Renata Scotto, a soprano of electrifying dramatic power who embraced the role of prima donna as she became one of the most celebrated opera singers of the 20th century, died Aug. 16 in Savona, Italy. She was 89.
Robert Lombardo, head of Ms. Scotto’s New York-based management company, confirmed the death but had no additional details.
Long before she sang in the leading opera houses of the world, before she reigned at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, Ms. Scotto knew how to draw a crowd. She gave her first concerts as a young girl in Italy during World War II, serenading neighbors from her apartment window.
They would thank her with candies — a rare pleasure amid the deprivations of the war and an early taste of the adoration of an audience. Even at that age, Ms. Scotto recalled, “I wanted to be a star, and prima donna.”
Among some opera aficionados, Ms. Scotto was regarded as an heir to the legacy of Maria Callas, the Greek American soprano who became an international superstar in the 1950s and 1960s. Callas devotees so resented the comparison that on occasion the most fanatical among them gathered in what is known as a claque to jeer Ms. Scotto as she sang.
Callas, perhaps unwittingly, had helped launch Ms. Scotto to stardom in 1957, during a production of Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” at the Edinburgh festival in Scotland. Ms. Scotto was 23 at the time and a rising soprano in the opera houses of Italy.
By Ms. Scotto’s account, Callas, ever the jet-setter, had a party to attend elsewhere and refused to sing when an extra performance was added to the run. In another version of the episode, Callas was advised by her physician not to exert herself by performing. Either way, Callas withdrew. On only a few days’ notice, and having never before sung the opera, Ms. Scotto agreed to stand in.
She pulled off the feat with such aplomb that the audience kept summoning her back for curtain calls, Ms. Scotto recounted, until the conductor finally walked onstage and implored the house to “let her go.” In the years that followed, Ms. Scotto’s career flourished until she found herself in near-constant demand.
She debuted at the Met in 1965 as Cio-Cio-San, the title character of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and perhaps Ms. Scotto’s defining role. She found a powerful patron in conductor James Levine and, by the following decade, had become the Met’s unofficial house soprano.
Ms. Scotto appeared as Mimì, with Pavarotti as Rodolfo, in the 1977 performance of “La Bohème” that inaugurated the “Live From the Met” broadcasts, a television series that brought opera — and Ms. Scotto — into millions of American homes. She performed more than 300 times with the Met over two decades, often with such star tenors as Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, in addition to Pavarotti.
Ms. Scotto’s repertoire included many of the most beloved soprano roles in Italian opera. In the bel canto tradition, she played the tragic title character of “Lucia di Lammermoor” and the lovely Adina in the comic opera “L’Elisir d’Amore,” both by Donizetti.
She was the consumptive courtesan Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and the fatally naive Gilda in his “Rigoletto.” As an interpreter of Puccini, she was most known as Madame Butterfly but also played Musetta as well as Mimì in “La Bohème” and the ill-fated Manon in “Manon Lescaut.”
Like Callas, who sang most of the same roles to acclaim, Ms. Scotto possessed a voice that was riveting without being traditionally beautiful. The nastier contingent of her critics dubbed her “Renata Screecho” for the strain sometimes detected in the upper range of her voice. But for her, and for those who admired her, opera was more than technique or even sound.
“I prefer to have one unbeautiful note in my voice,” Ms. Scotto told the magazine Saturday Review in 1982, “than perfection that doesn’t mean anything.”
Also like Callas, she was known for fully inhabiting her roles, bringing intense dramaticism to an art form in which singers had once been content to stand on the stage and trill. She recalled crying the first time she sang “Madame Butterfly,” the story of a Japanese geisha who dies by suicide.
“Renata is the closest I have ever worked [with] to a real singing actress,” Domingo told the New York Times in 1978. “There is an emphasis, a feeling she puts behind every word she interprets.”
Ms. Scotto willingly accepted the label of “prima donna.” She at times demanded that conductors follow her rather than the other way around.
She and Pavarotti had been “like brother and sister,” she said, until a 1979 televised performance of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” in San Francisco, where the tenor helped himself to what Ms. Scotto said was an unplanned solo curtain call. Storming off to her dressing room, Ms. Scotto let slip an obscenity recorded on camera.
Ms. Scotto — who once remarked that “the press is fond of exaggerating the temperament of singers” — found herself on the receiving end of opera-world cattiness in 1981, when she appeared at the Met in the title role of Bellini’s “Norma,” a part that she described as the “Everest of opera” for its vocal challenge.
“Miss Scotto could float soft tones above the staff quite beautifully, and when the music lay in her most comfortable middle voice her tones penetrated the house nicely,” music critic Donal Henahan wrote in the Times, describing her interpretation of the fiendishly difficult aria “Casta Diva.” “But when she was forced to sing full out in the upper regions, intonation and vocal technique deserted her.”
In a display that admirers of Ms. Scotto found outrageous, hecklers had begun taunting her with catcalls — “Brava Callas, Brava Callas!” they shouted — even before Ms. Scotto commenced singing the passage.
With the “boos, catcalls and loud groans,” Times columnist William Safire observed of the affair, it was a scene “we used to associate with the bleachers of Brooklyn’s old Ebbets Field.” The Met ultimately was forced to escort the unruliest audience members out of the venue.
In a 1984 memoir, “Scotto: More Than a Diva,” written with Octavio Roca, Ms. Scotto recalled that she cried in her dressing room at intermission. “I wondered if it was really worth it and I actually thought of just leaving, leaving the performance, leaving the Met, leaving New York,” she wrote. “I wanted so much for this nightmare to end.”
She gathered herself enough to finish the run, which prompted at least one music critic to challenge the judgment of the catcallers.
“Opera is a good deal more than a string of mindless pretty notes,” Peter G. Davis wrote in New York magazine. “Time and again, Scotto reminded us of her sovereign musicality, her instinctive feeling for the rhythmic life of the notes, her ability to mold finely sculpted phrases, and her sensitivity for coloring the words into emotions that instantly define a dramatic situation.
“No, Scotto’s was not a perfect Norma,” he continued, “but we’re not likely to have a better one in the here and now.”
‘Prima donna or nothing’
Ms. Scotto, the daughter of a police officer and a seamstress, was born on Feb. 24, 1934, in Savona, a fishing port on the Ligurian coast of Italy.
During the war, she fled with her mother and sister to a town in the nearby mountains, while their father remained behind. Her mother, Ms. Scotto wrote in her memoir, took any work she could find, sewing uniforms for the Italian fascists, the Nazis and later the Americans.
Ms. Scotto was 12 when an uncle took her to first opera — “Rigoletto” with Tito Gobbi in the title role — at the opera house in Savona shortly after the war. The experience transfixed her, she said, and made her decide that very night to become an opera singer.
At 16 she moved to Milan, where she lived and worked, sewing and cleaning, in a convent of nuns while studying music. In 1952, the year she turned 18, she won a competition whose prize was a debut at the Teatro Nuovo in Milan.
Two years later, she debuted at La Scala in a secondary role in Alfredo Catalani’s “La Wally” opposite Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco. Ms. Scotto was invited to return to La Scala in minor roles but rejected the offer in favor of singing major parts at regional opera houses across Italy.
“Leading roles in smaller theaters are better than second leads at La Scala,” she recalled saying. “I will be a prima donna or nothing.”
Years later, Ms. Scotto stood up to the Met much as she had to La Scala. In 1972, she griped publicly, in an interview with the Times, that more than seven years after her debut on its stage, the Met had given her not “one new production, never, and no opening night either!”
She conspicuously scaled back her appearances on the Met’s New York stage until 1976, when she opened the season as Leonora, opposite Pavarotti as Manrico, in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”
“I don’t like to compromise, never,” Ms. Scotto declared to the Times.
In all, Ms. Scotto sang 120 roles, focusing in the latter part of her career on heavier parts such as Puccini’s Tosca and Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s operatic adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy. She ventured beyond her traditional repertoire into works including Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and Riccardo Zandonai’s “Francesa da Rimini.”
Ms. Scotto’s extensive discography included two recordings of “Madame Butterfly,” one with tenor Carlo Bergonzi and another with Domingo.
Ms. Scotto ended her career at the Met as she began it, as Cio-Cio-San, with her final performance in 1987. By then, she had begun to try her hand at stage direction. The year before she retired from the Met stage, she became, in a performance of “Madame Butterfly,” the first woman in the company’s history to direct a production as well as star in it.
In addition to directing at opera houses around the world, Ms. Scotto ran opera academies in Italy and in New York and served as a coach over the years, the Times reported, to major singers including Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko and Deborah Voigt.
She was married in 1960 to Lorenzo Anselmi, who had been the first violinist in La Scala’s orchestra and later became her manager and coach. He died in 2021. They had two children, Laura and Filippo, whom they raised largely in New York. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
For all the glamour of Ms. Scotto’s career — the flowers and the limousines, the regal costumes inside the opera house and the luxuriant furs outside, and her unabashed declarations that “io sono la prima donna!” — she never left behind the hardships of her childhood.
In an early scene of “La Bohème,” the two heroes, the poet Rodolfo and the dying seamstress Mimì, experience their first flashes of romance as they search on the floor of Rodolfo’s dimly lit, frigid Paris flat for Mimì’s lost apartment key. The two lovers brush fingers, and Rodolfo remarks in a signature aria, “Che Gelida Manina,” that Mimì’s delicate hand must be freezing.
During the war, Ms. Scotto wrote in her memoir, her mother, Santina, “worked all day sewing and would hope to keep her hands warm enough in winter to be able to go on using them.
“One day I would sing of a seamstress like my mother,” she continued, “and I would understand Mimì’s sweet desperation and her happiness by remembering Santina the seamstress as she worked and sang.”