FLORENCE QUARTARARO: UNKNOWN RECORDINGS 1945–1951
Florence Quartararo (sop); Various orchestras; various conductors; various accompanists
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES 10302 (3 CDs: 188:40)
Arias and songs by
MASSENET, CILEA, CATALANI, VERDI, GIORDANO, DEL REGIO, LEONCAVALLO, HERBERT, MOZART, CHARPENTIER, BIZET, PUCCINI, O. STRAUS, RODGERS, FOUDRAIN, ROSSINI, RACHMANINOFF, BACH-GOUNOD
Florence Quartararo remains a bit of an enigma. A young lyric soprano of Italian heritage from San Francisco, she burst upon the national scene in the late 1940s with a lovely voice of potential star quality. Taking advantage of family connections with Gaetano Merola, a principal conductor at the San Francisco Opera, she soon began singing there and in other regional houses late in World War II, learning her trade. Quickly becoming a part of the West Coast artistic cartel, she met and sang for Bing Crosby on his radio programs. The budding young soprano was soon enough checked out by the Metropolitan Opera which had (and still has) eyes and ears everywhere. Quartararo was given an audition with conductor Bruno Walter—for a young singer in those times, a presence next to God. Walter was impressed, Met General Manager Edward Johnson was impressed, and Quartararo rapidly found herself in New York under contract to the Met. It was an apprentice contract where she would study a few major roles, understudy others, and take advantage of opportunities to appear on stage whenever they arose. Soon she was singing those lead roles on stage, impressing colleagues and critics alike at every turn. Four whirlwind years at the Met and in the nation’s eye, then, like Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” Quartararo’s promising career was snuffed out. It was a personal choice; according to the singer herself, due to a baby coming after a secret marriage to Italian buffo bass Italo Tajo, an old-fashioned husband who only wanted one opera singer in the family.
With so little information of events from over 60 years ago, it is interesting to speculate on what else might have been going on. Quartararo’s “family” soon split in divorce and she was left with a baby on board and no singing career. Perhaps she was having vocal difficulties; like Rosa Ponselle before her, it was said she struggled a bit at the top of her range, but no hint of that appears in her recordings or from the commentary of critics on the scene. She was said to suffer from serious stage fright, but dozens of singers have dealt with that and gone on to long careers. Despite possessing a world-class voice, Quartararo made few, if any, public appearances after 1951. Perhaps she might have gotten cross-wise with the opinionated and often imperious Rudolph Bing, incoming General Manager at the Met in 1950–51, although Bing himself never said anything publicly about it. In an era when several young future American stars such as Roberta Peters, Anna Moffo, and Dorothy Kirsten were beginning to sing at the Met, Bing pretty much had his choice for lyric roles. It is of interest to note that neither Quartararo nor Tajo ever appeared at the Met under a Bing-era contract. Also of note, in New York and elsewhere Quartararo was running with a pretty fast and sophisticated crowd—not only the charismatic and personable Tajo, but other world-wise singers as well, including renowned bass Ezio Pinza, who liked to pinch ladies’ bottoms and chase unattached (or attached) women. Quartararo wasn’t paid like an opera star at the Met; in fact, she filed for personal bankruptcy in 1950. Could it be that in an era before the Pill, Quartararo found herself unexpectedly pregnant and needed to be bailed out, both socially and financially? Perhaps the steep personal price for that was turning from diva to housewife and mom. All idle speculation I know, but a very real loss for the music community nonetheless.
I can only echo other commentators’ assessments of Quartararo’s voice: it was lovely and strong, evenly produced throughout her range. She was at home in the verismo soprano roles that were the rage of the times, as well as in the more purely lyrical singing required in Handel and Mozart, and she could take on some of the more substantial repertoire of Verdi and Puccini as well. Probably a near-native Italian speaker at home, she was also quite well versed in the French language and French singing style. Her repertoire as given here is not remarkable for a world-class soprano of the era—a mixture of opera arias she was expected to know, with some pop favorites mixed in. What is remarkable is the collection of source material and its restoration to listenable quality by master technician Richard Caniell and his Canadian non-profit group at Immortal Performances. Of course the five RCA 78rpm sides from the bonus disc offer the best audio quality, but the painstakingly restored sound from the other sources, some provided by Quartararo herself, some tracked down through dogged research, attests to the skill and resourcefulness of this remarkable organization. Again, I take my hat off to them and bow to the floor (if I only still could); they perform an exemplary service in what is unfortunately fast becoming a niche corner of our cultural heritage. As for Quartararo, if you are a singing aficionado you probably will want this three-disc set. The bonus disc has been issued previously on the Guild label, along with Quartararo’s only fully recorded opera role, as Nedda in
from the Met in 1948. Booklet notes in this set are by fellow
contributor Henry Fogel as well as by Richard Caniell himself. A fine production and strongly recommended.