Irma Capece Minutolo, Opera Singer and Partner to Exiled King, Dies at 87

Irma Capece Minutolo, a Neapolitan beauty queen and opera singer whose relationship with the exiled Egyptian king and world-renowned hedonist, Farouk I, became fodder for gossip columnists around the world, died on June 7 at her home in Rome. She was 87.

Her death was confirmed by a niece, Irma Capece Minutolo.

Ms. Capece Minutolo was a teenager from Naples in the early 1950s when she first encountered Farouk, who had fled to Italy, along with other members of his family, on his royal yacht after a military coup in 1952.

During his reign, “he had such exorbitant tastes,” read his obituary in The New York Times, “and such little concern for his public image in a poor country that he soon became known as a wolf, a glutton and a carefree gambler.”

He took those appetites with him to Italy. “The name of this rotund monarch with the rakish mustache had become synonymous with international playboy,” The Times noted. He died at 45 of a heart attack during a midnight meal at a French restaurant in Rome in 1965.

Accounts of how the couple met vary, and are often filtered through the gossip standards of the day. According to “Farouk: Uncensored,” a pulpy 1965 tell-all by a journalist named Michael Stern, Farouk became entranced with Ms. Capece Minutolo at a beauty pageant, and yelled ‘Fraud!’ when she failed to place, before arranging a meeting. (She had by then been crowned Miss Naples of 1953.)

In an email, her niece disputed that and other accounts, saying that Ms. Capece Minutolo, at 16, was chosen to welcome Farouk with a bouquet of flowers when he arrived in Naples in 1952 and that they got to know each other at Circolo Canottieri, an exclusive club in Naples where her father was a member.

Her social standing, too, became something of a question. Ms. Capece Minutolo, who was born in Naples on Aug. 6, 1935, was often cited as a princess or marchioness in the news media, and the venerable L’Annuario della Nobiltà Italiana (The Yearbook of the Italian Nobility) lists her as a descendant of Neapolitan princes.

In 1954, as rumors of impending nuptials swirled, however, she sued two Italian journalists who reported that her parents were a chauffeur and a janitor’s daughter. “At the newsmen’s trial for slander,” Time magazine reported at the time, “Irma’s father had indignantly complained: ‘To doubt my daughter’s aristocratic descent is to slander the father of the fiancée of Farouk, whose wedding is imminent.’” (The resolution of the lawsuit is unclear.)

Her niece said that Ms. Capece Minutolo’s father was Prince Augusto, who owned a luxury car dealership.

Another open question was whether any nuptials were in fact imminent. At the time of the lawsuit, Time quoted Ms. Capece Minutolo as saying, “I prefer not to marry. Farouk is sensible and tender, but marriage is the tomb of love.”

But she later said they married in an Islamic ceremony in 1958. Ms. Capece Minutolo was present at Farouk’s funeral, along with his first wife, Queen Farida, although the British newspaper The Telegraph reported that she was not mentioned in the former monarch’s will. She was typically described in news media reports as his companion.

In the early years, their relationship drew comparisons to George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion,” or perhaps “My Fair Lady,” with accounts of Farouk sending her to school, having her restyled and bankrolling singing lessons. “It was a perfect match between an Eliza Doolittle and a Henry Higgins,” Mr. Stern wrote.

The singing lessons bore fruit in the early 1960s, when Farouk arranged her debut performance at a black-tie recital of arias at an arts club in Naples. Less than a minute after she launched into her first aria, from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” the lights went out. “A few women started to scream,” The Boston Globe recalled in a 1969 article. “A lot of men roared with laughter.”

Candles soon arrived from a church next door, so she could finish the set by their flickers of light. It was a worthy idea, except that the performance was interrupted once again when a candle set the pianist’s sheet music aflame.

Ms. Capece Minutolo became a punchline, adding to her notoriety as the girlfriend of a king whose countrymen had found him “profligate and monumentally avaricious,” as The Times put it.

“The public thought of me as this silly-headed, no-talent sexpot,” she told The Globe.

But the disastrous debut did not prove a death knell for her dreams. After Farouk died, Ms. Capece Minutolo moved into a small apartment and returned to her singing lessons. By the end of the decade, she had fashioned a career, receiving positive notices for many performances, including Verdi’s “Il trovatore” in Rome and a production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” directed by the renowned Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, in Florence.

She also appeared in a handful of films, including Franco Zeffirelli’s “The Young Toscanini” (1988), starring Elizabeth Taylor, and later ran a singing school in Rome.

Ms. Capece Minutolo had no immediate survivors.

Perhaps no performance was as redemptive for her career as an appearance in the late 1960s at an opera house in Parma, which was known as the “lion’s pit” for its merciless hecklers, according to The Globe.

“The audience, primed by her past publicity as Farouk’s gal, had come to the theater loaded for bear,” The Globe wrote. “But Irma fooled them all. One fan even yelled out from the gallery seats: ‘First, you sing marvelously. Second, you are beautiful.’”

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