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Adelina Patti – The Queen of Song

Adelina Patti (1843 – 1919)

She was known as the Queen of Song and was the most famous singer of the nineteenth century. Patti once demanded one hundred thousand dollars for twenty concerts in a three-month American tour. The dumbfounded manager remarked, “Why, that is more than the salary of the President of the United States!” Patti replied, “Well, ask the President to sing.”

Other than to note that primitive recording methods of the early 1900’s cannot be trusted as accurate representations of what a singer sounded like, I normally do not apologize for an artist’s recordings, but in Patti’s case at least an explanation must be made. She made her first record when she was only days shy of being 63 years old and all of her recordings were made after she had been singing professionally for 55 of those years. By then her breath control was deserting her, she was transposing arias down because she could no longer control her high notes, and the voice had lost most of it’s freshness, but she remains a marvelous example of style and simplicity.

In opera, the period from 1850 to 1900 is known as “The Age of Patti.”

And yet even singing an aria like “Casta Diva” which she should theoretically never have attempted she somehow makes one feel that just maybe hers is the way it really should be sung. That purity of tone, delicacy of phrasing, and her freshness and simplicity could constitute a master class in singing even today. And just occasionally she allows herself a burst of vocal richness to show what she must have been like in her prime. One reviewer wrote that: “Her voice (on the recordings) bears a resemblance to the smile of the Cheshire cat; it has not quite disappeared and her tone is still beautiful, if no longer young sounding. It is the details of her singing, its finesse that remain. She is still capable of a seemingly infinite variety of vocal colouring, and her voice is still alive to every rhythmic subtlety.”

She traveled by private railroad car and in her prime, she was paid $5000 a night (equivalent to about $200,000 today), in gold, to be paid no later than twelve hours before curtain time. Her contracts stipulated that her name be top-billed and printed larger than any other name in the cast and that she was “free to attend all rehearsals, but “not obligated to attend any”. “Rehearsals,” she said simply, “Tire the voice.”

Even in semi-retirement, she still had sufficient clout to refuse to travel to London for the recording sessions and demanded that the recording equipment be brought to her private castle in Wales. Her accompanist, Landon Ronald, wrote of that first recording session, “When the little (gramophone) trumpet gave forth the beautiful tones, she went into ecstasies! She threw kisses into the trumpet and kept on saying, “Ah! My Lord! Now I understand why I am Patti! Oh yes! What a voice! What an artist! I understand everything!” Her enthusiasm was so naïve and genuine that the fact that she was praising her own voice seemed to us all to be right and proper.”

“Bel Canto’ and “Coloratura” are words that were first used when describing her singing. The voice was not large, but it could fill any opera hall of the day and the freshness of her voice and spontaneity of her singing were remarkable. She was born to a family of singers and learned to sing before she could walk and talk by imitating her parents.

Patti said: “It was my half-brother, Mr. Ettore Barili, who laid the foundation of my singing. My brother-in-law, Mr. Strakosch, taught me certain embellishments and cadenzas, but it was to Ettore Barili that I owed the foundation as well as the finish of my vocal equipment. With him I studied solfeggi, trills, scales; the chromatic scales came naturally. I think I was trilling when I came into the world.”

She sang professionally from her childhood until her last concert in 1914. Patti’s career had begun in 1850 when she was seven. They stood her on a table, clutching her favorite doll, so she could more easily be seen. The hall seated two thousand and within a week her performances were completely sold out.

The composer and conductor, Luigi Arditi, wrote: “She was a little dark-eyed, roguish maiden with red, pursed-up lips and quick, rippling laughter. Her determined little airs and manners then already showed plainly that she was destined to become a ruler of men.” She was brought to Arditi’s room to sing and he was amused to see the airs of importance with which the tiny songstress first selected a comfortable seat for her doll, whom she bade “listen to mamma,” and then turned to him, asking him to accompany her in an aria from “La Sonnambula.” Arditi said he wept “genuine tears of emotion” and was amazed at the “well-nigh perfect manner in which she delivered some of the most difficult and varied arias without the lightest effort or self-consciousness.”

She recorded his “Il Bacio”, an old warhorse even in 1906, and even though seemingly every coloratura soprano in history has sung and recorded it, somehow Patti makes it sound fresh and new even if her voice was not.

Her opera debut eight years later at age 16 was as Lucia di Lammermoor. At the age of 18, she was invited to give three trial performances at London’s Covent Garden. Without pay. But if she was successful, she would be given a contract. She sang the role of Amina in La sonnambula and the audience erupted into a frenzy of applause at the end of her first aria. Patti went on to conquer Europe, Russia and South America before she was 21 years old.

She studied Mozart with a tenor who had worked with Mozart, she learned “Norma” from the accompanist to Giudita Pasta who had created the role, and when the composer Rossini objected to the way she sang his work, she studied with him and he actually accompanied her at more than one concert. In short, she became a direct link to the kind of performance these composers had approved.

Her voice was originally a youthful high soprano but as she aged it darkened. By the time of her last “farewell tour” she had to transposed her arias downward. Her trills were not simply displays of vocal virtuosity, they were gentle expressions of emotion through music.

If you like comparisons, I would invite you to go to YouTube and view Maria Callas singing that aria in a 1965 Paris concert. Other than Callas having a stronger voice, her interpretation is almost identical.

There is a story that in 1862, during an American tour, she sang “Home Sweet Home” at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln, and his wife, Mary Lincoln. The Lincolns were in mourning for their son Willie, who had recently died of typhoid. Moved to tears, the Lincoln’s requested an encore and wept a second time.
It’s a great story. But as it happens Patti left the United States for Europe in early 1861 and didn’t return for 20 years. But “Home Sweet Home” was one of her favorite encore pieces.

Adelina Patti (1843 –1919) was born in Madrid, Spain to Italian parents. Both her parents sang opera, but they moved to New York City when Adelina was still a child. Her sisters were also singers and her brother was a violinist. Patti grew up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx and sang professionally from childhood. She remains one of the most famous sopranos in history, owing to the purity and beauty of her lyrical voice and the unmatched quality of her bel canto technique. Kings and emperors, the Tsar of Russia, authors such as Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde, composers as varied as Rossini, Verdi, Berlioz, Saint-Saëns, Gounod, and Tchaikovsky all adored and praised her. For 25 years she sang privately by invitation for Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) always demanded an encore of “Kathleen Mauvorneen.”

Her contemporary rivals including Nellie Melba, and Lilli Lehmann, acknowledged her supremacy. Jenny Lind said, “There is only one Niagara, and there is only one Patti.” Luisa Tetrazzini once went on her knees before Patti to honor her.

Guiseppe Verdi, who generally disliked singers, wrote that Adelina Patti was “perhaps the finest singer who ever lived” and a “stupendous artist.” “Her artistic nature is more complete than has perhaps been the case with any other…What a wonderful singing actress she was at 18 years of age, the first time that I heard her in La Sonnambula, Lucia, Il barbiere, and Don Giovanni! She was then what she is today apart from some developments in her voice, especially in the low notes, which in those days were somewhat thin and childlike, and are now most beautiful. But her talent, her feeling for the stage, and her singing were just the same, the same.”

She had several affairs and married three times, losing most of her wealth to her first husband. Later she learned to invest wisely and died financially secure. She had no children. She last sang in public in October 1914, at a Red Cross concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall that had been organized to aid victims of World War I. She was as famous in her time as Enrico Caruso or Maria Callas were in theirs.

Soprano Emma Eames: “Hers was the most perfect technique imaginable, with a scale, both chromatic and diatonic, of absolute accuracy and evenness, a tone of perfect purity and of the most melting quality, a trill impeccable in intonation, whether major or minor, and such as one hears really only in nightingales, liquid, round and soft. Her crescendo was matchless, and her vocal charm was infinite. I cannot imagine more beautiful sounds than issued from that exquisite throat, nor more faultless phrasing, nor more wonderful economy of breath. Her phrases were interminable, in spite of the fact that her waist was so pinched (by a corset)that her ribs could not have done otherwise than cross in front.”

Soprano Luisa Tetrazzini: “Patti has ever been my highest ideal…a majestic being, more divine than human, so exalted that it was almost sacrilege to speak her name.”

When Patti finally retired, she bought a castle, Craig-Y-Nos, in Wales and built the home of her dreams. She built a private theater, modeled on the Bayreuth Opera House , which seated 150 and where she entertained the rich and famous including many of the crowned Kings and Queens of Europe. She died in 1919 and is buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Your comments or questions are welcome.