Giovanni Martinelli was born on October 22, 1885 and he died on February 2, 1969. In 1911, twenty six year old Giovanni Martinelli was asked to sing an audition. There were two men sitting near the stage but he couldn’t see them because the theater lights were dimmed. When he finished, the men came up to meet him. “Yes,” muttered one, “He will do.” “He will do very well,” said the other. “All right young man. We will take you.” The two men were conductor Arturo Toscanini and composer Giacomo Puccini. “Take me? Take me for what?” pleaded the stunned young tenor.
The European premiere of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” was scheduled for Rome in a few weeks but the role’s creator, Enrico Caruso was not available. Martinelli was hired to sing the star role of Dick Johnson. When La Scala in Milan later decided to stage “Fanciulla”, they planned to hire a different tenor. Puccini wired the La Scala management,“Martinelli sings Johnson or you do not do Fanciulla.” Martinelli sang Dick Johnson at La Scala.
Giovanni Martinelli was born in the northern Italian town of Montagnana. He sang solos in the church choir as a six year old boy. As the eldest of 14 children, his father trained him in the family business – as a cabinet maker – but he also picked grapes, shoed horses, and worked as a blacksmith. After his voice changed he learned to play the clarinet, which served him well when he was drafted into the Italian army because that skill earned him a spot in the regimental band. One day, in a scene duplicated almost exactly by Ezio Pinza several years later, his Captain heard him singing a popular song and was enchanted by his voice. The Captain found sponsors and Giovanni left the army and was sent to Milan with a scholarship for vocal training.
After only six months of study with a very poor teacher, the freshness, naturalness, and spontaneity of his voice had been destroyed. Fortunately Giuseppe Mandolini, a former tenor and friend of the great conductor Tullio Serafin, was able to re-train Martinelli and after three months of intensive work he made a successful operatic debut in 1910, singing the title role in Verdi’s “Ernani.”
Martinelli was never known to speak ill of anyone and, although he certainly knew his own value, he was always willing to listen to advice. When he sang his first performance of Meyerbeer’s “Les Hugenots” an old man came to his dressing room. “Young man,” he said, “You sang magnificently. But there were certain things you did in the duet finale which I do not think were right. May I show you the proper phrasing?”
Martinelli agreed and the old man told him,“I was a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire when Meyerbeer used these phrases to illustrate certain legato effects. He wanted them done this way.” Martinelli tried the method and was amazed that his high C flats came out much more easily. He thanked his coach and asked his name. “Camille Saint Saens,” was the reply. The composer of, among others, the opera “Samson et Dalilah.”
Nobility and dignity formed a large part of Martinelli’s interpretations, but musical intelligence and an ability to bring meaning to what he sang were equally important and, without shouting or false emphasis, he could bring excitement to whatever he sang.
In 1916, Martinelli asked Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for “Otello”) for help in studying the part. Boito admired Martinelli’s voice and asked him to sing in the premiere of his opera “Nerone.” Boito died two years later but Arturo Toscanini, then director of La Scala, remembered Boito’s preference and offered Martinelli the role. But Toscanini and Giulio Gatti-Casazza, director of the Metropolitan, were feuding – and hated each other. “Go, my friend,” Gatti told Martinelli, “But if you sing for Toscanini you will never sing again at the Metropolitan.” Martinelli stayed at the Met.
Puccini wanted Martinelli to sing the role of Calaf in the world premiere of “Turandot” and coached him in the part shortly before the composer’s death. But Gatti-Casazza said, “I do not stop you going, only if you go do not return to the Metropolitan.” Martinelli did not sing Turandot until 1937 at Covent Garden. Sadly, he never recorded any music from “Turandot.”
When Martinelli was asked to sing Andrea Chenier, he was doubtful. Gigli virtually owned the part by virtue of his gloriously beautiful sound. Martinelli asked the composer, Giordano, about it and Giordano told him, “… Gigli’s voice is the most beautiful lyric tenor in the world today. If you tried to sing the same way, I’d say no. But you are gifted with a far more heroic voice. Chenier can be a dreamy poet, but he can also be a heroic figure. Make him that, and you will succeed.” Andrea Chenier became one of Martinelli’s most successful roles.
In his last years he lectured throughout the United States and in London, talking about composers he had known as well as Verdi and illustrating his lectures with recordings of himself and other singers. In 1967, he was in Seattle when a cast member in a local production of “Turandot” became ill. Martinelli returned to the stage for the first time in 17 years, singing the small part of the Emperor. He gave three performances and donated his fee to Italian Relief.
He was married to Adele Previtali from 1913 until his death and they had three children. Giovanni Martinelli died after open-heart surgery on February 2, 1969 in New York City. His body was later returned to Rome, where his daughters lived, for burial.