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Renata Ersilia Clotilde Tebaldi was born on February 1, 1922, in Pesaro, Italy. Stricken with polio at the age of three, Renata was unable to enjoy many outdoor activities and instead became interested in music. In her early teens, Renata began taking lessons at the Conservatory of Parma, where she studied with Ettore Campogaliani for three years. After that, she studied for another three years with the soprano Carmen Melis. Finally, at the age of 22, Tebaldi made her debut as Elena (Helen of Troy) in Boito's Mefistofele in Rovigo.
In 1946, Tebaldi went to Milan to audition for Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini was very impressed, and Tebaldi made her Scala debut that year at the opening concert, singing the "Prayer" from Rossini's biblical opera, Mose, as well as the soprano part in Verdi's Te Deum.
For the next 5 years, Tebaldi would not leave La Scala's roster. In 1951, though, a new soprano burst onto the scene. Tebaldi had to cancel a performance of Aïda at La Scala and because no suitable replacement could be found close-by, the management hired a foreign soprano named Maria Callas, who was eventually rewarded with a Scala contract of her own.
Tebaldi made her american debut as Aïda in San Francisco, followed soon after by her Metropolitan debut on January 31, 1955, as Desdemona opposite Mario del Monaco's Otello. Shortly after, she began appearing regularly at the Met as Mimi in La Bohème, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Tosca in Tosca, Desdemona in Otello, Manon in Manon Lescaut, and Violetta in a staging of La Traviata built specially for her. Callas was also appearing often, but in roles such as Norma in Norma and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. The rivalry between the sopranos caused shouting matches at performances where fans of either soprano voiced their support, causing an equally loud reply from the opposite soprano's fans.
On March 4, 1960, Tebaldi appeared in an unforgettable performance of La Forza del Destino, and it had nothing to do with the singing. Midway into the second act, the baritone Leonard Warren was finishing Don Carlo di Varga's cabaletta when he fell to the floor without so much as a cry for help. Although Tebaldi had long before returned to her dressing room, the audience watched in horror as Warren died on the stage in front of them.
Tebaldi was always a favorite of the Met, and in the 1962-63 season, she convinced Rudolf Bing to stage a revival of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Cilea had been one of Tebaldi's earliest admirers and Tebaldi was convinced that the part would lay prefectly for her voice. The opera had not been staged since the turn of the century, but Bing was convinced that it would be a great success for Tebaldi, and for Franco Corelli, who sang the role of Maurizio. Unfortunately, Tebaldi was experiencing somewhat of a vocal crisis, and members of the audience noticed that she sounded tired and her voice had developped a dull, strained sort of heaviness. Tebaldi was alarmed, and took 13 months off before returning to the Met as Mimi to great acclaim.
On September 16, 1968, an end came to the much publicized rivalry between Tebaldi and Callas when Maria went backstage after a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur to congratulate the soprano for a job well done. The two sopranos, in front of photographers, posed and embraced, with Callas close to tears. Until her death in 1977, Callas would have nothing but kind words to say about her former rival.
One of the public's favorite Tebaldi roles is Minnie in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West. When she made her debut in the role at the Met, she was told that, as all Minnies do, she would have to enter in the 3rd act on horseback. Tebaldi, who had a lifelong fear of horses, refused to go near the animal until she was sure he was safe. At her first rehearsal with the animal, Tebaldi approached him, patted his mane, and said, "Well, Mr. Horse, I am Tebaldi. You and I are going to be friends, eh?" Tebaldi conquered her fear and the performances were a success.
Renata Tebaldi is without a doubt one of the greatest voices of the century. Although her rivalry with Maria Callas attracted much attention, it was her singing that captivated her fans. She is probably best known for her numerous performances as Mimi, Violetta, Minnie, Tosca, Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, and for the revival of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Today, Renata Tebaldi lives in Milan. The year of her last opera performance was 1973, and her last concert took place in 1976 (thanks to Roger Pines for this info). Her impact on the opera world is tremendous and her recordings are still available for the next generation of Tebaldi fans.