Lyric soprano Anita Cerquetti, famous not only for her voice, but also for the brevity of her career, was born in Montecosaro, Italy on 13 April 1931. As a young girl, she planned a career as a classical musician, and studied violin for seven years. Cerquetti sang as well, but mostly for her own pleasure. Her teachers began to notice the quality of her voice and urged her to audition for the Liceo Morlacchi conservatory in Perugia. Cerquetti was accepted by the conservatory and studied voice there until her debut as a soloist in 1949, at the Citta di Castello. Though she gave a good account of herself with the 'Jewel Song' of Faust (Gounod), Cerquetti decided her training was incomplete and returned to the Liceo for two more years of study.
A PROMISING CAREER
Cerquetti’s actual operatic debut was in 1951, when she appeared at Spoleto in Aida (Giuseppe Verdi). She sang dual roles of Aida and The Priestess, winning praise for her diction and tone. Then, the Teatro Nuovo of Milan engaged her for their production of Il Trovatore (Verdi). After that performance, Cerquetti was more confident of her abilities, and signed for a series of concerts with Beniamino Gigli. Playing it just a bit safe, she chose familiar selections from Aida and Tosca.
Cerquetti expected that offers would follow, but none were forthcoming. Undaunted, she resumed her vocal training, and then launched a series of concerts in Perugia. Throughout the early 1950s, she appeared in many concerts, always expecting great engagements, but the major opera houses continued to ignore her. Finally, in 1955, she was a huge success in Bellini’s Norma at the Boboli Gardens in Florence. This time, the critics could not ignore her vocal ability and stage presence. Cerquetti was immediately signed by the Rome Opera for a successful production of Aida. Soon after, she was offered a contract by the Chicago Lyric Opera and opened there with Un Ballo in Maschera (Verdi), with Jussi Bjorling.
After her success in America, Cerquetti returned to Europe. By now a verifiable star, offers that had once eluded her were in abundance. She sang a series of concerts for Milan Radio, appeared in Don Carlo in Lisbon and again at the Comunale, and all over Italy in various roles. Another trip to the Americas took her to Mexico City for performances of Aida, and also Il Trovatore; and a return to Chicago, again in Ballo and Don Carlo.
Cerquetti’s appeal, at this point in her career, lay in the control and the power of her voice. As writer Bob Rideout remarked in Opera Voices,
"The voice is in superb condition and the singing itself is of an order rarely heard. There is an inexhaustible supply of power coupled with her justly famous ease of emission and repose. The top register is thrillingly vibrant and the lower register appears as the natural extension of a completely integrated voice."
Cerquetti was compared to Maria Callas (something not unnoticed by the Divine One herself). In fact, she was once called to step in for Callas, at a performance of Norma in 1958, when the great diva stomped off the stage of the Rome Opera. Cerquetti was ready for the challenge and scored another triumph, making the audience completely forget about Callas.
FADEOUT AND RETIREMENT
By all accounts, at this point Cerquetti should have gone on to become one of the great operatic divas. She appeared in Norma again, for a few performances, and then unexpectedly took a long rest. The Teatro alla Scala of Milan had offered her a debut, and Cerquetti was determined to be ready. She opened there for four performances of Verdi’s Nabucco, to enthusiastic audiences.
What happened next is still in some doubt, but it is known that Cerquetti decided on another 'long rest'. This one extended all through 1959 and into early 1960, long enough that when she did return to the stage, it was regarded as something of a comeback. She sang again at La Scala (Stabat Mater, Rossini), and a famous performance of Nabucco in Holland, after which she retired permanently.
Cerquetti herself has said that it was the birth of her daughter Daniela in 1965 that prompted her retirement. However, that event happened some five years after her last public performance. Recordings from that time suggest that vocal problems were not to blame, since the voice was still in good shape. Indeed, within the last few years opera critics have called her the “greatest of all Normas”, surpassing even Callas and Rosa Ponselle.
Anita Cerquetti today lives quietly in Rome, where she teaches specialization and technique to young opera students.
Zucker, Stefan, Anita Cerquetti,
Bel Canto Society. <http://www.belcantosociety.org/pages/cerquetti.html > (April – June, 2003)
Rideout, Bob, Anita Cerquetti,
Opera Voices. 8 Jan 2001. <http://chalosse.free.fr/masterpieces/step-one/cerquetti.htm> (April 2003)
Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History
. Middlesex, England
: Penguin Books