Renata Tebaldi

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Biography of Renata Tebaldi, Italian soprano, delighted the world with one of the most beautiful voices in singing, compared favorably by some even to María Callas.

Renata Tebaldi’s childhood and illness

When Renata Tebaldi was just 3 tender years old, she was affected by polio.

This is a disease caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system of the spinal column, and which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century.

Polio struck in the hot summer months and razed cities. Many survivors of polio were disabled for life.

Fortunately, Renata managed to recover considerably, although with some sequels, which during her childhood prevented her from taking part in the girls’ own games.

Her intelligent mother (Giuseppina Barbieri) channeled the girl’s energies into other activities, especially towards music.

This contributed to the world being able to enjoy and enjoy her beautiful voice.

Renata was born on February 1, 1922, in Pesaro, a city on the northern Italian Adriatic coast, near Bologna and Venice.

The great composer Rossini, author of the opera “The Barber of Seville“, was also born in Pesaro, although much earlier (1792).

Pesaro church
Pesaro Church, Italy. Credit: Wikipedia

Renata’s father was Teobaldo Tebaldi, an unsuccessful cellist who left his family when Renata was very young.

Mother and daughter moved to Langhirano, Giuseppina’s hometown. This saw her singing career frustrated and she ended up being a nurse.

Vineyards in the Langhirano area. Credit: Pxhere

Musical formation of the soprano Renata Tebaldi

Renata was part of the choir of the Langhirano church, and there her interest in music arose.

To her great satisfaction, at the age of thirteen she began to take piano lessons.

With great effort, due to the consequences of polio, she practiced up to four or five hours a day.

In her obligatory home reclusion, she entertained herself singing everything that reached her ears, particularly through the radio.

It was the 1930s, and there was no television or anything like that.

Admired to hear her beautiful voice, the piano teacher took the initiative to put her in the hands of the singing teacher at the Conservatory of Parma.

The latter kept practicing scales and training her voice for almost 2 years.

Only towards the end of the second year of her singing training did she allow her to learn songs from the musical repertoire.

Theater Regio
Regio Theater of Parma. Credit: Wikimedia. Nicola Mazzocato

Renata Tebaldi’s training as a singer

On a Christmas Renata went to Pesaro to spend the holidays with her uncle Valentino Tebaldi, who owned a small cafe.

It so happened that a certain Carmen Melis used to go to that café to buy cakes.

Carmen Melis had been a famous singer at La Scala in Milan. No less than prima donna, a friend of Puccini’s and had sung with Enrico Caruso and Titta Ruffo.

She had already stopped singing, and at that time she was giving singing lessons at the “Gioacchino Rossini Conservatory” in Pesaro.

Uncle Valentino spoke very highly of his niece Renata, and Carmen Melis offered to listen to her the next day.

Carmen Melis
Carmen Meli, Italian soprano, one of the most interesting opera actresses and later notable voice teacher. Credit: Wikipedia. PD-US

Renata worked with Meli the rest of her vacation.

When she returned to Parma, her progress in singing had been such that no one could believe it was the same voice.

It was at this time that Renata made the decision to move indefinitely to Pesaro, where she lived with her father’s family and continued to receive classes from Melis and the Conservatory.

First appearances of soprano Renata Tebaldi

Renata Tebaldi made her first public appearance at the Urbino theater (capital of the Pesaro province).

Shortly after, in 1944, at the age of 22, she made her debut in the Rovigo theater (Veneto province), with the role of Elena, from the opera Mephistopheles.

Thus began her triumphal tour, singing several more times in Parma (“La Bohème” by Puccin,i and other operas).

In 1944, sponsored by Carmen Meli, she began working in Milan with the director and teacher of singing Giuseppe Pais.

Despite the patronage of the director of La Scala, she had no opportunity to act, given the absence of performances during those years of war.

Renata Tebaldi’s performances after the war

After World War II, she starred in Desdemona, in “Othello“, and caused a real stir in the musical world of the time.

But, the real rise in her career came in 1946, when Arturo Toscanini, newly arrived from the United States in Milan, looking for young new voices, told her that, for the La Scala reopening concert, she was looking for a “voice of Angel“.

Renata Tebaldi replied: “I will do my best, Master“.

In that concert, Renata sang “Dal tuo stellato soglio“, “From your starry throne” from Rossini’s opera “Moses in Egypt“; and also the soprano part of Verdi’s “Te Deum“.

Scala Milan
La Scala de Milan was inaugurated in 1778 with an opera by Antonio Salieri. Credit: Wolfgang Moroder

Also in 1946, she sang the roles of Margherita and Elena, in “Mefistofeles“; and the role of Elsa, in Wagner’s “Lohengrin“.

In 1947, she was already in the midst of a triumphant career, with enthusiastic support from the public and critics. She sang “La Bohème“; and with the role of Eva, in “The Master Singers“, by Wagner.

Renata Tebaldi wins in the 1950s

In 1950 Arturo Toscanini encouraged her to sing the role of Aida. Tebaldi was convinced that this role was reserved for a dramatic soprano.

But the teacher persuaded her to rehearse it in his studio, and eventually she sang it at La Scala.

This performance was the biggest success of her early years, definitely launching her career.

Arturo Toscanini the greatest conductor in the 20th century. Credit: US Office of War Information

Between 1947 and 1976, she sang at the Rome Opera, at the Comunale in Florence, at the San Carlo in Naples and at the Scala in Milan, where she was the great star.

Renata Tebaldi’s international career

Her international career began with a tour, together with the company of La Scala, performing at the Edinburgh Festival and, after that, at Crimson Garden in London.

Her repertoire continued to be the role of Desdemona in “Othello” and Verdi’s “Requiem“.

Later, in 1950, Renata Tebaldi made her American debut, singing “Aida” at the San Francisco opera.

In 1955, she sang at the Metropolitan in New York with the role of Desdemona in “Othello“, alongside Mario del Monaco.

For the next twenty years, the Metropolitan was her largest center of activity.

She sang more at the Metropolitan than anywhere else because of the close relationship she established with her audience.

In all, she sang there about 270 times; operas such as La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, La Fanciulla del West, Othello, La Forza del Destino, Simón Bocanegra, Falstaff, Andrea Chénier, La Gioconda and La Traviata.

Metropolitan New York
The New York Metropolitan schedules 27 operas each year, with a total of 220 performances. It has 3,265 seats. Credit: Wikipedia

She also had brilliant performances in Germany, London, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, Japan and South America.

In 1953, she debuted at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, with “Aida” by Verdi and “Tosca” by Puccini.

Renata Tebaldi’s main musical repertoire

Her preference was in melodramatic roles from Verdi’s operas.

The famous German director Karl Böhm begged her to learn German in order to sing in Wagner’s operas, in the roles of Eva in “The Master Singers“, of Elsa in “Lohengrin“, and of Elizabeth in “Tannhäuser“.

Tebaldi also sang Bach’s “The Passion According to Saint Matthew” and even the role of Cleopatra from Handel’s opera “Julius Caesar“.

Directors and colleagues in her performances

Her companions on the stage were the greatest singers of the time.

Among others: Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Bjoerling, Franco Corelli, Mario del Mónaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicolai Gedda, Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tucker, Jon Vickers, Ramón Vinay, Lauri Volpi and many others.

Renata Tebaldi acted under the direction of the most notable directors.

Among them, figures such as: Arturo Toscanini, Zubin Mehta, Leonard Berstein, Herbert von Karajan, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Karl Böhm, Richard Bonynge, Carlo Maria Giulini, Rudolf Kempe, James Levine, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Francesco Molinari-Pradelli, Mario Rossi, Victor de Sabata, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Tullio Serafin and Sir Georg Solti.

Renara Tebaldi Butterfly
Renata Tebalid playing Madame Butterfly. Credit: Wikipedia. NBC Television

Rivalry between Renata Tebaldi and María Callas

It is impossible not to mention the rivalry that existed for almost 30 years between Renata Tebaldi and María Callas.

Both wonderful sopranos. They met in 1947, at the Verona festival.

Both sang, although not coincidentally, at La Scala in Milan, playing the role of Aida, from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera.

In 1951, they were together on a tour of South America and ended up at odds.

Amid this rivalry, La Scala director Antonio Ghiringhelli made several unsuccessful attempts to get them to sing together.

Also Walter Legge, producer of the María Callas records, even suggested that they sing together “La Valkiria” in La Scala: Tebaldi would act in the role of Siglinda and Callas in that of Brunilda. They both flatly refused.

Actually, Tebaldi and Callas were two extraordinary singers and what mattered to the public was to enjoy their wonderful voices.

Callas and Tebaldi
María Callas and Renata Tebaldi in Verona. Credit: Paolo Corsi

Artistic merits of Renata Tebaldi

Despite her powerful voice, Tebaldi always considered herself as a lyrical soprano and focused her career on Verdi and Puccini’s operas, where her high limit and her lack of a florid technique did not cause her any problems.

Her enormous presence on stage came from her splendid voice, beautiful and pure “like that of an angel” and homogeneous in all registers; from its highest notes to the lowest it was of a very soft timbre.

Verona 2011
A representation of Verdi’s Aida, at the Verona Arena. Credit: Wikipedia. Christian Abend

Last years of the great soprano Renata Tebaldi

She retired from the opera stage on January 8, 1973, singing the role of Desdemona at the New York Metropolitan.

At the end of her career, she had sung on 1,262 occasions, of which 1,084 were in full operas and 214 in recitals.

She last sang at La Scala in Milan in 1976, at the age of 54.

She died 28 years later, on December 19, 2004, at the age of 82, at her home in San Marino.

Her body rests in the family chapel of the Langhirano cemetery, the city where her first childhood trills were heard.

She was one of the most extraordinary singers in history.

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