Tetrazzini - Christmas Eve

An estimated 250,000 people assemble for Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve concert in San Francisco.

My recent post about Nellie Melba called to mind Luisa Tetrazzini, who had several things in common with Melba. Tetrazzini was also a soprano—a coloratura whose range extended to the F above high C—and a contemporary of Melba at the beginning of the 20th century. Also like Melba, Tetrazzini had an enormously successful career in opera and concert and was treated like royalty around the world. She was, by reputation, a warm and friendly woman, but one of the few people she didn’t get along was Melba.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing forwardAnd Tetrazzini, like Melba, inspired a chef, although there is disagreement about whether the chef was Ernest Arbogast at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco or an unknown practitioner at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. The dish involved is “tetrazzini,” which consists of diced chicken or seafood and mushrooms in a sauce of butter, cream, and parmesan, laced with wine or sherry. This is usually served over pasta, although there is no fixed recipe or manner of presentation. Louis Paquet, a chef at the McAlpin Hotel in New York, seems to have had a hand in making this concoction popular. Paquet and Tetrazzini were friends, and he gave her cooking lessons.

Tetrazzini - portrait facing leftThe popularity in their era of artists like Melba and Tetrazzini is hard to imagine now, because media and the nature of celebrity have changed so much. In 1910, Tetrazzini had a contract dispute with the impresario Oscar Hammerstein that was preventing her from  singing in opera houses or concert halls in the United States. The soprano, who said San Francisco was her favorite city in the world, said, “When they told me I could not sing in America unless it was for Hammerstein, I said I would sing in the streets of San Francisco, for I knew the streets of San Francisco were free.” And she did that, on Christmas Eve, in front of the San Francisco Chronicle building. The mayor of San Francisco escorted her to a platform that had been built for an orchestra and chorus that were conducted by Paul Steindorf of the city’s Tivoli Opera. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to hear a concert which Tetrazzini began with “The Last Rose of Summer” and concluded with the massive crowd joining her in “Auld Lang Syne.”

Tetrazzini - record labelTetrazzini had several failed marriages, and the last one cost her most of her fortune. When she was through performing, she returned to her native Italy and taught singing in order to support herself. She never lost her joie d’vivre, by all accounts, and used to say, “I’m old. I’m fat. But I’m still Tetrazzini!”

Click HERE to see an unusual film clip in which the 61-year-old Tetrazzini listens to a recording of Enrico Caruso singing “M’appari” from Martha and breaks into a duet with her old friend. Even at this age and with this quality of reproduction, you can get a sense of the character of her voice.

 

 

 

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Sic transit and so forth

March 31, 2019

Melba Toast

When I saw this display at the supermarket today, it sent my mind reeling back to an eposide of Downton Abbey in which the Australian soprano Nellie Melba was engaged to gave a recital at the Granthams’ mansion. More precisely, this display reminded me that among the historical inaccuracies presented in that series, the visit by Nellie Melba was one of the most glaring—to anachronisms such as I am, at least.

One feature of the episode was that Charles Carson, the Granthams’ head butler, was scandalized that a mere entertainer would be invited into the house. According to the Downton Abbey storyline, Carson had been a song-and-dance man before he took on the pompous persona of a butler, but apparently he didn’t see the irony in that.

Nellie Melba

NELLIE MELBA/Lilydale Historical Society

 

Carson treated Melba—portrayed by past-her-prime soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa—as though she were a hired hand, leaving her in her room with nothing but a cup of tea. Others in the house made caustic remarks about having to sit through her performance.

Actually, by 1922, when this was supposed to have occurred, Nellie Melba was a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire for her charity work during World War I. More to it, she was one of the most celebrated singers in the world, eagerly received by royalty.

As Robert Christiansen, the opera critic for The Telegraph pointed out when the episode was first broadcast, Nellie Melba “would only have sung at a private party as a personal favour to her host. Melba was nobody’s hireling: she called all the shots, and the Granthams and their staff would have quaked at her approach.”

A story by Tom Huizenga of National Public Radio included this passage:

“Even today, Melba’s recorded voice rings clearly as a favorite of Tim Page, Pulitzer winner for criticism and professor of music and journalism at USC.

“‘There’s something sort of unreal about it,’ Page says. ‘It’s a voice of ethereal purity with perhaps the only perfect trill I’ve ever heard.’ Another celebrated Melba attribute is accuracy: ‘She hit things absolutely on pitch,’ he continues. ‘You never hear Melba sliding into a note. Her tone was as reliable as a keyed instrument. She’s just dead on.'”

Incidentally, while Melba—whose birth name was Helen Porter Mitchell—has been forgotten by all but opera buffs, her professional name lives on in the product you see above, which was named after her, as was peach melba and several other delicacies.

You can hear Nellie Melba with Enrico Caruso in the duet “O Soave Fanciulla” from Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme by clicking HERE.