Mystery singer revealed

A little over a month ago in a posting on Bellini’s La Sonnambula, I included the following clip of Amina’s aria “Come per me sereno” and asked if anyone could identify the singer:

A few people emailed me with guesses, but no one got it. (Don’t worry–this was tough. If I didn’t already know who it was, I wouldn’t have had any idea either.)

Before I reveal her name, I thought it might be interesting to hear a student of hers in the same selection, recorded 45 years later:

You may have recognized Maria Callas in that second clip, which means that our soprano incognito is Elvira de Hidalgo.

De Hidalgo was born in Val de Robres, Spain, some time between 1882 and 1892. She made her professional debut as Rosina in 1908, and the following year she reprised that role in Monte Carlo for a production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia featuring Titta Ruffo, Dmitri Smirnov, and Feodor Chaliapin. In 1910, Giulio Gatti-Casazza lured her to the Met–mainly as a foil to Luisa Tetrazzini, who was the house coloratura at the rival Manhattan Opera Company–but the few appearances she made there were not well received. The music critic for the Times had this to say about her:

“[De Hidalgo] has the advantage of youth, beauty, and self-possession on the stage, and they seemed to be the most important qualifications she has for her appearance in such a part. In voice, which has in the past counted for a good deal of performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, she has a much smaller equipment. It is a slender thread of voice, with very little charm of quality in its best range, and a positively disagreeable shrillness, and worse, in its higher notes.

“These go high, to be sure, but they are perhaps of the most singular and startling quality that has been heard [here] for a long time, approaching at times to that of a shrill cackle. Miss Hidalgo has a considerable facility and dexterity in the singing of florid music…Skill in other and more important elements of good singing she possesses in a much less ample measure–such elements as fine legato and fine phrasing. So far as she revealed her powers last evening she is a singer lacking in many of the requirements for meeting the standard that has prevailed at this Opera House.”

Despite (or perhaps because of) these negative reviews, de Hidalgo continued to get work in opera houses thoughout Europe, and she even returned briefly to the States in the mid-1920s. By 1930 a series of appearances at smaller venues in Lisbon, Helsinki, and Corfu more of less signalled the end of her career. After retiring from the stage in 1932, she moved to Athens, where two years later she was granted a position as professor of singing and opera at the Conservatory. She later taught in Ankara–the Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer was one of her pupils–and Milan. She died on January 21, 1980.

In the prologue to his book, Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes, John Ardoin includes several of that singer’s remarks about her early studies with de Hidalgo, and these are well worth reading for the insights they provide on a tradition of vocal pedagogy that has largely disappeared.

“De Hidalgo had the real bel canto schooling; perhaps hers was the last of this great training. As a young girl, only thirteen, I was thrown into her arms to learn the secrets, the manner of bel canto. This training is not just ‘beautiful singing’; that is a literal translation. Rather, bel canto is a method of singing, a sort of straitjacket you must put on. You learn how to approach a note, how to attack it, how to form a legato, how to create a mood, how to breathe so that there is a feeling of only a beginning and ending. In between, it must seem as if you have taken only one big breath, though in actuality there will be many phrases with many little breaths….

[She] taught me that no matter how heavy the part, a voice must be kept light, never overweighted, and limber like and athlete’s body. I also enjoyed working for this lightness, because it has always amused me to conquer a difficulty…This lightness I sought was not only a part of the bel canto training de Hidalgo gave me; it was a part of her philosophy that a voice must be put into a zone where it will not be too large in sound, but nonetheless penetrating. This approach also made it easier to master all the bel canto embellishments–a vast language on its own.”

De Hidalgo and Callas have very different sounding voices to be sure, and their interpretive approaches to Amina’s aria are quite distinct, but I can definitely hear elements of di Hidalgo’s teaching in Callas’ 1955 recording.

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