dellachiesa1 (photo courtesy Charles Mintzer collection)

In the winter of 1988 I had the pleasure of interviewing Mme. Vivian della Chiesa at her home in Greenport, Long Island, New York. For several years I had been trying to locate her; I had tried writing to the artists union, American Guild of Musical Artists, and I asked persons who knew how to locate persons who had slipped into anonymity, but no one was able to provide an address for her. My desire to have a conversation with her was part of my effort to locate as many artists who sang with the old Chicago Opera as part of my research on Rosa Raisa, whose biography I was hoping some day to author. Della Chiesa’s name entered my radar when in 1962 Paul Hume, music critic of the Washington Post, had told me in a letter that he witnessed a performance of Halevy’s La Juive at the old Chicago City Opera (1936 or 1937) and that Della Chiesa had performed her second act aria brilliantly and had received a very hearty ovation, but that later in the opera when Eudoxia (Della Chiesa’s role) and Rachel have this big bravura duet with loads of coloratura and ending on a unison high D, that Raisa, who was struggling earlier in the performance, simply obliterated the not-inconsiderable Della Chiesa in the duet, as he said “Raisa opened her girdle a little and after that you simply did not hear Miss DC.”

A fortuitous event happened on 31 December 1987 when the New York Times reported that there had been the previous night a celebration of Arturo Toscanini at the home of a Mr. Eric Selch, a patron of the arts, and that Mr. Peter Rosen, the editor of Ovation magazine organized the event. Present were Rose Bampton, Licia Albanese, Jarmila Novotna, Robert Merrill, Gabor Carelli, Alice Peerce (Jan’s widow) and Vivian Della Chiesa, all persons who had worked with the Maestro. I contacted Ovation magazine and they arranged for Mme. Della Chiesa to contact me. I had a short telephone conversation with her and she gave me her address in order that that I might send her some photos I had of her for signing, and she also invited me to her home for a more extensive chat. 

In early February 1988 I boarded the Long Island Railroad for the long trip to Greenport for our meeting. I brought my little hand-held cassette recorder with me and she agreed to let me tape our conversation. She could not have been kinder or more hospitable. The first impression when I entered her home was very positive; she certainly did not look her seventy-three years. I recall that she wore a very simple black outfit, very conservative; I also recall that after I left her home at about 4:30 pm she stated that she was then going to an early Saturday evening Mass at her church.


Her then husband, Alfred Ré, gave me a guided tour of their spacious home with its music studio covered with autographed photos of her friends and collaborators from the entertainment world. I say entertainment and not opera specifically, because Vivian’s career spanned the worlds of opera, concert, radio, talk television and cabaret. In the interview she elaborates on her multi-faceted career. In the non-classical portion of her career she was “Vivienne,” not Vivian; I was surprised at the pile of her LP recordings she showed me, mostly on lesser labels, but also not classical music.  
I only had 90 minutes available on the one cassette I had brought with me; therefore, the interview/chat is not complete, but I did get her to talk about the music and radio world(s) of her day and brought her up to the present with her opinions of the current opera scene and stars. She had prepared a lovely lunch for us, and the three of us, Vivian, Albert, myself started to talk about a variety of things including the cold weather. I had been in her home at least thirty minutes before I remembered to turn on the tape recorder. When I started to record her, I had commented on her bookcase with lovely leather-bound opera scores, and she elaborated that many of them had belonged to Claudia Muzio and were given to her by May Higgins, the legendary secretary-friend of Muzio, who Vivian recounted also played a significant role in her early career. I asked her some questions about May, the woman, and she filled in the details of a remarkable individual.

The time I spent with Della Chiesa and her husband was more of a free-flowing conversation than an in-depth  interview, although I managed to ask her many questions about subjects that interested me. I noticed during the course of our chat that she often free-associated when a name was mentioned. This was especially true on the business and   logistical end of the entertainment profession. She knew the families of the people she worked with and could relate to their positions in the industry; the mere mention of a name could conjure up a family tree. Her memory for names, dates and places was remarkable, although she often would indicate that her memory was not so good. She frequently talks about the various radio networks that she appeared on; this is significant because in the USA, unlike Europe, for example, there were several networks that spanned the country; she was not “exclusive” to any one network. I came away from the interview experience with a deep affection for her and what she represented at a very rich time in American musical life. Although she invited me for a return visit, it just didn’t happen

dellachiesa3 (with Pierre Monteux the conductor)

A look at the wikipedia biography (click here) is instructive for the outline of her career. To make the point of her American fame, they quote Judy Garland: 

Judy Garland mentioned Vivian della Chiesa by name in her Carnegie Hall concert of January 23, 1961, preserved in the Judy at Carnegie Hall album. She says, “I must tell you one more thing, about, in Paris again. I got to the intermission, and I changed my dress and got into my pants and in my slacks, and the zipper in the back wouldn’t stay zipped. And so, just before I went on, I put a great big safety pin, you know, so my act wouldn’t get too gay in the middle of it, and I strolled over to the piano at this point and sat down and the pin . . . came undone, and into my derrière. I’ve never sung so high and so fast in my . . . I sounded like Vivian, Vivian Della Chiesa.” 

Now the interview:


Charles Mintzer