Opera star sang with Maria Callas

Giuseppe Di Stefano, one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century and a celebrated singing partner of soprano Maria Callas, died Monday, his wife said. He was 86.

Di Stefano died at home in Santa Maria Hoe, north of Milan, from injuries sustained in a November 2004 attack at his family’s villa in Kenya, said his wife, Monika Curth.

Unidentified assailants struck the retired tenor on the head during the attack. Di Stefano underwent surgery twice in Mombasa before being flown to Milan. He awakened from a coma, but never fully recovered.

“He was 100 percent disabled, he couldn’t even eat alone,” Curth told The Associated Press by telephone. “Lately he frequently had colds and pneumonia.”

Di Stefano, born in Sicily in 1921, made his debut in 1946 in the northern city of Reggio Emilia with Massenet’s “Manon,” and went on to sing at the world’s top opera houses, including Milan’s La Scala, New York’s Metropolitan, and in Vienna and Berlin.

His last performance was in Rome in 1992.

Known for his powerful voice, Di Stefano also is remembered for his duets with Callas, who performed and recorded with him several times in the 1950s through her final tour in 1973.

Di Stefano was at the height of his career when other stars of contemporary opera were taking their first steps. Luciano Pavarotti, who died in September, had his big international break when he stood in for Di Stefano as Rodolfo in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at London’s Covent Garden in 1963.

At the Metropolitan Opera, Di Stefano sang in 112 performances from 1948 to 1965, making his debut in Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as the Duke.

“His musical merits have mostly to do with style, for the voice, though neither small nor ugly, is not an organ of great beauty,” composer Virgil Thomson wrote in The New York Herald Tribune after that first performance. “But he has an impeccable enunciation, and he projects a phrase with style and authority. Also his personality is fresh and genuine.”

On Monday, Italy and the world of opera celebrated him as one of the greats.

“Let us remember his great talent and his fascinating interpretations, which brought to stages across the world the feelings and emotions of our best musical tradition,” Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said in a message to Curth.

“Another great of the ‘Scala family’ enters into the history of opera, into its myth,” said a statement from the storied Milan opera house, where Di Stefano sang 185 times. “He enjoyed a long, passionate run, full of friends and memorable events.”

Marcello Giordani, a top Sicilian tenor currently rehearsing “Ernani” at the Met, said he was “deeply saddened” by Di Stefano’s death.

“As a child growing up in Catania, I was greatly inspired by his magnificent voice, musicality, and dramatic sensibilities,” Giordani said. “His passing is a tremendous loss to the world of opera, and most especially to the people of Sicily.”

Di Stefano will be buried in Santa Maria Hoe after a church funeral Wednesday, his wife said.

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