NEW YORK -- The prima donna is an endangered species which may soon be extinct.
That is the studied opinion of Lanfranco Rasponi, author of 'The Last Prima Donnas' (Knopf, $22.50), a 636-page inventory of 56 great singers whom the author knew and interviewed in the past 50 years as a New York publicist of opera stars, writer about opera, and opera critic.
'I didn't put any singers into my book who are still singing, including Montserrat Caballe, but in my opinion Caballe may be the last of the prima donnas,' said Rasponi, his patrician countenance clouding with sadness. Then he confided that his friend, Renata Tebaldi, agrees with him.
This may not be agreeable news to Birgit Nilsson, 64, Leonie Rysaneck, 56, Joan Sutherland, 56, Leontyne Price, 55, and a few others nearing the end of distinguished careers. But Caballe is a mere 49 and has the chance to outsing them all if her sometimes frail health permits.
And the Spanish soprano has the type of regal personality and vocal purity that meets Rasponi's high standards of what makes a prima donna in contrast to a singer who merely sings lead roles acceptably.
'The trouble today is that singers are encouraged to sing all sorts of roles, whether they suit their voices or not, and to fly all over the world singing in different opera houses,' Rasponi said crossly, shaking his finger for emphasis.
'Years ago, singers belonged to a certain opera house where they sang 30 to 40 opera performances a year in a handful or roles they could sing really well. They were very well rehearsed. Now they're lucky to get two hours' rehearsal with a piano, unless it's a new production and they might get three rehearsals with full orchestra.'
Rasponi blames much of the degeneration of singing to the greed of managers and the singers themselves, pushing their careers and forcing their voices. But he is most virulent in his criticism of opera conductors.
'Imperceptively but quite fast, symphonic conductors who know nothing about opera took over,' Rasponi said. 'There used to be a division between symphonic and operatic conductors except for a few, such as Arturo Toscanini.
'For 10 or 12 years a man would be an assistant conductor in an opera house before he became a conductor. He knew what a voice can do and what it can't do. And he knew better than to cover the voice with the music.
'Many of my ladies (the prima donnas) say it must stop, it has to stop. They say we must start all over again. The voice is an elastic. If you put it in one direction, it won't go back to the other. I blame Maria Callas for a lot of this, because she'd sing anything, even roles she sang only three or four times. What a waste!'
Rasponi is an Italian nobleman (count) who had a mother from Tennessee. He now makes his principal home in Rio de Janeiro because it's 'so soothing.' Many of his interviews with prima donnas were done for Opera News magazine (Amelita Galli-Curci, Grace Moore), but he had to roam Europe to talk to singers he never had met before (Viorica Ursuleac, Germaine Lubin). Rosa Ponselle and Maria Jeritza were too ill to have their interviews updated when he was writing the book.
'It was like being a detective to track many of them down,' Rasponi recounted. 'When most of them retire, they leave not trace. It was like pulling teeth to uncover them. A few live on charity at the Casa Verdi in Milan. Most have no money at all, but happily claim, 'We were artists and money is not important.' Only a few married well.'
After several attempts to get Ursuleac to speak to him on the phone from her home in a village between Munich and Salzburg, he found her in a hotel restaurant in Vienna. She had created four of Richard Strauss' heroines and was the widow of Clemens Krauss, Strauss' favorite conductor, yet she was living in poverty.
''What happened to opera?'' she screamed at me,' he recalled. ''I don't want to speak to anyone.' But after she met me we talked for five hours. It was just conversation. I could only take a few notes with these ladies. They were frightened of tape recorders.'
Ursuleac and many other prima donnas confirmed Raspponi's view that opera tradition has been thrown to the winds, staging has been so changed that a generation of opera goers have not seen operas as they were conceived, and vocal standards have eroded dangerously.
'Twenty years of bad singing and the public doesn't even know what is good anymore,' the author concluded. 'Sopranos and mezzos are here today and gone tomorrow. Often they have abused their voices. Take Teresa Stich Randall, Ann McKnight, Delia Rigal, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Florence Quartararo. They had careers and then what happened? They vanished.'