Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'My teacher was Ferruccio Cusinati' - Maria Callas

Is it not curious how some names fall by the wayside, Ferruccio Cusinati (1873-1953) seems to have pretty well sunk without trace - but not quite yet!

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Act II Scene 2: Per te d'immenso giubilo ... Per poco fra le tenebre
(arranged for military band)

Rossini: Semiramide Overture - final 

Banda munipale di Verona 
conducted by Ferruccio Cusinati

Favorite 2-33013 & 2-33014
(Matrix Nos. 184-p & 185-p)
Recorded or fabricated Wednesday 21st October 1908?

(If you are not familiar with FLAC I can recommend Foobar2000 player)

Hard to believe with so much written about Maria Callas that Cusinati's part in her education has not really elicited much more than footnotes. Maybe his role is exaggerated, I really don't know, but will give the bare outlines of his career and so add my quota to the mountains of stuff already written on Callas.

I assume that he was born and brought up in Verona and probably had his musical education there also and maybe never strayed much from his home town. Cusinati wrote the music for at least two operas both of which were produced in Verona. The first was a two act opera called La Tradita [Betrayed!] given in 1892.

'The first performance, in the course of this month, of an opera, La Tradita! by a very promising young Italian composer, Signor Ferruccio Cusinati, is looked forward to with much interest at the Ristori Theatre. Verona. [Musical Times Sept. 1892]

The recently restored Teatro Ristori, Verona
A brilliant success is reported from Verona of a new opera, entitled La Tradita, brought out last month at the Ristori Theatre of that town. The composer, who conducted the performance, is a young Maestro, Signor Cusinati, hitherto unknown to fame. The natural anxiety on the part of the leading Italian towns to discover another Mascagni in their midst may have influenced in a measure the enthusiastic verdict pronounced by the audience on this occasion. [M.T. Dec. 1892]

Two years later in 1894 Cusinati wrote his second opera, this time of four acts, again Musical Times gave a review:

Verona - At the Ristori Theatre, Medora, a grand opera in four acts, composed by Signor Ferruccio Cusinati, was brought to a first hearing on November 29. The novelty was unsuccessful. [M.T. January 1895]

Cusinati possibly gave up all hope of being an opera composer after this disappointment but he still pursued his career as a conductor. Apparently the Verona municipal band broke up in 1903 and Cusinati reformed it two years later. It is this band that we can hear on these recordings. The band was not to last much more than a decade for it was depleted by conscription during the First World War and was then abandoned. It was however revived, again by Cusinati, but 30 years later after the Second World War.

The next mention I have of him was when Giovanni Zenatello, one of my favourite tenors by the way, had the idea of using the Roman arena at Verona for opera in order to celebrate the Verdi centenary of 1913:-  "My father was sitting at a table at the Löwenbrau," recounts Nina Zenatello Consolaro, daughter of the tenor Giovanni Zenatello, "together with the Maestro Tullio Serafin, Ferruccio Cusinati, Ottone Rovato [opera impresario] and the singer Maria Gay [Zenatello's long time partner, both operatically and every other way, but not Nina'a mama I think]. They were talking about music, of course, opera music and Giuseppe Verdi. Suddenly my father pointed to the Arena and with triumph in his voice said, 'Look, this is the theatre I’m looking for. This is where performances unique in the world could be held.'" 

Löwenbrau - Verona

Zenatello financed the original undertaking himself, he and Maria Gay gave freely of their talents, Maestro Serafin set to work to complete the casting and it was he who was in charge of the first performance together with Cusinati who trained the chorus. From 1913 until his death in 1953 Cusinati was the leading chorus master at the Verona Arena but also discovered he worked at La Fenice in Venice in the early 1920s too.

I have really nothing much to add to these years until the story of Cusinati is picked up again by Giovanni Battista Meneghini's. When he met Callas in 1947 at Verona Meneghini was a director of the 'Verona Opera Association of the Arena' which also included on the board Tullio Serafin, conductor; Augusto Cardi, Stage director, and Cusinati still as chorus master.

Callas and Meneghini in 1948

It is through Meneghini biography My Wife, Maria Callas, New York, 1982, that we have some more information on Cusinati's abilities. 'In Verona there was a voice teacher, Ferruccio Cusinati, who was also chorus master for the operas in the arena. I knew him very well and had enormous respect for him, he had a thorough understanding of the human voice ... Even though he did not have the renown that he deserved he was a professional of rare accomplishment. I took Maria to him, and after listening to her, told me that she indeed had a truly remarkable voice. “She is at your disposal” I said. “you must help her to make her voice more flexible, more supple, and in short, eradicate any faults. From now on, she will come for lessons every day... from that moment, Ferruccio Cusinati became Callas's teacher ... Elvia de Hildalgo taught Maria the technique of singing and she opened up the world of music to her, but it was Ferruccio Cusinati who taught Maria all the operas in her repertory ... His name never appeared in any of the biographies of Maria, but he was Callas's teacher, Maria herself has commented in some manuscript notes which she prepared, to refute a Time magazine article that was full of misinformation: “It is not true that my husband asked Tullio Serafin to coach me in my roles and that it was he who taught them to me. My teacher was Ferruccio Cusinati.”' 

Apparently Cusinati continued until the year of his death in 1953 as Callas's teacher so it is somewhat surprising that so little is written about him. I can't think why really. I believe he also taught the bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (1920-1991) prior to meeting Callas.

Verona Arena
It is probably fortunate that he recorded at all. Clearly he knew the Donizetti and Rossini repertoire and how to extract that visceral excitement that such opera demands. 

The performances put me in to mind of the opera episode in E.M Forster's Where Angels Fear to Tread set in the fictional town of Monteriano:-

Citizens came out for a little stroll before dinner. Some of them stood and gazed at the advertisements on the tower.

"Surely that isn't an opera-bill?" said Miss Abbott.

Philip put on his pince-nez. "'Lucia di Lammermoor. By the Master Donizetti. Unique representation. This evening.'

"But is there an opera? Right up here?"

"Why, yes. These people know how to live. They would sooner have a thing bad than not have it at all. That is why they have got to have so much that is good. However bad the performance is tonight, it will be alive. Italians don't love music silently, like the beastly Germans. The audience takes its share--sometimes more."

Cusinati's recordings are sparse and comprise a group of records cut for the Favorite label in October 1908, i don't think anything esle survives except his part in any 'off air' recordings from the Arena. Unfortunately my copy of this record was well liked and played so  has rather suffered, especially so at the beginning of the 'Lucia' selection.

The playing of this Band of 44 is spirited, a bit hapahzard in places but then it has that rhythmic drive and panache that is just so often missing in performances of Rossini and Donizetti. I have just no idea what Cusinani's influence was on Callas but something of his style must have rubbed off.

These recordings are not listed by Claude Arnold in his comprehensive discography The Orchestra on Record 1896-1926 or indeed anywhere else, however the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek has a few including a copy of the one I have dubbed. Looking at the matrix numbers it would seem two recording session must have taken place in 1908 - the suffixes -o indicate 10 inch, and -p  indicate 12 inch discs. I have assumed the date printed on the label is probably a fabrication date and the recording where probably cut slightly earlier. From the gaps in the sequence I would estimate that Favorite issued a couple of dozen records by the band.

That is the sum total of my knowledge of Ferruccio Cusinati - I have also sadly not been able to turn up any photograph of him.


  1. I'm glad you're back, and I enjoy your information about Ferruccio Cusinati very much! Thanks a lot!
    Best wishes, Satyr

  2. What a wonderful picture you paint, of a culture all but vanished(?) - thank you so much! Evviva il maestro Cusinati... Grazie, Grumpy

  3. Ta Nick

    Maybe I'm just being hopelesly romantic but I somehow think it may have been a time when music was the very life-blood.


  4. It seems that Cusinati was also Rosana Carteri"s teacher

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