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Mirella Freni (1935-2020)

The news of the death of beloved Italian soprano Mirella Freni reached my desk just now. In paradisum deducant te angeli...

In some ways La Freni is responsible for my obsession with opera. In 1990, as a young music major from Michigan, I drove with a friend on my first ever trip to New York City during spring break. We stayed with his father in Brooklyn and spent the week taking in as much of the culture of the big city as we could. One morning I showed up at the Metropolitan Opera box office, hoping to buy a ticket for that day's performance of Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

The employee at the box office took one look at me and said the balconies were all sold out. What if price were not an issue, I asked, thinking of the credit card my parents had sent with me on the trip. He plopped down a fancy-looking ticket for a seat in a box, and I bought it. After all, Des Grieux bankrupted himself and ended up in debtor's prison, all for love of the frivolous Manon. What is money for, except to procure pleasures? I would not have to worry about paying off the cost until I got back to Michigan, and I didn't.

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Puccini, Manon Lescaut, M. Freni, P. Domingo, Philharmonia Orchestra, G. Sinopoli
As you may have guessed, Mirella Freni was starring in this production. The reviewer for the New York Times later wrote that she was by far the best part of the show, which is how I recall it. I sat in the box, treated very nicely by the mostly Italian family occupying it. I could not only hear every nuance of La Freni's voice, I could see the sweat rolling down her face. I had seen operas staged in Michigan, but nothing on the scale of what I saw on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera that day.

As it turned out, I had caught the tail end of a glorious career, and this was (I think) the only production of Manon Lescaut that La Freni sang at the Met. It was the perfect combination to create a lifelong devotion to opera. The friend I went to New York with was a tenor, and being his accompanist in high school was how I first got hooked on opera. I had gotten to know Manon Lescaut by listening to a recording with none other than Mirella Freni. I could not believe that the voice I had heard through my headphones was now coming out of the person in front of me on that stage. I was starstruck. The word Diva was invented because of reactions like the one I had that day at the Met. I left the theater on a cloud.

Although I listened to La Freni's recordings somewhat obsessively over the years since then, I saw her on the stage only once more. It was what turned out to be her final production, Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans, mounted just for her by Washington National Opera in 2005. She was 70 years old, and she was still fairly sensational. Three decades and a mountain of operas viewed since then, my first will always be Mirella Freni. May light eternal shine upon her.

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