In 1907 Madame Tetrazzini made a sensational début as Violetta in La Traviata at Covent Garden in London, where she was completely unknown, and from that point on she was an international operatic superstar, commanding the highest fees and selling out opera houses and concert halls wherever she performed, says Wikipedia. In her autobiography, written 14 years later, we have the whole experience as Signora Luisa Tetrazzini remembered it:
Now came the event to which I had been looking forward from the days when I was a tiny girl gladdening my mother’s heart by singing the operas while sweeping the stairs in my Florentine home. London called!
Many times have I been asked why I waited so long before essaying an attack on the greatest city in the world… I had never made it a general practice to insist on appearing only in those operas which suited me… But London was different. Success meant so much and failure so much too in London that I felt I must leave nothing to chance. I had long made up my mind that only as a prima donna singing in one of my favourite old Italian operas would I consent to appear in the centre of the British Empire. Further, it must be on the stage at Covent Garden Theatre, the famous opera house where all the great singers of the past half -century had won their biggest triumphs, and on no other that I would make my bow to London.
Well, she was right to stick to her guns, and early in 1907 an offer came.
The sum that I was offered was £120 a performance, £1,200 for the brief season. So far as the salary was concerned, it was not an attractive offer. I was drawing a far bigger sum per performance in the Latin Republics of the New World. Nevertheless, I literally jumped and sang for joy as I read the fateful invitation. London at last! Now my voice would be heard and de scribed to the world by some who had heard and described and helped to make world-famous that constellation of divine songstresses of a dying age described in England as the Victorian era. I thought of such eminent singers as Patti, Jenny Lind, Malibran, Grisi, Sontag, Tietjens, Nilsson and Lucca, all public idols in their day. Would I be able to make a hit which would entitle me to a coveted place by their side in the comparatively short scroll of musical fame?
The anticipation was extraordinary for her, though her fellow cast members, the press and the London public had little idea who Madame Tetrazzini was.
I was feeling more nervous than I had ever felt, and I fervently wished that the nerve- trying ordeal were over.
However, the début wasn’t exactly as she had expected.
Saturday evening, November 2, 1907, came, and I, still in a state of nervous excitement, arrived at the theatre to make my bow to London. “It is Saturday night. The house should be full. Is it?” I inquired of one of the company. “Oh, yes, signora,” said he. “They are turning people away.” As he spoke he laughed, and his laugh was echoed by others in the company. I went to the curtain and, drawing it slightly aside, surveyed the great, gloomy-looking auditorium. It seemed empty. “Where are the people?” I asked, this time speaking to one of the directors who stood by. “Don’t be agitated, signora,” he answered. “The house is full. You cannot see the people because of the fog.”
The joking maybe helped to take the edge of the fact that the theatre really was empty.
The theatre was not full. Far from it. Although it was Saturday, the best day of the week for theatres, there were only a few people in the stalls, about two boxes were occupied, the pit and gallery were each about half full. And this was the best audience that all London could produce to hear a new singer. I heard subsequently that the takings were not sufficient to pay my salary for the night.
The performance was a triumph, for the few that were there to witness it, but in the gloom of the stalls were also the London critics.
On Sunday morning the newspapers and the translator arrived, and I, with throbbing heart, made ready to hear my fate as decreed by Fleet Street. What would these critics say? Would they echo the applause of the audience or elect to write me down as second rate ? As the interpreter turned the pages of one of the newspapers he made an exclamation of joy. “Listen, signora, they call you the new Patti!”
Adelina Patti, the most famous singer of the previous generation, was Tetrazzini’s idol when she embarked on her own career.
The critics certainly raved about the new operatic superstar. The Daily News’ headline yelled: ” Voice of a Century. Dazzling Success of Madame Tetrazzini. A Peerless Soprano.” Their critic wrote,
The new soprano… should prove the greatest attraction Covent Garden has ever had. The voice reminds one now of Melba’s and now of Patti’s. It is not a big voice as modern dramatic sopranos are accounted, and would not be suitable, I suppose, to modern dramatic music or to grand opera of the type of Aida.
Though Tetrazzini later made hundreds of appearances as Aida, such was the carrying power of her voice. He continued,
But to describe the voice as a light soprano is quite wrong. It may be light in volume and in character, as the voice of Patti was, and of Melba is, but it is capable of more colour than the voice of either of these great singers.
The quality of tone produced by Tetrazzini ravishes the senses. It is soft and golden, and yet has none of the impersonal and chilling perfection of the ordinary light soprano. The most difficult technical problems are executed with the ease which marks a virtuoso’s playing of a cadenza in a concerto. Every note is perfect and the singer’s command of her resources so complete that there is no sense of a difficulty being overcome. The voice has dramatic edge, too, when required, and it was noticeable that Mme. Tetrazzini dominated the noisy finales of Verdi’s Traviata.
Above all, the main impression of her Violetta was not musical alone. I have never seen the pathos of Verdi’s heroine realized with such grip and sincerity. In the big scene with Giorgio Germont, most sopranos who can sing Ah! fors’è lui with dazzling effect ignominiously fail, because here real acting is required, and singers of the type of Melba and Patti are not great actresses. Mme. Tetrazzini… gave the scene a new life. Both by use of her voice and by facial expression, she vividly conveyed the reality of Violetta’s sacrifice, and many of us were impressed for the first time by the fact that Verdi had written dramatic music after all.
In the last act this great artist did not have recourse to the physical gasping by which the majority of sopranos express the agony of the dying woman, but held the audience spellbound by the simple pathos of her singing and by the subtle expressiveness of her acting. In physique she is scarcely more fitted to the part of Violetta than is Mme. Melba.
I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that Mme. Tetrazzini has the voice of a century and stands out from even the great Italian singers we know in respect of powers of acting with her voice. When we read the accounts of the celebrated singers of the ‘coloratura’ school, we wondered how they made such deep impressions on their audiences, and we are forced to the conclusion that singing was judged much as we judge the violin playing of a Kubelik.
Mme. Tetrazzini explained the mystery. Every bar of the music was sung with feeling, expression and dramatic appropriateness. She phrased according to the meaning of the words, and not merely from the point of view of absolute musical display. A run, as she executes it, becomes expressive; a high note seems a natural dramatic climax. Indeed, she even gave an example of this on her own account. At the end of Ah! fors’è lui she introduced a little upward trill which wonderfully expressed the hysterical feeling of Violetta. Such singing gives one a new idea of the capability of the human voice and makes one reconsider modern ideas of writing for it.
The audience, always quick to recognize great talent, accepted Mme. Tetrazzini with the utmost enthusiasm. Her début will make the autumn season of opera memorable in musical history.
An extraordinarily fine review, which even seems to have taken Madame Tetrazzini by surprise, though she was very sure of her own worth. The Daily Mail critic echoed the same sentiments,
Her rendering of the familiar Ah! fors’è lui and the wonderful ease and nonchalance with which she trills upon E in alt completely astonished the audience. For a while the house was silent and spellbound, then the storm burst. Probably since Patti first sang in the part there has not been so great an ovation. Again and again the new singer was recalled and it appeared as though the curtain would go on being raised and lowered, and Tetrazzini would go on coming forward and bowing, indefinitely. In the foyer between the acts the one topic of conversation was the new Patti.
Of course Patti, at home in Wales, read the reviews. Tetrazzini wrote in her biography,
Patti was too great to harbour any petty jealousy when she read at her breakfast table in the Welsh mountains the glowing descriptions of my London début. She immediately decided to hasten to London to hear for herself if what the critics said were true.
On Thursday, November 7, 1907, the great Adelina Patti was sitting in the second row at Covent Garden to hear the ‘new’ soprano. Tetrazzini wasn’t delighted:
My heart sank. For the moment I seemed to lose control of my body. “Oh, I cannot sing to Patti,” I exclaimed. “It would be too presumptuous.” My sensations on entering that night were such as I do not ever wish to repeat. It was difficult on the previous Saturday, when I made my first bow to London in a hall a quarter full. It was far worse on this, the second night. “Everybody has called me the new Patti, and half London has tried to gain admission tonight to see and hear for themselves. Added to that, Patti herself in the stalls. And I have to prove to London and to Patti that what has been said of me is true. I cannot do it!
She did of course.
No one who had seen a photograph of Patti could mistake that slight, charming figure attired in an exquisite evening dress which became her admirably. Her eyes, dark, beautiful and kindly, met mine. I bowed, and she replied with a pretty little bow and the sweetest smile that I have ever seen on the face of a professional singer. It was a smile of welcome, of encouragement. I read in that smile a message which said: “Don’t be afraid. I am here to give you my benediction, not to criticize you. Triumph again, and I shall rejoice with you in your triumph.” I could have taken that sweet “little lady” to my arms and hugged her to my heart for her encouragement at that supreme moment. Supported by the smile of Patti, I repeated the part of Violetta in Traviata amid scenes of the wildest enthusiasm.
An extraordinary tribute from the part of both singers where jealousy could have easily marred the encounter. More members of the press were present at the second performance and more triumphant notices appeared. But there was one critic which Madame Tetrazzini valued above all the others.
Though the newspaper comments were very flattering, there was one sequel to that night’s performance which was more flattering still. Early next morning there arrived at my hotel a little billet doux. It was in the handwriting of Patti. In it she congratulated me upon the success of the performance and asked if I would be so good as to take lunch with her that day at the Carlton Hotel.
Naturally I was jubilant at receiving this invitation and accepted immediately. I found that Patti was occupying a special suite of rooms at the hotel. She received me very graciously and was exceedingly generous in her complimentary remarks upon my singing. The “little lady” was neatly dressed in black silk and there was not even a thread of silver in her dark brown hair. She was very unaffected and yet she bore herself with a queenly dignity and a sweet amiableness that impressed me deeply…
I left the Carlton that day feeling very happy. It was the greatest day of my life…
I have many letters from her at my home in Boni, in each of which she familiarly addresses me as “My dearest Luisa.’ Patti was a frequent visitor at Covent Garden during my seasons there. And whenever I caught her gaze, she always answered with her sweet and appreciative smile. Sometimes she would go farther than this and would go back to her hotel and write me one of those impulsive and heartening letters which were characteristic of her. The following in which she declares that my singing literally made her weep, I have treasured most carefully. It reached me on the evening of May 1, 1908, the day after the opening of the grand opera season at Covent Garden in which I had again appeared as Violetta in Traviata. This is the letter:
Carlton Hotel, London, May 1st, 1908.
MY DEAR MADAME TETRAZZINI
Bravo! Bravo! and again Bravo! I cannot tell yon how much pleasure it gave me to hear yon last night, and what a joy it was to me to hear your beautiful Italian phrasing, and how immensely touched I was by the wonderful feeling and pathos of your voice. You made me cry in the last act. I should like also to add that in addition to the phenomenal brilliancy and purity of your high, notes, your beautiful method, your phrasing, the ease and flexibility of your voice and your acting, all gave me the very greatest pleasure, and I shall take the first opportunity of going to hear you again. I heartily rejoice in your well-deserved triumph. Bravo! Bravo! And again Bravo!
ADELINA PATTI CEDERSTBOM.
Those generous words remained precious to Tetrazzini for all her life.
What a wonderful letter! At my homes in Italy I have countless souvenirs of my public appearances… the one which I prize most of all is this letter from my illustrious compatriot, Patti. Praise from a mixed audience is very gratifying after one has given it of her best. But praise, and such praise, from Patti, is far more than the passing pleasure of a public ovation. I treasure it as a peasant maid would treasure a billet doux from a Royal lover. It is a sacred missive!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.