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Tito Schipa

Tito Schipa’s was the most lyrical sensibility of them all, the most elegiac, sublime and endearing (with the exception of Giuseppe Anselmi). Schipa’s singing was conversational in its intimacy. He reconciled the conflicting demands of legato and diction so as to excel at both. No Italian tenor on records has imbued words with more significance. Since Fernando De Lucia, Alessandro Bonci and Dino Borgioli, no Italian tenor has equalled Schipa’s expressive use of rubato (taking time from one note or group of notes and giving it to others). He composed songs and an operetta, conducted orchestras, spoke a number of languages and wrote an autobiography.

Schipa was one of the last tenori di grazia, an anomaly in the age of the verismo tenor, in a century with a mania for heavy voices, voices with volume. If anything, as an interpreter he understated. Like Anselmi and Borgioli, to be truly appreciated he first had to leave Italy. In this country he was lionized like a Hollywood matinee idol and, although married with children, made love to a legion of women. His obsessively jealous wife became an alcoholic. They separated. At 57 he had a second family, with a woman 35 years his junior–and continued with what his son describes as his “incorrigible don-juanism.” (It later emerged that Schipa had had a daughter by still another woman.) His fees were the equivalent of any opera star’s ever, but he squandered much of the money and because of his ex-wife and bad business deals lost the rest. After the war he was dogged here, in Europe and South America by accusations by Walter Winchell, among others, that he had been “Mussolini’s tenor.”

I studied with Schipa but subsequently took my singing in a different direction. His real legacy is his records and films, of which I Sing for You Alone is the first of ten full-length features. (The film also was released under the title Three Lucky Fools.) Particularly before dubbing was introduced, in 1935, it was not unusual to shoot several versions of the same film, each in a different language, with many variations in detail, including supporting casts. Schipa also made I Sing for You Alone in Italian as Tre uomini in frac (of which no prints appear to survive) and in French as Trois hommes en habit (#655). He sings some songs in French in the French version that are in English in the English version.

In both versions he is at his most caressing and works his magic on eight songs including “Marechiare.” The plot: He breaks on a high note because of stage fright. They boo him savagely and run him out of town, but in the end he sings a concert and subjugates them. Lovely print.–Stefan Zucker