Tebaldi, Renata (1922—)

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Tebaldi, Renata (1922—)

Italian soprano who possessed one of the most beautiful voices of the mid-20th century. Born in Pesaro, Italy, on February 1, 1922; daughter of Giuseppina (Barbieri) Tebaldi and Teobaldo Tebaldi (a cellist); studied with Brancucci and Campogalliani at the Parma Conservatory, and with Carmen Melis and Giuseppe Pais at the Pesaro Conservatory; never married.

Debuted at Rovigo (1944); chosen by Toscanini to open at Teatro alla Scala (1946); debuted at Covent Garden (1950), San Francisco (1950), and Metropolitan Opera (1955).

Fated to be celebrated as one of the operatic world's greatest singers, to live in fame and wealth, Renata Tebaldi was born into poverty in 1922 in Pesaro, Italy. Even before her birth, her parents had separated, and it would be a long time before Renata learned that her cellist father Teobaldo Tebaldi was not dead but had abandoned her mother Giuseppina Barbieri Tebaldi for another woman. While an infant, Renata was taken by her mother and her maternal grandparents to live in Langhirano, a small town near Parma. She was deeply affected by her parents' failed marriage and became strongly attached to Giuseppina. At age three, Renata was stricken with polio. Although her right hip would continue to give her some trouble, she recovered, and while she was studying piano in Parma her teacher discovered that she had a voice with potential. When only 16 (but pretending she was 18), Tebaldi auditioned and was accepted by Parma's music conservatory.

During her second year there, she was invited to spend the Christmas season in Pesaro with her father's brother Valentino, who owned a small café. Carmen Melis , a famous former diva, often went there to buy pastries. Melis, though she had retired from the stage as a much-beloved verismo singer, now taught singing at the Pesaro conservatory. When Valentino told Melis about Renata's musical aspirations, the diva consented to listen to the young girl in her hotel suite. Very much the prima donna, Melis terrified Tebaldi. But, even though she was critical of Renata's manner of singing, Melis was quickly convinced that the voice had a lovely timbre and considerable potential. The next day, and indeed for the rest of her holiday, Tebaldi went to Melis for coaching. When she returned to Parma, her voice had improved so dramatically that her teachers found it difficult to believe that she was the same singer who had left town only a few weeks earlier.

Not long after, Tebaldi moved to Pesaro permanently in order to take classes with Melis, both at the conservatory and in private. As World War II began to affect Italy more and more, particularly because of frequent bombing raids, the Pesaro conservatory was closed, and Melis moved to the city of Como. Along with her mother, Renata relocated to the safer countryside, but continued to vocalize on her own even under worsening conditions. Teacher and student kept in touch as best they could, and in 1944 Melis informed Tebaldi that she had been able to arrange for her operatic debut in the small but significant role of Elena in Boïto's masterpiece, Mefistofele. Ten days before the performance in Rovigo, Tebaldi was able to meet with Melis for intensive study of the role. Melis "was perfectly marvelous," recalled Tebaldi; "she never left me, even in the wings of the theater, until the curtain went up. There I was on the couch, terrified. But la Signora was pleased with the results."

With Italy in chaos during the final phase of the war, Tebaldi had no further opportunities to sing in public, although she worked to perfect her technique for better days ahead. Her great opportunity came in 1946, when she appeared in the Trieste Opera in the role of Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. The newcomer was acclaimed, and as news of her talent spread, a music-starved Italy began to realize that a wonderful fresh voice was emerging. While performing in Brescia in 1946, Tebaldi was invited to audition at the fabled La Scala with the legendary Arturo Toscanini, who had just returned to Italy from the United States. Highly impressed, he chose her to perform in a gala concert of Verdi's Te Deum, to celebrate the reopening of the war-damaged opera house. As Tebaldi rehearsed, Toscanini said, "Ah, the voice of an angel." Virtually all in the audience that emotion-filled evening were overwhelmed by the celestial quality of Tebaldi's voice, and the "voice of an angel" tag would remain with her for the rest of her career.

Critics then and in later years described Tebaldi's voice in terms ranging from rich and warm to delicate, sumptuous, glowing, velvety, womanly—all virtues bound to capture a public that idolized her. As Schuyler Chapin has noted, it was a combination of all these qualities that made Tebaldi unique, "for whether she let fly with heroic splendor or scaled down to a shimmering pianissimo, she always honored the score with scrupulous care for dynamics." David McKee has written of "the prodigious float" of Tebaldi's piano singing, and Harold Rosenthal's assessment was unstinting in its praise:

Tebaldi possessed one of the most beautiful Italian voices of this century; she did not indulge in the overabundance of chest notes so dear to many Italian sopranos, and her mezza voce singing was a joy to hear. Early in her career her interpretations lacked dramatic conviction, but later they gave evidence of a heightened sense of drama, and the voice, which, in the years following her first London appearances, began to show some strain … again became as lovely as it originally was.

Soon after appearing under Toscanini's baton, in May 1947 Tebaldi made her La Scala stage debut in the starring role of Eva in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, sung in Italian as I maestri cantori. Critics and audiences were equally ecstatic about the quality of her singing. In 1949, only five years after Tebaldi's debut, the British critic Lord Harewood, having heard Tebaldi in Florence sing the role of Pamira in a revival of Rossini's L'assedio di Corinto, reported in the journal Ballet and Opera: "she is probably the foremost lirico-dramatic soprano in the world." As Tebaldi's repertoire expanded, she went beyond standard Verdi and Puccini roles, displaying her mastery of title roles in such operas as Andrea Chénier, Catalani's La Wally (a Toscanini favorite), Spontini's Olympia, Handel's Giulio Cesare, and Verdi's rarely performed Giovanna d'Arco.

In 1950, Tebaldi became an international star with debuts at both London's Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera, where she sang Aïda. At Covent Garden, she appeared as Desdemona on the opening night of the La Scala company's London season; during the same season, she also was heard in Verdi's Requiem. Tebaldi accepted the rigors of being an international opera star, often appearing in South American opera houses, where she was frequently compared with the great Claudia Muzio , especially for her interpretation of Violetta.

Tebaldi made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955. The Met's authoritarian director, Rudolf Bing, would describe Tebaldi as an artist with "dimples of iron." Strong willed and even stubborn, she was by nature neither malicious nor unkind, but fate decreed that she and Maria Callas would be seen as rivals by the media and by many, though by no means all, opera lovers. Tebaldi's long career unfolded during Callas' shorter but more intense career. Callas was seen as the wind of change while Tebaldi represented the more traditional school of singing. Callas also was known for reviving operas while Tebaldi was considered to perform the traditional repertoire. In fact, Tebaldi was a far more innovative singer than critics of the time often realized. She represented an opposite pole for a generation of operagoers who were forced to choose between her and Callas. Recordings, which span almost her entire career, reveal a youthful freshness and a power which could thrill audiences.

As early as 1950, Callas had shown signs of growing resentment at the then-reigning prima donna. By 1951, when both great singers were appearing at Rio de Janeiro's Municipal Opera House, the Greek diva's Tosca was booed, and Callas accused Tebaldi of having organized a cabal against her. When Tebaldi's first Milan appearance in La Traviata failed to impress audiences, Callas told the press, "Poor thing, I feel so sorry for her." Privately, Tebaldi commented to Lanfranco Rasponi: "Callas is flamboyant and thrives on this sort of thing. I am not, and I don't feel any need of this. I can stand on my accomplishments. I have my public and she has hers. There is enough space for both of us—to each her own." The Callas-Tebaldi "feud" hit its high (or low) point in 1956, when a Time cover story on Callas compared Callas' vocalism to champagne and Tebaldi's to Coca-Cola, with Callas adding that Tebaldi "has no spine." The result was a letter to the editor from Renata with the now-classic rejoinder: "She says I have no spine. That may be, but I have one thing she will never have—a heart."

A master of intrigue as well as a great artist, Maria Callas edged Tebaldi out at La Scala, but the evidence suggests that Tebaldi took these things in stride, shifting the focus of her activities from Europe to New York's Metropolitan Opera. She sang there regularly until 1972, giving more than 250 performances that are still fondly remembered by Manhattan's opera cognoscenti. In the mid-1960s, she suffered a vocal crisis that almost ended her career, but wisely withdrew from performing and after a year of restudying her vocal method came back at the top of her form. Tebaldi's fans remained devoted to her in the later years of her career when her voice began to betray some signs of decline. In her final appearances at the Met in 1973, she performed as Desdemona and Mistress Alice Ford in the two greatest Verdi operas, Otello and Falstaff. Three years later, in 1976, after a triumphant concert debut in the Soviet Union, Tebaldi retired from singing.

Still a beautiful woman in her 70s, Tebaldi lives elegantly in a sumptuous apartment in Milan, surrounded by the mementos of her career. On the walls are autographs of Verdi, Puccini and other great Italian composers, as well as miniature paintings and photographs of herself in most of her favorite parts. On the piano are autographed photographs of Pope John Paul II and one of herself with President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy . Asked how she spent her time, Tebaldi responded, "I am honored." Among her many honors have been the Verdi d'Oro award in 1973 and a new breed of rose named the Tebaldi Rose. Although opposed in principle to coaching because of what she felt was "the total lack of discipline existing today" among singers, Tebaldi did in fact spend time with a singer if she believed her talent to be extraordinary (as was the case with Aprile Millo ).

After her own career ended, Tebaldi rarely if ever attended opera performances, being a critic of the "instant stars" of the final decades of the 20th century. ("Where are the big voices today? There are only tiny mosquitoes flying around," she declared to Rasponi.) Looking back with evident pleasure on her extraordinary achievements, she mused, "I don't have any kind of cattivi pensieri, any bad thoughts, only wonderful memories. My soul was so near to my singing, it was really an enjoyment for myself…. [W]hen you feel like that, it is possible to give to the audience."


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia