The early 1950’s saw perhaps the greatest flowering of great operatic singers and voices since the Golden Age of Opera at the turn of the century. Tenors Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Guiseppe De Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, and Nicolai Gedda, bassos George London and Norman Treigle, baritone Tito Gobbi, and sopranos Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi all shot to fame in that period and soon dominated the operatic stages of the world. Of these, Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi are perhaps best remembered and are certainly forever linked in a shared history.
Renata Tebaldi (1922 –2004) was born Renata Ersilia Clotilde Tebaldi in Pesaro, Italy. Her parents had separated before she was born and she was living with her mother, a nurse who had once hoped for a singing career for herself, when she contracted polio at the age of three. Lonely and unable to play with other children, Renata formed an extremely close relationship with her mother. After five years of injections, massages, and physical therapy conquered the disease (she remained weakened in her right leg for the rest of her life) She began singing in the church choir and taking piano lessons hoping to be a concert pianist.
She studied voice at at the Conservatory of Parma for three years before the famous soprano, Carmen Melis, took her as a student. After considerable study, she made her operatic debut at the age of 22 and began singing throughout Italy in a wide variety of roles. She auditioned for the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini who said that she had “the voice of an angel” and selected her to sing the soprano role in Verdi’s “Requiem” at the 1946 re-opening of La Scala in Milan.
She sang at La Scala for the next five years. Her La Scala “Aida” in 1950 opposite Mario del Monaco and her “Verdi Requiem” at Covent Garden in London that same year launched her international career. In 1951, now the unquestioned star of La Scala, she was forced by illness to cancel a performance of “Aida.” Because no local replacement was available, management hired a foreign soprano, a young singer who had never appeared before at La Scala – Maria Callas – to sing in her place . And began a rivalry that lasted for years.
In musical style and vocal production Tebaldi and Callas could not have ben more different. Tebaldi had one of the great voices in opera history. She was a lyric soprano with a powerful, utterly beautiful voice, rich and velvety, who sang with style but little dramatic feeling. She described her singing in an interview: “The voice and breathing are like a glass containing a drop of oil floating on water. The oil does not drop into the water, it remains floating”.
Callas had a flawed voice with an undependable top but she used it to intensify the dramatic effect of the roles she sang. Tebaldi’s instincts were for softness, nobility, and generalized emotion. Callas was a born tragedian who brought psychological tension and energy to everything she did. Both were superb musicians. There should have been no rivalry at all as their voices and their temperaments virtually compelled different repertoires. Tebaldi specialized in verismo and late Verdi roles where Callas at first sang mostly dramatic coloratura soprano roles and later concentrated on bel canto. There should have been no problem.
But on a South American tour in 1951 they were both scheduled to sing in the same concert. Tebaldi sang two encores and Callas accused her of breaking an no-encore agreement. Later, Callas made some unkind comments about Tebaldi’s Violetta in “La Traviata” and was quoted in Time Magazin saying that comparing Callas to Tebaldi was like comparing champagne with Coca-Cola. Callas said she was mis-quoted (“Cognac” not “Coca Cola’ was what she said) but the press seized on it and a “feud” was born.
Both sopranos may have simply decided that the resulting publicity was good for them. Clearly Tebaldi felt no resentment. Tiring of the controversy, she left La Scala for the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 which she made her primary venue for the next eighteen years, becoming known as “Miss Sold-Out.” When Callas later quit La Scala, Tebaldi announced that she would not sing at La Scala without Callas. “I sing only for artistic reasons; it is not my custom to sing against anybody.” In any case, they reconciled in 1968 when Callas went backstage to congratulate Tebaldi after a performance.
After a vocal crisis in 1962 she took a thirteen month break from her career to re-structure her vocal technique and learned to use a darker vocal coloration which revitalizied her career. She continued to perform to great acclaim and adulation at the Met and worldwide for the next fifteen years. She sang on stage and made recordings with all the major tenors of her time and made frequent television appearances. In the end Callas’s fire and intensity won the battle for Prima Donna assoluto del Mundo which gave her adoration and idolatry, but Tebaldi’s sensitivity and warmth won the love and affection that Callas probably wanted most but never received.
Renata Tebaldi made her last appearance at the Met in “Otello” in 1973 and gave her last concert in 1976 after singing over 1,200 performances. She never married, saying in an interview, “I was in love many times. But how could I have been a wife, a mother and a singer?” She said she had no regrets. She died at the age of 82 at her home, in San Marino, Italy.