Titta Ruffo, whose real name was Ruffo Cafiero Titta, initially considered following in the career footsteps of his blacksmith father Orestes Titta (who named his son after Ruffo, a favourite hunting dog); but his superb natural voice indicated that his future was to lie in singing. He studied briefly in Rome with Venceslao Persichini, who also taught Battistini and de Luca, and in Milan with Lelio Casini; but, as he himself acknowledged, he was essentially self-taught.
Ruffo’s operatic stage debut came in 1897, as the Herald / Lohengrin at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. This was followed by appearances throughout the Italian provinces, for instance at Livorno and Pisa, singing major roles such as the title part in Rigoletto and Barnaba / La Gioconda; and by visits also to Santiago (Chile) in 1900 and Cairo in 1901. He sang Enrico / Lucia di Lammermoor and Figaro / Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Royal Opera House, London in 1903 and was scheduled to sing Rigoletto opposite Nellie Melba; but she scuttled this proposal on the grounds of his being too young to play her father. During the 1903–1904 season however Ruffo sang this role several times at La Scala, Milan, marking the take-off of his European career as a top-flight opera singer.
Thereafter Ruffo had no close links with any one particular company (although he returned to La Scala frequently during the next twenty-five years), but rather sang as a guest for extremely high fees. His repertoire was grounded upon the major baritone roles of Verdi, for instance Don Carlo / Ernani and Amonasro / Aida. He enjoyed a very successful tour of Russia in 1904 and returned annually between 1905 and 1907, singing in St Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev, as well as appearing in Warsaw in 1907. During 1905 he was one of the stars of the Sonzogno season presented in Paris, and sang Boniface in the Italian premiere of Massenet’s Le jongleur de Notre Dame at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. He sang as a guest at the Paris Opera, the Court Operas of Vienna and Berlin and at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires. Here he was especially successful in the title roles of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1908) and Anton Rubinstein’s The Demon (1909) as well as Jack Rance in La fanciulla del West in 1911. When he was booked to sing the role of Hamlet at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Melba, there on her way to Australia, contacted the manager offering to sing Ophelia. ‘Tell Melba she’s too old to sing with me,’ Ruffo responded, in revenge for her earlier put-down at Covent Garden.
In America Ruffo’s debut took place in Philadelphia in 1912 as Rigoletto, followed by appearances in Chicago during 1912 (singing Hamlet with the Chicago company when it visited the Metropolitan Opera House, New York) and 1913, and later in 1919 and 1920, when he took the title part in the first performance of Leoncavallo’s Edipo Re, which was especially written for him. He sang with the Canadian Opera in 1914 and 1915 before serving with the Italian army between 1916 and 1919.
After appearances in Mexico City in 1919 and Boston in 1920, Ruffo made his belated debut with the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1922 as Rossini’s Figaro (it has been suggested that Caruso used his influence to keep his major operatic rival out of the Met during his lifetime). He sang in forty-six performances at the Met up until 1929, his roles there including Rigoletto, Amonasro, the Ernani Don Carlo, Barnaba, Gérard / Andrea Chénier and Tonio / Pagliacci. He also sang Neri in the Met American premiere of Giordano’s La cena delle beffe in 1926.
Following the murder of his brother-in-law by fascists, from 1924 Ruffo refused to sing in Italy. He gave concerts in Paris, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Amsterdam during 1930; in the following year made his final appearances at the Teatro Colón (as Hamlet and Scarpia / Tosca); and gave his last concert at Cannes in 1935. When he returned to Italy in 1936 he was promptly arrested, but released shortly afterwards and retired from musical life to live in Florence, publishing his memoirs in 1937. On the news of the fall of Mussolini in 1943 he flung open the windows of his apartment in Florence and sang the Marseillaise before an applauding crowd.
Ruffo possessed a phenomenally rich baritone with an unusual upper extension which could take him into the territory of the tenor. An extremely handsome man, his only rival on the operatic stage during the earlier part of his career was Caruso. As late as 1951 Ruffo’s voice still sounded in good condition; but as his vocal technique was weak, his reliance on his raw natural gifts, and the resulting fatigue, probably shortened his career. In his prime however the force of his singing was overwhelming, marking the shift in operatic singing from the restrained elegance of Battistini to the more immediately dramatic requirements of the verismo composers. He recorded extensively. The conductor Tullio Serafin said of him: ‘In my lifetime there have been three miracles – Caruso, Ponselle and Ruffo. Apart from these there have been several wonderful singers.’