Italian star singer Milva dies aged 81

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The genre-crossing Italian chanteuse, known for her vocal range and red hair, took Europe by storm in the 1960s and ’70s. Her career spanned decades.

Singer Milva passed away aged 81 on April 23, 2021

Milva, an Italian chanson and pop music singer popular in the 1960s and 1970s, passed away Friday at her home in Milan, Italy, aged 81. Born Maria Ilva Biolcati, the singer was often referred to as “La Rossa,” meaning “redhead” in Italian, for the color of her fiery red locks.

With an active career spanning decades, Milva was a musical great in her home country. Italy’s Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, called her “one of the strongest interpreters of Italian songs.” Her voice awakened “intense emotions” in entire generations and upheld the reputation of Italy, he said Saturday after news of her death broke.

Yet her fame was not limited to Italy. Her penchant for singing in foreign languages led to her success around the world — she released songs in English, German, French, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese and Japanese.

She had an especially large fan base in Germany, where she gained fame with sophisticated easy listening tracks. Her song “Hurra, wir leben noch” (“Hurray, we’re still alive”), was an especially big hit. A fan of collaborations, Milva recorded songs with Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, as well as famed film score composer Ennio Morricone.

Milva sang with Argentine tango music composer Astor Piazzolla, who died in 1992, and began a long-lasting collaboration with her compatriot, the innovative singer-songwriter Franco Battiato with whom she recorded an album.

A career to envy

Maria Ilva Biolcati was born on July 17, 1939, to a dressmaker and a fisherman in the small town of Goro in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region on the Adriatic coast. As a child, she worked to support her family, which experienced economic hardship.

Eventually, she moved to Bologna, entered a singing competition and received vocal and acting lessons. From then on, her career was enviable. She recorded dozens of albums, went on tours and appeared on the stages of theaters and concert halls around the world. Between 1961 and 2007, she performed 15 times at Italy’s most important pop festival in San Remo, but never won it.

For over 50 years, Milva worked tirelessly, recording 173 albums that spanned a wide range of repertoire. Her daughter Martina was born in 1963 but Milva had little time for family life and her daughter often had to go without her famous mother.

Milva had no qualms about breaking away from chanson and commercial music. She toured the world’s opera houses and theaters with performances of songs by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht. Her rendition of the role of Pirate Jenny in Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” helped make her an icon in the world of musical theater. She gave concerts at the Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera, London’s Royal Albert Hall and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. She alsosangin operas by avant-garde composer Luciano Berio and even dabbled in work as an actress. She landed a supporting role in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece “Wings of Desire.”

Seeing red

The singer was open about her leftist political views and charmed the working-class milieu with her political chansons, including the famous partisan hymn “Bella Ciao,” which was a constant in her repertoire. Her nickname “La Rossa” was also an allusion to the color associated with her political commitments.

In 2010, Milva left the stage and said farewell to her fans in a letter posted on social media. “I did my job gracefully and probably well,” she wrote. Milva said she decided to take this step because she was no longer able to continue her career “in the best way possible.”

Milva is survived by her daughter Martina.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.

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