Luisa Tetrazzini: on the future of vocal art

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The successor to the legendary Adelina Patti, soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, published in 1921 her book My life of song, in which she describes her career, reflects on her life and art and gives advice to young singers.


Where are the great singers who shall take the place of Patti, Melba, Jenny Lind, Tietjens, and those other prime donne of the glorious past? Where am I to look for a successor to Tetrazzini?

For years I have been hoping and searching for even one who shall step into my place when in (I hope) the distant future I retire. So far I have hoped and sought in vain. There are thousands of singers and musicians in the world today, as always. Some of these have a large following, their hundreds of admirers. They sing well and they play well. In their own countries they draw good audiences, and their performances are applauded without stint. But they have all stopped short of being truly great. They are virtuosos, and not geniuses. They have the training without the highest natural gifts. Their reputations are national, and not international. Their names are famous in some parts of the earth, but in other parts they are almost unknown. Yet the names of the passing generation of world stars are known in every civilized home of the world.

Occasionally a new star appears in some corner of the globe. I hear the name mentioned, and I say to myself, “Has the new prima donna actually arrived?” I wait and wonder. And then I discover that the new star is not of the first magnitude.

There is no one who would welcome the appearance of a new international star more heartily and more readily than would I. To me great art is life. That I have been able to give pleasure to vast audiences in all parts of the world for many years through my gift of song is to me an unending joy. Yet I want to see more and more great stars appear to lighten this dull age. When Patti hailed me as her successor, I said to myself, “Though I cannot show you, dear Patti, how greatly I value that message of yours, perhaps I shall be able one day to do the next best thing —I shall write similarly to someone who appears on my horizon, and so pass on the pleasure that Patti’s message gave to me.” I have not yet sent that message, but I am still hoping that before I retire I shall meet and hear a new Patti, a new Jenny Lind, a new Tetrazzini.

When I was singing in Spain my hopes rose high. A young singer came to me and asked me to hear her voice. I listened and secretly exulted. “Yes, I have found her,” I said to myself —” the new international prima donna. She is a genius.” Her voice climbed to the sky without effort. The timbre and quality, the easy, bird-like notes were such as are only commanded by the great ones of the earth. But her notes were not quite developed; she could not then produce all the volume and beauty of tone without more study, more hard work, long hours of training, of rigid application, of self-control —yes, of self-sacrifice. Not suspecting her real thoughts, I told my young genius what she must do and continue to do if she would be truly great. Her answer left me sad and sorrowful. “What!” she exclaimed. “You say I must start training over again? Are you aware, madame, that I am a great artist?” What could I say in answer? Here was an undoubted genius, one with the makings of an international prima donna, but so self-opinionated and unwilling to be helped by someone qualified to assist that she took offence at hearing the truth. I bowed and said, “Oh, I beg your pardon for my presumption.” And she went away. She has, however, returned, and is now acting upon some advice I proffered her.

Though the dearth of great talent is partly due to the fact that there are some who will not undergo the rigorous training which is essential for any aspirant to the greatest honours in the realm of song, there is perhaps another and stronger reason. Even supposing there are God-given voices undiscovered, and only waiting to be trained, I am afraid we have no great maestri capable of giving the training. So many teachers are too ready to deceive themselves and their pupils in their methods of training. Their mistakes are many and flagrant. They beguile mezzo-sopranos into the belief that they are coloraturas, and sometimes are able to add a few notes at the top while taking them away from the bottom.

When the modern maestro does produce a singer, the opportunities that are offered her to develop are, unfortunately, very few and hopelessly inadequate. Prior to the war there were opera houses in the capitals and smaller towns of Europe where the budding prima donna could sing and develop her art. Today the opera houses of the world, and particularly those of Europe, are in a bad way. Nor are the future prospects in England or in the other countries of Europe at all rosy for the potential star. Ten years will probably elapse before the opera houses of the world return to their pre-war state and become what they were in the old days, nurseries for the new singers.

Perhaps by that time I shall have met my new star!

Another question I have often asked myself and been asked by others is: What of the future of coloratura music, the music of runs and trills and melody, through which I have become known to the world? This music is no longer being written, singers no longer study it, and yet people crowd to hear it. We are told that it is of the past, that it is dying or dead. The critics and the people that go to opera talk of the modern music of France, Germany and Italy. But I do not believe this older style of music will die. No, it cannot die. For is it not natural music, the music of the birds?

And do the admirers of the very modern music really know how great is this old Italian music? It is not a matter of the frills and trills —these things are easy to write, and they do not make music; they are but the froth on the champagne. It takes a great master to write this music, though it seems so simple in comparison with the modern operatic compositions. The composers of this old school —Donizetti and Rossini, for instance— wrote especially for the voice as for an instrument; but Richard Strauss certainly did not write for the voice. The day will come, however, when there will be born another Donizetti. Then coloratura music will take a new lease of life. It may be that one or two great coloratura singers may first arise so as to inspire the new Donizetti. Yet he will come, and the world will assuredly welcome his advent.

Today the young students of singing whose voices seem to come in the coloratura class try to turn them into some other. Unfortunately, the majority of such voices are very small in compass, and do not therefore promise a great career. Perhaps that is another reason why there are now practically no students of this style of singing. It is true that the vocal art must be perfect for such music. What I mean is that the defects of a coloratura are more readily apparent; they are not covered, as in the modern opera, with the sound of the orchestra. To one who has mastered high soprano technique, other music is not difficult. Coloratura practice is a kind of gymnastic exercise which keeps the voice flexible and in perfect working condition.

Some people say that it takes years of study to become a great coloratura artist. It may do with some, but with others it may not be necessary. A voice may be born just right or it may be developed just right. In any case, to have a perfect coloratura voice is to possess the choicest gift of the gods. Therefore, if it means arduous effort, the achievement is always worth while.

One objection now made to coloratura music is that it is not dramatic, that it is artificial, that the world now demands in its opera the thing that is like life. I cannot deny that such music is not dramatic in its character. One might say, perhaps, that it has light, but no shadow. Yet the melody that reaches the heart can exist in the same opera with dramatic music. Indeed, this is the case in the early Verdi operas. Perhaps the coloratura music of the future will be differently combined and used. I am no prophet —indeed, can anyone foresee in these matters? But I will say that this music will return to popularity as surely as springtime and its chorus of singing-birds must follow every melancholy winter.

Text excerpted from My Life of Song, Luisa Tetrazzini, Philadelphia, 1922.