Music: Diva Serena

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First Cries. But there is another side to the Tebaldi personality—a kind of native stubbornness that no amount of argument can shake. And occasionally, Tebaldi allows her well-reined temper to show. One opera manager who has worked with them both finds that he would rather face Callas' furies than Tebaldi's smile with its "dimples of iron."

"I was nothing of a child prodigy," Tebaldi once said, in a dimpled dig at the competition. "I was born with very normal cries—different from one of my celebrated colleagues, whose very first cries were musical and admirable." Tebaldi's first raucously normal cries sounded 36 years ago, in the fishing town of Pesaro on Italy's Adriatic coast. Renata's father, Teobaldo Tebaldi, was a theater-orchestra cellist of dashing good looks. His wife, Giuseppina, six years older than he and a former volunteer nurse, was an iron-willed woman. When Renata was only three months old, Teobaldo deserted his family, and Giuseppina returned with the baby to her family's home in Langhirano, near Parma, where Grandfather was postmaster and owner of a general store. In the pale blue, two-story masonry house with the post office, a barbershop and ice-cream stand on the ground floor, Renata grew up, surrounded by a dozen relatives.

When she was 3½ years old, Renata contracted a case of polio that prevented her from walking until she was six (even today her right leg is still weak, which sometimes hampers her onstage). The polio attack and her father's absence (he returned when she was ten, left again when she was 18) left Renata desperately dependent on her mother. One of the bitterest shocks of her childhood, she remembers, was going to see Giuseppina after a mastoid operation. A surgeon had sliced through a facial nerve, paralyzing one side of her mother's face. "She went in a bella donna" says Renata. "She came out disfigured. I cursed the surgeon—I wanted to kill him."

Arias for Dolls. A solemn, solitary child, Renata started playing the piano when she was eight. Grandfather occasionally took her over to the opera house in Parma, and Renata took to putting her dolls to bed at night while singing Parigi, O cara from La Traviata. By ten, her voice was so penetrating that the merchants downstairs complained.

At 17 she entered the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma and began studying voice. In 1940, when she was 18 and on a Christmas visit to her aunt in Pesaro, she got her big break: an audition with famed Soprano Carmen Melis, venerated in Italy as one of the great Puccini singers of all time, and then a teacher at the Rossini Conservatory. Melis took on Tebaldi as a fulltime pupil, made her into the kind of singer she is today. Melis worked on voice placement, taught Tebaldi the piano singing to which her voice is naturally adapted. As models, Melis pointed to the sweetness and purity of Muzio, the powerful middle register of Maria Caniglia.

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