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96-year-old opera star goes viral with superb ‘Panis Angelicus’

J-P Mauro - published on 06/25/21

Magda Olivero was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, and her timeless skills speak for themselves.

In the Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music, they have a motto: Skills For Life. The simple phrase is meant to remind students that they will never forget the techniques they learn. Musical memory lives in the muscles, just as it does in the mind. Even if decades pass, a little polish is all it needs to shimmer once more. 

Now, a recording of a 96-year-old woman singing “Panis Angelicus” (Latin for “bread of angels”) is making CUA’s musical motto shine. The recording, featured above, features Magda Olivero, one of the most esteemed operatic singers of the 20th century. In the 10-minute performance, the near-centenarian effortlessly glides through Leoncavallo’s “Ave Maria,” and Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.”

The performance

The most striking aspect of the recording is the clarity of Olivero’s tone. The vast majority of singers will find that their voice becomes harder to maintain as they age. This is because a singer’s instrument is their own body, which naturally wears down over time. As the body leaves its prime, it becomes hard to keep the tone unwavering and even harder to hit the high notes.

Here, however, Olivero shows no sign of wear at age 96. She sounds like a singer half her age, with a vocal flexibility that moves as fluidly as any. She even effortlessly reaches up and hits the highest notes of the song. In those moments, Olivero’s vibrato feels like it could shatter glass. 

Olivero debuted in the opera world in the 1930s. According to Classic FM, the illustrious soprano continued to perform on stage until she was 99. She was considered to be one of the true masters of the “verismo” style (think Puccini). Her performances were often met with standing ovations that could last half an hour. 

Although Magda is no longer with us, her immense talent lives on in her numerous recordings. These recordings also serve as a great comparison between the viral video, featured above, and the singer in her prime. The recording below, for instance, is of her 1975 debut at the Met as Tosca, at 65 years old. Her vibrato may have been a little more intense back then, but her voice is just as clear and commanding as it remained in her 90s. 

Catholic MusicElderlyHymn

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