Luisa Tetrazzini: discovering Otello

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Famous Italian soprano Luisa Tetrazzini tells in her book My life of song about the time she was lucky enough to get the first glimpses of a secret new opera by the greatest composer alive during her childhood.

I feel that I must disclose this story to show how very human are all in the musical profession, from the lowest to the highest.

In those days everyone was talking about a great new opera on which that musical genius, Verdi, was working. It was to be one of the most wonderful operas ever composed, so everyone was saying. We used to discuss it at my home ; our maestri at the conservatoire spoke eagerly of the forthcoming work; indeed, the whole town generally was in a state of excitement over it.

One day the early post brought to my sister a mysterious scroll which, when it was opened, I was not allowed to peruse.

“It is a secret,” said my sister mysteriously, and went to her room to pore over its contents. Naturally, a secret of my sister’s set me a-tingling with eagerness to learn it. Later I heard her go to the piano and begin to sing. I entered the room unobserved, looked over her shoulder, and saw what everyone in the musical world was waiting and longing to see — Verdi’s new opera, Otello!

It was a first copy of a work not yet published. A young man who was a near friend of Eva’s was working with the great composer, and had secretly borrowed a copy of the new work to send it to my sister. Though his action was not blameless, his motive, so far as my sister was concerned, was most kind and thoughtful. He argued that by practising on an advance copy of a new opera my sister would become so proficient that when the secret was at last given to the world she would be the person most likely to be given the principal vocal part.

At first my sister had determined to send it back to her thoughtful admirer, as she said it was not quite playing the game either with Verdi or the other opera singers; but the temptation to enjoy just one glimpse of the first page of the score was too strong. The opening bars of the beautiful new work arrested her interest, and she quickly ran through the whole score. The next step was to try a few bars on the piano. Soon she was singing so gaily the secret Otello that she did not notice that I too was listening. It was then too late to keep the secret. So I joined with her in the first rehearsal of the new opera.

That was a great night. We went through the opera several times. My sister Elvira played, and Eva and I sang. It must have been grey morning before we were able to put the new work away and go to bed. Every member of the family was excited, and I, being the baby and the most temperamental, was more excited than all. They told me afterwards that I sang Verdi’s new Otello in my sleep during that short night.

As the new opera was now a family secret, it was most necessary not to disclose its existence to anyone outside our home. But as I was leaving for the conservatoire, however, I thought in my girlish mind how delightful it would be to let my maestro have just a peep at the work. I wrapped it up carefully, and, carrying it as though it were a piece of delicate china, took it with me to the academy. At the earliest opportunity I had a private word with my maestro. Feeling very important and looking very mysterious, I said that I had some new treasure which would surprise him greatly.

“And what is your surprise, my little prodigy? ” he asked encouragingly.
“I have brought you Verdi’s new opera.”
“What! ” he exclaimed, and jumped into the air in his excitement.” Let me see it, quick, quick!”
I showed it to him, and watched his eyes bulging.

“Come in here,” he said, and leaving the class to look after itself, he led the way to one of the rooms where there was a piano on which we could try it over without being disturbed. He sat at the instrument while I sang. At first he played softly and I sang quietly. As we proceeded we entered into the swing of the glorious work and became less cautious. He played the piano with reckless enjoyment, while I sang to the full volume of my voice.

What was to be expected happened. Suddenly hearing the sound as of a heavy man hurrying towards our door, we stopped in alarm. “Hide it, quick; there’s someone coming,” ejaculated the maestro. I took the score and quickly thrust it under some cushions. Then we put an old score on the music rack. By this time someone was banging heavily on the class-room door. “Open the door! Open the door! This minute! I wish to enter.” We looked mutely at each other, for we knew the owner of that voice all too well.

The maestro went to the door, unlocked it, and in walked the principal! He was a man of medium height, his hair turning slightly grey. He looked at us both very curiously, and then stalked across to the piano and read the title of the score on the music rack. “Faust!” he exclaimed. “Faust! It was not Faust that you were playing.” Then he turned to me and said, “Signorina, what were you singing just now?” My eyes fell. I did not know what to say. The maestro attempted to come to my rescue by saying that I was singing a few excerpts from the old operas.

“Old operas! Old operas! Come, come, don’t tell me that!” he growled. “I know every old opera that is in existence. That glorious music has never been sung before to my knowledge. Those notes, that melody! Have you a new opera here?” The principal looked from one to the other awaiting an answer. Both of us were fearing what would happen if we disclosed our secret, for the principal was a stern, upright man who, we knew, would countenance nothing that was not absolutely straight-forward. Would he discharge the maestro and punish me for this little escapade? Would he write to Verdi and tell him that his opera had leaked out, and, if he did, what would that stern giant do with the young man who had sent the opera to my sister? Would my sister in some way be injured for her little part? These were some of the questions which I was asking myself during this curious scene in the conservatoire on that memorable morning. But there was no help for it. The secret had emerged from my home; it had to go farther now.

So I told the principal the whole story, expecting him to be righteously indignant. I did not then know what a spell a new opera by a man like Verdi could cast over anyone in the profession. The expression on the maestro’s face when I first showed him the new Otello was a sight of wonder, amazement and delight that was unforgettable. But the principal! He was almost delirious. Again was enacted the scene in which I had participated once before that morning and, previously, at home. The principal took the new score, glanced through its magic pages, rushed to the door and locked it. Then the three of us went to the piano, and we sang the whole of the new opera through again, the principal loudly expressing his delight at the work as we went along.

“Yes, it’s unquestionably Verdi,” said the principal, when we had come to the end of the opera; and then he added a sentence which was shortly to be taken up by others and echoed throughout the realm of music. “Verdi, yes, but a new Verdi,” he declared. “Our great composer has deserted the old Italian school and is becoming Wagnerian. But what a glorious work, nevertheless. Yes, it’s beautiful! Oh, it will be a huge success.”

It was long past lunch time before I returned to my home with the precious manuscript, for which, by the way, my sister had been vainly searching during my absence.

For this story to be complete I think I should have to say that later on, when I met the great Verdi, I told him of the incident and that he enjoyed it immensely; but there was no such desirable sequel, although many years later I was in the presence of the great composer. It was on the shores of Maggiore where I came upon Verdi, with a famous maestro, taking the cure. He was then a frail old man. When I saw him I felt a great desire to speak to him and tell the story of the Otello manuscript. At that moment the maestro saw me, and, excusing himself, came to my side and asked me if I would care to meet the great Verdi. Again on an occasion of the highest importance my temperament prevented me from doing the thing that I most wished to do. I was so overwhelmed at the honor that I missed the opportunity. I sent the maestro away with an apology. Immediately he had gone I wanted to go after him and beg to be introduced. It was too late! Not long afterwards I read with the deepest regret that our great Verdi was dead.

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