Faces of the Past

Tetrazzini

By Chris Conte

   One evening during dinner last week, I was ambling through the KCC in search of dinner.  During my foraging quest, I came to the entrée bar in the back of the room, where I noticed a simple menu card that read, “Turkey Tetrazzini.”  There I was instantly reminded of the dish’s namesake and one of my favorite stars, the long-forgotten soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini (1871-1940).  While the dish is admittedly of an acquired taste, the legacy behind its name is worth noting.

   The Italian-born Luisa studied voice in Florence with her sister, the lesser renowned Eva Tetrazzini, according to her biographical notes from www.cantabile-subito.de.  Her voice was unusual for that of a high soprano; it possessed unusual warmth, along with the ability to perform complex staccato passages.  Among her many recordings that still exist today, her arias from La Traviata  and Don Giovanni are by far the most famous.

   She debuted with great reception as Inés in L’Africana in 1890 before touring the grand cities of Europe and South America between 1891 and 1906.  In 1907, a fierce rivalry was ignited between Tetrazzini and her fellow soprano, Nellie Melba, when Tetrazzini stole her infamous role as Violetta in La Traviata.  Tetrazzini would return to Covent Garden in London as Violetta each season for the next five years, receiving positive attention from several undisputed sovereigns of opera, particularly Enrico Caruso and Dame Adelina Patti.  Other popular roles in her repertoire included Lucia di Lammermoor, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, and Gilda in Rigoletto (www.allmusic.com). 

   Tetrazzini prospered, both in fame and fortune, though her affluence did not last.  By the 1920’s, her third husband had nearly managed to deplete her vast fortune, forcing the elderly Luisa to sing well past her prime.  Her generosity still continued unrestrained, however, as did her cheerful sense of humor.  Her last known recording was made upon her retirement in 1932, where she sings along with a recording of M’appari by her deceased friend, Enrico Caruso.  Though age, deterioration and misfortune had caught up to the Florentine beauty, her voice still retained much of the strength that made her so famous in her youth.  She died eight years later at the age of 68, unable to pay even for her own funeral.

   Unfortunately, celebrities such as Luisa Tetrazzini have nearly gone extinct from the public memory.  She is a prime example of what happens when a mixture such as beauty, talent, wit and strength cohabitate with one another—a rare mixture our society often incriminates.  The next time you see the dubious Turkey Tetrazzini in the cafeteria, recall not the indigestion it brings, but instead the great Prima Donna of the past for whom it is named.

   For recordings of Dame Tetrazzini, including her 1932 talkie, please visit the Veritas website at www.veritas.bridgewater.edu.

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