October 22, 1885 – February 2, 1969
Giovanni Martinelli was born in the Italian village of Montagnana on October 22, 1885. His father was a cabinetmaker.
At the age of 20, he went into the army and found a soft job as a member of a regimental band, escaping a good deal of drilling and other regimental activity. One Saturday evening, he and a friend rigged a French horn through a window and pretended that they were playing a phonograph. Martinelli sang, while the friend played a mandolin accompaniment.
“The next day,” Martinelli later recalled, “the bandmaster, a little man with a rough voice and an army disciplinarian’s glare, demanded to know who had sung the previous evening”.
“I feared that I would be punished for disturbing the peace and hesitated to confess. I learned that a singing teacher of the town had passed by and had been impressed by my voice”.
The teacher gave the young man an audition several days later and told him that he must study.
Eventually, the tenor went to Milan, where a group of managers financed him for a period of study. One of the friends he made in this period was Oresto Poli, manager of the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, who was responsible for Mr. Martinelli’s first operatic role.
His first role was in 1908 as the messenger in Verdi’s Aida, He felt that he needed further study, and his professional debut came in 1910 in Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro dal Verme in Milano on December 3. Martinelli ‘s immediate success led to his appearance as Ernani at the same theatre on December 29.
Martinelli’s famous sunny temperament commended him to friends and colleagues. And it was his temperament that rescued him in the formative stage of his career, from a nearly ruinous encounter with Toscanini.
After singing Ernani, he next came to the attention of Giacomo Puccini. That is the way in which he got to Rome, Toscanini, and the “Girl of the Golden West”. Also it was in Rome that he met Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, manager of La Scala in Milan, who was preparing to depart for American to being his 32-year rule over the Met.
When he began to sing at the first rehearsal, Toscanini glared at him, muttered something, and finally banged the score shut. “It is impossible”, the maestro told the young tenor: “You will not do!”
“Very well,” the 24-year-old from the provinces replied cheerfully to the angry maestro. “At least I can say that I have been to Rome and that I have worked with Toscanini”.
The maestro looked up in surprise. Then he smiled. “Let us try again,” he said. “Perhaps, we can do something.”
Martinelli sang in “The Girl of the Golden West” with success in Rome and was then engaged to sing throughout Europe.
In 1913, Gatti-Cassaza cabled an offer to the young tenor to come to the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Martinelli considered his fortune secure. He married Adele Previtali on August 7, 1913 and then set sail to America.
Thirty-odd years later, a world-famous performer with a repertory of 57 roles, the tenor had thoroughly justified the maestro’s indulgence.
He had made his debut at the Metropolitan on November 20, 1913, when Caruso was in the ascendant. Mr. Martinelli had then a repertory of perhaps seven opera parts – all roles that the incomparable Caruso sang. Many tenors were called to the Met in those years, but no others were chosen to stay. Only Mr. Martinelli survived the days of Caruso’s glory and emerged an artist and personality in his own right.
His first appearance at the Metropolitan was as Rodolfo in “La Boheme, “ to Lucrezia Bori’s Mimì. From the start, the voice of the newcomer was often described by critics as comparable to that of Caruso, with whom he became fast friends.
On the 50th anniversary of his debut – November 23, 1963 – Martinelli was fêted by the Met. The program was devoted to music from operas in which he had sung with the company, and he was presented with a leatherbound, gold stamped album containing programs for each of the 36 roles he had sung for the Met.
Four years later, in February 1967, Martinelli was suddenly pressed into service once more. He was in Seattle to give a lecture when a member of the local opera company’s “Turandot” cast came down with laryngitis.
Donning a false beard and the robe and miter of the Chinese emperor for his first role since 1950, Martinelli received a splendid reception. The audience stood to applaud three times, and the producer prevailed on him to stay over for two more performances.
Assaying his own performance, Martinelli commented, “An artist is supposed to say, ‘No, I am not satisfied’, but I was precise on the tempo.”