Luisa Tetrazzini was born on June 29, 1871, in Florence, Italy, into a family of Florentine musicians. Her father, a military tailor, provided well for his five children (three girls and two boys) and had them tutored in music and singing. Not much is known about her early years. What we do know is that Luisa claimed that she started singing at age three. She reminisced that her father was the first person to ever compare her to the famous bel canto soprano, Adelina Patti. (She would later become a close friend and correspondent with Patti, who became Luisa’s avid supporter and fan until Patti’s death in 1919).
Luisa’s first voice teacher was her older sister, Eva Tetrazzini (1862–1938), who became a well-known and successful international soprano opera singer, and Luisa determined to follow in her footsteps. As she was growing up in her family’s busy household, Luisa was known to practice entire acts of operatic roles and to sing every voice part while she was doing her chores. She began studying at the Regio Istituto Musicale di Firenze (Royal Music Institute of Florence) between the ages of ten and thirteen with Professor Giuseppe Ceccherini (1829–1899).
On October 14, 1889, when she was 18 years old, she married Giuseppe Santino Alberto Scalaberni, the owner of the Pagliano Theater in Florence. In 1890, she began studying voice at the Liceo Musicale in Florence. By a stroke of luck, only three months after beginning her studies there, she made an unusual professional debut as the lead, Inez, in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine (The African Woman) at the Pagliano. She was not originally cast in the production at all, but had attended all the rehearsals with her husband and knew the role. When she learned that a performance was going to be cancelled because the lead soprano was sick, Luisa offered to sing the role herself, and she did so to critical acclaim.
Next, on December 26, 1890, she again sang Inez in Rome for King Victor Emmanuel III and his Queen, Elena of Montenegro. She was then invited by the Queen to sing the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde since it was the Queen’s favorite opera.
The first part of her career was spent mainly in Italian provincial theaters. Then, she toured in South America in mid-1891, thanks to her sister Eva’s husband, Cleofonte Campanini, who was a well-respected conductor and used his contacts to arrange engagements for Luisa abroad. She travelled to Buenos Aires with Pietro Cesare, who became her lover of nearly 14 years. While she was there, her husband, Alberto, arrived and tried to get her to return to Florence with him. She refused to reconcile, and continued to live with Cesare. Alberto left for Florence without her in October, and she made her debut a few days later as Annetta in Luigi Ricci and Federico Ricci’s Crispino e la Comare o Il Medico e la Morte (The Cobbler and the Fairy or The Doctor and Death). (When Alberto died on June 4, 1905, they were still separated).
Luisa first performed Lucia di Lammermoor in Buenos Aires on November 21, 1892. It was her favorite opera (she sang the role over 100 times throughout her career), as well as that of Argentinian President Luis Sáenz Peña. He was her avid fan and showered her with gifts and plaudits. By the time of her fourth season in Buenos Aires, she was engaged to receive £5,500 per month, which made her a very wealthy star. Along with performing in Argentina, she toured other parts of South America, and continued to sing there until 1895.
She returned to Europe in 1896, and debuted in St. Petersburg with Mattia Battistini in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) on December 31, 1896. After her first season in St. Petersburg (where she performed to considerable acclaim) ended in 1897, she finished the year performing in Madrid, Milan, Turin and Odessa. In 1898, she sang in Odessa and Bologna before returning once again to perform in various South American countries. The winter season of 1899 brought her back to St. Petersburg. This is when she first performed with Enrico Caruso, who sang Edgardo to her Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on February 22, 1899. Her 1890s repertory consisted primarily of lyric-coloratura parts such as Violetta (La Traviata), Philine (Mignon), Oscar (Un Ballo in Maschera), Gilda (Rigoletto) and Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor).
From 1899–1903, Luisa sang in Italy, Germany, Poland, and Russia. On October 22, 1903 she made her Mexican debut as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. A little over a year later, her performance of Lucia on December 8, 1904, was fortuitous because William H. ‘Doc’ Leahy, impresario of San Francisco’s Tivoli Theater, was in attendance. He was in Mexico visiting his friend, Ettore Patrizi, who was conducting Luisa at the time. Leahy invited her to come to San Francisco where she made her American debut at the Tivoli as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto on January 11, 1905 and where Gaetano Merola heard her. At the time, the New York Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Heinrich Conried, tried to engage Luisa with a contract that committed her to singing with the Met for three years starting in November 1905. This contract never became binding since Conried failed to give her bank the guarantee deposit. (In 1908, Luisa finally appeared in New York, not at the Metropolitan, but at Oscar Hammerstein I’s Manhattan Opera Company at the recommendation of Merola who was the choral director, again as Violetta in La Traviata with great success. She starred in performances for the Manhattan Opera Company from 1908–1910. During her time under contract, she remained loyal to Hammerstein and appeared at the Met for only one season, in 1911–12, giving just eight performances, in the roles of Lucia, Violetta, and Gilda.)
In 1905, while she was in New York negotiating with Conried, she made several gramophone recordings, the first of many that would memorialize her voice for future generations. (She continued to make recordings until 1920). When the contract negotiations for a debut at the Metropolitan Opera faltered, Luisa 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 her career.
Another fortuitous opportunity for Luisa came in 1907. Due to Australian soprano Nellie Melba’s absence, a chance for her to perform at the esteemed Covent Garden in London opened. Although she had established a career throughout South America and much of Europe, she was practically unknown to English audiences. Her debut at Covent Garden as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata on November 2, 1907 was critically acclaimed and sensationally received. (She garnered twenty curtain calls). She continued to play to sold-out houses while there.
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. Additional reviews were similarly complimentary of Luisa’s abilities, even comparing her to the famous Adelina Patti, the premiere soprano of an earlier generation. Luisa idolized Patti greatly; she remarked that Patti saw her performance and invited her to a lunch in which she confirmed the press’s clamoring that Luisa would continue her legacy. Patti made it a point to attend and loudly applaud the younger soprano’s performances. The two opera stars became great friends, and were frequent correspondents until Patti’s death in 1919. At this time, she worked with another Italian opera great, Caruso, on an instruction manual for voice students, published in 1909 as The Art of Singing. (Luisa and Caruso were close friends for many years, and his premature death at age 48 in 1921 left her devastated. After he fell ill, Caruso wrote her a postcard saying “I am waiting for you with open arms, waiting every moment to salute you with a golden note.” Unfortunately, she was unable to see him before his death. She is known to have visited his tomb frequently. Additionally, she obtained permission from the Pope to sing a Requiem Mass on the first anniversary of his passing in 1922).
Contractual controversy once again erupted when the Metropolitan Opera bought the Manhattan Opera in 1910. Luisa found herself in a new legal battle, this time with Hammerstein who argued that she was still contracted to sing exclusively under his management even though his Manhattan Opera was no more. As she had done five years before, Luisa 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. Luisa held a press conference and declared, “I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free.” This line became famous. She won her legal case, and her agent announced that she would sing in the streets of San Francisco. On a crystal-clear Christmas Eve in 1910, at the corner of Market and Kearney near Lotta’s Fountain and near the San Francisco Chronicle building, Luisa climbed a stage platform in a sparkling white gown, surrounded by a throng of an estimated 250,000–300,000 appreciative and cheering San Franciscans, and serenaded the city she loved—for free.
After her one eight-performance season at the New York Metropolitan Opera (1911–12), she then moved on to contracts in Chicago and Boston between 1912 and 1914. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Luisa returned to Italy, where she raised money for wounded Italian soldiers and performed for the troops.
Married and divorced a second time by the end of the war, she decided not to continue in opera roles but to focus on international solo concert tours instead. She published an autobiography, My Life in Song, in 1921, and followed this with a treatise, How to Sing, in 1923. In 1932 she was filmed listening to a recording of Caruso’s rendition of M’Appari, Tutt’Amor (You Appear to Me, All Love) from the German opera Martha by Friedrich von Flotow. She began to sing along with the record showing that her voice still had plenty of power at the age of 61. Luisa’s concert career lasted until her retirement at age 63 in 1934, when she settled in Milan.
Luisa’s career brought her enormous wealth. She was married three times and had many passionate affairs during her life. In her final years, she was plagued by legal battles with her third husband, who had mismanaged her finances. This in addition to her extravagant lifestyle left her destitute by the mid-1930s, forcing her to take on pupils to support herself. She remained cheerful and lovable despite her reduced circumstances.
Luisa Tetrazzini left little behind in her estate when she died of a stroke in Milan on April 28, 1940, two months before her 69th birthday. Her funeral was honored with a Requiem Mass at the Santa Maria Bianca della Misericordia Church in Via Casoretto, and was attended by close family and friends. She was buried in a mausoleum of her choosing with an epitaph from Lucia di Lammermoor: “Alfin son tua.” (At last, I am yours).
Luisa Tetrazzini possessed an extraordinary vocal technique that enabled her to surmount any vocal challenge with joyful ease. She had complete mastery of runs, trills, staccati and vocal ornaments of all kinds. She also had a brilliant upper register, extending to F above high C. Unlike many other coloratura sopranos, her high notes were not thin and delicate, but full, powerful and ringing. However, her vocal registers were not as well-integrated as those belonging to her direct soprano rival, Nellie Melba. Also, although her lower register was strong, her middle voice was comparatively thin in tone, with a quality which some American and English critics described as “infantile” and “child-like.” With age, however, her middle register filled out to some extent; and the way that her mid-voice sounded, even when she was younger, does not seem to have troubled the ears of Mediterranean critics, who raved about her strong singing in their written record.
Luisa was short and grew quite stout as she aged; but she could act effectively on stage, especially in lively or comic roles. She was a good musician, too, and she possessed an amiable, zestful and vivacious personality. These extra-vocal qualities come through on the many recordings that she made.
Luisa heartily enjoyed the pleasures of dining, and she was honored by numerous restaurant dishes invented and named in her honor. One such dish is a favorite of my own family. We serve it made with left-over turkey right after Thanksgiving. It’s called Turkey Tetrazzini. There is debate about where this dish was invented and by whom, but one version of the story says it was Chef Ernest Arbogast who first introduced the dish in the opera star’s honor. The celebrated chef impressed distinguished patrons in the Garden Court at San Francisco’s prestigious Palace Hotel where Luisa Tetrazzini was a long-term resident. His Tetrazzini dish consisted of sliced poultry combined with pasta, mushrooms, cheese and a cream sauce. We will never know whether this is the true origin of the Tetrazzini pasta dish, but it certainly makes San Francisco a leading contender. And it is DELICIOUS!!!
Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
Banks, David. Review of Gattey, Charles Neilson. Luisa Tetrazzini: The Florentine Nightingale. Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995. Review is published in The Museum of the City of San Francisco newsletter and on its website;
Encyclopedia Britannica website;
Gattey, Charles Neilson. Luisa Tetrazzini: The Florentine Nightingale Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1995;
Lamoureux, Kevin. “Tetrazzini: The Diva who Inspired Top Chefs.” World on a Platter.com website;