Cesare Siepi, the great Italian bass who died in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 5, at the age of 87, was one of the most respected opera singers of his generation.
He also enjoyed exceptional vocal longevity: having made his debut at 18 in the provincial Italian town of Schio, he gave his last performance when he was 71, at the Vienna State Opera.
In between, Siepi performed on virtually every major opera stage in the world. In Milan, his home town (he was born on February 10, 1923), he sang the role of Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco - La Scala’s first postwar opera production (1946) - under the baton of Tullio Serafin. Two years later, he performed the principal bass roles in excerpts from Boito’s Mefistofele and Nerone with the octogenarian Arturo Toscanini in the Scala pit for the very last time, and in 1951 Toscanini chose Siepi for his final performance and well-known recording of the Verdi Requiem.
Siepi made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950, in the role of Filippo II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, and he appeared regularly at the house for 24 years. His Covent Garden career spanned virtually the same period, and he was a great favorite in Vienna as well, especially in the title role in Don Giovanni. A tall, handsome man, he looked the part of Mozart’s diabolical protagonist in addition to singing it with great expressive variety; he can be seen and heard in a famous 1954 performance of the opera at Salzburg under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Siepi sang the title role in Le nozze di Figaro in Erich Kleiber’s classic 1955 recording, yet his career lasted so long that he also performed with conductors like Riccardo Muti and James Levine, who were two to three generations younger than Kleiber, Furtwängler and Toscanini. He was much admired by his fellow-singers – a roster that included just about every significant voice of the 1940s to 1980s.
Siepi was married to the American dancer Louellen Sibley, who survives him, as do their two children and two grandchildren.