Herva Nelli

Toscanini's Soprano 

Herva Nelli known as the “Toscanini soprano" starred with Toscanini’s NBC Opera for seven years, before appearing for eight seasons as a principal soprano with the Metropolitan Opera.  A highlight of her career was eight performances on the stage of La Scala in Milan.  Nelli appeared with many symphonies and opera companies in the United States and made many international appearances.  She is best remembered for the live recordings of Verdi operas made of the Toscanini NBC broadcasts between 1947 and 1954, of Otello, Aida, Falstaff, Un Ballo in Maschera and the Verdi Requiem.

“Her legacy of the Verdi opera recordings made with Toscanini ensures that Herva Nelli will not be forgotten. Her Desdemona and Alice Ford, in particular, are the performances of a fine artist and singer who is inspired by the genius of the conductor to achieve greatness. Other sopranos may have larger or richer voices, but none penetrates more deeply into the hearts of Verdi's characters than Nelli, guided by Toscanini.” – The Independent Friday, 3 June 1994

Herva Nelli was born in Florence Italy in 1909 and immigrated to the Pittsburgh area with her family at the age of 12.  She studied piano for three years in New Kensington and yearned to become a singer.  Her family was unsympathetic to her desire for a music career and left her behind when they returned to Italy.  She remained in Pittsburgh taking job as a glass cutter at age 17 to pay for singing lessons.  She studied voice at the Pittsburgh Music Institute.  After graduation she continued her studies in Brooklyn with Alfredo Salmaggi and performed with his Salmaggi Opera Company.  Nelli made her operatic debut in 1937 singing at the Brooklyn Academy as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana.  She appeared with the Salmaggi Opera through 1946 performing in the title roles of Bellini's Norma, Verdi's Aïda, and Ponchielli's La Gioconda.  She appeared in leading roles with the La Scala company of Philadelphia

When Arto Toscanini was seeking a soprano for his NBC radio opera series, Licia Albanese recommended Herva Nelli.  Toscanini cast her as Desdemona in Otello for national broadcast concert performance in 1947.  Olin Downes of the New York Times that the timbre and quality of her voice "most touchingly communicated Desdemona's gentleness and purity of soul."  She starred as the Soprano of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Opera radio and television performances for next seven years appearing in several Verdi operas.  She went to Italy in 1948 singing eight performances of Aida with Toscanini at the post war reopening of the La Scala opera house.  Nelli’s broadcasts with Toscanini were recorded and published by RCA: Aïda (1949), Falstaff (1950), the Requiem (1951), and Amelia in Un ballo (1954).  Toscanini willed his baton to Herva when he died in 1957.

Nelli debuted with the Metropolitan opera, as Aida, in 1953 and continued to perform with the company until 1961.  Touring with the Met she appeared in She appeared in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Atlanta, Dallas, Toronto and Minneapolis.  In addition to her roles with the Met she performed with the New Orleans Opera Association, the New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, Eugune Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic , the Baltimore Civic Opera, the Cincinnati Opera, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Hollywood Bowl,  and the Lyric Theater of Chicago.  Nelli also appeared on concert tours of Colombia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and Madeira.

Nelli gave her farewell performance in 1962, with the Brooklyn Opera Company, at the Academy of Music, in the role of Norma. She was interviewed in 1985 for the PBS documentary "Toscanini: The Maestro" which broadcast in 1988.  Retiring from the opera world she became a noted chef.  She opened a restaurant in Poughkeepsie, NJ in 1955 and later became a caterer.  She died in Sharon Connecticut at age 85 in 1994.

NBC Orchestra Performance