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A Very Brief Candle – Florence Quartararo

My candle burns at both it’s ends
It will not last the night
But ah my foes, and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.
My candle burns at both it’s ends
It will not last the night
But ah my foes, and oh my friends
It gives a lovely light.

Florence Quartararo (1922 – 1994) had probably the briefest career of any major opera singer. And she was a major opera singer. Of all the singers who could have or should have gone on to greater things, her story of is the one that breaks my heart. She had movie-star beauty, real stage presence, and a voice that compared favorably with Rosa Ponselle.

She was born in of Italian parents who loved opera. The chief conductor of the San Francisco Opera was present at her baptism. She studied with vocal teachers in San Francisco and Los Angeles and one day in 1945, when she was 23 years old, a friend introduced her to Bing Crosby. Crosby auditioned her and put her on his radio show several times where she sang under the name of Florence Alba.

Her voice was noticed by the famous conductor, Leopold Stowkowski and she auditioned for him but nothing happened. Then she got a phone call asking her to sing at the Hollywood Bowl as a replacement for an ailing Helen Traubel. In the audience that night was an executive of the Metropolitan Opera, on vacation, and by 1948 she had a scholarship and a contract at the Met.

From the beginning, she sang with ease and naturalness and her voice had that rare quality of being instantly recognizable. She was a favorite of several great conductors – Werner Klemperer, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Busch, and Bruno Walter, who became her friend and mentor. After singing Desdemona in “Otello”as a substitute for Stella Roman, she got another telephone call. It was Arturo Toscanini asking her to sing Desdemona in his NBC broadcast of “Otello.” She went to Toscanini’s home for personal coaching, but sadly the Met would not release her for the required rehearsals and another soprano took the part.

Then as now, the costs of becoming an opera singer were considerable. The Metropolitan paid very little to beginning contract performers and coaching lessons, management fees, costumes, sheet music, and traveling expenses add up rapidly. While a singer can earn a great deal from concerts and radio appearances, managing money is a difficult skill to learn and in 1950, Florence Quartararo filed for bankruptcy. She listed debts of $8,404 and assets of $900. She said that her 1949 gross income was $15,325 ( a considerable sum in 1949) but that her net was only $816.

By 1951 she had sung 37 roles in three seasons at the Met, including Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” opposite Ezio Pinza. She had a contract with RCA Victor and had recorded five arias, and she was in demand throughout the country. Ezio Pinza said of her, “Her voice was warm, friendly, and clear. She sang with much dramatic emphasis, with an excellent sense of Mozartean style. Few have such color, roundness, and intensity, full of warmth, softness, pathos, and grief.”

Then she met and married the Italian bass, Italo Tajo. When she became pregnant, he decided that “one singer in the family is enough” and she accepted that (later she said it was a joint decision) and in 1951 she retired to raise her child. Even though she and Tajo were soon divorced, she never sang again.

When Florence Quartararo retired she was not yet 30. Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were both beginning their careers in Italy. Leontyne Price would not debut at the Met for another 10 years. Her only major competition at the Met would have been Zinka Milanov. Rise Stevens and Bidu Sayao both specialized in more lyric roles. Milanov would have certainly fought furiously for supremacy, but she had neither the youth nor the beauty of Quartararo.

I suppose it’s pointless to speculate on what Florence Quartararo might have accomplished had she continued to sing, but if he hadn’t died over ten years ago, I would happily strangle Italo Tajo.

Your comments or questions are welcome.