Renata Tebaldi was born in Pesaro, in 1922. The daughter of musically gifted parents, she dedicated herself as a young child to musical studies, not only because she was herself musically gifted, but because, having had an attack of polio at age 3, her physical activities as a child were limited. By age 13, she had begun to study piano and voice seriously. Her original hope was to be a concert pianist, and she studied diligently, almost obsessively. It eventually became apparent that her future lay in singing, which she approached with the same seriousness with which she had approached the piano. After intensive study with Carmen Melis, herself a well known and highly respected singer, Tebaldi made her debut in Rovigo as Elena in Boito's Mefistofele. She went on to Parma, where she sang Bohème, Chenier, and L'amico Fritz. From there it was on to Trieste, where she debuted as Desdemona. It is interesting to note the fairly heavy roles she sang in her youth, at least apparently without problems. I say "apparently." I tend to doubt it.
From this time on, her rise was rapid. After auditioning for Toscanini, who was impressed, she debuted at La Scala in 1946, in a concert celebrating the re-opening of the theater after WWII. She learned new roles, and by 1950 Toscanini had convinced her to make her role debut at La Scala as Aida, with Mario del Monaco. She was—not surprisingly—hesitant to make a debut in such a huge role, and she took a lot of convincing (to her credit) from Toscanini. But it went off well, and basically launched her international career.
Tebaldi made her American debut in 1950 as Aida at the San Francisco Opera, and her Met debut took place on January 31, 1955, as Desdemona opposite Mario del Monaco's Otello. The Met was to be her artistic home for the next 18 years, and she was a perennial favorite.
Tebaldi always considered herself a lyric soprano, but others disagreed, and from her youth she was pressed into big operas, with very dramatic and demanding soprano parts—Chenier, Aida, Lohengrin and Otello principle among them. Her voice had an uncommonly rich, chocolate-like quality that may possibly have given the impression of size and depth when it was in fact only a characteristic of the voice's essential color. Perhaps not surprisingly, she had some vocal problems later in her career, and was obliged to withdraw from the Met for more than an entire season at one point.
The famous and on-going feud with Callas (whether real or calculated) might be interesting to some, but I find it meaningless and distasteful and have chosen to ignore it. It is easily consulted in any biographical study, which abound on the web.
To the voice and the art! This is the real Tebaldi story. Here is a woman who, unlike the fictitious Tosca, did in fact live for art! :
Isn't that something! Here is the essential Tebaldi. The first thing that catches one's attention is the extreme beauty of the vocal color; so rich in texture! The next thing that calls attention to itself is the musicality. The sheer musicianship here is in every way inspiring—the legato line, the absolute control of dynamics and the textual sensitivity revealed in perfect style. This is perhaps the ultimate verismo soprano. It is hard to imagine the aria better done. I know the contenders would be many, but one could not deny Tebaldi a position among the very best!
To all these vocal and musical refinements, add acting: Here, in a remarkably beautiful video, observe the careful study that has gone into the acting, including the gestures from Japanese theater, which lend great veracity to the characterization:
Simply beautiful! This is the kind of care with which Tebaldi approached everything she did. He life was completely dedicated to art. She never married, and there were no children. What there was, from earliest youth, was constant attention to study, and to aesthetic perfection. So admirable! And the results always demonstrate the value of a life so dedicated; her work is immaculate. This was one of the great careers in opera. There is simply no question about it.
We should not think that verismo opera was all Tebaldi could do, however. Even with the big and richly colored voice, she was capable of embracing classical style, with all the refinement and nuance that this implies. Here is Gluck's "O del mio dolce ardor" from Paride ed Elena. I don't usually encourage this, but take a look at the first comment under the video. It sums up perfectly what I have been saying about her musicality and artistic refinement. It's not only my opinion! :
This speaks for itself. A life dedicated to great music and great theater. This was a woman and an artist who could serve any aspiring singer, anywhere, as a perfect model. She lived for art!