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Letter from Renata Tebaldi

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This is an extract from Manuela Hoelterhoff's book "Cinderella and Company: Backstage with Cecilia Bartoli" (London: Chatto & Windus, 1998)

Though she wasn't expected for another half hour, the crowd had already swelled from a handful of early arrivals to several hundred huddling in the chilly underground passageway outside the drafty entrance to what the Metropolitan Opera calls Founders' Hall, though it is somewhat lacking in festive dimensions. Founders' Hall is where you catch pneumonia standing on long lines waiting to check your coat or buy a brownie during intermission.

Most were carrying shopping bags stuffed with old LPs and photographs. The age range seemed from around twelve to maybe one hundred. Finally, the limo arrived, half an hour late, but she's Italian, and cries of "Renata! Renata!" echoed through the corridor just like in the old days when Renata Tebaldi was queen of the Met.

Policemen extracted the mink-draped divinity from her car and led her into the hall, which has glass walls on the passageway. Worshippers pressed their noses to the cold glass to watch her maid of many decades relieve the diva of her coat and pocketbook. Slowly, she approached a table set up with flowers, Magic Markers, and copies of a new biography that had just been translated into English. Tebaldi: The Voice of an Angel is somewhat lacking in investigative vigor, as the title might suggest. The connoisseurs standing on line passed the rime pointing out mistakes in the captions ("That hairdo! Definitely from a later period"). But the pictures are great, the book had brought the seventy-three-year-old diva back to New York after nearly twenty years, and who could object to its question-and-answer section, which includes this heavenly exchange between writer and singer:

Question: "What physical discipline did you impose on your body? Posture? Thorns? Neck? Position of head?"

Answer: "A cardinal role of singing is an erect posture without rigidity for maximum use of the diaphragm..."

Watching her sign away, happy memories were mine. In the mid-1960s, when I was very young and she was already legendary, Renata Tebaldi was opera incarnate. She was approachable yet mysterious, classy and charmingly corny. I first heard her name from a school friend's mother, who worshipped Ayn Rand and made me read The Fountainhead for its inspirational story of a master architect who refused to be bound by the pedestrian rules of little people. Mrs. Kubovsky who came from the Old World like my parents, and who was possibly even more eccentric, knew a lot about classical music. One day the told me there was a singer at the Met who built empires out of sound. This soprano was so spellbinding she transformed the ordinary notes available to everybody into the stuff of memory. Her name was Renata Tebaldi and she came from Milan. My mother, already horrified that a thirteen-year-old was reading libertarian propaganda that seemed unpleasantly reminiscent of Ubermensch theories she had barely survived, only slowly came around to the notion of taking me to the Met, and finally got us tickets to Aida. But when I looked at my program, Tebaldi was not listed. I was astonished and upset. I thought Tebaldi sang every night, like in a Broadway musical. I extracted from my mother a highlights album with a glamorously glowering Tebaldi in an off-the-shoulder green gown (and I had thought opera singers were tubs of lard!) and a promise to return. To this day I can remember the strange excitement that came over me as a tall, aristocratic woman with a radiant smile, a walking staff, and a long train swept into the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle looking for her painter boyfriend. "Mario, Mario!" she called, but it might as well have been my name. Nutty Mrs. K had been right. As Tosca's lush music swirled up from the darkly glistening immensity of the stage, I was swept away into a world of mystery and poetry so different from my everyday existence in blue-collar suburbia I could not bear to leave. And I suppose I never did.

None of us knew much about her private life and liked it that way, because we could dream she was still searching for the perfect person to carry her suitcase or more. Leafing through the book, I was even now dismayed at the suggestion that she may have had an affair with hack conductor Arturo Basile. I put it down and returned to the past, the "Merry Xmas" cards she sent, the dressing rooms filled with poodles and sables. She brought a personal charisma to every part she sang and knew us opera kids by name. Well, pretty much. "Emmanuella," she would smile. "Have you finally passed French?" Tebaldi weeping into Mimi's muff, Tebaldi coughing into Adriana's poisoned flowers, Tebaldi throwing cards into the air as Minnie, Puccini's Bible-quoting, gun-toting saloon mistress. We have all expunged from our memory, of course, the high Cs. High C was never a favorite Tebaldi note, and as the 1960s gave way to the early '70s, when she retired, high B could also be a problem, so we helped her out, yelling "Brava!" early. Never mind her cardinal rule of singing: as her career was ending and her technique failed her, Tebaldi spent a lot of anxious time staring at her shoes and clenching her hands so fiercely she could give blood immediately after an aria.

I saw her only once after her singing days were over, in London in 1993 in the lobby of the Savoy. Two days earlier, she had caused a traffic jam at a record store in the Strand signing CD releases of her old recordings. I had somehow found out she was leaving that morning and had run over with a friend to see her off. I'm not sure she recognized the kid who was always flunking French, but she was immensely polite, if apprehensive about returning to New York. "Do you think they remember me? So many years..." she asked pensively.

Here was her answer: hundreds waiting for their turn at the table, where Jane Poole, the managing editor of Opera News, was hovering attentively. For many years, Poole showed her deep devotion by wearing a teased flip a la Renata. Victor Callegari, the Met's makeup artist, himself in his thirtieth season, stopped by to stare in wonder and remember a diva who never gave him any trouble. "None of that 'make my eyelashes longer' stuff; she was so sweet," he said. CAMI's Matthew Epstein arrived to survey the scene, standing not far from the tunnel to the Met's parking garage where as a young man he often slept clutching the "snakes" - the weekly cast sheets printed up on cheap paper - and waiting for morning, when standing room tick-as would go on sale for Ponchielli's La Gioconda (Happy Girl), a deluxe B opera about a suicidal singer of ballads that used to provoke great mirth in the late sixties when the corps de ballet arrived to dance to music that had been transmogrified into the song, "Hello muddah, hello faddah, here I am at Camp Granada."

"I just had to see this," he said, looking around at the growing crowd. He raised his eyebrows and looked satisfied.

Tebaldi hadn't been in this house since when she submitted to one last strangulation as Desdemona. A Carnegie Hall recital in January of 1976 marked her unofficial farewell to New York. For a while there was talk of a concert at Avery Fisher or a formal adieu from the Met, but it never happened, and finally she simply stopped.

A misty-eyed elderly man approached with the news that he had built a private Tebaldi museum in his house in Queens, and got to hold her hand for a minute. The line pressed forward at a glacial pace. Elegantly enshrined in a superbly tailored carmine suit with big gold buttons, gold earrings, and a gold choke, she signed away. Underneath the swept-back hair, a few shades down from the flamboyant Titian red of her younger years, the blue eyes and famous dimples that lit up the darkest stage still worked their magic. By two-thirty the line outside was so long it looped out of the Met into the plaza and toward Broadway. Met officials saw a problem in the making. Tonight the doors were to open early for Wagner's endless Die Meistersinger, an opera Renata once sang in Italian before she thoughtfully concentrated on pieces that finished in three hours. Disappoint her fans? Never. Gathering up her Magic Markers, Tebaldi moved across the corridor into the Met's gift shop and signed for another hour

"How do You explain over a thousand people showing up to see a senior soprano who disappeared from town nearly twenty years ago?" I asked Epstein.

"People are starved for stars and for the generousness of her spirit. She gave so much love to us," he said. "And now she's getting some back." He himself had done his share, going through old Rolodexes, calling everyone he could remember from the standing-room days, looking for the old-timers who had seen all twenty-six Tebaldi Giocondas. They were invited to a champagne reception at eight p.m. at his apartment. Tebaldi was expected.

I'd only seen fifteen. But how was he to know? I invited myself to his party.

Epstein holds court at the Ansonia, a bulbously grand landmark on Manhattan's Upper West Side that has accumulated dust and eccentrics ever since it opened at the turn of the century as one of the largest apartment-hotels in the world. Caruso called it home for a while. Musicians low the Ansonia because the walls are three feet tick.

Long ago, when I'd just started working at the Wall Street Journal, I visited Teresa Stratas here, who told me one of the saddest stories I've ever heard about the lonely center so often at the heart of fame. A friend of hers had called on Maria Callas in her shuttered Paris flat not long before she died. The singer was sitting in her living room surrounded by clip books. "Why didn't they like me?" she asked softly leafing through a large volume of reviews. One of the greatest singers of the century, pained by the squirrelly words of little people writing on deadline. The thought gave me quite a fright and writer's block for some time.

Either a lot of people had endured a lot of Giocondas or a lot of people had lied. By eight, a weepy noisy crowd of aging singers and standees spilled out from Epstein's apartment and into the wide hall. Mignon Dunn, the mezzo who sang La Cieca, Gioconda's blind old mother, in the premiere of Tebaldi's Met production, sat on the couch eating pastries with Marilyn Home, who sang Laura, Gioconda's high-born rival for the unworthy tenor, in Tebaldi's recording. They were about to receive a visit from a legendary fan. Buttressed by two shopping bags stuffed with photographs, Lois Kirschenbaum, once the standee line's stern head mistress, had arrived.

None of today's stars would draw such a crowd at a record signing. "Not Luciano, not Cecilia," mused Hans Boon, and he should know Once employed by Decca, the bony Boon now works with Herbert Breslin on the Pavarotti account. "No, not even Luciano has them standing for hours," he insisted. "She had the kind of mystique that is really gone from the opera world. She was larger than life. She was special."

Television had something to do with this. Though Tebaldi tapes exist, the cameras did not peer down this queen's gullet. Her upper lip never glistened with pearls of sweat. Prom the Golden Age of Fantasy we have plunged headlong into the Iron Age of Documentary and lost a good deal of mystery In the Reign of Rivals, of Callas and Tebaldi. singers who did impossible feats onstage were not expected to deflate into normal-size next-door neighbors when the curtain fell.

Would Tebaldi never arrive? Finally, the elevator opened and she stepped out with her maid. Tired? "No, no! Thank you very much!" she chirped, nearly crushing a tiny woman, perhaps four feet tall and at least ninety "You know who this is, don't you, Renata!" Epstein yelled, grabbing her arms. "Dio!" she exclaimed, bending down until she was within earshot of Nelly Walter, her manager at CAMI long ago, who came over as a child from Austria, where she had sat on Gustav Mahler's lap.

Their whispers were interrupted by a phone call from Bonn. Bonn? She obviously looked puzzled. The caller was Eugene Kohn, a standee who grew up to be a conductor. The phone rang again. "Renata," Epstein announced, "I've got April on the phone!" Millo, who tends a shrine to the diva in her New York apartment and on a good day sounds eerily like her, was calling from her dressing room at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she was singing Andrea Chenier. After a few minutes, she put Bruno Bartoletti on the line for another long-distance embrace. He conducted Tebaldi in a 1970 recording of Un ballo in maschera with Pavarotti, her last complete opera recording and not her best, though the set sounds pretty golden by the standards of today.

As if to make that point, Tebaldi spent one of her evenings attending a performance of Balk at the Met in an outsized, nonsensical production once staged for Pavarotti, but now offering only the pitch-free, pint-sized Francisco Araiza. When he stood next to the ample Amelia of the evening, Deborah Voigt, it looked as if she were ventriloquizing with a hand puppet. Not that it much mattered. Word had gone out that Tebaldi would attend, and many people bought tickets just to see her in the audience. As she slowly walked down the aisle (having refused Volpe's box so her audience could approach), people stood up and cheered.

Suddenly, a familiar plump presence leaned down from a box, yelling, "Renata, Renata!" It was Millo, dressed in black with a huge decolletage; she was half over the railing, waving with both hands. Her balance seemed precarious. "Aprile," gasped a friend, looking up. "Aren't you meant to be singing in Chicago? What are you doing here?"

"I just had to come!" she yelled back. "I had to see her!" She had flown home between performances. "It's like the second coming!"

"How has the opera world changed in the last thirty years?" I asked Matthew Epstein after Tebaldi had gone back to Milan and things had simmered down. We were sitting in the Ansonia apartment washing down macadamia nuts with seltzer.

One major change of course was that Matthew had gone from standing room to orchestra seats with a dear view of the select group of CAMI artists he managed, singers like Samuel Ramey, Catherine Malfitano, Frederica von Stade, and lately Renee Fleming, perhaps the most gorgeous lyric soprano to come along since Te Kanawa and maybe even Tebaldi, though without her pathos. That Epstein also recording star well into the 1960s, and was still a godsend to PolyGram's bottom line. Newly pressed onto CDs, her old recordings of La Boheme, Tosca, Aida, and La Gioconda sold better than most new releases.

Raeburn leafed through the book unperturbed, it would seem, by the sudden change in plans.

"Actually," he confided as! sat next to him, "I'm eager to get home. This is quite all right with me." He stared at a photograph of Tebaldi looking imperious on the cover of Time magazine in 1958. "What bearing. Lovely woman, very thoughtful. Always courteous to her colleagues. And really quite dismayed by Mario del Monaco's manners. He was a natural bully who just never considered anyone but himself."

Maybe he just couldn't help himself. Tenors are not highly regarded for their spiritual or brainy side. Mastroianni peered over his shoulder and offered his favorite tenor joke, which went like this:

"How can you tell if a tenor is dead? The wine bottle is still full and the comics haven't been touched."

The door opened and Bartoli and Osele came in from their hour with the accountant, throwing theft coats on the luggage. "You really must meet Tebaldi sometime,” Raeburn said to her as she flopped down on the couch looking beat. Maybe she was overdrawn at the bank.

"Cecilia” said Mastroianni, stepping on his terrace and looking over the Hudson River: "Look what's leaving.”

We both got up, Bartoli pulling her sweater up around her throat. The QE2 was slowly gliding out to sea without the promised entertainment. She looked more tired than guilty.

In Milan, Renata Tebaldi was dusting off her luggage, heading the other way.

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