Edith Della Pergola - A Beautiful Lifeby Wah Keung Chan
/ December 1, 2002
The husband-wife team of Edith and Luciano Della
Pergola were the founding directors of the McGill Opera Studio in Montreal from
1956 to 1989. Before coming to Canada, Edith had a successful career as a
dramatic soprano in the Italian repertoire in the Vienna Staatsoper while
Luciano sang at La Scala. On December 8, during l'Opéra de Montréal's 7th annual
Le Gala, Edith Della Pergola will be inducted into the Canadian Pantheon of
Opera for her achievements as an operatic educator. La Scena Musicale
caught up with her.
LSM: Why are you so passionate about music and
EDP: I think an artist is born. I had piano lessons
when I was young. My mother and I lived in the same house as an opera conductor,
and many singers came to him for coaching. After they left, I would imitate
them. The conductor fell in love with my voice and insisted that I should go to
Vienna after graduating from high school. I was 12 then, and I began to sing
with an orchestra. After graduation, my parents moved to Bucharest and I got
into the academy of music right away.
LSM: Tell us about your late
EDP: My husband was a wonderful artist, singer and
teacher. I did Andrea Chenier at age 17, and he criticized my
interpretation. That night I cried, but I knew that he was right so I rehearsed
before a mirror. We sang together sometimes, but not often, because it made both
of us nervous for each other.
LSM: Tell me how the McGill Opera Studio
EDP: My husband and I were never together. We had one
daughter. After the war, I worked in Vienna and he was singing at La Scala.
When McGill invited us to start an opera department, we thought about it for
two years and then accepted because we wanted the family to be
After hearing "Bravo Edith" from audiences, it was
difficult to forget the stage. Following a CBC TV telecast of the last act of
Il Trovatore with Vickers and Quilico, an impresario offered to take me
to the Metropolitan Opera. My husband told me to go, but I wanted to be with my
We have never regretted the decision to come to
McGill, but it was challenging at the beginning. First, there were not enough
singers for opera because they were being prepared for lieder and recitals, and
they did not have the vocal extension needed for opera. We staged the first
opera, La Serva Padrona, with just two singers. Every year we present at
least one complete opera and a program of scenes from opera. We then performed
these in high schools (about 10 times a year). It was very rewarding.
LSM: What do you think of the current state of
EDP: It is fantastic. Everywhere, we have very good
singers. In Canada, there is incredible evolution in Windsor, Edmonton,
Vancouver, and other cities. When we came, there was hardly anything. Maybe
there are too many sopranos now. Tenors are always difficult to find.
The only complaint I have is the size of the opera
houses. We were trained in the smaller theatres and then went to the bigger
theatres. They are not building 1200-seat theatres, as we had in Europe,
anymore. Rossini didn't write for 3000 seats. In Europe there are more opera
houses and opportunities.
LSM: What are you most proud of?
EDP: We developed a love for opera at McGill, and the
hall was always full. There are now opera programs at the University of Montreal
and UQAM. People have to be exposed when they are younger.
As for career, I started with Bohème and I
sang it in three languages. I sang the dramatic Italian repertoire, Verdi and
Puccini. Suor Angelica, Tosca in two languages, and Aida in
three languages. I had great success in big and small theatres and in concert,
and I was admired. Every public is different. Italians scream and go home and
forget it; Germans do not scream--they applaud and wait in line to get you to
sign their program.
When you are an artist, you enter another world. You
are so happy after the performance, you just cannot go to sleep until 3 or 4
a.m. Sometimes, I would talk with my husband and he would say, "Why did you take
a breath there. It's not necessary." At the next performance, it would be
LSM: You just sang a nice tone. Do you still sing
EDP: I sing everything. Sometimes my neighbours knock
on the wall to say we love your voice, but not so late.
LSM: Who is your favourite
EDP: Verdi. Verdi wrote for the voice so that you
don't scream. If he wanted fortissimo, he brought you there slowly. He brings
you to a high C easily so that you don't have to make an effort. Not so with
Puccini, who was more theatrical. Verdi wrote for the singer who had the Italian
LSM: Tell us about Italian
EDP: If I gave you a lesson, I would tell you how to
keep your tongue, to lie down to breathe, how to shape your mouth, the anatomy,
take the high notes, adjust the vowels... You must breathe with the diaphragm to
fill up your lungs and let it empty--so many explanations.
LSM: What is your advice for young
EDP: They should prepare at least five operas and
have at least three different recital programs--they are not easier than opera.
They should not be ashamed or afraid or nervous to knock on doors and tell
everybody that they have a beautiful voice and ask them to listen to them sing
for 10 minutes. You cannot do it otherwise. Go back a year later to the same
opera director and say, "Would you like to listen to me this year?" The will
power to do it comes with the talent--you don't want to just sing in the
You must learn languages, learn every day. It is a
full-time job, and you have to dedicate yourself.
Once I asked Callas, who sang with my husband, why
she was carrying the score of Vespri Siciliani around since she had sung
it often. Her answer was, "You never know what other kind of trick I can find to
complete it, another breathing, a legato I hadn't done until now." She studied
and studied. It is a sacrificed life. You cannot go into a café because of the
smoke, cannot stay up late, and speaking tires the voice more than singing.
Also, you cannot eat this or that. But, it is a beautiful life.
Le Gala will also honour the late Ruby Mercer,
founding editor of Opera Canada magazine. 27 singers are scheduled. Dec. 8, 2
p.m.-6 p.m (514) 985-2258