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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Florence Quartararo: A Great Singer Forgotten



It was not fully a month ago when I heard my first recording of Florence Quartararo. It was Handel's "Care Selve." It was as though someone had touched me with a live electrical wire. It was one of the most thrilling things I have heard in a long time. I was not the only one: that recording, posted on Youtube by "addiobelpassato," set off an instant flurry of activity, and I believe every song she ever recorded (sadly, not many) is now up on Youtube. I had to know more about this lady with the glorious voice. Her story turns out to be a rather sad one, although not tragic.

For this article, I asked the help of Mr. Tim Shu (dantitustimshu), one of the very best musical scholars posting on Youtube. What follows is his capsule summary of her life and (short) career, for which I am most grateful. Tim credits his own source, record producer/archivist Richard Caniell, a friend of Quartararo's, and the man responsible for getting her recordings out to the public. Tim goes on:

[Florence Quartararo] was born to music loving Italian parents living in the San Francisco Bay area. Gaetano Merola, head and chief conductor of the San Francisco Opera, was present at her baptism (Merola was a friend of her mother's brother.) She developed an interest in singing in her childhood, her idol being Claudia Muzio, whom she saw in Traviata at the SF opera. She went to the opera as a standee whenever Muzio sang. She also admired Ponselle, Rethberg, Gigli, Schipa, Bergioli and Martinelli, all of whom also sang in San Francisco. Through friends, she eventually met Bing Crosby, who auditioned her and put her on his Kraft Music Hall program, under the stage name of Florence Alba, where she appeared four times in 1945.

In that same year, she was called upon to replace Helen Traubel in a concert conducted by Otto Klemperer. Earle Lewis, Treasurer of the box office at the Met, happened to be in the audience, and he arranged for her to have an audition with the great conductor Bruno Walter. The session impressed Walter so much that he recommended her to the Met's General Manager Edward Johnson, who saw to it that she received the Caruso Award to fund her studies, as well as a Met contract. She made her Met debut in the role of Micaela in Carmen, in 1946.

She went on to sing 37 performances at the Met in 9 roles—Elvira in Don Giovanni, Violetta, Micaela, the Flower Maiden in Parsifal, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, the Countess in Figaro, Nedda in Pagliacci, Pamina in the Magic Flute, and Desdemona in Otello. She sang with great conductors, including Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch, both of whom admired her greatly. Her performance as Desdemona brought her to the attention of Arturo Toscanini, who telephoned her personally and invited her to sing the role in his NBC broadcast of Otello. She auditioned for Toscanini and the maestro was greatly impressed, but the Met was unable to release her from its performance schedule to attend Toscanini's intensive rehearsals.

Her marriage to Italian bass Italo Tajo, whom she met during a performance of Gianni Schicchi, and the birth of a daughter, led to the end of her three year career.

I would only add to Tim's summary that she and Tajo seemed to agree that one opera singer in the family was enough, a personal decision unfortunately common enough in the day, but sad by today's standards, and a great loss to the world of music.

Here is the recording that started the recent flurry, and impressed me so greatly: "Care Selve," from Handel's Atalanta:



I still get chills every time I hear this aria! What a voice! There is an immediacy, a passionate intensity, and a vibrancy in the voice that is just amazing. Her top is wonderful, but there is, in addition, a near mezzo-like, or perhaps more accurately a dramatic Ponselle-like cover and "chest register" richness of tone that just goes through one like an arrow. An absolutely magnificent voice. I realize that arias of this genre—and age—are commonly sung in an ethereal way that comes close to hypnotic crooning, but there is no reason at all to think that they must be sung that way. A great voice is a law unto itself. Even if that were not the case, however, there is no denying her instinctive musicality that takes her directly to the core of the song.

Here is a more nearly modern classic, an aria widely performed and known, and generally well loved, "Un bel dì," from Madama Butterfly [This selection is a radio transcription, of uneven quality, but listenable. You might need to turn the volume up a bit. Also, you will need to click the following link to play it...I cannot embed this particular aria]:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIvNeCIspqE


Absolutely beautiful! Once again, the emotional intensity, the vibrancy, the sure musical instincts, all take her to the very heart of this tragic aria. This is a piece where the ending must triumph, because it carries the double burden, emotionally, of being a child's hopes for love coupled with an extreme vulnerability; two things that in combination set the stage for a horrible and heart-rending tragedy. Quartararo understands this, and she brings out in no uncertain terms the aria's full power.

Finally, another very famous aria that shows just how great Quartararo's potential for the big Verdi operas was, "Tacea la notte," from Il Trovatore.":



Despite her relative youth, this ranks among the top renditions of this aria! It is all there: the color, the Italianate richness of the voice, the flexibility, and once again the sure musical and stylistic instincts that go to the very core of this Verdi classic. A great singer. Period. Perhaps now, after all these years, at least some recognition will be forthcoming for a wonderful Italian American talent sadly destined to be so briefly before the public.

27 comments:

JD Hobbes said...

What a voice! And, as you have said, how sad that her career was so brief.

It seems she was just a natural talent.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, indeed. That voice has as much or more immediate visceral appeal than almost any voice I have heard for a long, long time. It's a sad story. Thank you very much for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for contributing this lovely tribute to a singer whose natural talent and endowment did not attain the kind of fulfilment they so richly deserve. It's made all the more poignant and sad that her marriage with Italo Tajo apparently didn't last (a NY Times obituary revealed that it was another person who was with him when he passed away) and her stunted career did leave a painful place in her, which Richard Caniell sensed palpably when he befriended her. Her sole consolation was her daughter, whom she regarded as the biggest thrill and fulfilment of her life. She did think about going back to the stage after her child had grown up, but by then the momentum was lost (the same dilemma applied to Anita Cerquetti). While all those "what could have been"s would inevitably come up now and then when we discuss her, we should be grateful for the preservation of her precious recorded legacy via the tireless work of Caniell. And warmest thanks to you again for this marvelous momento that crystallizes the sheer joy many of us have been having in discovering her.

Best wishes,
Tim

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so very much, Tim, for those lovely and elegant comments, which I really appreciate. And thank you especially for the lengthy and telling bio you provided for today's piece. It far exceeds what I could have done, and I am grateful. And yes, Richard Caniell deserves great praise for going to all the trouble he went to in order to insure that these recorded samples of her brilliant singing were not lost. Fate can be both mysterious and cruel sometimes, can't it? At least we can celebrate what we have. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

What a singer! Thanks a lot for the article and thanks to Tim for the information on her life. It seems that any new names from that era can’t be found, and these recordings are a great surprise. Her talent was huge and the voice was phenomenal ,and what is especially rare is that her singing is very refined dramatically. In spite of her young age then, she sang like an experienced artists. The voice is beautiful and charming, I agree; ‘Care selve’ is a masterpiece. “Un bel di” and ‘Tacea la notte’ are brilliant too, with huge contrast between subtle moments and the most dramatic ones. Definitely, she was one of the greatest singers.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my friend. I always appreciate and respect your comments, which are invariably insightful and penetrate right to the core of the matter. You are right about her relative youth and the dramatically refined singing. A rare combination! I think everyone who hears these records has pretty much the same reaction--that this is a surprising talent, virtually unknown now, and very much deserving of being brought back to light. I wish there were more recordings, but I'm grateful for what we have. It's such a sad story, and such a loss to the world of music! Thanks again for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks again for the article, I didn't know about her. She also was very good-looking. I imagine that with her voice and appearance she would have become a true star very quickly . But anyway, you are absolutely right - we must be glad that we have the recordings.
I cannot find her page on Wikipedia, most likely it doesn’t exist.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Yes, you are right. There is no page on her that I know of. Tim's introduction here is about the best short bio there is on Youtube.

corax said...

gorgeous voice. i appreciate the comparison to ponselle. i hope quartararo had a happy and peaceful life as a wife and mother -- god knows the life of an opera singer is not always easy.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, you are certainly right in saying that the life of an opera singer can be tough. No arguments there. I'm not sure, to be honest, how it all worked out. She doted on her daughter, that much is certain. The biography is a little tenuous on the matter of her marriage to Italo Tajo. I have heard that it did not last until the end, which moves a sad story in the direction of a tragic one, but I simply don't know enough about it to say. Once someone falls as far out of the limelight as she did, the personal life becomes the property of a few friends and relatives. So, I just can't say. The certain thing is that this was a great voice, and its loss to the world of opera is serious.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing another great voice to the attention and appreciation of a wider public, Edmund. I had not heard her prior to the postings on YouTube and immediately tried to find out all I could, which is not much at all, so thanks to you and Tim for the information. This is similar, as you said, to Cerquetti's situation as well as that of Rosanna Carteri in Italy. There are probably more to be found who gave up a great deal in order to have a harmonious private life.

Lesley/Sospello

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Lesley. I just hope it was in fact harmonious, because that would make the sacrifice more meaningful. I have to admit that I have mixed feelings, because it runs so counter to the spirit of the day for gifted women to have to deny themselves a career for family. I know the arguments pro and con, and I certainly would not be so brazen as to gainsay the past, but that was such a gift; such a glorious voice.

j van berge said...

thank you for this lovely tribute to this exceptional, gifted lady

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, I appreciate your comment, and yes, "exceptional" and "gifted" are indeed the right words!

Anonymous said...

I knew Florence in the late 70's and early 80's. She spoke of unprofessional comments from the repugnant Kurt Herbert Adler as helping convince her to give up her career. But she seemed happy with her life and daughter.

Edmund StAustell said...

Most interesting! Thank you for that piece of information!

Verdiwagnerite said...

A beautiful voice! How many other great voices are there out there? I suspect many. A couple of times in the Handel aria I was reminded of Kathleen Ferrier.

The Verdi aria is wonderful, a great talent who we can enjoy from afar. I don't know of many marriages where both have major singing careers except maybe Mirella Freni and Nicolai Ghiaurov. In their case they were both well established in their careers when they married.
Caballe's husband was a tenor who stopped singing when hers started to take off and Marta Domingo also gave up singing after they left Israel.
Of course there's more to it than just having the voice.

Your blog, Edmund, underlines the sheer hard work, determination and luck needed at the right time for a career to flourish.

Would things have worked out differently if Quartararo had met her future husband several years later (or not at all) when she was more established? Lots of ifs and maybes.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Tough call on Quartararo. I'm not sure what to say. These recordings reveal extraordinary potential. Would it have been realized? Do I hear the beginnings of a wobble....a stress related phenomenon? I can't say, but you raise the BIG question? What if?

Verdiwagnerite said...

Exactly - opera singers are firstly part of the human race, like the rest of us. Like athletes who appear to have great potential, a steely determination is required to fulfill that potential, and I would suggest a degree of selfishness and ego to achieve success (however it is measured).

Richard Caniell said...

To Edmund St. Austall


I published the history of Florence Quartararo and half of the private recordings she loaned to me as the second CD in our release of the 1948 Pagliacci with Vinay. We are now publishing our own CDs (see: www.
immortalperformances.org) and hope to issue more of her broadcast recordings on our Great Voices from the Past series. For those who have not seen our Quartararo release , we still have some copies, plus a CBC program about her on CD which won the World Gold Medal for Best Historic/Classical radio program at the International Festival of Television & Radio held in New York in June,2000. This page about her is very interesting and touching. Congratulations to Mr.St. Austell for this site and thanks to the many contributors.Richard Caniell,sound engineer, IPRMS I published the history of Florence Quartararo and half of the private recordings she loaned to me as the second CD in our release of the 1948 Pagliacci with Vinay. We are now publishing our own CDs (see: www.
immortalperformances.org) and hope to issue more of her broadcast recordings on our Great Voices from the Past series. For those who have not seen our Quartararo release , we still have some copies, plus a CBC program about her on CD which won the World Gold Medal for Best Historic/Classical radio program at the International Festival of Television & Radio held in New York in June,2000. This page about her is very interesting and touching. Congratulations to Mr.St. Austell for this site and thanks to the many contributors.


Richard Caniell,sound engineer, IPRMS .

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for writing. I appreciate both your comment and the information you have given us. I will urge readers to take note of the CD. Thanks. Your comment duplicated itself for some reason.

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!! Thank you my dear friend for sharing this Valuable Biographical information and also for the opportunity to read this Wonderful article of my Favorite singer. and I do love so that you may share more interesting fact From the Great Opera Singers. Thank you also for the Great Privileged to listen your Great Collection you have done. Thank you and More Blessing ! Have a Grateful weekends. *GOD BLESS*

Prudence Backlin said...

I had one recording by Florence Quartararo in the 1940's. It was "La Mamma Moret" from Andrea Chenier, and the voice was glorious. I often wondered why her career was so short, and just learned that her then husband, Italo Tajo discouraged it. I heard him several times as Don Basilio in Chicago with the old Chicago Civic Opera company. Prudence A. Backlin

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment! I certainly appreciate it. Yes, she was a wonderful singer, with a glorious voice. Her story is quite a sad one, really. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

I had to post here again. My reaction mirrors yours when hearing Care Selve although I lack your descriptive eloquence, Edmund. Ultimately, what I can't get over is that we got Italo Tajo in exchange for the loss of FQ. There's where I would disagree with you. This is sad indeed, but tragic also!! (Pipebite)

Edmund St. Austell said...

Believe me, I understand you!

Anonymous said...

What a delightful trip down memory lane to find this article on Florence Quartararo and the aria "Care Selve". I heard her sing in the middle 1940's at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, probably a couple of years before she went to the Met. She was one of the two gypsies playing cards with Carmen. I wish I still had my program from that night!