Soprano Renata Tebaldi (1922–2004) is regarded as one of the greatest opera singers of the second half of the twentieth century. For sheer beauty of vocal tone, she was unmatched.
Tebaldi was often defined in the minds of opera enthusiasts by comparison with her polar opposite, the volatile Greek-American soprano Maria Callas. Where Tebaldi was a supremely consistent singer, delivering a breathtaking, creamy sound nearly every time she took the stage, Callas was uneven, but Callas seemed to engage herself dramatically with operatic roles in a way that Tebaldi did not. Especially popular in the United States, where she proclaimed herself the queen of New York's Metropolitan Opera, Tebaldi took on relatively few roles, never singing in any language other than Italian, and performing the same set of Italian classics over and over. Yet within that minute repertoire she approached vocal perfection, and she enjoyed an unusually long career atop the operatic world.
Suffered Bout with Polio
A native of the seacoast town of Pesaro, Italy, Renata Ersilia Clotilde Tebaldi was born on February 1, 1922. Her father Teobaldo Tebaldi, a cellist and a World War I veteran, was often absent from family life, and he and Tebaldi's mother Giuseppina, who had hoped to become a singer, split up when Tebaldi was three. Mother and daughter moved to Langhirano, near Parma, Italy. Not long after that, the dreaded childhood disease of polio suddenly afflicted Tebaldi. She underwent five years of treatment that helped her survive where others did not. While still weak, she was pushed by her mother toward piano studies.
It was as a singer, though, that Tebaldi impressed faculty at Parma's Arrigo Boito Conservatory. "I started singing when I was a young girl, but my family wanted me to study piano," she was quoted as saying in London's Guardian newspaper, but "my overwhelming need to express myself with my voice made me choose the art of singing." Her teacher Ettore Campogalliani agreed that the voice was her strongest instrument and sent her back to Pesaro to study with singer Carmen Melis, one of the leading voice teachers in Italy at the time. Giuseppina Tebaldi remained her daughter's constant companion as she became an opera star and toured the globe, and one of the few real crises in Tebaldi's even-keeled career came after her mother's death in 1957.
By 1944 Tebaldi was ready for her formal operatic debut in the role of Elena in Arrigo Boito's opera Mefistofele at an opera house in Rovigo, Italy. Wartime conditions made for difficult logistics; Tebaldi traveled part of the way to Rovigo by horse cart, and her return train trip came under machine-gun fire. Appearing as Mimi in Giacomo Puccini's La bohéme early in 1945, she arrived at the theater to hear that her costar had been killed by a bomb. Despite this traumatic start, Tebaldi made the role of the fragile, tuberculosis-stricken Mimi her own, performing it dozens of times over the next several decades.
After the end of the war, Tebaldi landed a plum vocal job in 1946: legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was slated to conduct a concert to mark the reopening of the bomb-damaged La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, and Tebaldi was one of two young singers he picked to appear. As the performers rehearsed the program, Tebaldi was placed in a choir loft and began to sing one of her solos in a religious work by Giuseppe Verdi. "Ah! La voce d'angelo" (Ah! The voice of an angel), exclaimed Toscanini (according to a widely reported account quoted in the International Dictionary of Opera). Some have claimed that the remark meant simply that Tebaldi's voice was floating down from above, but the larger-than-life conductor had also applauded her audition with an enthusiastic "Brava! Brava!" shortly before.
Performed German Opera in Italian
Whatever Toscanini might have meant, the performance catapulted Tebaldi to the top of the intensely competitive Italian operatic world and secured her a place at La Scala, the country's premier opera house. Touring with a La Scala company, she began to extend her fame to foreign countries as well, although she spoke only Italian and even demanded that chefs prepare Italian food when she traveled. Though Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser was mostly performed in its original German by that time, even in Italy, Tebaldi sang the old Italian translation. In 1950 she made a triumphant debut in England in the role of Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, another of her signature roles, and she also made her first American appearance that year, in San Francisco, California. She soon added the Chicago Lyric Opera to her list of American appearances but jousted with New York Metropolitan Opera director Rudolf Bing over the right moment for her New York debut. In the early 1950s she sang in Spain, Portugal, and South America in addition to her numerous Italian appearances.
In 1951, Tebaldi and Maria Callas were jointly booked for a vocal recital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although the singers agreed that neither would perform encores, Tebaldi took two, and Callas was reportedly incensed. The incident began a much-discussed feud between the two star sopranos, although it was never clear how deep the animosity went. Sniping between the two was a matter of public record; a famous incident in which Callas said that comparing her voice to Tebaldi's was like comparing champagne to Coca-Cola drew the retort from Tebaldi that champagne often goes sour. Yet Tebaldi always downplayed the supposed rivalry, and Callas's husband claimed that it was the invention of record-company marketing gurus intent on keeping both singers in the headlines. Indeed Tebaldi, despite her old-world behavior, adapted to American entertainment methods once she began to appear in New York. Like Luciano Pavarotti a generation later she sometimes performed large stadium shows featuring such fare as "If I Loved You" from the musical Oklahoma. The rivalry between the two sopranos boiled down partly to the personal preferences of their respective fans.
Tebaldi's New York debut finally came in 1955, as La Scala temporarily became Callas's domain. She played the role of Desdemona at the Metropolitan Opera on January 31, 1955, and over the next few years she rolled out one perfectly mastered role after another. Between 1955 and 1973 she performed at the Met 267 times in 14 different operas, with the title role in Puccini's Tosca becoming her most frequent role. She performed that role 45 times, and a few other roles nearly that often. The statistic was revealing of Tebaldi's musical personality: she was not adventurous, but she was near perfect. Audiences at the Met gave her the nickname of "Miss Sold Out," for the Tebaldi name on the marquee guaranteed an operatic experience that could hardly be matched. "Tebaldi's soprano was rich and creamy, totally secure in technique and breath control," noted the Times of London in her obituary. "When she was on stage there was no feeling of apprehension. Nothing was going to go wrong."
A striking beauty and a pleasant interview subject, Tebaldi became well-loved by the American operatic public. She was not a classic temperamental diva but she trusted her own artistic instincts; Rudolf Bing, then General Manager of the Met, once famously said that she had "dimples of iron." Only in the early 1960s did her career falter. Tebaldi began to sing in Italy more often as Callas's career declined, and she suffered symptoms of exhaustion. Her personal life was unhappy; she never married despite several high-profile affairs, and, a strict Catholic, she broke off a relationship with the separated but still-married Italian conductor Arturo Basile. Later she told the New York Times that she "was in love many times. This is very good for a woman. [But] how could I have been a wife, a mother, and a singer? Who takes care of the piccolini when you go around the world. Your children would not call you Mama, but Renata."
Took Time Off from Singing
Things came to a head in 1963, when Tebaldi's voice began to show its first signs of age and she faced negative reviews for the first time in her career. After pulling out of a production of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur midway through its run, the world-famous soprano began taking voice lessons again, studying with teacher Ugo de Caro. The break had its desired results; reporting that her voice felt 12 years younger, Tebaldi returned to the Met in March of 1964 in the role of Mimi in La bohème. She took on a few roles with a more dramatic quality and a slightly lower range, but her powers seemed undiminished. She was classified as a lirico-spinto soprano, a soprano specializing in roles that lay between the lyric and dramatic poles. She was photographed being warmly embraced by Callas after a 1968 performance. In 1970 she added the role of Minnie in Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West to her repertoire.
In 1973 Tebaldi retired from the operatic stage, with a portrayal of Desdemona as her farewell performance at the Met. She gave a series of recitals around the world, including a stint in the Soviet Union. In 1976 she bade farewell to the recital stage as well, scheduling a Carnegie Hall recital in January of that year. She was unable to finish that recital, breaking off after she became overcome with emotion, but she returned to perform the same program a few weeks later successfully. Though her voice was once again shaky with emotion, she received six curtain calls and standing ovations. Her last public appearance was a vocal recital at La Scala on May 23, 1976. Her 32-year career was unusually durable given the high demands that operatic singers place on their voices. Tebaldi moved out of the New York apartment she had maintained for many years and returned to Italy.
Tebaldi did some teaching after she retired, and her influence was apparent in the voices of many of a new generation of stars. Pure singers such as Kathleen Battle and Renée Fleming carried echoes of Tebaldi's technique in their voices, and young singers could study numerous recordings Tebaldi made for the Decca label. Some critics felt, however, that only by seeing Tebaldi live could one appreciate her mixture of technique and stage presence.
Twenty years after she retired, opera lovers still had great affection for Tebaldi—so much so that the appearance of a new Tebaldi biography in 1995 resulted in lines stretching across Lincoln Center's large plaza from the Metropolitan Opera House, and up Broadway, when the star agreed to sign autographs. In failing health in the early 2000s, she moved to the small enclave of San Marino, an independent country within Italy's borders. She died there on December 19, 2004. "Farewell, Renata," said superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti (according to the Newark Star-Ledger). "Your memory and your voice will be etched on my heart forever."
Casanova, Carlamaria, Renata Tebaldi: The Voice of an Angel, Baskerville, 1995.
Harris, Kenn, Renata Tebaldi: An Authorized Biography, Drake, 1974.
International Dictionary of Opera, St. James, 1993.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 20, 2004.
Guardian (London, England), December 20, 2004.
International Herald Tribune, December 21, 2004.
New York Times, December 20, 2004.
Opera News, November 2004; February 2005.
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2004.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), December 20, 2004.
Times (London, England), December 20, 2004.
Tebaldi, Renata, celebrated Italian soprano; b. Pe-saro, Feb. 1, 1922. Her mother, a nurse, took her to Langhirano after the breakup of her marriage to a philandering cellist. Renata was stricken with poliomyelitis when she was 3. After initial vocal training from Giuseppina Passani, she studied with Ettore Campogaliani at the Parma Cons. (1937-40) and with Carmen Melis at the Pesaro Cons. (1940-43). She made her operatic debut in Rovigo as Elena in Boito’s Mefistofele in 1944. In 1946 Toscanini chose her as one of his artists for the reopening concert at La Scala in Milan, and she subsequently became one of its leading sopranos. She made her first appearance in England in 1950 with the visiting La Scala company at London’s Covent Garden as Desdemona; also in 1950 she sang Aida with the San Francisco Opera. On Jan. 31, 1955, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello; she continued to appear regularly there until 1973. She toured Russia in 1975 and 1976. Her repertoire was almost exclusively Italian; she excelled in both lyric and dramatic roles; was particularly successful as Violetta, Tosca, Mimi, and Madame Butterfly. She also sang the role of Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. On Nov. 3, 1958, she was the subject of a cover story in Time magazine.
K. Harris, R. T: An Authorized Biography (N.Y., 1974); C. Casanova, R. T: The Voice of an Angel (Dallas, 1995).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire