Virginia Zeani

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Virginia Zeani
Virginia Zeani.jpg
Virginia Zeani (1963)
Born Virginia Zehan
(1925-10-21) 21 October 1925 (age 90)
Solovăstru, Romania
Nationality Romanian[1][2]
Citizenship Romanian, Italian, American[3][4]
Occupation Operatic soprano
Years active 1948–present
Spouse(s) Nicola Rossi-Lemeni

Virginia Zeani, Commendatore OMRI[5] (born 21 October 1925) is a Romanian dramatic coloratura soprano, regarded as one of the great sopranos of the 20th century[6][7][8][9] and one of the great musical personalities in the history of Romania.[2][10] The Venetian Arts Society named her "one of the most vocally and artistically gifted of the Grand Divas of the Golden Age" and a "Super Star in the history of opera".[11]

Known both for her golden voice and her impeccable technique, Virginia Zeani is also famous for being one of the most beautiful opera singers of all time.[2][12][13] Federico Fellini said that Virginia Zeani personified for him "the beauty of the opera singer" and confessed in a letter that he used to secretly admire her in the mornings when she was making vocalizations.[14]

Maria Callas's former husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, once told Zeani: "Virginia, I have to tell you, you are one of the very few sopranos my wife is frightened of!"[15]

She is one of the greatest interpreters of the role of Violetta Valéry (from Verdi's La traviata) in recorded history, being often called by the press and opera lovers "Violetta supreme".[16] She is also the artist with the greatest number of performances in the role of Violetta ever, with an estimated 648 interpretations.[17][18]

In addition to her success as Violetta, Zeani was one of the first sopranos in the world to sing all three principal soprano roles of The Tales of Hoffmann in a single performance and the first one to do so in the history of La Scala.[19]

For a quarter of a century, from 1981 to 2004, Zeani was a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington.[17] Besides her native language, Romanian, Zeani speaks Italian, French, Spanish and English.[20]

Early life[edit]

Zeani was born Virginia Zehan in Solovăstru, Romania. She studied first in Bucharest, with Lucia Anghel, then with famed coloratura soprano Lydia Lipkowska. Her singing for the Italian Cultural Society in Bucharest so impressed the Italian ambassador, the consul and the press attaché that they quickly arranged for her to study in Italy, and in March 1947 she traveled to Milan to work with the tenor Aureliano Pertile.

Early career in Italy[edit]

With no previous stage experience, in May 1948 she made her professional debut in Bologna, deputising at short notice for Margherita Carosio as Violetta in La traviata, and was immediately offered a tour of thirty more performances. Violetta was a role she would sing an estimated 648 times around the world, during her career. Her partner that evening was tenor Arrigo Pola (Alfredo), the voice teacher of Luciano Pavarotti.

Her career was at first primarily focused in Italy, where she sang in many of the regional opera houses. She describes these years as "making the bones", singing many performances of big roles in smaller houses to gain strength and experience.


In January 1950 she was invited to star in a three-month "tournee", or season, in Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt, singing Violetta, Nedda, Micaëla and most significantly Adina in L'elisir d'amore opposite the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli. She was 24, he was 60.

In 1952 came an important step when, again at short notice, conductor Tullio Serafin chose her to replace Maria Callas as Elvira in I puritani in the Teatro Comunale Florence. Soon her growing reputation led to invitations to many of the major opera houses of Europe, and Violetta was her debut role in Vienna and Paris. She made her debut at La Scala, Milan, in 1956, as (Cleopatra) in Handel's Giulio Cesare, opposite Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, whom she married shortly afterwards.

Despite having appeared in several successful tours of Great Britain she had yet to appear at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Her debut eventually came in 1960, once again as an emergency replacement, but this time for the indisposed Joan Sutherland. She recalls arriving at the Royal Opera House at 4pm, after a sleepless night and flights from Vienna via Frankfurt. There was just time for costume fittings and a brief rest before she walked onto the Covent Garden stage for the very first time. She had never before met any of the cast and had to ask "Which one is my Alfredo?" That remarkable performance was broadcast world-wide and has been preserved on disc. Zeani also appeared in Barcelona, Leningrad, Moscow, Philadelphia, Bucharest etc. and eventually in New York's Metropolitan Opera, as Violetta, in 1966.


In her early career, she won considerable success in bel canto roles such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda (in Rigoletto), Elvira (in I puritani), and the title role in Linda di Chamounix, and lighter lyric roles such as Massenet's Manon and Marguerite (in Gounod's Faust). As her voice matured she gradually turned to more dramatic roles including Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly and Tosca, and verismo operas including Fedora and Adriana Lecouvreur. She tackled more Verdi roles including Aida, Desdemona, Elisabetta, Alzira and Lina (in Stiffelio), as well as two Wagnerian heroines, Elsa (in Lohengrin) and Senta (in The Flying Dutchman).

She created the role of Blanche in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites) in the world premiere on 26 January 1957 at La Scala. She was personally chosen for the Italian premiere by the composer, who had heard her as Violetta in Paris. Later she performed his solo masterpiece for soprano La voix humaine in Italian and French.

In 1972, she enjoyed a great successes as Magda in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul.

In all, she sang some 69 major roles and only ever cancelled two performances.

Virginia Zeani, "Teacher of the Year 2010" at home in her music room in Florida

She sang with many famous colleagues including tenors Beniamino Gigli, Mario Filippeschi, Ferruccio Tagliavini, Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, Jon Vickers, Luciano Pavarotti, and Plácido Domingo, mezzo sopranos Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, Shirley Verrett, Lili Chookasian, Grace Bumbry, baritones Gino Bechi, Tito Gobbi. Nicolae Herlea and basses Nicola Rossi Lemeni, Boris Christoff, etc. A warm-voiced singer with stunning looks and an affecting stage presence, she made few commercial recordings, but many of her live performances exist as bootleg recordings and YouTube postings.


Zeani retired from the operatic stage in 1982, but, together with her husband, Nicola Rossi Lemeni, in 1980 began to teach singing at the music school in Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington. The couple were later both honored as "Distinguished Professors". After her husband's death in 1991 she taught at IU for many more years before moving to Florida, where she continues to teach talented young singers. In 2010, having taught for thirty years, the magazine Classical Singer named her "Teacher of the Year".

Amongst Zeani's most famous pupils are Sylvia McNair, Susan Patterson, Angela Brown, Stephen Mark Brown, Elizabeth Futral, Marilyn Mims, Vivica Genaux, Mark Nicolson, Heidi Klassen, James Valenti, Elīna Garanča and Ailyn Pérez.


Virginia Zeani has influenced numerous artists including Luciano Pavarotti,[21] Plácido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu,[21] and enjoyed the admiration of many other personalities, such as Grace Kelly,[22][23] Federico Fellini,[24] Tyrone Power,[25] Francis Poulenc,[26] Ildebrando Pizzetti[27] and Gian Carlo Menotti.[27]

In 1961, Luciano Pavarotti made his international debut next to Zeani, in a performance of La traviata, in Belgrade. Referring to the influence she had on him, Pavarotti recalled singing with Zeani as being his "very great fortune" and an "extraordinary experience", stating that he "learned very much from her intensity and commitment to her art, as well as from her great musicality."[28] Pavarotti dedicated to her, in a concert in Indianapolis, the famous aria "Donna non vidi mai!" ("I have never seen a woman like her!") from Puccini's opera, Manon Lescaut.[14]

Plácido Domingo sang his first des Grieux with her in Manon Lescaut.[29]

In 1999, conductor Richard Bonynge named Zeani among the greatest voices he had ever heard, other than his wife, Joan Sutherland: "The voices I most remember are Flagstad, Virginia Zeani and Renata Tebaldi."[30][31]

In a 2010 letter to Zeani, sent by both Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, the two express "the extraordinary thrill" of hearing Zeani for the first time in 1957: "You have no idea the profound impression you made on us. We had never heard in the flesh a bel canto soprano so opulent, so lush, and so velvety. A voice with a great technique, an incredible extension and full of emotion." [32]

Soprano Nelly Miricioiu said that "her legacy is incomparable" and emphasized the power of example that Virginia Zeani still has in the world of opera: "The beauty and artistry of Virginia Zeani are legendary and in our world of easy personality, her humanity, kindness and modesty are always talked about and revered by her colleagues".[32]

Talking about the influence Zeani had on her, Angela Gheorghiu said: "She made a great impact on me. [...] In her performances, she had the most beautiful and powerful voice, a wonderful technique, a marvellous range of colors, and a very strong force of interpretation. She had an incredibly wide repertoire – virtually all the styles, and important premieres too."[21] Gheorghiu regards Zeani as "a major part of our operatic history"[21] and the "embodiment of diva or divine".[33]

Soprano Teresa Stratas considers Zeani the most beautiful Violetta Valéry she had ever seen or heard.[32] Stratas has also expressed her admiration for Zeani's "ravishing" beauty and "equally exquisite voice". She wrote in a letter to her: "I can still feel the throb of your heart in that perfect vibrato. You enveloped us in your warm, liquid, even tone and drew us in to experience your joy and your heartbreak. Indescribable, really."[32]


National honours[edit]

Foreign honours[edit]


  1. ^ "Lumea romaneasca - Lumea romaneasca - Numarul 464 - Anul 2001 - Arhiva - Formula AS". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c "Vezi portetul unei romance care a cantat la incoronarea Reginei Angliei - VIDEO -". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  3. ^ "Hampsong Foundation » Singers on Singing: Virginia Zeani". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  4. ^ "Virginia Zeani Part 3, Interview with George Jellinek 1993". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  5. ^ "Distinguished Professors Emeritae McBride, Zeani receive IU President's Medal". Indiana University. Retrieved 11 January 2014. 
  6. ^ "Virginia Zeani, Legendary Prima Donna: Celebrating the Golden Age of Opera | Venetian Arts Society". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  7. ^ "Tributes and Awards | Virginia Zeani". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  8. ^ "The Quiet Diva: Virginia Zeani was one of the world’s great...". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  9. ^ "Studio & Master Classes |". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  10. ^ "Blogul Cristinei Bazavan: Virginia Zeani: Intotdeauna m-am simtit servitoarea publicului". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  11. ^ "Virginia Zeani, Legendary Prima Donna: Celebrating the Golden Age of Opera at The Society of The Four Arts Palm Beach | Venetian Arts Society". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  12. ^ "Opera Today : An Interview with Virginia Zeani". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  13. ^ "Faultbook: Virginia Zeani: My Favorite Soprano Turns 85". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  14. ^ a b "Virginia Zeani, soprana: "Cuvantul e purtator de suflet"". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "ArtActMagazine – La più grande Violetta Valéry". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  17. ^ a b "Making the Cult Diva – The Legend of Virginia Zeani – Venetian Arts Society". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  18. ^ "Virginia Zeani – 'L'Assoluta': povestea unei dive". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  19. ^ "Virginia Zeani – The Tales of Hoffmann 3 – Barcarolle – YouTube". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  20. ^ "Virginia Zeani: “A cânta bine înseamnă a desena un tablou de cuvinte…” | Despre Opera". Retrieved 12 July 2014. 
  21. ^ a b c d "A Discreet Legend: Virginia Zeani talks to Jon Tolansky", Opera, (London), November 2009, p. 27
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Voinescu, Sever; Zeani, Virginia (2011). "Canta che ti passa", Virginia Zeani în dialog cu Sever Voinescu. Galaxia Gutenberg Publishing House. p. 19. ISBN 978-973-141-307-5.
  25. ^ Voinescu, Sever; Zeani, Virginia (2011). "Canta che ti passa", Virginia Zeani în dialog cu Sever Voinescu. Galaxia Gutenberg Publishing House. p. 67. ISBN 978-973-141-307-5.
  26. ^ Voinescu, Sever; Zeani, Virginia (2011). "Canta che ti passa", Virginia Zeani în dialog cu Sever Voinescu. Galaxia Gutenberg Publishing House. p. 115. ISBN 978-973-141-307-5.
  27. ^ a b Voinescu, Sever; Zeani, Virginia (2011). "Canta che ti passa", Virginia Zeani în dialog cu Sever Voinescu. Galaxia Gutenberg Publishing House. p. 191. ISBN 978-973-141-307-5.
  28. ^ Voinescu, Sever; Zeani, Virginia (2011). "Canta che ti passa", Virginia Zeani în dialog cu Sever Voinescu. Galaxia Gutenberg Publishing House. p. 269. ISBN 978-973-141-307-5.
  29. ^ Zeani and Domingo in Manon Lescaut, 1971 on YouTube
  30. ^ "An afternoon with legendary diva Virginia Zeani", Vero Beach Opera, January 2011
  31. ^ "Virginia Zeani", excerpt from The Twilight of Belcanto (2003) by Leonardo Ciampa (it)
  32. ^ a b c d "Tributes and Awards" on, page 617
  33. ^ Zeani and Gheorghiu meet, 7 May 2008 on YouTube
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^

External links[edit]