Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Notes for a Talk about Luisa Tetrazinni

Some older singers were boring people and led boring lives—like Renata Tebaldi—but the Florentine Nightingale, Luisa Tetrazinni, certainly wasn’t.
When’s the last time you heard anyone called “dissolute”? in fact, unless you’re 18 years old or accompanied by a parent, you had better leave this classroom right now.
LT lwas childlike and ditzy. How did she spend her free time? Someone said she ate spaghetti, went to the movies, and played dominoes.
And she was so trusting! She liked a taxi-cab driver he had just met, and promptly made this fellow her business manager. As for her husbands, you wouldn’t believe the blackguards and lowlifes she married.
At 55 she married someone of 32—who spent a good deal of the remainder of his life suing her and trying to make off with her money.
While the marriage lasted, it wasn‘t happy. Her biographer Charles Neilson Gattey writes that her husband, Vernati, “being a prudish young man…could not cope with his wife’s strong sex drive.”

Talking of marriage, she claims that Caruso proposed to her—several times--despite her being short and grotesquely fat. And she herself proposed to John McCormack. His response: Luisa, on stage I can’t even embrace you because you’re so fat! (Not a gracious way to turn down a marriage proposal.)

In San Fran, they still talk about the free open air concert she gave in 1910—250,000 people are supposd to have heard her—without microphones.

You’ve heard of Lily Pons? What did Luisa think of her? Piccola, piccola voce—Small, small voice--

Luisa was a coloratura—sang with every ornament you can imagine—trills, roulades, scales—and with amazing accuracy—as a test she one sang 100 high Cs in succession, and the waveforms shown on a machine were identical.
A newspaper wrote: “Mme Tetrazinni can do anything with her voice except sing out of tune.”

She once told another opera singer, Frieda Hempel, that when she was young she sang contralto. Hempel scoffed. So Luisa let out some powerful, gorgeous contralto tones. Oh, Luisia, what a voice! Said Hempel. Is there anything you cannot do? Luisa looked down at herself and said, "Well, Friedalina, some peoples hava de figure, but I gotta the voice.”

Toscanini declined to have her sing at La Scala, saying she was pyrotechnical—years later he asked her to sing for him -- she said but I sing nothing but pyrotechnics!—but maybe someday--

She was incredibly popular in her day—
After singing caro nome in sf, a newspaperman wrote, “The orchestra men jumped up and cheered. Men stood on the seats of their chairs and threw their hats in the air—women tore flowers from their dresses and threw them on the stage.”
So she sang caro nome again!
Sometimes, after a performance, men with flaming torches would unhitch the horses of her carriage and pull it back to her hotel.

EM Forster wrote about her in his novel Where Angels Fear to Tread—he heard her sing in Lucia, and was enchanted -- when she became famous he thought of writing to her—but decided against it – he had written in his novel that despite her voice she was ugly and stout--

She loved pets—"I have plenty animal. I have 15 dogs, five cats, and two peacocks, and I had a tiger. I called him Poosy.” Poosy was in fact a young leopard.

She was a fun-loving generous person--and she had a lot of friends—especially Caruso and Adelina Patti--apart from Nellie Melba, who called her "that dwarf"—she once walked past Melba’s suite in the Savoy Hotel and heard her singing—so she asked the superintendent, “Have you many cats in your lovely hotel?”

In 1926, at a dinner party, Melba’s pianist inspected the menu and said, "On no account is Dame Nellie to see this. If she does, she will tear you to pieces.” On the menu it said peach melba 3 shillings, chicken tetrazinni 4 shillings.

OK, children leave the room.
Someone wrote about her: “She is extremely dissolute in her private life and much affected by flattery and champagne.”
Singing in South America, she was late for a performance—she had been in bed with her husband and forgot the time—she needed sex, an acquaintance said, the way other people need to smoke—apparently that was one way she warmed up before going on stage.

Her manager once said, “She says, Ah no singa tonight,’ and when I asked her why, she said, Ah wanta man!”
He wrote: “Sometimes by adding a bit of pecuniary reward to diplomatic persuasion the matter was concluded to everyone’s satisfaction.”

When Luisa’s manager’s wife sued her for adultery, the wife’s lawyer “produced evidence of suggestive behavior in the hotel rooms of half Europe and in the secluded villas of rome. A whole bizarre world flashed past in the depositions of secretaries porters, gardeners and cooks…”

The NY impresario Sol Hurok described her “as a charming little woman with a weakness for romantic attachments with men much younger than herself on whom she squandered her money.” He could scarcely keep up with her rapid changes of heart. “A frantic call from Detroit or some other city would warn me that there was going to be serious trouble over the pianist unless I came at once. By the time I arrived, the trouble was no longer the pianist but the cellist.”

In her old age still sang well. After one concert, a friend said, Madame, that was wonderful. It was not wonderful, she said, crossing herself. It was miracle.

She was reduced to singing in a large Boston movie house, among variety acts including acrobats. So fat by then, she couldn’t walk on stage gracefully, so she sat on a small platform while the curtains parted. In New York she sang at the Paramount 4 times a day in vaudeville.

In her old age, she said something memorable, I am old, I am fat, but I will always be …la Tetrazinni!

In the 1932 film, One Night of Love, there’s an old fat opera singer, and you can guess who that’s based on.

She had a fancy mausoleum for her built in Milan. But it fell into disrepair after she died and it was torn down, and her body buried elsewhere.

Her biographer wrote that "it is sad that T’s remains should be treated in this way…fortunately there is a far more lasting memorial to her in the recordings of her voice—a voice not to be mistaken for any other, that sang straight from the heart to the hearts of her listeners.”


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