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A Lost Identity – Elvira de Hidalgo

De Hidalgo - SHORPY_01319u
Elvira de Hidalgo made her operatic debut at the age of 16. She was not one of the great singers of her time, but she was very popular and quite successful. She sang for 25 years with artists such as Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli and Feodor Chaliapin. In fact, in the 1930’s, Chaliapin chose her to sing with him on a joint tour of the U.S. and Canada. She married and had a happy family life, then retired at the age of 39 to become a respected singing teacher and coach, living to the age of 89.

So how must she have felt to know with certainty that in the end her own identity would be almost totally submerged and she would be remembered, if at all, only as the woman who taught Maria Callas? Search the internet. You will find that, other than a few biographical notes, the only references to Elvira de Hidalgo simply note that she was “Maria Callas’ teacher.” Here is Callas listening to De Hidalgo:

Just how good a teacher she was can perhaps be judged by what she did not do. Comparing her recordings with those of Callas, you can see the similarities in style, but Callas remains completely different. The genius of de Hidalgo as a teacher is that she never imposed her own style on her pupil. She showed Callas what to do but, as with Tullio Serafin later, she allowed her pupil to find her own method of doing it. Here’s de Hidalgo’s recording of “Sempra Libre.”

The voice is smaller and lighter and somewhat more stylish than Callas.’ In some ways it reminds me of another Spanish singer, Conchita Supervia. And if her top notes are occasionally flat, perhaps that is part of the work ethic she passed on to Callas – that it is better to try and risk failing than not to try at all.

Now listen to Callas, who uses that Bel Canto technique de Hidalgo taught her, but adds her own vocal power and emotional impact.

Elvira Juana Rodriquez Roglan was born in Valderrobres, Spain in 1891. She studied in Barcelona and Milan, making her debut in 1908 at the Teatro San Carlo as Rosina in “The Barber of Seville.”

At the age of 18, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and her career took her to Chicago, San Francisco, Milan and La Scala, and Covent Garden in London.

Rosina was her most popular role, but she sang a wide variety of coloratura roles: Gilda in
“Rigoletto”, Mimi in “La Boheme”, Nedda in “Pagliacci”, and even The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. She married the manager of a casino and retired to begin a career as a vocal coach and teacher, although she continued to give occasional concerts until 1936 and made a few last recordings.

She became a professor at the Athens Conservatory and then, in 1940, a young student auditioned for her at the Conservatory and changed her life.

De Hidalgo said of Maria Callas, “I knew when I met her first that she was unique. Her dark penetrating eyes and her wide, full mouth. She would come to my studio first thing each morning and stay right through my teaching day, listening to all the other lessons. She was inquisitive and wanted as much knowledge as I could give her. If I gave her a new aria one day she had it learned and memorized by the next lesson – often a day or two later. Her dedication was complete … I was always able to relax when Callas performed, unlike the anxiety I would experience in listening to my other students. I always felt at ease and comfortable, knowing she would sing beautifully.”

Callas said of her: “De Hidalgo had one method, which was the real bel canto way, where no matter how heavy a voice, it should always be kept light, it should always be worked on in a flexible way, never to weigh it down. It is a method of keeping the voice light and flexible and pushing the instrument into a certain zone where it might not be too large in sound, but penetrating. And teaching the scales, trills, all the bel canto embellishments, which is a whole vast language of its own

In 1957, Callas wrote: “It is to this illustrious Spanish artist, whom the public and the old subscribers at La Scala will certainly recall as an unforgettable and superlative Rosina and as a splendid interpreter of other important roles, it is to this illustrious artist, I repeat, with a moved, devoted, and grateful heart, that I owe all my preparation and my artistic formation as an actress and musician. This elect woman, who, besides giving me her precious teaching, gave me her whole heart as well … “

Elvira de Hidalgo died in Milan in 1980 at the age of 88.

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