In the opera universe, there’s wacky and weird—and then there’s Stefan Zucker. This living “world’s highest tenor” is so strange as to defy description—the closest I can come is that his speaking voice sounds like a Mike Myers impersonation in an Austin Powers movie, and his attachment to Italian opera divas of the past is almost pornographic. Many New York opera-lovers remember him from his WKCR radio show, which was discontinued in 1994. For the uninitiated, he can be viewed in a YouTube clip.
Zucker’s voice opens Jan Schmidt-Garre’s 1998 film, Opera Fanatic, just released in the U.S. on an Arthaus DVD, with a telephone message: “Oh hi, this is Stefan. I feel like shit with a touch of fever and a sore throat, but I will get on the plane… I have some little pimples on my face, and I would feel much more at my ease, much less self-conscious with makeup.” If this doesn’t give you the heeby-jeebies, I’m either not telling it right, or you’ve never heard Zucker’s voice before. Schmidt-Garre’s film documents the process of Zucker making a film in which he interviews the great Italian divas he remembers from his youth—Anita Cerquetti, Carla Gavazzi, Magda Olivero, Leyla Gencer, Marcella Pobbe, Iris Adami Corradetti, Gina Cigna, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato.
It’s hard to stop watching the film, because these singers are so important to Italian opera singing tradition that you keep waiting for the revelatory bits that explain how they did what they did when they sang Trovatore or Tosca or Madama Butterfly. But, sad to say, even the most interesting of them, such as Gencer and Simionato, are hamstrung by Zucker’s questioning, which narrowly focuses on “what constitutes expressivity?” and “did you use chest voice?” It’s not news that many of these singers (Gencer being a notable exception) deny using chest voice, even when their audio and video clips seem to indicate otherwise. Their answers about expressivity don’t elicit any earth-shaking truths, either, but divas being divas, even their less-interesting remarks are wonderfully colorful and larger than life. The short bits when they talk about vocal technique in a larger context are definitely worth watching.
My favorite moment is with Marcella Pobbe, who turns out to be the most difficult interview. At first her concerns about letting Zucker and Schmidt-Garre’s film crew into her apartment lead you to believe she has gone around the bend. But when at last she lets them in for the interview, you find yourself rooting for her, as she point-blank refuses to answer Zucker’s question about what other singers she admired (“I don’t want to gossip”) and another about whether she had any regrets (“I wouldn’t have done anything differently”), and insists that Zucker give her a proper diva introduction, on camera. Proving beyond a doubt that she’s not crazy—just a true opera diva.