September 28, 1981 12:00 PM

When she plays golf, which she does badly, Renata Scotto struts the course muttering defiantly, “I am Nancy Lopez.” When she fishes—not well either—Renata’s husband, Lorenzo Anselmi, says, “She is afraid of even the small fish.” When she plays poker, which she does every chance she gets, she usually loses to her friend, soprano Mirella Freni. “I’m no good in anything but singing,” Scotto complains—but at that she more than makes up for all the rest. This week she is scheduled to open the Metropolitan Opera’s 1981-82 season in the title role of an elegant new production of Norma. The appearance will mark her formal coronation as the prima donna of the Met and arguably the finest soprano of her day.

To be sure, the Scotto voice is not to everybody’s taste. A New York critic wrote that in a concert last year Scotto “sang everything prosciuttissimo”—meaning hammy, as in prosciutto. Others point to flaws in her high notes and her occasional stridency. Yet Scotto is unquestionably the best actress in opera, even though her height, only 4’11”, puts her at a real disadvantage in dominating the stage. “Renata is the closest I have ever worked with to a real singing actress,” says Norma co-star Placido Domingo. Adds designer Peter Hall: “From the moment she puts on a costume she becomes the character. You can see the transformation in her expression, her gestures, her posture as she stands there gazing into the mirror.” In Puccini’s trilogy II Trittico on PBS Nov. 14, Scotto will actually sing not one but all three soprano roles. “Renata,” thunders Met baritone Sherrill Milnes, “is the tiniest package of high-powered soprano in the world.”

Scotto, 46, seems to have been highly charged almost from the day she was born in Savona, Italy, the daughter of a policeman and “a real Italian housewife. For me it was always fun, play, play, play,” she remembers. “I talk all the time, I make fun of everybody.” She was belting out songs by 4. “I would go out on the balcony of our apartment and sing for the neighbors. They applaud me and maybe give me some candy.” By 14 she was in Milan, studying first music, then opera, and living in a convent. “I never had a teenage life,” she says. “My responsibility was to sing.” At 19 she made her debut at La Scala, and at 22, with only three days’ notice she was called to sub for Callas at the Edinburgh Festival. When she walked onstage, she recalls, “I hear applause”—and she has never stopped loving the sound. “I came to Edinburgh unknown, and I left it known all over the world. I had my magic moment.”

A year later she had another: She met her husband, then first violinist for La Scala. “Before I met her I heard her,” Lorenzo recalls. “I never saw the figure because I was down in the pit and she was up there. But the intelligence of that voice! That sound!” When he finally did see her, at a recording session, a friend whispered to him, “She will be your wife.” Renata says, “I thought maybe I would never marry, but then when I met him I thought, possible? That I be married? Maybe have children?” Soon after that Lorenzo quit the violin to watch over her career. They have two children, Laura, 12, and Filippo, 9.

“Scotto is a great prima donna onstage, but not offstage,” Norma director Fabrizio Melano says. “She’s very friendly and down-to-earth.” She often stops by the wig department for coffee and, says head stylist Nina Lawson, “When she asks how you are, she listens for an answer.” Her intensity is awesome—on a plane from Tokyo to Rome she once played poker for 22 hours straight. A few years ago she quickly lost 40 pounds (to 126) after seeing herself on TV. Professionally she is a tiger. “I am difficult,” she confesses. “I will not do what I do not believe in.” She boycotted the Met for the 1973-74 season until she was promised new roles and opening nights. In 1979 she refused to take a final bow after a San Francisco opera opening, raging that Luciano Pavarotti had upstaged her with an extra solo bow. He got the final applause, but she later won an Emmy for her performance in the PBS broadcasts of the evening.

This season Met music director James Levine has cast Scotto in an astonishing 42 performances. Around the world that kind of demand means an income of $1 million a year, houses in Westchester County, N.Y. and Italy, and apartments in New York, London and Paris. “I could have her working every day for the next five years,” chortles her manager, Robert Lombardo. “There is a short supply of Renata Scotto on the market.”

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