Luisa Tetrazzini (29 June 1871 – 28 April 1940) was an Italian coloratura soprano of great international fame. Tetrazzini “had a scintillating voice with a brilliant timbre and a range and agility well beyond the norm...” She enjoyed a highly successful operatic and concert career in Europe and America from the 1890s through to the 1920s. Her voice lives on in recordings made from 1904-1920. She wrote a memoir, My Life of Song, in 1921 and a treatise, How to Sing, in 1923. After retirement, she taught voice in her homes in Milan and Rome until her death.
Luisa was born on June 29, 1871 in Florence, Italy. Her father was a military tailor, and she had two sisters and two brothers. Reportedly, she began singing at the age of three.Luisa, herself, recalled singing early on as a child and reminisced that her father was the first person to ever compare her to the famous bel canto soprano, Adelina Patti. Luisa first studied singing with her oldest sister, Eva Tetrazzini (1862–1938)(it). Eva was also a prima donna soprano who made a name for herself internationally. While doing chores, Luisa was known to practice entire acts of operatic roles and to sing every voice part. She began studies at the Insituto Musicale between the age of ten and thirteen with Professor Ceccherini. She married Giuseppe Santino Alberto Scalaberni on October 14, 1889.
Through a stroke of luck, she stepped in for an ailing prima donna and made her operatic debut in Florence on October 21, 1890 as Inez in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine at age nineteen.Tetrazzini reminisces that after her debut, “The pavements from the theatre to my home were lined, even at that late hour, with large numbers of people, all of whom seemed to be shouting congratulations to me.” Next, she sang Inez in Rome on December 26, 1890 for the King and Queen of Italy. She was then invited by the Queen to sing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde , as it was the Queen’s favorite opera. The first part of her career was spent mainly in the Italian provincial theaters and then touring in South America. She travelled with Pietro Cesare, who became her lover of nearly 14 years, to Buenos Aires where she was offered £280 per month to sing. While in Buenos Aires, her husband, Alberto, followed her to attempt to return her to Florence. She refused to reconcile. He left for Florence without her in October, and she made her debut a few days later as Annetta in Crispino e la comare . When Alberto died on June 4, 1905, they were still separated.
Tetrazzini first sang Lucia di Lammermoor in Buenos Aires on November 21, 1892. It was her favorite opera, as well as the Argentinian President, Dr. Luis Saenz Pena’s, favorite. He was her avid fan.By the time of her fourth season in Buenos Aires, she was engaged to receive £5,500 per month. Along with performing in Argentina, she toured South America. She continued to sing there until 1895.
She returned to sing in Europe in 1896. Next she debuted in Saint Petersburg with Battistini in Un ballo in maschera on December 31, 1896. After her first season in St. Petersburg ended in 1897, she finished the year performing in Madrid, Milan, Turin and Odessa. In 1898, she sang in Odessa and Bologna before returning to perform in various South American countries. The Winter season of 1899 brought Tetrazzini back to St. Petersburg. This is where she first performed with the famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, who sang Edgardo to her Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor on February 22, 1899.Her 1890s' repertory consisted primarily of lyric-coloratura parts such as Violetta, Philine, Oscar, Gilda, and Lucia.
From 1899-1903, she sang in Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia. Her Mexican debut as Lucia came on October 22, 1903.A little over a year later, her performance of Lucia on December 8, 1904 was fortuitous. William H. ‘Doc’ Leahy, the impresario of the San Franciscan theatre, the Tivoli was in attendance. He was in Mexico visiting his friend, Ettore Patrizi, who was conducting Tetrazzini at the time. Leahy invited her to come to San Francisco. She made her American debut at the Tivoli in San Francisco as Gilda in Rigoletto on January 11, 1905.
Due to Nellie Melba’s absence, an opening came for Tetrazzini to be hired at the esteemed Covent Garden in London. Although she had established a career throughout South America and much of Europe, to English audiences, she was practically unknown.Tetrazzini’s debut at Covent Garden as Violetta in La traviata on November 2, 1907 was critically acclaimed and “caused a sensation...” She garnered twenty curtain calls. E. A Baugham in the Daily News wrote, “The quality of tone produced by Tetrazzini ravished the sense. It is soft and golden and yet has none of the impersonal and chilling perfection of the ordinary light soprano...I have never seen the pathos of Verdi’s heroine realized with such grip and sincerity... I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that Mme Tetrazzini has the voice of the century and stands out from even the great Italian singers we know...” Additional reviews were similarly complimentary of Tetrazzini’s abilities, even comparing her to the famous Adelina Patti, who was the premiere soprano of an earlier generation. Tetrazzini idolized Patti greatly. She remarks that Patti saw her performance and invited her to a lunch in which she confirmed the press’s clamoring that Tetrazzini would continue her legacy. Tetrazzini and Patti became great friends, thereafter, and were frequent correspondents until Patti’s death. Patti made it a point to attend and loudly applaud the younger soprano's performances. Tetrazzini remarks about a particular letter about one of her performances from Patti that she prized as her greatest treasure saying, “Praise from a mixed audience is very gratifying after one has given it of her best. But, praise, and such praise, from Patti is far more than the passing pleasure of a public ovation.”
From this point on, Tetrazzini was an international operatic superstar, commanding the highest fees and selling out opera houses and concert halls wherever she performed. Previously, in 1904, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, Heinrich Conried, tried to engage Tetrazzini with a contract that proposed her to sing with the Met for three years starting in November 1905. This contract never became binding as Conried failed to give her bank the guarantee deposit.In 1908, Tetrazzini finally appeared in New York City, not at the Metropolitan, but at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera Company, again as Violetta with great success. She remained loyal to Hammerstein and appeared at the Met for only one season, in 1911-12 (giving just eight performances, in the roles of Lucia, Violetta, and Gilda). From 1911 to 1914 she sang with the Boston Opera Company and Chicago Grand Opera Company.
After some legal difficulties in New York that blocked her from performing, she held a press conference and declared, "I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free." This line became famous. She won her legal case, and her agent announced she would sing in the streets of San Francisco. On a crystal clear Christmas Eve in 1910, at the corner of Market and Kearney near Lotta's Fountain, Tetrazzini climbed a stage platform in a sparkling white gown, surrounded by a throng of an estimated two to three-hundred thousand San Franciscans, and serenaded the city she loved.
Tetrazzini possessed an extraordinary vocal technique that enabled her to surmount any vocal challenge with joyful ease. She had complete mastery of runs, trills, staccati and vocal ornaments of all kinds.She also had a brilliant upper register, extending to F above high C. Unlike many other coloratura sopranos, such as Amelita Galli-Curci, Tetrazzini's high notes were not thin and delicate, but full, powerful and ringing. On the debit side of the ledger, her vocal registers were not as well-integrated as those belonging to her direct soprano rival, Nellie Melba. Also, although her lower register was strong, her middle voice was comparatively thin or 'white' in tone, with a quality which some American and English critics described as "infantile" and "child-like". The Irish tenor John McCormack even compared it, using hyperbole, to "the wailing of a cross infant". With age, however, Tetrazzini's middle register filled out to some extent; and the way that her mid-voice sounded, even when she was younger, does not seem to have troubled the ears of Mediterranean critics, going by their written record.
Tetrazzini was short and grew quite stout as she aged; but she could act effectively on stage, especially in lively or comic roles. She was a good musician, too, and she possessed an amiable, zestful and vivacious personality. These extra-vocal qualities come through on the many records that she made. She recorded extensively for the Victor Talking Machine Company and the Gramophone Company/HMV. Her best recordings include a spectacular rendition of "Io son Titania" from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon and "Saper vorreste" from Verdi's Un ballo in maschera , in which Tetrazzini's personality virtually jumps out of the grooves at the listener. On a different note, her recording of "Addio del passato" from La traviata is very moving and also demonstrates her fine legato, as is her "Ah non credea mirarti" from La sonnambula . Her "Una voce poco fa," and "Ah non giunge," made for Victor, remain, after all these years, unequalled for their sheer joy, easy virtuosity and spectacular ornamentation.
Tetrazzini had a bitter feud with Nellie Melba while at Covent Gardenbut was extremely well liked by other colleagues such as Frieda Hempel and Enrico Caruso. Tetrazzini and Caruso had been close friends for many years, and his premature death at age 48 left her devastated. After he fell ill, Caruso wrote her a postcard saying “I am waiting for you with open arms, waiting every moment to salute you with a golden note.” Unfortunately, she was unable to see him before his death. She is known to have visited his tomb frequently. Additionally, she obtained permission from the Pope to sing a Requiem Mass on the first anniversary of his passing.
After World War I, Tetrazzini largely abandoned the opera stage for the concert platform. She wrote a memoir, My Life of Song, in 1921 and a treatise, How to Sing, in 1923. In 1932, when she was retiring, she was filmed listening to a recording of Caruso's rendition of "M'appari, Tutt'Amor," and began to sing along with the record showing that her voice still had plenty of power (this video can be seen from the link below under the External Links section). She taught voice after retirement in 1934 and named Lina Pagliughi her successor.Tetrazzini’s recordings range from 1904-1920. Tetrazzini became a worldwide name and was “glorified even in food, as in Turkey tetrazzini.”
Tetrazzini’s thirty-two year career accrued her enormous wealth. Critics described her as singing with youthful abandon, while noting her solid vocal technique. Her emotional interpretation of roles catapulted her to fame and led to comparisons with Patti, Lind, and Melba.Some of her most well-known roles included: Rosina ( Il Barbiere di Seviglia ), Violetta (La Traviata), and Gilda (Rigoletto). She sang her favorite role, Lucia, over 100 times.
She was married three times and had many passionate affairs during her life. She was the aunt and mentor of the actress Marisa Vernati.Tetrazzini was plagued by legal battles with her third husband, which substantially impacted her finances towards the end of her life. What money and belongings she did have, she generously gave away. The soprano remained cheerful and lovable, despite her reduced circumstances. She would often say, "I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini." Tetrazzini left little behind when she died in Milan on April 28, 1940. Her funeral was honored with a Requiem Mass at the church in Via Casoretto and was attended by close family and friends. She was buried in a mausoleum, of her choosing, with an epitaph from Lucia di Lammermoor: “Alfin son tua.” (At last I am yours).
The popular food dish, Tetrazzini, is named in her honor.
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