Mirella Freni
Mirella Freni 1970.jpg
Freni in 1970
Mirella Fregni

(1935-02-27)27 February 1935
Modena, Italy
Died9 February 2020(2020-02-09) (aged 84)
Modena, Italy
OccupationOperatic soprano

Mirella Freni (Italian: [miˈrɛlːa ˈfreːni], born Mirella Fregni, 27 February 1935 – 9 February 2020)[1] was an Italian operatic soprano who had a career of 50 years and appeared at major international opera houses. She received international attention at the Glyndebourne Festival, where she appeared as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni and as Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore.

Freni is associated with the role of Mimi in Puccini's La bohème,[2] which she sang at La Scala in Milan and the Vienna State Opera in 1963, conducted by Herbert von Karajan.[3] She also performed the role in a film of the production and as her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1965.[3] In the earliest opera DVDs, she portrayed her characters convincingly in both acting and singing.[4] Freni was married for many years to the Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov, with whom she performed and recorded. Her obituary from The New York Times describes her as a "matchless Italian prima donna".[1]


Born Mirella Fregni in Modena, she had the same wet-nurse as Luciano Pavarotti, with whom she grew up and who was to become a frequent tenor partner on stage.[4] She studied voice first with her uncle, Dante Arcelli,[5] then with Luigi Bertazzoni and Ettore Campogalliani. She later changed her name thinking it was easier to pronounce.[4] Freni made her operatic debut at the Teatro Municipale in her hometown on 3 March 1955 as Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen.[4][6] She later married her teacher, the pianist and director Leone Magiera;[6] the couple had a daughter.[7] Freni resumed her career in 1958 when she performed Mimì in Puccini's La bohème at the Teatro Regio in Turin,[4] and sang in the Netherlands Opera 1959–60 season. Her international breakthrough came at the Glyndebourne Festival, where she appeared in 1960 as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni,[5] alongside Joan Sutherland as Donna Anna, and in 1962 as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, and as Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.[2][4][5]

In 1961, Freni first performed at the Royal Opera House in London as Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff.[2] She stepped in as Nanetta at La Scala in Milan for Renata Scotto.[8] On 31 January 1963, she appeared there as Mimi in a production staged by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Herbert von Karajan.[4] She became one of the conductor 's favourite singers in operas and concerts.[6] The production was repeated at the Vienna State Opera the same year,[3][9] and she appeared at the house in eleven roles, including the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Amelia in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.[9]

On 29 September 1965, she first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, again as Mimi,[4] with Gianni Raimondi as Rodolfo who also made his house debut. Reviewer Alan Rich wrote in the New York Herald Tribune:

Miss Freni is-well, "irresistible"-will do for a start. Beautiful to look at, and actress of simple naturalness and overwhelming intelligence, she used voice and gesture to create a Mimi of ravishing femininity and grace. The voice itself is pure and fresh, operating without seam from bottom to top, marvelously colored at every point by what seems to be an instinctive response to the urging of the text.[10]

She later appeared there as Adina in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore,[11] Liù in Puccini's Turandot, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette,[6] as Susanna, Micaela and Manon Lescaut.[5] The following year she sang Mimì again for her Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company debut, with Flaviano Labò as Rodolfo. From the early 1970s into the 1980s, Freni sang heavier Verdi roles,[6] including Elisabetta in John Dexter's production of Don Carlos, Desdemona in Otello (alongside Jon Vickers), Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elvira in the Luca Ronconi staging of Ernani, Leonora in La forza del destino, and the title role of Aida performed in Houston in 1987. She appeared as Puccini's Tosca only on a recording. She performed as Manon Lescaut in the Metropolitan Opera's 1990 season,[12] and recorded Madama Butterfly[13] and the three roles of Il trittico.[14]

Freni chose her roles carefully, saying in an interview: "I am generous in many ways, but not when I think it will destroy my voice. Some singers think they are gods who can do everything. But I have always been honest with myself and my possibilities."[1]. She refused Karajan's offers of Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore and Puccinis Turandot.[6] Elvira in Ernani was set aside after a single run at La Scala (and despite offers to sing the role elsewhere).[6] She never sang Cio-Cio-San on stage, but recorded it twice including 1975 film Madama Butterfly, alongside Plácido Domingo, with Karajan conducting and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directing.[2] She played Susanna in the Ponnelle film Le nozze di Figaro, which also featured Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa and Hermann Prey.[3]

In 1978, after her marriage to Magiera had ended in divorce,[7] she married Nicolai Ghiaurov, one of the leading operatic basses of the post-war period. Together they helped to establish the Centro Universale del Bel Canto in Vignola, where they began giving master classes in 2002. After Ghiaurov's death in 2004, Freni continued their work of preserving the bel canto tradition, teaching young singers from around the world.[4]

Freni extended her repertoire and style during the 1990s with Italian Verismo,[6] taking on the title roles of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur in Milan, Paris, Barcelona and New York, and Umberto Giordano's Fedora in London, Milan, New York, Torino, Barcelona and Zürich. In 1998, she performed Giordano's Madame Sans-Gêne in Catania. During this time she sang in Russian operas, such as Tchaikovsky's Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, Lisa in The Queen of Spades, and Ioanna in The Maid of Orleans. Freni ended her professional career on stage with that role at the Washington National Opera on 11 April 2005, performing the teenager Ioanna at age 70.[6]

Freni died on 9 February 2020 at her home in Modena. According to her manager, she died "after a long degenerative illness and a series of strokes".[1][6]


Freni was awarded the Italian Cavaliere di Gran Croce in 1990,[15] and the French Légion d'honneur in March 1993.[2] The University of Pisa awarded her an honorary degree in 2002 for her "great contribution to European culture."[16]

In 2005, the Metropolitan Opera celebrated the 40th anniversary of her Met debut and her 50th anniversary on stage with a special gala concert conducted by James Levine.[6]