TITO SCHIPA (1888 - 1965)
Born into a poor family, Schipa acquired the name Tito, meaning ‘little fellow’ in the local dialect, on account of his stature (his full name was Raffaele Attilio Amedeo). Although academically lazy, he nonetheless displayed a fine singing voice at an early age, being praised in a local newspaper for his singing when he was ten. He was picked out of a school chorus for instruction, sang in the children’s chorus in Carmen and took the child’s solo part in the second act of La Bohème with touring companies that visited Lecce.
The Bishop of Lecce persuaded Schipa’s parents to permit him to be educated at the local seminary, where he often sang in church services and was heard by the Mercadante pupil Alceste Gerunda, who took him on as a private pupil and subjected him to a rigorous regime of vocal exercises to develop his technique. Gerunda presented Schipa in a benefit concert in 1908, to raise funds for him to undertake further study in Milan. There he worked intensively with Emilio Piccoli and was shortly ready to make his debut in 1910 (1909 according to some sources) in Vercelli, as Alfredo / La traviata.
Soon Schipa was performing in smaller Italian theatres, such as those of Sebenico and Savona, and toured with the opera company of Giuseppe Borboni. Early roles included Maurizio / Adriana Lecouvreur, Milo / Zazà, Ipanov / Fedora, Turiddù / Cavalleria rusticana, Wilhelm Meister / Mignon, the Duke / Rigoletto, Rodolfo / La Bohème, Ernesto / Don Pasquale, Almaviva / Il barbiere di Siviglia and the title role in Gounod’s Faust. He made his debut in Rome at the Teatro Quirino in 1911 as Des Grieux / Manon and first appeared at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in 1913 as Elvino / La sonnambula, Alfredo and Wilhelm Meister. During the 1913–1914 season Schipa sang at the San Carlo, Naples, undertaking Fenton / Falstaff, Pinkerton / Madama Butterfly and Ipanov; and in 1914 he returned to South America.
He now gradually refocused his repertoire on those lyric roles which especially suited his gentle voice. In 1915 he sang under Toscanini’s baton (for the only time) at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan as Fenton and Alfredo, shortly before making his debut at La Scala, Milan as Vladimir / Prince Igor followed by Massenet’s Des Grieux. He enjoyed great success in the latter role, repeating it in Barcelona and Madrid and gaining from the Spanish public the appropriate nickname of ‘The Enchanter’. Schipa created the role of Ruggero / La rondine at Monte Carlo in 1917, opposite Gilda dalla Rizza, after which he was invited to appear with the Chicago Opera in 1919, making his debut as the Duke in Rigoletto. Shortly afterwards he appeared with this company in New York singing Elvino, Alfredo, Fenton and the Duke; and made his recital debut at Carnegie Hall.
From 1919 to 1929 Schipa’s career was focused upon America, where he became a major (and extremely well-paid) celebrity, giving opera performances in Chicago, San Francisco and New York and long cross-country recital tours. He made his Metropolitan Opera, New York debut in 1932 as Nemorino / L’elisir d’amore, followed by Edgardo / Lucia di Lammermoor, Almaviva, Alfredo and Don Ottavio / Don Giovanni during the 1932–1933 season. The following season he returned to add Wilhelm Meister and Des Grieux to his roles there, followed by Ernesto and Elvino (1934–1935).
Although Schipa sang most frequently in America during the inter-war years he also appeared in Europe, for example returning to Italy to sing with the Rome Opera in 1928 and at La Scala in 1929. In the latter year he also made several short films, which led to a film career during the 1930s and 1940s, the most successful productions being I Sing for You Alone (France–Italy, 1933) and Vivere! (Italy, 1936). Schipa also appeared in Paris and Berlin (both 1929), Vienna (1932) and Brussels and Dresden (both 1938). In addition he composed, his operetta La Principessa Liana receiving its premiere in Rome in 1935.
Following a gap of some years Schipa made his final appearances at the Met (as Almaviva and Don Ottavio) during the spring of 1941, after which he returned to Italy at the request of Mussolini’s son-in-law, settling in Rome. After World War II he appeared at the Opéra-Comique, Paris (1946), Stockholm (1947) and Zürich (1950); and continued to sing at La Scala until 1950, when his final appearance there was as Paolino / Il matrimonio segreto. He sang at the Teatro Colón for the last time in 1954 and toured the Soviet Union during 1957. The following year he retired from the stage, devoting himself to teaching, firstly in Budapest and later in New York.
Schipa recorded extensively between 1913 and 1955, covering a very large repertoire; but his only extant complete recording, studio or live, is the 1932 HMV Don Pasquale conducted by Carlo Sabajno.
Although he did not possess a tonally rich or large voice, he sang with such elegance, refinement and ease, allied to superb phrasing and command of dynamics, that audiences were captivated wherever he appeared. Schipa’s secret, as Bidú Sayão noted, was that he ‘chiseled phrases like a goldsmith’. He enjoyed a long career and his eventual death was the result of diabetes.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).