It would be hard to find two more different voices or singing styles than those of Tito Schipa, a light tenor and Titta Ruffo, a huge baritone. Schipa’s singing had elegance, grace, purity, sweetness, and gentility. Ruffo was spectacular, exciting, and dominating. He was said to have “the voice of a lion.” Schipa charmed his audience, Ruffo overwhelmed his. And in the end, Schipa remains one of the great singers of all time and Ruffo unquestionably the greatest baritone voice in recorded history.
> Titta Ruffo (1877-1953) was born Ruffo Cafiero Titta in Pisa, Italy. He was the son of a poor engineer and spent his early life as an iron worker. He had some early vocal training, but he was essentially self-taught, something that would become a problem for him later in his career. His voice brought him sponsors who enabled him to study at the Academia di Santa Cecelia in Rome and he made his operatic debut in 1898 and within two years was a major star worldwide.
A rarity in opera, Titta Ruffo never associated himself with any particular opera house, remaining a free agent for all of his career, always receiving top billing and top dollar. He sang at every major European venue including London, Milan, Paris, and Lisbon. He made his American debut in 1912 singing in Philadelphia and then Chicago although it would be another ten years before he sang at the Metropolitan.
Ruffo was the only male opera star who could compete with Caruso as a box office attraction, which may account for the fact that they appeared together rarely. Few opera houses could afford to pay for two superstars at the same time. They were friendly but not friends and recorded only one aria together, never singing together at the Met. The speculation has always been that Caruso used his influence to keep Ruffo away from “his” house during his lifetime. After Caruso died, Ruffo sang 46 performances in seven years at the Met, altho by that time his voice had begun to deteriorate.
The baritone Giuseppe De Luca said, “His was not a voice, it was a miracle…which he bawled away…”The great conductor Tulio Serafin once said that he had known many great singers but only three miracles: “Caruso, Ponselle, and Ruffo.”
Ruffo’s voice had lost it’s luster, but he continued singing until 1931 when he finally retired. He returned to Italy where his brother in law (a socialist) was murdered by the facist regime. Ruffo himself was arrested for his outspoken opposition to Mussolini and was ostracised for many years, but he lived to see himself vindicated and died of heart failure at the age of 76.
After retirement he never accepted students as many famous singers had done. When asked about this he famously said: “I never knew how to sing; that is why my voice went by the time I was fifty. I have no right to capitalize on my former name and reputation and try to teach youngsters something I never knew how to do myself.”
Tito Schipa (1888 – 1965) didn’t have a particularly beautiful voice. In fact, when most people talk aboout him they begin with a discussion of his vocal limitations. Not flaws, limitations. And he did lack the power and sheer excitement of Caruso. His high notes were nothing special and he usually transposed his arias down to avoid them. But as Luciano Pavarotti once said, “His musicality was so great that it enabled him to override every handicap.” He imbued every aria or song with matchless grace and charm. He did not conquer listeners. He seduced them. Lacking powerful high notes, he threaded out delicate and expressive filiature that caressed the ear. Lacking heft in mid-range, he enlivened his singing with subtle rhythmic stretchings and exquisite dynamic shadings.
Raffaele Attilio Amedeo Schipa was born in Lecce, Italy to a poor family in the poorest part of Italy. By the time he was ten his “wonderful tenor voice” had already been noticed and he made his operatic debut at the age of 21 in a production of “La Traviata” that was so disastrous it might have been in a Marx Brothers comedy. He was given a poorly fitted costume and sang to the music of an inadequate orchestra.
The audience was accustomed to pelting the singers with chewed pumpkin seeds and his Violetta was vastly overweight. Schipa was “overwhelmed by . . . a great wave of abundant fleshly charms” when his Violetta swept him up in her arms during “Amami, Alfredo!” and he heard a voice call from the audience, “Mind you, don’t hurt the poor little thing!” In the denunciation scene, the wardrobe mistress had forgotten to put the bundle of banknotes in Schipa’s pocket for him to throw at Violetta. Desperate, Schipa pulled a coin from his pants and threw it instead. “Well—she didn’t cost you much!” came a cry from the audience.
Within four years of that debut, Schipa was singing at La Scala and four years later he arrived in America where he became a great favorite. He remained in America for the next ten years, becoming one of the highest paid artists in the country, making and losing fortunes, spending recklessly and foolishly. His marriage collapsed due to his womanizing after producing twin daughters and a son, Tito, Jr., who became a respected composer and producer of pop and rock operas.
Moving to Beverly Hills in California, he lived a lavish life style and became friends with movie stars such as Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Newspapers and magazines were filled with photos of Schipa and stories about him. He made nine starring films between 1933 1nd 1952, and made cameo appearances in several others.
Schipa was a great favorite in South America, singing and composing tangos as well as performing his operatic repertoire. As late as 1954, he sang 12 opera performances in 18 days in Argentina and drew a crowd of over 100,000 to an open-air concert.
Unlike Titta Ruffo, Schipa embraced Mussolini and the Fascist cause, sometimes ending his recitals with the Fascist salute. In 1941 he returned to Italy at the request of Mussolini’s son-in-law and performed for the Fascists in Italy. Schipa also sang in Nazi Germany. Oddly, his popularity was unaffected and when he returned to America after the war, he encountered almost no animosity.
Tito Schipa retired from the stage in 1958 to teach voice in Budapest. He died from diabetes in 1965 at the age of 77 in New York City.