Mirella Freni

Italian opera soprano Mirella Freni poses in Cannes, southern France, in 2010. Freni, an Italian soprano whose uncommon elegance and intensity combined with a sumptuous voice and intelligence to enthrall opera audiences for a half-century, died Sunday at age 84 at her home in Modena, Italy. Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

Her death was announced by her longtime manager, Jack Mastroianni, who said she had “a long degenerative illness and a series of strokes.”

Freni, who appeared at the world’s leading opera houses, was sometimes called “the last prima donna.” She was a childhood friend of opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti and was a lyric soprano known for her brilliant technique and purity of tone, with an almost girlish quality that never seemed to age.

Her voice was so vibrant that she continued to sing the roles of youthful ingénues, such as Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” and Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” well past the age of 50. Of the many renowned sopranos of her era, including Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Renata Tebaldi and Renata Scotto, Freni had the longest career.

When she was dubbed “the last prima donna,” it was not meant as a term of derision to indicate the high-handed, temperamental behavior of cosseted opera stars. Freni was, by most accounts, well-liked by her musical colleagues, though she was said to have “dimples of iron.” Instead, it was intended as a literal translation from Italian: the first lady, or the female singer who dominates an operatic stage through the force of her singing and presence. It was a vocal tradition that dated back more than a century.

“That tradition is ending,” tenor Plácido Domingo, a frequent singing partner, told The New York Times in 1997. “Mirella is the end of a chain. After that you cannot see who really follows her.”

In one of her final performances, at age 70, she appeared with the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in 2005, singing the Russian-language role of Joan of Arc in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Maid of Orleans.”

“Could Freni, who is now entering her second half-century before the public, still negotiate the demanding role of the young French peasant girl who became a great woman warrior?” Washington Post music critic Tim Page asked in his review.

“The answer was a resounding yes. Freni’s intonation is spot on; her intensity is undiminished; she shepherds her powers with keen intelligence; her acting is fierce and tender by turn, as the score demands.”

During her youth, Freni developed her singing style from the Italian bel canto tradition, which emphasized a natural tone and a supple vocal technique in which the singer showed no strain. Freni had the ability to project even the softest pianissimo passages across a stage. At its best, as in Pavarotti and Freni, the bel canto training could produce a remarkable emotional rapport between singer and audience.

“I don’t want real emotion to get lost,” she told The Times in 2002. “Without that, it’s just mathematics.”

After making her operatic debut in her hometown of Modena in 1955, Freni gained international stardom in 1963, when she first appeared at Milan’s La Scala opera house in “La Boheme.” Flowers filled the stage after her performance as the doomed, consumptive Mimi. The reviews were rapturous, and she reprised the role for her 1965 debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

She appeared on the world’s leading stages, from Paris to Vienna to San Francisco, receiving ovations for her performances in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore,” Charles Gounod’s “Faust” and “Romeo and Juliet” and Puccini’s “Turandot” – in which she was the secondary character of Liu, instead of the more vocally demanding title role.

Under the guidance of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Freni broadened her repertoire through the 1970s to include such dramatic parts as Desdemona in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello,” Elisabeth of Valois in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and the title roles in Verdi’s “Aida” and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” In 1976, she made a filmed version of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which also featured Domingo, with von Karajan conducting.

One of Freni’s few missteps came in 1964, when, at von Karajan’s urging, she attempted Verdi’s “La Traviata” at La Scala. She replaced Scotto, a fan favorite in Milan, and the opening-night audience booed Freni, blowing whistles and throwing debris onstage in a near riot. She left the production after a single performance.

After she matured as a singer, Freni returned to the difficult “Traviata” role with notable success.

“We singers are like boxers in that we have our own categories,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1994. “If you go outside those categories you are in trouble. If I am a welterweight fighter, I am satisfied having a long career as a world-champion welterweight. But if I try to move up into the heavyweight category, then for sure I will take a knockout punch. And then it’s finito!”

Mirella Fregni – she later dropped the “g” from her name – was born Feb. 27, 1935, in Modena. Her father was a barber and civil servant; her mother worked with Pavarotti’s mother at a tobacco factory – the same setting as Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” Freni noted.

“We were born not only in the same town but in the same year,” she said of Pavarotti, who was eight months younger. Both singers had the same wet nurse, prompting Freni to joke about the rotund tenor, “Today sometimes I look at Luciano and say to him it is easy to see who got all the milk!”

Freni began singing along with recorded operas as a child, and when she was 12 she won an international competition, singing an aria from “Madama Butterfly.”

Her teacher recommended that she curtail her performances for several years, to concentrate on building her technique through scales and exercises.

“A young voice is like a young tree – it will not grow up straight if you place a heavy weight on top of it,” she told Opera News in 1990.

Freni made her formal operatic debut in her hometown in 1955, as Micaela in “Carmen.” The same year, she married Leone Magiera, a choral leader and conductor, and they had one daughter – named Micaela, after Freni’s role.

The marriage ended in divorce, and Freni later married Bulgarian-born operatic bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, with whom she often collaborated onstage. He died in 2004. Survivors include her daughter; a sister; and two grandchildren.

After retiring from performing, Freni lived in Modena and Milan and taught master classes for aspiring opera singers.

Throughout her long career, she maintained a lithe physique and a remarkably resilient voice, which she said was the result of constant practice and care.

“People ask me all the time, just like you, what is my secret, what is the magic? Why am I still here?” she said in a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“I love and respect my instrument. I was born with an instinct for what is right, the correct tecnica, and I have worked on that mostly myself. There were many who said I would kill myself with some of the parts I did, but I’m still here.”

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