Renata Tebaldi (born February 1, 1922, Pesaro, Italy – died December 19, 2004, San Marino)
Renata Tebaldi was one of the most beloved opera singers of all time. Her voice was one of the most beautiful to be heard in the 20th century.
She was a dedicated artist, but she did not push herself to sing in any language other than Italian. Tebaldi had a vocal crisis in 1963, which, compounded with exhaustion, caused her to take a year off and to rework her technique.
Still, during what she called her “second career,” Miss Tebaldi did some exquisite singing and continued to win understandable devotion from the public. After a deeply affecting and vocally exquisite performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” one night at the Metropolitan Opera, the audience kept her coming back for so many curtain calls that she finally appeared wearing her coat around her costume, to signal that she needed to go home.
Tall and stately, she was a lovely woman with creamy white skin, big blue eyes, and trademark dimples when she smiled. Rudolf Bing, the crusty general manager of the Met during Miss Tebaldi’s prime years, knew her demanding side. “Miss Renata Tebaldi was always sweet and very firm,” he once said. “She had dimples of iron.”
There was a public “feud” between Tebaldi and Callas during the 1950s. More likely than not, this feud was drummed up by newspapers and publicists. The theme around which the feud went was Stimmdiva (“Voice Diva”) versus Kuntsdiva (“Art Diva). The Stimmdiva, in this case Tebaldi, was said to have a remarkable voice but no artistry. The Kunstdiva, Maria Callas, was said to have a voice with problems but she made great art. Neither of these two characterizations was true. They were both great artists with very different voices.
For all Miss Tebaldi’s accomplishments, her career faltered in the late 1960’s. When she retired in 1976, she was only 54. Still, she began early and had as active and successful a first 15 years as any singer of the 20th century.
Her opera debut was in 1944, in the smaller role of Elena in Boito’s “Mefistofele” at the regional theater in Rovigo, Italy. Instant success propelled her into appearances in Parma as Puccini’s Mimi in “La Bohème,” her first Desdemona and other roles. In 1946, she auditioned with Toscanini at La Scala in Milan. This led to a career-making appearance in a concert to reopen the La Scala opera house, heavily damaged during the Second World War.
By the time of her much-anticipated Met debut in January 1955, as Desdemona, Miss Tebaldi was already a celebrated singer.
Singing always came first for Miss Tebaldi. She never married and had no children.
In a 1995 interview with The Times, Miss Tebaldi said she had no regrets about her single life. “I was in love many times,” she said, flashing her dimpled smile. “This is very good for a woman.” But she added, “How could I have been a wife, a mother and a singer? Who takes care of the piccolini when you go around the world? Your children would not call you Mama, but Renata.”
In 1973, Miss Tebaldi sang her final performance at the Met, again as Desdemona, with James McCracken in the title role, Sherrill Milnes as Iago and a young James Levine conducting. She had sung some 270 performances with the Met, a house where she considered herself “la regina” — the queen.