top of my voice, far above the roofs into the clean air. This earned me the nickname of “il canarino del campanile [the singing canary of the belfry].”

One of the foremost Italian operatic singers of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, Beniamino Gigli possessed the finest lyric tenor of the 20th century. His voice was one of extraordinary beauty; it was velvety and mellifluous. He could sing with passion and vigour and ringing thrilling top tones. He also had excellent diction, an accurate sense of pitch and perfect breathing technique.

His stage acting was old fashioned, but he was capable of expressing through his singing a wide range of emotions. To all his roles and performances he brought conviction, emotional intensity and a sense of total commitment that never failed to electrify his audiences.

Besides performing all over Italy, he was the leading lyric tenor at the Metropolitan Opera from 1920 to 1932. He sang quite a few times at Covent Garden and when he was younger, in Spain and South America. He nurtured a lyric repertoire—La traviata, Manon, La bohème, that extended to spinto with Andrea Chénier and his debut role of Enzo Grimaldo in La Gioconda. He took on heavier roles in Verdi with La forza del destino in 1933, Aida in 1937, and Il trovatore in 1939.

Critic and musicologist John Steane wrote: ‘Gigli’s singing (the voice itself, but the style too) conveys warmth…a vivid central humanity that is perhaps the most engaging among all the singers of this period.’ Gigli is at his best in the operas of Puccini. He recorded the roles of Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and Pinkerton in complete performances. In each, the personality is very vivid; the music and drama guide it sufficiently and the personality, in turn, lights up each episode with its individuality and energy. His longevity as a singer was exceptional, for example, his London concerts of 1952 when he was 62 years old.

Smoothness, sweetness and fluency were the outstanding marks of Gigli’s singing. His mezza voce was exquisite. Such perfection as he offered is not to be expected more than once in a generation. The Stuart-Liff Collection features more than 30 LPs of Gigli’s various operatic arias and Neapolitan songs as also operas including Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Madama Butterfly, Un ballo in Maschera and Verdi’s Requiem Mass. A DVD of musical journeys of opera singers, which includes a short documentary on Gigli, is also available at the NCPA.

The NCPA houses the world-famous Stuart-Liff Collection of 6,000 books, 11,000 LPs and 12,000 CDs on Western classical music. This collection was generously donated to the Centre in 2009 by Vivian Liff, on behalf of George Stuart and himself, as a gesture of their friendship with Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, an avid collector and connoisseur himself. The collection is an invaluable source for research by musicologists and students as well as for general music lovers. The library housing the collection is open from 10 am to 5.15 pm on weekdays.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the May 2023 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.