This is an extract from Schuyler Chapin’s book "Sopranos, Mezzos, Tenors, Bassos and Other Friends" (Crown Publishers, 1995).
It’s an interesting historical fact that Renata Tebaldi, one of the great spinto sopranos of our time, began and ended her Metropolitan Opera career with the same role. Rudolf Bing introduced her to the New York public in 1955 as an unforgettable Desdemona opposite Mario del Monaco; her last performance, again Desdemona, was under my management on January 8, 1973, this time with James McCracken as her Otello. In the seventeen years between her debut and farewell, Tebaldi had what can be best described as a passionate and tumultuous love affair with the New York operagoing public, a love affair that was totally reciprocated.
Tall and elegant, Tebaldi never cheated, never undertook a role unless she felt it appropriate for her voice and temperament, and was totally unafraid to face down managers and impresarios who tried to persuade her otherwise (more about this later!). What fascinates me is that as a deeply committed Italian and grand diva of La Scala, La Fenice, and other great opera houses of Italy-to say nothing of Vienna, London’s Covent Garden, and the Paris Opera-she found her greatest professional pleasure in the United States: in San Francisco, where she made her American debut in 1950; in Chicago; but especially in New York.
Shortly before Tebaldi was born in the Italian city of Pesaro-coincidentally also the home town of Rossini-her parents separated. As a result little Renata went to live with her mother and maternal grandparents in Langhirano, a small town near Parma. In her early years there was a brief reconciliation between her parents, but it didn’t last. For a long time she thought her father, a cellist by profession, was dead. As a sensitive child she suffered terribly from this family discord, becoming more and more attached to and dependant upon her mother, Giuseppina.
What many people don’t know is that at the age of three she was stricken with polio. As a growing youngster, she fought the disease with self-imposed discipline and determination, thus giving birth to a pattern of behaviour that has always governed her personal and professional life.
Tebaldi began her musical education as a teenager, studying the piano privately in Parma but quickly discovering that her pianistic gifts were modest. What she really had was a voice. Her piano teacher persuaded her to audition for the conservatory in Parma as a singer; she was accepted, pretending to be eighteen, the age of admittance, when she was really only sixteen.
She studied singing there for almost two years before a major turning point in her life: she went off to spend a Christmas holiday with her father’s brother, her uncle Valentino, at Pesaro. There, as operatic destiny would have it, Valentino owned a small café where the famous former diva Carmen Melis came to buy pastries. Melis was a teacher at the Pesaro Conservatory, then the most celebrated in Italy.
Valentino talked to Melis about his niece, and the diva finally consented to audition the young girl. Still a prima donna assoluta in her own way, Melis terrified Tebaldi, who at this time was basically a simple country girl. But although Melis criticised her manner of singing, she agreed that the voice had a lovely timbre. The next day, and for the remainder of her holiday, Tebaldi worked with Melis; when she returned to Parma, the improvement was so drastic that no one believed it was the same voice.
It was then that she determined to move to Pesaro permanently, where she lived with her father’s family and took classes with Melis both at the conservatory and privately. When Italy was dragged into World War II frequent bombings forced the conservatory to close. Melis moved off to live near Como, and Tebaldi, with her mother, moved deep into the countryside where she continued to vocalise on her own.
"La Signora Melis and I kept in touch as best as we could," she told Lanfranco Rasponi in 1982, "and in 1944 she let me know that she had arranged for me to make my debut as Elena in Mefistofele in Rovigo, under the very well known conductor Giuseppe del Campo. I went to meet Melis ten days before the performance to study the role – a short one, but very effective – and she was perfectly marvellous; she never left me, even in the wings of the theatre until the curtain went up. There I was, on the couch, terrified. But la Signora was pleased with the results."
The debut was an important success, but wartime Italy was hardly encouraging to young singers. Tebaldi sang a few performances here and there, but it wasn’t until 1946, when she appeared as Desdemona in Trieste with Francesco Merli, that the news spread like wildfire: a wonderful new voice had appeared on the horizon.
Tebaldi spoke about this moment in her own words: "Immediately all the theatres opened their doors to me, and it was thrilling for me that all the sacrifices my mother had made for me – she always would have preferred to see me married and settled – had not been in vain. Desdemona, until the end of my career, remained my favourite heroine, good-natured, the victim of love and jealousy, which know no laws."
As mentioned earlier, Renata Tebaldi was always part of a magical love affair between herself and her public. From her entrance to her final moment in a performance, she embraced the audience with commanding presence and her open smile. Communication was immediate and undeniable. Critics vied to describe her sound in terms ranging from rich and warm to delicate, sumptuous glowing, velvety, womanly – all virtues bound to capture an adoring public. But it was a combination of all these qualities that made Tebaldi unique, for whether she let fly with heroic splendour or scaled down to a shimmering pianissimo, she always honoured the score with scrupulous care for dynamics. These trademarks extended from the lyrical Mimi in La Bohème to the dramatic La Gioconda and Minnie in La Fanciulla del West. Early in her career, she had ventured into some Wagner as well, yet what she will be remembered for are her quintessential Italian roles: Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, Violetta, the Forza Leonora, La Gioconda, Adriana Lecouvreur, and, of course, Desdemona.
Before joining the Metropolitan I was one of those unabashed Tebaldi fans; shortly after joining the company, however, I realized I was going to have to be the one to suggest that it might be a wise idea for her to consider a different repertoire.
The day after a particularly harrowing Desdemona, I telephoned her hotel to ask if I might come to see her. She replied that it would be better if she came to my office, and we agreed a date.
At the appointed hour she arrived, dressed in an elegant, subdued suit covered by a full-length dark mink coat. It was a cold, bright sunny winter day, and I remember thinking how strikingly attractive she was as she came through the door and I walked over to greet her.
We settled into comfortable seats and I began by telling her what pleasure she’d given to so many people over the exciting years of her career. She looked at me, acknowledging my comments with a slight nod, obviously waiting to discuss future plans. I then asked if she’d ever given thought to appropriate mezzo-soprano roles that might be compatible alternatives to her present repertoire.
At the mention of "mezzo-soprano" her back stiffened and her face froze. She did not say a word, just looked at me with thorough contempt and without further ado arose out of her chair, wrapped her fur coat around her with firm authority, and left the room.
Shortly after this unfortunate rendezvous, we saw each other once more. We were sitting in adjoining boxes at Carnagie Hall during a memorial concert celebrating the life of the impresario Sol Hurok. I nodded politely to her; she looked away. No words were spoken. I was saddened by such a rupture but understood.
Five years later, however, Renata Tebaldi reappeared in my life, not in person, but through what I can only describe as a crazed fan.
In April 1977 I was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital in New York with severe intestinal bleeding. Tests showed that a long-standing ulcer had bled for a second time; the doctors recommended a partial gastrectomy. Before this operation could be performed, however, around-the-clock blood tests were required, and in the middle of my first night I awoke to find a sinister-looking technician sitting alongside the right side of my bed, his tray of sharp instruments balanced on his lap, staring at me with what can only be described as loathing. Truth to say I was only vaguely awake after a drug-induced sleep, and thought perhaps my imagination was playing tricks. I extended my arm, which he examined roughly, finally finding a vein that would serve his purposes. He wrapped my arm painfully with a rubber tourniquet and, picking up a syringe with an enormous needle, said:
"Why didn’t you bring back Tebaldi?"
"What? What did you say?" I asked, looking down at the needle and up at his face.
"I said, why didn’t you bring back Tebaldi? You were cruel, you know. Very cruel." His face was a map of anger.
I instantly thought I was in the middle of a bad novel; but this was no novel. The man with the needle was deadly serious.
"Why don’t you finish what you’re doing?" I suggested quietly, suppressing my panic. "Then we can talk about that splendid artist."
He looked at me with no expression on his face but his eyes flashed anger. Slowly he put the needle into my vein and slowly he withdrew blood – very, very slowly. I hate needles; by instinct he must have known this. It seemed hours before he was finished.
When he undid the tourniquet, I told him about Tebaldi’s vocal difficulties and that I’d suggested to her that she look at some mezzo-soprano roles. He made no comment, just squirted my blood into test tubes. I went on about how much I admired her and how sorry I was that we never had a second conversation.
By this time he’d finished his tasks, still with no further remarks to me, and begun to move toward the door of my room. When he reached it he turned to me one more time.
"You were mean to her, very mean. Cruel, too. You should have brought her back." With that he put his right thumb under his front teeth and gave me the ultimate Italian gesture of disdain.
The next morning I told my doctors about this adventure and asked if they might find the guy and remove him from my case. I presume they must have done something; fortunately, I never saw him again. However, for understandable reasons, I’m still cautious about Tebaldi’s New York fans, even to this day.
But I’m never cautious about my feelings for this extraordinary artist, whose legacy is gloriously captured by her recordings. Having heard her in person during her brilliant years and knowing the unchanging magnificence of her recorded work, Renata Tebaldi, like Birgit Nilsson, will always be symbolic to me of the best in opera’s modern golden age.