Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Queen of Staccato

Luisa Tetrazzini, also known as the Queen of Staccato, was a Coloratura soprano, famous for her vocal range and flexibility. She achieved the kind of International fame that only seems available to pop stars today, and performed regularly in Europe and the United States from the 1890s into the 1920s. The Library of Congress has several recordings of her here.

Luisa Tetrazzini, c. February 16, 1911. Image: LOC

In 1908 Tetrazzini signed a five-year contract with Oscar Hammerstein to sing at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Just a few years into this contract, they had a dispute over money and venues. He wanted her to sing in New York; she loved, missed, and was eager to return to San Francisco. Her response was truly Bay Area: she took to the streets, and on Christmas Eve, 1910, gave a free concert at the corner of Market and Kearney, near Lotta's Fountain. The city and its citizens, still recovering from the damage caused by the 1906 earthquake, were grateful, and showed their support in numbers.

Tetrazzini's SF street show, Christmas Eve, 1910. Image via
Back in New York, Tetrazzini performed at the  Hippodrome on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets numerous times throughout her career and was one of the most popular performers in the city.
Ticket line for a Tetrazzini concert at the Hippodrome, 1919. Image: LOC
She also lived in the Hotel McAlpin (now Herald Towers).

Broadway, looking south with the Hotel McAlpin on the right, 1921. Image: MCNY

On December 3, 1920 Tetrazzini gave a recital via "radio telephone" from her room at the McAlpin. Arranged by Army Signal Corps, it was the first attempt to provide long distance entertainment to troops deployed overseas and aboard naval ships. Her voice was heard by hundreds on ships in port and at sea within 400 miles of New York City. As a thank you, Private Fred Bennett of Fort Wood, Staten Island, stationed aboard one of the ships, sang "A Tumble Down Shack in Athlone" back over the airwaves to Tetrazzini. 

On Christmas Day of that same year, she gave another meaningful performance at the McAlpin, this time as Mrs. Santa Claus to the hotel's visiting and permanent resident children.

In addition to being a famed musician, she was the namesake for the dish Chicken Tetrazzini. There are varying accounts as to the origin of the recipe, but all can agree that it was named after and inspired by Tetrazzini. James Beard attributes the recipe to chef Ernest Aborgast at The Plaza Hotel in San Francisco; I'm tempted to believe him just because of my undying love for this book.

Louis Paquet, chef de cuisine of the Hotel McAlpin won four prizes in the 1920 Hotel Men's Exposition at the Grand Central Palace. Around this time, Tetrazzini also gave him her recipe for  Spaghetti Tetrazzini, a dish that remained on the McAlpin menu for several years.

Enrique Caruso, Luisa Tetrazzini, two men, Nipper the dog, 1914. Image: LOC

Here is Luisa singing along with a recording of Caruso. It's the only surviving film footage of her, and twas taken upon her retirement in 1932. At 62, and following a prolific performing career, her voice is still as strong as ever, and her laugh at the end is delightful.

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