Times Past

Dan Krieger: Opera singer loved San Francisco

‘I never thought I would be a street singer but I want to do this for San Francisco because I like San Francisco better than any other city in the world. San Francisco is my country.”

A little over a century ago, Mme. Luisa Tetrazzini was in her prime. At the age of 39, she was arguably the world’s foremost female opera star. She was both figuratively and literally a larger-than-life figure.

Following a successful tour of Russia, performing before the family of Czar Nicholas II, she went to New York under contract to Oscar Hammerstein I, the father of the great musical librettist. The elder Hammerstein had been trying to build a rival company to the Metropolitan Opera at his Manhattan Opera House.

Luisa found herself in the midst of a contract dispute with Hammerstein. Rather than sing for him in a Christmas week performance, Tetrazzini announced that she would travel to San Francisco, and sing for free to a city that loved her.

The Lotta Crabtree Fountain at the intersection of Market, Geary and Kearny streets was by 1910 one of San Francisco’s most famous landmarks. Lotta Crabtree gave the elaborate fountain to the city in 1875.

Lotta grew up in Gold Rush-era Grass Valley, where the scandalous Lola Montez gave her singing lessons. Lola had been the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, the elder Alexander Dumas, Franz Liszt and numerous others. Lotta began a singing career that led her to San Francisco’s Tivoli Opera House, where she quickly became the city’s most popular entertainer.

Lotta also became wealthy, and while she moved onto a national career, San Francisco remained her home. Lotta’s fountain survived the earthquake and fire in 1906 and became a meeting place for families that had scattered in the ruined city.

And so on a clear Christmas Eve in 1910, the grand diva Luisa Tetrazzini came to sing on the streets. The event was anything but spontaneous. The Geary Street cable car line was stopped so that its clanging bells wouldn’t interfere.

A large platform was constructed for the performance, holding both the orchestra and a 50-voice chorus. The event was held immediately in front of the San Francisco Chronicle’s offices.

Aged members of my family told me growing up that Tetrazzini’s rendition of “The Last Rose of Summer” remained with them 50 years later.

Everything about opera is intended to be memorable. On April 1 at 7:30 p.m. and April 3 at 2 p.m., you can treat yourself and your family to Opera San Luis Obispo’s production of “The Barber of Seville,” sung as it should be in Italian with English subtitles over the grand stage at the Performing Arts Center at Cal Poly.

“I must force myself to laugh at everything lest I be obliged to weep.”

Figaro’s line from Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1772 play, “Le Barbier de Séville,” tells the audience that life must go on with a sense of humor.

In 1816, Gioachino Rossini turned the comic play into an opera.

The opera’s comic approach to the lives of the upper class appealed to the democratic sensibilities of the young American republic. “The Barber of Seville” was one of the earliest Italian operas to be performed in America at New York City’s Park Theater in 1825.

The “Figaro, Figaro” solo is known throughout the world, in large part thanks to Warner Brother’s cartoons. It is probably the most famous overture in the history of opera. It’s great fun for children.

Log onto www.pacslo .org or call 756-2787 for reservations.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.