Virginia Zeani, a Romanian soprano with a brilliant, powerful voice and striking looks who overcame childhood poverty and the perils of war to become a fixture on the opera stage, died Monday in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was 97.
Her son and only immediate survivor, Alessandro Rossi-Lemeni, said she died in a nursing home “after an extended cardiac respiratory illness.”
Leading tenors relished performing alongside Ms. Zeani. “A woman blessed with beauty both physical and vocal, she was in addition a very gifted actress,” Plácido Domingo once wrote. Conductor Richard Bonynge ranked her among the top four sopranos of the 20th century. And according to Ms. Zeani, Maria Callas’ husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, confided to her that she was “one of the very few sopranos that my wife is frightened of.”
Yet Ms. Zeani failed to gain the mass following and adulation of Callas and other contemporary divas, like Joan Sutherland and Montserrat Caballé, during her 34 years of opera appearances, and she was almost forgotten in retirement despite an illustrious second career as a voice teacher.
Her insistence on remaining close to her family in Rome kept her from venturing more often beyond Europe, limiting her career in the United States. She once even turned down a contract from the Metropolitan Opera.
Ms. Zeani conceded she had done little to make recordings that would have brought her to a wider audience. “The rise of the publicist and the work that record companies do in selling their artists is how stars are made today,” she said in “Virginia Zeani: My Memories of an Operatic Golden Age” (2004), written with Roger Beaumont and Witi Ihimaera. “In my time very few singers apart from Callas, Sutherland and Caballé had such support behind them,” she said. Only in recent years have recordings of her performances become widely available.
Ms. Zeani was known for her versatility. While she practically owned the role of Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” performing it 648 times, she also ranged far beyond Verdi, singing 69 roles in operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini and Wagner, among many others. Contemporary composers sought her out for premieres of their operas.
She was disciplined in adopting new roles suitable to her voice as it changed from coloratura in her 20s to lyric soprano in her 30s, and then to lirico-spinto after 40, combining qualities of lighter lyric roles and weightier dramatic aspects with an ability to reach dramatic climaxes on high notes without strain. “When one door closes, another opens,” she said of her vocal evolution.
Virginia Zehan was born on Oct. 21, 1925, in Solovastru, a Transylvanian village in central Romania. She changed her surname in her early 20s when she emigrated to Milan after being told that “Zeani” would be easier for Italians to pronounce. Her parents, Dumitru and Vesselina Zehan, owned a hardscrabble farm and moved to Bucharest, the Romanian capital, in search of better incomes when Virginia was 8.
Music was among her earliest memories. She remembered singing as a toddler in Solovastru while going with her mother to fetch water from a stream for cooking. “Every Sunday, Gypsy people would gather in our village to play their music, and the villagers would begin dancing,” she said in her memoir.
When she was 9, she was invited by a cousin to her first opera: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” in Bucharest. She was so smitten that she vowed to her parents that she would become an opera singer. She enrolled in her school choir and, with the help of a benefactor, took voice lessons as a teenager with Lucia Anghel, a former mezzo-soprano who told Virginia that she was also a mezzo.
During World War II, Bucharest suffered bombardment and occupation by the Nazis, who imprisoned and executed some of Virginia’s close friends and their relatives. She herself narrowly escaped potential rape and murder by jumping from a back window when soldiers invaded her family’s home.
One stroke of luck during the war was being accepted as a student by Lydia Lipkowska, a famed Ukrainian soprano, who was stranded in Bucharest. Lipkowska convinced Virginia that she was a soprano. “I had no high notes at all at that point in my life,” Ms. Zeani recalled, “but after she accepted me and I worked with her for three months I had an incredible range.”
She went to Italy in 1947 and continued her vocal studies in Milan, where she joined a bumper crop of future opera stars, including Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe di Stefano and Franco Corelli.
On May 16, 1948, at age 22, Ms. Zeani made her debut at Bologna’s Teatro Duse as Violetta in “La Traviata” when Margherita Carosio, the scheduled soprano, fell ill. To get the role, Ms. Zeani lied to the local opera impresario, asserting that she had sung Violetta before. She then fashioned her own gown for the part out of curtain fabric bought at a street market.
Critics were impressed by Ms. Zeani’s ability to convey her character’s losing struggle with tuberculosis while hitting all of Verdi’s notes. She herself had earlier dealt with a chronic lung ailment, and she used that experience to aid her performance. “Ironically, my bronchitis helped me to work out a breathing system for the forte moments in the opera, consistent with Violetta’s medical condition,” she explained.
She added Vincenzo Bellini to her repertoire when she replaced Callas in the role of Elvira in “I Puritani” in Florence in 1952.
It was during that performance that she met her future husband, Italian bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, who sang the role of Elvira’s uncle, Giorgio Valton. They married in 1957 and had one child, Alessandro. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni died in 1991.
One of Ms. Zeani’s career highlights was singing the lead role of Blanche in the première of Francis Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at La Scala in 1957. Poulenc chose Ms. Zeani after hearing her sing in “La Traviata” in Paris the previous year.
“Poulenc convinced me to do the part of Blanche, score unseen,” she recalled. “I was not at first enthusiastic.” The work would be recognized as one of the great 20th-century operas.
Another of Ms. Zeani’s hallmarks was her durability. “In my career I only canceled two performances,” she said in a 2015 interview with the opera website Gramilano on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
In 1966, at 41, Ms. Zeani made her belated debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Violetta and gave one more performance a few days later. Those were her only performances in a Met production.
Even when her performances fell short, critics found reasons to praise her. On June 25, 1968, at the Metropolitan Opera, she played Desdemona in a production of Rossini’s “Otello” — a far lesser-known work than the Verdi masterpiece composed 70 years later — put on by the Rome Opera.
In reviewing Ms. Zeani’s performance in The New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg suggested that she would have been better suited for the latter-day “Otello”: “Much more a Verdi than a Rossini singer, she had some trouble with the fioritura, simplified as it was, but of her basic vocal endowments there can be no doubt.”
Her performances, especially in Italy, were warmly received. Her acting in Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” in a 1969 Rome Opera performance was singled out for praise by Opera magazine: “Zeani, a most musical and feminine interpreter of Manon, brought out all the part’s desperate passion throughout the opera with much lyrical ardor and touching expressiveness.”
Ms. Zeani’s last opera performance was as Mother Marie in “Dialogues of the Carmelites” on Nov. 3, 1982, at the San Francisco Opera. Two years earlier, she and her husband had accepted teaching posts at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Ms. Zeani continued to teach there until 2004, when she retired to West Palm Beach. She was considered one of the leading singing teachers in the country, and a partial list of her more notable former students included sopranos Angela Brown, Elina Garanca, Sylvia McNair and Marilyn Mims.