The plot of many 19th century operas could be expressed in four words: the soprano must suffer. Lyric arias, cushioned by sumptuous swirls of music, highlight the most nerve-wracking ordeals a woman could face: parental betrayal, forced marriage, sexual violence, precarious risk-taking, destructive romances, financial dissolution, strange temptations, attempted murder, and descent into madness. From the crucible of these perilous moments, the leading lady will glow into a figure of such sublime sympathy that the listeners can suspend their disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the fevered imagination of a male librettist. What must it be like, for instance, to portray Lucia di Lammermoor who kills her bridegroom and loses her mind, night after night?
Tragic Lucia was among the signature roles of the great Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini [1871—1940] along with Dinorah, Ofelia, Elvira, Zora, Marguerite, and others. And these staged ordeals or intense moments had an effect on her. They taught her to seize the reins or side-step problems.
Dinorah by Giacomo Meyerbeer  — — aria “The Shadow Song”
“Ombra leggiera,” from Act 2 of the opera comique Dinorah, is a one-sided “duet” by Dinorah with her shadow. After singing the title role in Buenos Aires in November 1894 for the first time, the 23-year-old adopted “The Shadow Song” and often performed it by itself. This is a light-hearted interval for Dinorah, who has gone mad in Act I after a storm disrupted her wedding and her groom vanished.
“I come to seduce you with my smile,” sings Dinorah to her shadow. “Come closer to me!”
Perhaps the lyrics appealed to the Florentine nightingale because these inspired a solution. As her fame grew and media interest increased, she hid her habits. To preserve her popularity, she let her English-speaking interpreters, promoters, and ghostwriters project a vague sanitized image to her fans. In 1912, critic John Pitts Sanborn commented on the diva’s mysteriousness: “An oyster she is and will probably remain so.”
Tetrazzini maintained such a respectable façade that only a few knew the truth — — that she was a sexually voracious vixen whose insatiability led her into bars to pick up young men, even while married to a man 23 years her junior. Occasionally, she even missed a performance when, enjoying a roll in the hay, she lost track of time. Writing to a colleague, Professor Eduardo Arnosi revealed: “It is told that a man was needed always at her disposal in the camerinos (dressing rooms) because frequently she needed coitus, for singing the following act in an opera, as others need to smoke.”
Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti , Amleto by Ambroise Thomas , I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini  — — the mad scenes
Feeling deserted, Elvira loses her reason in Act I of I Puritani, but is reunited with her lover in Act 3 and recovers. But more often, the romantic poetry of self-destruction prevails in opera. Hamlet’s Ofelia goes crazy and drowns, and Lucia’s mad scene aria (“Oh, giusto cielo! … Il dolce suono”) is followed by her decline and death. Though La Tetrazzini kept all three challenging arias in her repertoire, only a soprano susceptible to authentic tumult makes an art out of staring down its counterfeit.
In reality, Luisa Tetrazzini never lost control of her chaotic love life. Here are two examples. Wed in 1889 to Giuseppe Scalaberni [1854—1905], in 1892 she got him drunk and, disguised as a sailor, sailed to South America with her lover, singer Pietro Cesari [born 1849]. Two years later, Scalaberni caught up with her in Buenos Aires and sued for restoration of his conjugal rights. By telling Judge Mendez Paz she’d rather go to jail than return to her spouse, she got Paz to rule in her favor.
By 1904 her relationship with 52-year-old Cesari was in tatters, thanks to her constant bed-hopping, and he was threatening to shoot the next rival. Meanwhile, her current lover, tenor Giulio Rossi [1862—1934] left a letter in her dressing room urging the 33-year-old soprano to leave Cesari, which he discovered. As they sat down to supper in their home, Luisa pretended she was unwell and needed fresh air. She had already emptied their joint bank account and pocketed his revolver when she ran to Rossi’s lodgings and left the country that night with him.
In contrast, some of her contemporaries let men rule or ruin them. California soprano Sibyl Sanderson [1864—1903], famous for an affair with her mentor Jules Massenet, and the most praised interpreter of Manon Lescaut of her day, had unbalanced relationships, became a drunk, and died at 38.
La Perle du Bresil by Felicien-Cesar David  — — aria “Charmant Oiseau”
“Charmant Oiseau,” one of the most famous of coloratura arias, showcased Luisa Tetrazzini’s flexible voice, especially during the flute obbligato with its difficult runs. Perhaps the heroine Zora appealed to her, too, because Zora is a rare female character who can awe men and affect an outcome. By singing her mysterious solos, Zora causes the angry sailors to make peace.
In 1894, Luisa used her friendship with Luis Saenz Pena, President of Argentina, to bring about a speedy retrial that freed a young naval lieutenant imprisoned for nine years after the wrecking of his ship. Since royalty and rulers attended her performances, she would use her influence when called upon to correct a social or legal injustice and this is but one example.
Faust by Charles Gounod  — — aria “Air des Bijous”
In Act III, Méphistophélès brings a casket of jewels. Noticing the abandoned box, Marguerite finds the jewels and puts them on, bursting into the elaborate “Air des Bijous” (“Jewel Song”).
“Est-ce toi, Marguerite?” she asks the mirror. “Marguerite! Is it you?” Realizing Faust left the gems and believing herself to be adored, she falls prey to his seduction and is betrayed and scorned.
Thanks to Luisa Tetrazzini’s high earnings, she could afford expensive adornments. At a time when a soprano only wore paste jewelry onstage, the diamond-loving diva sported long ropes of pearl, glittering tiaras, and extraordinary rings and bracelets during a scene when appropriate to the character she was playing. And she lavished precious gifts, such as platinum watches, on her young lovers, too.
But she used her wealth and stardom to benefit others, too. As one example, after an earthquake devastated San Francisco, she gave them a free outdoor concert Christmas Eve 1910. “Tetrazzini Unites San Francisco!” ran a headline the next day.
Opera buffs can be enthralled by self-destructive types such as Sibyl Sanderson or self-deluding sopranos such as Maria Callas, whose millionaire lover Aristotle Onassis was as cruel as Faust. But Luisa Tetrazzini lived on her own terms, beholden to neither her husbands, lovers, nor a process server chasing her with a subpoena. Quite obese at the end and broke, she refused to consider herself in a tragic light. She told her friend Frieda Hempel: Sono vecchia, sono grassa, ma sono sempre la Tetrazzini!