Jan Schmidt-Garre’s 1999 documentary follows Stefan Zucker, the tenor and self-described “opera fanatic,” as he travels about Italy to interview a number of long-retired divas who graced the world’s opera stages a half-century ago. Unless you were attending European opera performances in the 1950s or you are a rabid opera history aficionado, there’s a good chance you never heard of the women who are featured here (including Fedora Barbieri, Leyla Gencer, Magda Olivero and Giuletta Simonato).
The interview subjects, mercifully, don’t act like divas for the camera – everyone is somewhat bemused to be sought out after being away from the spotlight for years. Furthermore, everyone is clearly very patient with the disheveled and scratchy-voiced Zucker, whose erratic interviewing pinballs between elementary questions on breathing techniques to inane inquiries on whether mezzos have stronger sexual stamina than sopranos.
Schmidt-Garre serves up some very rare television clips of the divas in their distant heydays, offering stunning evidence of why these women mean so much to Zucker. While one cannot deny the greatness of the old footage, one has to question Zucker’s repeated insistence (which the film casually endorses) that today’s opera stars cannot hold a candle to these icons of years passed.
Serious opera lovers who are able to tolerate Zucker’s unusual personality may enjoy this offering, but those who know little about opera will find this film confusing and strange.