Column: The opera singer with Iowa roots | Columnists

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Don Wooten

Trying to bring some consistency to my messy life, I was rummaging through boxes that had long gathered dust in a room cluttered with such things, when I stumbled upon a great treasure: a collection of private recordings that gave me a few years ago the late Jean Nobis.

That was his name Davenport. In the world of opera she was Margherita Roberti, a soprano of great power and versatility who had performed on three continents, but was best known for the 17 seasons she sang in Italy. The recordings were of his live performances and cover a staggering range of roles. She seems to have featured in almost all of Verdi’s operas.

The gift came shortly before she left the Quad Cities to retire in California where she died just over a year ago. Finding it launched me on one of those “memory lane” journeys that enrich my sedentary life. It brought back the four-hour shows we produced to raise money for WVIK. It was during one of these sessions that she delivered an unforgettable appreciation of one of her colleagues:

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“He was a dear man; but he never changed his underwear!

Running out of ideas for a line, I played a tune recorded by Franco Corelli, the gentleman in question, thinking “That’s the kind of information you don’t get in the Victor Book of Opera.” But it was a sampling of the intimate stories and simple answers that made our shows so much fun.

During a broadcast in 1993, I mentioned that Boris Christoff had passed away. His immediate reaction was “Good!” When I accused her of being tough, she replied, “Well, he was a terrible man.” She then recounted a performance in which the two of them were on stage together. He turned his back on the audience and made faces, talked to them, tried to disturb their singing.

I agreed it was unprofessional behavior, but then she explained how she got back at him in the next act. I don’t remember the details, but it became clear that you mean business with Margherita.

These behind-the-scenes comments about his life in Italy came when the station aired opera shows every Saturday afternoon. At our semi-annual fundraisers, we replaced “Ain’t Opera Grand?” four hours of tunes and scenes from popular works with a conversation in between.

It was during these radio conversations that I discovered that our association dates back some 70 years. It was Margaret Jean Roberts, the young woman who occasionally came to the KWPC studios in Muscatine to practice for the two years I worked there. She was the star of a “La Boheme” concert with the Tri-City Symphony in 1973 when I was recruited as extra bass in the choir. I was so embedded in the group that I couldn’t even see the soloists, much less identify them.

It was therefore as a foreigner that I first dared to call Margherita and ask her to help me raise funds. It was our “Ain’t Opera Grand?” shows that cemented the friendship. She talked about the work and perseverance it took to make her way into opera. Luck was also a factor. She was chosen to be the subject of a CBS documentary about a young American entering Italian opera. I saw “In Bocca al Lupo” when it aired without knowing who she was. She gave me a DVD of the show which I have watched often since.

She mentioned another young American soprano of whom she heard such enthusiastic praise that she went to a northern provincial house to hear her. Then she went backstage to tell the woman she had a bright future ahead of her.

“She said she was going back to the United States. The competition was too intense and his money was running out. Margherita was lucky enough to get a role at La Scala to replace a famous soprano. The odds were stacked against her, but she scored a hit and her career was done.

She had stood “in bocca al lupo” and won over those intransigent participants in the cheap seats. It was ordinary citizens who jammed the galleries and were quick to let the singers know exactly what they thought of their performance. To be “in the mouth of the wolf” was to submit to their judgment. And she conquered them.

Margherita had the kind of voice they liked. She had the volume and projection to allow them to hear every note – and she got it right. They called her “La Gigante” because her height often left her half a head taller than the usually short tenors that were most popular in Italy.

Opera is a punitive art form. You must act and sing convincingly, let your emotions color your performance, but never lose control of your breathing and all the carefully practiced means by which you form every consonant, float every vowel and stay in time and on the height. I tried it for a few years with little success but with a deep appreciation for the difficulty.

I think of Margherita every time a soprano shows up on St. Ambrose’s “Classical Arts Showcase” cable show. It reminds me of a friend who could stand with the best of them; one who never forgot her roots in Iowa and took the time twice a year to chat with me for a good cause.

At the opera, in family, in friendship, she was really “La Gigante. I have the tapes and memories to prove it.

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