Tetrazzini, Luisa (1871–1940)

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Tetrazzini, Luisa (1871–1940)

Italian coloratura soprano. Born on June 29, 1871 (some sources cite 1874), in Florence, Italy; died on April 28, 1940, in Milan, Italy; sister of Eva Tetrazzini (1862–1938) and Elvira Tetrazzini; studied with Ceccherini at Liceo Musicale; married Giuseppe Scalaberni (an opera manager); married Pietro Vernati; married once more.

Debuted in Florence, Italy, as Inéz (1890); debuted in U.S. in San Francisco (1907), in Covent Garden, London (1907); with Enrico Caruso, published The Art of Singing (1909); published autobiography, My Life of Song (1921); published How To Sing (1923); sang farewell concert (1933).

Coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini enjoyed a long career as an international opera star. She was born in 1871 into a family of Florentine musicians; her father, a military tailor, provided well for his children and had them tutored in music and singing. Luisa claimed that she started singing at age three. Her older sister Eva Tetrazzini became a well-known opera singer, and Luisa determined to follow her. After marrying Giuseppe Scalaberni, owner of the Pagliano Theater in Florence, Tetrazzini began studying voice at the Liceo Musicale in Florence in 1890; only three months later she made an unusual professional debut as the lead in L'Africaine at the Pagliano. She was not originally cast in the production, but had attended the rehearsals with her husband and knew the role; when she learned that a performance was to be cancelled because the lead soprano was sick, Luisa offered to sing the role herself. Her flawless voice and remarkable range brought her critical praise, which led to a command performance of the role for Margaret of Savoy , queen of Italy, in Rome. This was followed by an extended Italian tour.

Her sister Eva's husband Cleofonte Campanini, a well-respected conductor, then used his contacts to arrange engagements for Luisa abroad. By 1892, she was appearing in Buenos Aires and other South American cities, where she already commanded high fees. She traveled extensively during the 1890s, garnering fans in cities as far apart as Buenos Aires and St. Petersburg; she also toured in Spain, Portugal, and Mexico. In 1904, Tetrazzini made her North American debut in San Francisco, having traveled there from Buenos Aires in disguise with her lover, Giulio Rossi, in order to elude her husband. Later that year she went to New York, where she made several gramophone recordings. But contract negotiations for a debut at the Metropolitan Opera faltered, and Tetrazzini returned to San Francisco amid controversy over whether she had signed with the Metropolitan Opera and was thus unable to perform elsewhere. This type of legal controversy would recur over the course of Tetrazzini's career.

In 1907, she made her London debut at Covent Garden, playing to sold-out houses. Her success in London confirmed her as a true international celebrity, and she was acclaimed for her dramatic and comedic skills as well as for her pure soprano voice. She was also praised for her personal warmth and kindness by students and fellow performers; a stout figure who heartily enjoyed the pleasures of dining, Tetrazzini was honored by numerous restaurant dishes invented and named in her honor.

In 1908, she accepted an invitation from the American Oscar Hammerstein for a contract with his Manhattan Opera House in New York, where she starred in productions from 1908 to 1910. She found time to work with another Italian opera great, Enrico Caruso, on an instruction manual for voice students, published in 1909 as The Art of Singing. However, when the Metropolitan Opera bought the Manhattan Opera, Tetrazzini found herself in new legal battles; Hammerstein argued that she was still contracted to sing exclusively under his management. As she had done six years before, Tetrazzini went back to San Francisco, despite Hammerstein's threat of a court injunction against her, declaring that she would sing in the streets if she had to.

On Christmas Eve 1910 she did just that, performing in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building for a crowd of about 250,000. She returned to New York for one season at the Metropolitan Opera (1911–12), then moved on to contracts in Chicago and Boston between 1912 and 1914. At the outbreak of World War I, Tetrazzini returned to Italy, where she raised money for wounded Italian soldiers and performed for the troops. Married and divorced a second time at the end of the war, she decided not to continue in opera roles but to focus on international solo concert tours instead. An autobiography, My Life in Song, appeared in 1921, followed by How to Sing in 1923.

Tetrazzini's concert career lasted until her retirement at age 64 in 1934, when she settled in Milan. Although she had been very highly paid for years, her extravagant lifestyle and the financial mismanagement of her third husband left her destitute by the mid-1930s, and she was forced to take on pupils to support herself. Luisa Tetrazzini died at age 68 in Milan following a stroke.


Gattey, Charles Neilson. Luisa Tetrazzini: The Florentine Nightingale. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995.

Warrack, John, and Ewan West. The Oxford Dictionary of Opera. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California