Music: Diva Serena

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In Italy there is a saying, "The opera is in the throat"—meaning that a singer has it under perfect vocal control—and Tebaldi is believed by her fans to have her operas in her throat as has no other singer of her generation. She is a great piano singer, capable of purling out almost endless pianissimos of varying shades. Her Willow Song and Ave Maria from Otello are wonderfully pure yet warm—not crystals, but moonstones or pinkish opals. In Andrea Chenier, when the two lovers hail the dawn and go to the guillotine together, she is as radiant and fresh as the rising sun itself.

The splendor of Tebaldi's voice lies not so much in its range as in the evenness with which she negotiates that range (she claims from the first C in the bass to high C). She has the unusual gift of moving from one register to another with no perceptible shift in the quality of her singing, which is almost always unerringly accurate and clear, rarely marred by the edginess or brassy reverberations that afflict some singers. Her special glory is the spun-out, floating high note—which Tebaldi achieves, seemingly without effort, by paying out huge breaths in small, even quantities.

Critic Olin Downes once noted that Tebaldi's strapping Mimi bore little resemblance to the fragile figure Puccini and Murger conceived her to be; but he added that Tebaldi sang so movingly, with such tragic overtones, that her "enlarged portrait" emerged as more compelling than the original. The same thing might be said of most of her famous roles: in the end, a colleague notes, "they always come out Tebaldi."

The Shy One. Unlike Callas, Tebaldi did not have to claw her way to the top: she was a success almost from the first time she opened her mouth professionally, and her career since has unfolded with a dreamlike simplicity. Her very serenity sometimes baffles colleagues who know the backstage thimblerigging that accompanies the rise to operatic fame. A shy woman who speaks almost no English and understands it imperfectly, Tebaldi rarely mixes with fellow artists. Nevertheless, she is almost universally liked and respected. One coworker, in a sincere but dubious compliment, insisted that she reminded him of "sheep and cows and beautiful animals in the country."

No curtain hog, she has been known to refuse to take a solo curtain call after the third act of Manon Lescaut because "it is the tenor's act." Her patience with her fans is apparently limitless: she will sit hour after hour backstage after exhausting performances, dutifully signing autographs ("Poor things," she murmurs, "poor things"). She still regards public figures outside opera with the awe of a country girl on her first trip to the city. Several years ago she heard about the "Night in Monte Carlo" ball at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria, at which Prince Rainier was to celebrate his engagement to Grace Kelly. Without a thought that she could have been an honored guest at the ball, Tebaldi went over to the Waldorf lobby, settled herself in a chair and sat there wide-eyed, waiting to see Grace and the prince sweep in.

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