Mario Del Monaco (27 July 1915 – 16 October 1982) was an Italian operatic tenor who earned worldwide acclaim for his powerful voice.
Del Monaco was born in Florence to a musical upper-class family. As a young boy he studied the violin but had a passion for singing. He graduated from the Rossini Conservatory at Pesaro, where he first met and sang with Renata Tebaldi, with whom he would form something of an operatic dream team of the 1950s. His early mentors as a singer included Arturo Melocchi, his teacher at Pesaro, and Maestro Raffaelli, who recognized his talent and helped launch his career.
That career began in earnest with Del Monaco's debut on 31 December 1940 as Pinkerton at the Puccini Theater in Milan. (His initial appearance in an opera had occurred the previous year, however, in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana in Pesaro.) He sang in Italy during the Second World War and married, in 1941, Rina Filipini. In 1946, he appeared at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for the first time. During the ensuing years he became famous not only in London but also across the operatic world for his powerful voice and heroic acting style. It was almost heldentenor-like in scope but Del Monaco was no Wagnerian, confining his activities overwhelmingly to the Italian repertoire.
Del Monaco sang at the New York Metropolitan Opera from 1951 to 1959, enjoying particular success in dramatic Verdi parts such as Radamès. He soon established himself as one of four Italian tenor superstars who reached the peak of their fame in the 1950s and '60s, the others being Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli. Del Monaco's trademark roles during this period were Giordano's Andrea Chénier and Verdi's Otello. He first tackled Otello in 1950 and kept refining his interpretation throughout his career. It is said that he sang Otello an astonishing 427 times. However, the book published by Elisabetta Romagnolo, Mario Del Monaco, Monumentum aere perennius, Azzali 2002, lists only 218 appearances by him as Otello, which is a more realistic figure. Aptly, the tenor was buried in his Otello costume. Although Otello was his best role, throughout his career, Del Monaco sang a number of other roles with great acclaim, for example: Canio in Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), Radames in Aida (Verdi), Don Jose in Carmen (Bizet), Chenier in Andrea Chénier (Giordano), Manrico in Il trovatore (Verdi), Samson in Samson and Delilah (Saint-Saëns), and Don Alvaro in La forza del destino (Verdi).
Del Monaco made his first recordings in Milan in 1948 for HMV. Later, he was partnered by Renata Tebaldi in a long series of Verdi and Puccini operas recorded for Decca. On the same label was his 1969 recording of Giordano's Fedora, opposite Magda Olivero and Tito Gobbi.
His ringing voice and virile appearance earned him the nickname of the "Brass Bull of Milan". Despite his idiomatic phrasing, he was still widely criticized for being unsubtle and unyielding in his vocal interpretations. In this regard, the soprano Magda Olivero noted in a recent interview that:
"When Del Monaco and I sang Francesca da Rimini together at La Scala [in 1959] he explained his whole vocal technique to me. When he finished I said, "My dear Del Monaco, if I had to put into practice all the things you’ve told me, I’d stop singing right away and just disappear." The technique was so complicated: you push the larynx down, then you push this up, then you do that—in short, it made my head spin just to hear everything he did.
"We recorded Francesca excerpts together [in 1969]. Francesca has a beautiful phrase, "Paolo, datemi pace," marked "piano," and then Paolo enters with "Inghirlandata di violette," which also should be sung softly, delicately. Instead, Del Monaco was terrible—he bellowed the phrase [she imitates him and laughs]! When he listened to the playback he exclaimed, "I can’t believe it! After that soft poetic phrase I come in and what do I sound like—a boxer punching with his fists!" He recorded the phrase again, but the second attempt was more or less the same because he was incapable of singing piano. He was furious with himself because he wanted to. He tried everything, but his technique would not permit him to sing softly since it totally was based on the muscles."
In 1975 he retired from the stage. He died in Mestre as a result of nephritis.
Del Monaco belonged to a once flourishing lineage of dramatic tenors born in Italy. Famous predecessors of his included Francesco Tamagno, Francesco Signorini, Giuseppe Borgatti, Giovanni Zenatello, Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana, Bernardo de Muro, Giovanni Martinelli, Aureliano Pertile and Francesco Merli, among others.
His niece Donella Del Monaco, a soprano, is the singer of Opus Avantra.