By Zachary Kussin
Nedda Casei, the legendary mezzo-soprano who performed with the Metropolitan Opera for more than two decades, surrounds herself with music. Nowadays, the 81-year-old teaches seven international career opera singers — they make trips to NYC for intensive, weeklong lessons — and hosts the occasional recital, all within her capacious living room.
It’s really a shame her neighbors can’t hear anything: Casei’s Classic 7 co-op is fully soundproofed.
Even without singing, Casei — whose credits include the title role in “Carmen” and Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” — enchants visitors with her soothing voice. Tall, blonde and slender, she moves through her home with grace and a confident stride, much like she would an opera set. Casei takes pride in showing off the home that she created — a space with color and charm to match her grand and gregarious personality.
The apartment looks quite different then it did in 1992, when she bought it. The interior was a “wreck,” she said, and one of the terraces had structural issues.
But the place was a bargain (though she declined to disclose the price) and, at the time, Casei was looking for a fresh start. Her husband had died and she had sold a big apartment at 980 Fifth Avenue. She wanted a smaller space, with outdoor areas being the main priority. But several months after her purchase, Casei received an offer to work in Japan as a visiting professor; for the next two years, she split her time between locations. “I didn’t really get a chance to move in,” she said.
She began the renovation in 1995, an intensive process that went on for approximately three to four years, she said. The home’s library — a stunning, academia-chic room with rows of wooden bookshelves and a large desk that faces a window — was the first target. She wanted the room to feature lots of wood, to have it resemble a real library where she could store her books and music scores.
And there was more. Casei wanted beamed ceilings, so her contractor went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he got pillars that were previously used in the water and installed them throughout. She also wanted wooden floors; the contractor traveled down to the Carolinas to get the flooring from an old home that was being dismantled. The remainder of the wood was used for the ceilings. These combined additions helped soundproof the space.
“Along the way, it’s been building itself,” she said of her home. “It’s like a painter painting a painting. You add a stroke here and suddenly you see you should have something over here — and it’s the same way with the apartment.”
Other steps of the redesign included widening the kitchen and creating arched entryways to connect the rooms, which give an airy, European-style feel. Casei refers to the spread as her “Italian villa,” and the look pays homage to the 11 years that she spent living in Italy, during which time she made her operatic debut, first in Brussels in 1960 and at La Scala in Milan that same year. Following her 1964 premiere at the Met, she traveled back and forth between America and Europe. She performed at the Met for 22 years, until 1986.
“I had probably acquired more of an Italianate European influence,” she said of the design, which embraces a prominent color palate. The walls, furniture, rugs and linens sport a mélange of rich Rococo-style pink, red and purple tones. The walls are predominately peachy-pink in color; hidden pockets flash other colors. The kitchen is red with red accessories and her dressing room is similarly hued — it’s a space she calls “Red Room.” On the dining room ceiling is a painting of grapevines; it’s accented by pink and red splashes, as well as the colors of a stained glass window depicting grapevines. Even a light that hangs over the deep master bathtub makes the surrounding marble emanate a soft red glow.
Such a chromatic display ranks as something very important for Casei, which provides a sense of comfort. “I think a home should be warm, loving; an affectionate home,” she said. “Something that reaches out and envelops you. Because I live alone and I’ve lived alone for quite a while … it’s a wonderful feeling to come home and it’s like something that puts its arms around you, gives you that loved, cared-for feeling.”
Casei has performed all over the world, and even in her travels, she needs to feel at home. The self-described “homebody who was floating around” said she often adds her own personal touch to temporary locations, much as she did her permanent one. “I’ve even customized my hotel rooms,” she said. “I take a red scarf and throw it over a chair, and I rearrange the furniture and fluff up the pillows. I have to make it home.”
The outdoor space in her Manhattan home creates the full package. The two irrigated L-shaped terraces are lush with abundant plantings; there are lilac trees, crabapple trees, grapevines, white lace hydrangeas, red roses and peonies. “I never had the feeling of living in New York,” she said. “It’s like I’m living in a special land of my own.”
But, like a beautiful aria, all things come to an end. In a bid to downsize, Casei put her home on the market this past October for $5.5 million; she then lowered the asking price to $5 million last month. Lori Carlis of Halstead Property is the listing broker.
Casei, who is working on a memoir, has rented a smaller apartment on the Upper East Side, where she’ll bring select belongings with her. A good portion of her music scores, study tapes and theater scrapbooks will be donated to Boston University for archival purposes. She’s bringing boxes to her new digs and as the new home develops, a new peice of living art is brought into being through Casei’s nesting instinct.
“I’m not as unhappy as I thought I would be,” she said of leaving her home of 20-plus years. “It’s a new, creative process.”