Born in 1882, in Milan, into a prominent and well to do family, Amelita Galli (the Curci is from a later disastrous marriage) seemed destined from youth for a musical career, but at first as a pianist. After the typical lessons at home, she began her conservatory study of piano in Milan in 1895, when she was thirteen. Her brilliance at the piano eventually resulted in a gold medal in competition, which in turn resulted in her being offered a professorship at the age of 23. She accepted, and seemed content with the prospect of settling into a life of concertizing and teaching piano. However, Pietro Mascagni, a family friend, heard her singing at the piano, and strongly urged her to pursue a career as a singer. After some self-training, she auditioned, and the famous charm of that voice instantly attracted attention, and in 1906, at the age of 24, she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. The rest, as they say, is history. After extensively touring South America, she arrived in the United States and made her Chicago debut in 1916, to great acclaim. Shortly thereafter, she signed with RCA Victor, and her fame exploded across America, where she became very popular. She and America fell in love, and, fully adopted by the United States, she became an American citizen in 1920, after divorcing a petty Italian nobleman come to less (Curci) who was shamelessly squandering her money. She made her Met debut in 1921, and remained a permanent member of both the Chicago Lyric and the Met until her retirement in 1930. (An excellent biography can be found at http://craton.chez.com/musique/galli-curci/agcbio.htm)
The extraordinary beauty and grace of Amelita Galli-Curci's singing, even today as captured on old recordings, is such that devotees of great singing often fall instantly in love. I count myself in that happy group. There is something in that sound that stirs images of the fresh and charming innocence of a young girl whose beauty and joie de vivre have just begun to bloom. It was incredibly attractive, and made her one of the most popular singers ever, and among the most highly paid of her day. Many, including myself, consider her the greatest of the coloraturas.
The life of a singer, however, as Enrico Caruso once remarked, should be told in song, not words, and he was right. Here is the first recording I ever heard of Galli-Curci, years ago, and I have never forgotten the effect that it had. This is the essence of the youthful innocence of which I spoke:
I have listened to this recording many, many times, and it never loses its charm. The coloratura is brilliant: ever gentle, ever graceful, ever sparkling. The articulation is brilliant, and the musicality riveting. She was self taught, and she read many old bel canto treatises, such as Garcia's famous L'Art du Chant, that most famous of all bel canto methods. With her innate musical ability, and her brilliance as a painist, she quickly internalized the great principles of 19th century bel canto singing, and took it from there. Purists may raise eyebrows at the lack of method on the very bottom of the voice, which she simply lets fall away, rather than trying to cover with a "chest voice" as is commonly done today, but I think she was right. Nobody lays down their hard earned money to listen to such a high, pure and flute-like voice sing low notes. Also, her breathing attack is largely clavicular as opposed to diaphragmatic, but this in fact largely accounts for the light and girl-like quality of the voice that so many found so attractive. We are very, very far here from the covered and strongly supported tones that are the norm today. This was another era, and reflected distinct tastes. (And in my opinion, often superior tastes.)
She recorded arias that a coloratura would never dare record today, such as the famous Tacea la notte from Il Trovatore. While she never performed the role in public, to the best of my knowledge, her recording of this aria shows new interpretive possibilities, and the musical execution in general—in particular the phrasing—are extraordinary and revealing. Those who grew up listening to Leontyne Price singing such roles as Leonora might scoff outright at the idea of so gentle and child-like a voice doing such a piece, but I invite you to listen to the result:
It is beautiful and haunting, and the characteristic youthfulness of the voice is ever so slightly tinged here with foreboding. If the voice is not "heroic," the musical, stylistic and tonal sophistication more than compensate.
Finally, to end with an aria in which she demonstrates her absolute brilliance as a coloaratura soprano, we join her for the ever popular Una voce poco fa from Rossini's Barber of Seville:
What more can I say?
Galli-Curci also recorded, for her American audience, popular sentimental tunes of the day that many people would know from the piano anthologies on the music rack of the parlor uprights that were common then is so many homes. The interested listener can find recordings of Home, Sweet Home, The Last Rose of Summer, and so on, but it is necessary to know the lyrics in advance. The beloved soprano was what might be called an early graduate of the Joan Sutherland School of Stage Diction. It is, as a result, not always easy to determine what language she is singing in:-)
But that is a matter of little consequence; she was hardly in the business of introducing new music, but was rather a singer of music that was everywhere known. What she did bring to her performance was charm, musicality, freshness, and, if there is such a thing, sheer lovability. That's quite enough for one tiny Italian-American girl!