Short in stature and by no means slender, mezzo-soprano Ebe Stignani was a paragon among twentieth-century singers in her vocal range, a compass sweeping from low F to a shining high C of a quality and power many dramatic sopranos envied. Although she herself admitted to being no actress, her stage appearances carried enormous force through her singing alone. Her career was born in an age of other great mezzos and extended nearly three decades into the prime years of Giulietta Simionato, Elena Nicolai, and Fedora Barbieri. She recorded often, preserving several of her most celebrated roles in complete performances.
Beginning with the study of piano at the Conservatory of San Pietro di Maiella in her native Naples, Stignani soon undertook courses in vocal training under Agostino Roche who cautioned her not to exploit her facile top register by becoming a soprano. During her five years with Roche, she worked on solfège and scales even as she studied harmony and both the choral and the operatic literature.
Stignani's debut took place at the San Carlo in Naples in 1925 when she plunged into the dramatic role of Amneris in Verdi's Aida. Called upon by Arturo Toscanini for an audition, she found herself with a contract for La Scala and began her long career there with La Gioconda, Götterdämmerung, and Weber's Der Freischütz (in the brief, but uncompromisingly soprano role of Aennchen). Soon, she was singing under the finest conductors of the time: Ghione, Gui, Guarnieri, Marinuzzi, Panizza, and Serafin. Given the size and thrust of her voice, she was assigned a great deal of Wagner, each role sung in her native language, as was the custom of the time in Italy. Likewise, she came to make the big Verdi roles her own — Ulrica, Azucena, Preziosilla, and Eboli in Don Carlo. In the latter, she was a last-minute substitute for the revered Giuseppina Cobelli and, despite her usually placid nature, found the experience of taking over for a singer so esteemed by the Scala audience a nerve-wracking one. Stignani triumphed, and found the demanding role becoming one of her two mainstay parts, the other being Leonora in Donizetti's La favorita.
Beyond the Verdi/Wagner literature, Stignani embraced Fidalma in Cimarosa's Il matrimonio segreto, Carmen, Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma, Marina in Boris Godunov, Dalila and the role she loved above all others, Orfeo in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Elsewhere in Italy, her roles at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino were the High Priestess in Spontini's La vestale and Fenena in Nabucco in 1933. By 1940, she was engaged for the more important role of Arsace in Rossini's Semiramide. Meanwhile, other opera houses outside of Italy summoned her for a variety of works. She sang in London beginning in 1937, when she debuted as Amneris, and continuing periodically until her Adalgisa opposite Callas in 1952 and 1957, the year before her retirement. The United States heard her in opera only, at San Francisco (1938 and 1948) and in Chicago (1955), where her appearances included a memorable Il trovatore with Callas and Björling. A rapturously received recital at Carnegie Hall in 1948 failed to produce another offer from the Metropolitan Opera (a 1939 contract was voided by the outbreak of WWII), but she sang with success in South America as well as throughout Europe.
Among Stignani's commercially recorded roles are Amneris (twice), Adalgisa (twice), Eboli, Preziosilla, and Laura.