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Famed Soprano Renata Tebaldi Dies at 82

Renata Tebaldi (search), an Italian soprano who was one of the biggest stars at New York's Metropolitan Opera (search) and Italy's La Scala (search), died Sunday. She was 82.

The soprano died at her home in San Marino, a tiny independent republic in north-central Italy, after a long illness, said her doctor, Dr. Niksa Simetovic.

Tebaldi was considered to have one of the most beautiful Italian voices of the 20th century, relying on rich, perfectly produced tones. She was also renowned for her supposed rivalry with the fiery Maria Callas (search).

For years, opera fans devoured details of what they perceived as a prima donna duel, and La Scala devotees were divided into Tebaldi and Callas camps much like Milan soccer fans are hotly split over that city's two soccer teams. The two women, at their peaks in the 1950s, had sharply contrasting temperaments.

But much of the supposed rivalry with the Greek-American diva was actually whipped up by the media. After her retirement, Tebaldi told an interviewer she had never considered Callas a rival.

Tebaldi made her debut in 1944 as Elena in Boito's "Mefistofele" in the northern Italian town of Rovigo. Soon after, she began performing in some of the world's most noted opera houses and sang in a concert of arias conducted by Arturo Toscanini at the 1946 reopening of La Scala, which had been damaged by World War II bombs.

The maestro later remarked that she had an "angel's voice."

Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing had a different nickname for Tebaldi, calling her "dimples of iron," a reference to a sweet appearance that belied an iron will.

Tebaldi sang in La Scala's 1946-47 season and appeared there frequently from 1949 to 1954, playing roles including Puccini's Tosca and Verdi's Desdemona.

Tebaldi was born on Feb. 1, 1922, in the Adriatic resort of Pesaro. After recovering from polio, contracted when she was 3, she studied at that town's conservatory and at the conservatory of Parma. Her teachers included Carmen Melis.

She made her London debut at Covent Garden as Desdemona in "Otello" on the opening night of the Scala company's London season in 1950 and returned to London in 1955 to sing Tosca. Her American debut was in San Francisco in 1950 as Aida.

Desdemona was also Tebaldi's debut role at the Met, on Jan. 31, 1955, as well as her final role there on Jan. 8, 1973.

In all, Tebaldi made 270 performances at the Met, invited back season after season as one of the opera house's most popular singers. She skipped only a couple of seasons, including 1957-1958, when her mother died.

Tebaldi also sang rarely heard roles such as Spontini's Olympia, Pamyre in Rossini's "Le siege de Corinthe," Cleopatra in Handel's "Giulio Cesare" and the title role of Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco."

One of Tebaldi's most noted recordings was as Leonora in a live rendition of "La Forza del Destino."

As early as 1950, Callas' competitive attitude toward Tebaldi, the then-reigning prima donna at La Scala, had already begun. When Tebaldi did not quite succeed in her first "La Traviata" at the Milan theater, Callas called her a "poor thing."

Not combative like Callas, Tebaldi suffered in her relationship with La Scala because of house superintendent's Antonio Ghiringhelli's deference to Callas. But Tebaldi remained publicly silent on that subject.

When asked about the supposed feud, Callas said simply they were friendly but were very different as singers. In 1968, when Tebaldi sang a Met opening-night "Adriana Lecouvreur," Callas visited the Italian backstage after the performance. A photo taken at the time shows the two women embracing warmly.

Callas' husband, Giovanni Battista Meneghini, once suggested the "feud" was a cynical move to boost record sales, with both divas playing along.

In 1976, Tebaldi retired from performing publicly and devoted much of her time to teaching. In a 2002 interview to mark her 80th birthday, she said she stopped singing while her voice was still powerful to avoid seeing "the mortifying season of decline."

A funeral service will be held Tuesday in San Marina, her doctor said, and a memorial will likely also be planned in Milan.

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