Some personal memoirs and anecdotes  
about Beniamino Gigli as told by Michelangelo Verso


Beniamino Gigli and Michelangelo Verso

Beniamino Gigli and Michelangelo Verso

The first time I had the honour of meeting the tenor Beniamino Gigli was in Rome when I was 17 years old. I was coming from Bovolone (Verona), where I had attended a course for obtaining my license as a gliding pilot. Knowing that Beniamino Gigli, resided in his personal villa on Via Serchio 2, I phoned and asked if it would be possible for me to give an audition to which he willingly agreed.
So I went together with a pianist to his house.
While I was singing the aria "A te o cara" from I Puritani, with full voice, this also because the pianist was playing too loudly, Gigli interrupted us saying to the pianist: "Must I listen to you, the pianist, or must I listen to the tenor, and therefore I ask you to accompany the singer and to respect the "piani" as they are noted in the score because otherwise the singer would be obliged to force and to strain his voice without being able to sing the belcanto expressively". Then, as an example, Gigli sitting in his armchair, sang with the greatest ease the most difficult phrase "se ramme-e-e-nto" wanting to demonstrate how to sing a high C# with such flowing belcanto, which only he possessed. We were completely astonished and filled with great emotion. Then he said to me: "Do you want to sing for only one evening, or for your whole life ?"
"Think of singing with interest" and not with your capital" and at this I allowed myself to ask for a more detailed explanation. He explained to me in a few words that by "interest" he meant the technique, the intelligence, the musicality and the faculty of knowing how to economize yourself in such a way as to be able to sing professionally and to ensure a long career; while by "capital" he meant health in general, and especially the health of the vocal cords. One has to know how to use correct vocal techniques together with diaphragmatic breathing, singing "on the breath" and "on the words", supported by your mask using neither guttural nor nasal sounds.
Enrico Caruso said: "One who knows how to breathe well, knows how to sing on the breath". These examples and advice have provided me one of the best lessons I have had during my most modest and humble career. Besides some singing teachers whom I've known, my favourite model has always been Beniamino Gigli and even today I always listen to his recordings and always see his movies. On another occasion I asked him: "Maestro, how do you manage to sing your high notes so easily, beautifully and delicately, with such sweet and gentle sounds ?" And he answered me: "Before singing a high note, don't think about the effort you'll make to reach the high note but think about trying to imitate the sound of a violoncello, as a round and velvet vocal color, this is valid for the tenor, while for the soprano the sound should resemble the flute, for the baritone the bass and for the basso the double bass".
In 1949, while Gigli was engaged to come to Palermo to give some concerts, the committee "Salviamoli" ("Let's save them") proposed to Gigli that he also give a benefit concert for the poor people of Palermo.
Gigli accepted on the condition that he sing together with the best young lyric singers of the moment, in order to promote a singing contest to select the most beautiful voices in Palermo at that time. Having heard about this contest, which was to be held at the Teatro Massimo, I participated together with other tenors and I won as I was chosen by Gigli, who happened to be the president of the examining commission.

After he heard me sing "Che Gelida manina", he told me: "Sing with your own natural voice, without trying to imitate me because an imitation will always be considered a bad copy", but as I had been so in love with his wonderful voice, with his sounds and with his interpretative clarity of diction, I involuntarily tried to follow his style of singing because by now I was too accustomed to hearing his voice from all his records which I had been listening to with great love and passion.

Part of a Playbill from the Teatro Massimo - Palermo 1949
(Please click on the image above to see the entire playbill)

What I still remember of my debut at the Teatro Massimo of Palermo, on December 2, 1949, in concert with the great tenor Beniamino Gigli, is that it was the most exciting experience of my life, my first truly "important" experience. I had the honour of opening the concert with "Vieni" by Denza and then to close it with "Che gelida manina" (see the play-bill).

The same year, Gigli was invited to sing at the church "Santa Rita" of Palermo, and that morning he asked me confidentially if I could bring him some coffee, possibly made by my mother, with a few drops of cognac in it. I remember that I kept it in a little thermos bottle, always at his side for the moments when he needed it. It was nine o'clock in the morning, the church was over crowded, with about 500 people, many standing outside, and without having warmed up his voice ahead of time, Gigli started to sing Ave Maria by Gounod, Panis Angelicus and then Agnus Dei, with an angelic voice, then developing a variety of expressive vocal colors combined with a very sweet mezza-voce, in such a way to make the whole vocal range uniform from the lowest to the highest note, transmitting, great excitement and emotion to all who were present, bringing many people to tears.

An autographed picture of Beniamino Gigli dedicated to Michelangelo Verso
An autographed picture of Gigli dedicated to Michelangelo
Please click on the image to see the enlargement and translation of the dedication

On November 29, 1950, Gigli was engaged to sing Manon by Massenet in Palermo and later on December 6, the same year, Gigli sang "Elisir d'Amore" which was the last Opera performance he ever gave in Palermo. I remember that evening well. The audience gave him a standing ovation and demanded an encore of "Una furtiva lacrima". During the opera he had sung it with a great variety of vocal colors with full-voice, mezza-voce and falsetto, covering many harmonic sounds. Instead, with the encore he sang the whole aria mezza-voce with such a sweetness that it seemed as though "sugar and honey" were pouring from his throat. After the encore the audience, still very desirous, requested still another encore.
When we came out of the Theatre he asked me if I could find for him, the next day, some newspapers reviews in which there might be some unfavourable criticism regarding his performance. This surprised me because, in general artists are always looking for favourable and flattering reviews, while Gigli looked first of all for the negative ones because he sustained that:

"You can always learn more from critical reviews, as long as they are constructive".

Ernesto Verso, Beniamino Gigli and Michelangelo Verso near Piazza Massimo of Palermo, 1950

(from left to right: Ernesto Verso, the father of Michelangelo, B. Gigli and Michelangelo)

During that period, my father and I accompanied Gigli with our car on a tour around Sicily, together with the impresario Bruno, and I remember that during a stop in a village near Trapani, due to a flat tyre, all the villagers immediately recognized Beniamino Gigli and they all cried in chorus: "Gigli, Gigli, will you sing a song for us, because we can't pay the ticket to come and listen to you at the theatre" and then Gigli, without letting them beg, sang the famous song "Una casetta in campagna" from the motion picture "Mamma" and as an encore, he sang "Mamma", conveying to everyone real and great emotion. Gigli very much loved his audience and he was always willing to sing for all kinds of benefits and that's why he was renowned throughout the world as: "The Singer of the People".
I remember that Gigli liked to do cross-word puzzles in his free time and to play with bocce (a game played with wooden balls, very popular in Italy) when he was on vacation, and he told me that when he played in Recanati, his home town, if he lost a game he felt unhappy, and when he won, he thought that his friends had allowed him to win so as not to displease him.
I remember a story about when Gigli was still studying with his voice teacher, Maestro Enrico Rosati. Unbeknownst to Gigli, Rosati tuned the piano a half note higher than normal to give his student more self-confidence and trust in the higher register. And so it happened that Gigli, at his debut in Rovigo in the Opera "La Gioconda" by Ponchielli, was surprised by his own ability, agility and the large vocal extension of his voice. After the triumph of that evening, Rosati revealed with a smile that his piano, the one which he used to give lessons with, was deliberately tuned a half note higher.
In 1953, while I was singing under contract in New York, I visited Maestro Rosati and conveyed Beniamino Gigli's greetings. I remember he told me that the house, where he was living at that time had been given to him by Gigli as a token of his immense gratitude and thankfulness. On that occasion, out of curiosity, I requested an audition and he asked me to sing the aria "Una furtiva lacrima". After I sang it for him he told me: "God has given you a very good voice quality. It's a pity that I am now retired, otherwise I would willingly have given you some lessons with much pleasure. My last pupil was Mario Lanza, one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard and to whom I gave my last lessons". Talking about Mario Lanza, the Maestro told me that he had an exuberant character, but also that he was very generous and amiable with a great heart as was evident in the way he sang, in his movies and when he was among his friends. He also confirmed that Lanza had been a passionate admirer of Gigli and when Lanza decided to live in Rome, he wanted to have his home as near as possible to Gigli's villa. Before Mario Lanza died he also expressed the desire to make a movie together with the soprano Rina Gigli, who was very famous and in great demand at that time.

Among my memories, I had the honour of singing with one of the greatest sopranos of that time, Maria Caniglia, who was one of Gigli's favourite singers. That experience was also a wonderful memory for me because it marked practically the beginning of my career: my first contracts for the U.S.A. and my first contacts with the record companies.

Beniamino Gigli with some members of the Amsterdam Opera Choir - 1955

B. Gigli with some choir members of the Amsterdam Opera Choir, in 1955.
Just in front of Gigli, slightly to the right, there is a choir member, Marion Fernhout,
who will become later Michelangelo Verso's wife 
(regretfully she passed away on June23rd 2005)

In 1955, I was also engaged, for a long period, to sing for Televicentro, which was the major Television network in Mexico at that time. The owner, Don Emilio Asgarragà, knowing that I was corresponding with Beniamino Gigli, asked me if I could persuade Gigli to come to Mexico, for whatever amount of money he would demand, and Dottor Asgarragà was willing to send him a blank check so that Gigli could decide for himself the amount of his fee.
You can read Gigli's answer to this proposal, in a letter he wrote and sent to me, here.
In my opinion, Gigli always gave one hundred percent, truly always giving all of himself. The same with Caruso, when he finished singing "I Pagliacci", he would have two assistants help him to his dressing room, because he was always exhausted. One of those assistants was Raffaele Punzo, a Neapolitan singing-teacher, who was gifted with a beautiful singing voice but who wouldn't succeed because of his shyness. I had the good fortune to meet Punzo and to take some lessons from him in Naples in 1942, and I remember that he lived near the centre, on Via San Mattia, N° 42.
Gigli had more than forty operas in his repertoire (starting with L'Elisir d'Amore and ending with Otello), during his career of 41 years, and every single role he sang could be considered his own personal creation. Among his favourites were: "Andrea Chenier"; Puccini's "Manon Lescaut", "Bohème" and "Tosca", and among the songs he preferred: "Rondini al nido"; "Segreto" by Tosti; "Non ti scordar di me" and "Mamma", the song that made the whole world cry during World War II, in which so many soldiers wouldn't return home to their mothers. In his opinion the most difficult arias were: "Apri la tua finestra" from the Opera Iris and "O, Lola" from Cavalleria Rusticana, both by Mascagni.
During a conversation which I had with Gigli, he told me in private that Maestro Giacomo Puccini, in 1924, sent him a telegram offering him a part in the first performance of his opera, "Turandot", at La Scala of Milan. Gigli felt very honoured by that proposal but replied that he couldn't take on such a responsibility as he felt the opera didn't suit his vocal characteristics.
As Gigli said: "Before one can sing it is necessary to act, to always interpret that which one sings, entering into the role and trying to convey the suffering, the joy or the grief, always referring to the part which is being interpreted, looking always for a variety of vocal colors like an artist who is painting a picture with many colors".
To transmit feelings of joy, enthusiasm or suffering, through the interpretation of the meaning of the phrases, is surely the most important and difficult thing !

                                                                                                              Michelangelo Verso


Michelangelo Verso standing in front of Beniamino Gigli's tomb in Recanati

(M. Verso at the tomb of Gigli)

Recently, in August 1998, I was
in Recanati where I visited for the
umpteenth time the tomb of
Beniamino Gigli.
(see picture on the left)

Inside I noticed there were many
flowers and hundreds of messages
written by so many fans who had
come from all over the world.

I too, felt moved to write
a note with the following text:




Dear Beniamino,

You have been my Friend, Maestro, Adviser of the Belcanto.
I am immensely grateful to you !

 I have always admired and loved you for your Golden Voice,
for your phrasing, clarity of diction unique in this world,
for your modesty and goodness.

You have taught all the tenors of your era and beyond.

You have helped me make my debut at the Teatro Massimo
of Palermo, at your side, in your concert of 1949.

You have touched the whole world with your charitable works,
leaving memories of Love, of Poetry, of Emotions which
caused tears and of Joy in having listened to you.

You have been the Greatest of all the Great !

 With gratitude and devotion,
Michelangelo Verso



M. Verso in front of Beniamino Gigli's tomb (close-up).

Beniamino Gigli
20/03/1890 - 30/11/1957
(The entrance of Gigli's tomb)

M. Verso together with Prof. Luigi Vincenzoni, nephew of B. Gigli
In front of the statue of Giacomo Leopardi in Recanati, M. Verso standing together with Prof. Luigi Vincenzoni, the nephew of Gigli (President of the "School of Music B. Gigli" and manager and curator of the Museum and Tomb of Gigli) always ready to receive with affection all the visitors that come to Recanati in memory of the immortal and great Beniamino Gigli

Mural flyers in Palermo - Tribute of Michelangelo Verso to Beniamino Gigli

On April 28th 2003, at 'Teatro Metropolitan' of Palermo, Michelangelo Verso has paid homage to Beniamino Gigli by projecting the film 'Solo per te' dated 1937 with B. Gigli and Maria Cebotari. The original film in 35 mm. format has been made available from the private collection of M. Verso himself who, on this occasion, has been awarded with a Commemorative Plate as recognition for his entire artistic career.
The event was organized and sponsored entirely by the Municipality of Palermo.

If you would like to see some other pictures together with
Beniamino Gigli or with other great artists, please click here

A new book has just been released about MARIA CALLAS in which
M. Verso has made a modest contribution by telling his experiences,
memoirs and some anecdotes regarding his first meeting with Callas
in Amsterdam, during her last Tour in 1973, and then on another
occasion during his visit at her private home in Paris.
For more information about the book or how to obtain it,
please click here !

If on the other hand you would like to know more about the tenor Michelangelo Verso, start
with clicking on Home or click on one of the other links in the navigation bar below

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last updated on 06/08/2015

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