Chicago scored big time when Milan’s La Scala announced that soprano Rosa Raisa would perform the title role in the world premiere of “Turandot” at the famed opera house.
In 1926, things usually worked the opposite way, as American opera companies were far more likely to tout the guest appearance of a European soprano or baritone. Raisa was a fixture on Chicago’s opera scene, and La Scala’ stage was sacred space in the world of longhairs, as classical music fans are sometimes known.
But Raisa was the composer’s choice, and La Scala’s management dared not veto it.
Giacomo Puccini had met Raisa at La Scala in 1924. As Claudia Cassidy, the Tribune’s arts critic, later recounted: “He said to her: ‘Raisa, I’m writing for you an opera. I can just see you in that part.’”
Puccini didn’t have that opportunity. He died shortly afterward, with “Turandot” as yet unfinished. Franco Alfano had to write the final scenes before it could be performed. Arturo Toscanini, who would direct it, insisted the premier await Raisa’s availability. That meant after the Chicago Civic Opera’s season, which was late in La Scala’s season.
“Raisa not only created ‘Turandot,’ “ Cassidy wrote, “ ‘Turandot’ waited for Raisa.”
The premiere was surely engraved on the musicians’ and the audience’s memory. It was lavishly staged and costumed. Years later, Raisa donated her flowing gowns from “Turandot,” which was set in the court of the emperor of China, along with her entire operatic wardrobe, to Chicago’s Lyric Opera, which was founded in the early 1950s
At the La Scala opening, Toscanini ended the performance when he reached the bar that marked the conclusion of Puccini’s score.
He set down his baton and, his voice choking with emotion, announced: “Here is where the maestro died.’’ Raisa later recalled.
“Then as the curtains slowly closed, the public burst into applause which soon turned into a grand and interminable ovation,” she wrote.
The full score was subsequently performed, but whether it is better than the Puccini-only version was heatedly debated.
Raisa was Polish-Jewish. She was born in 1893 in Bialystok, a city then ruled by the Russian czar and regularly subject to pogroms, like the one she witnessed in 1906. Returning home after going into hiding, “I passed a hospital where hundreds of dead people lay scattered on the ground of the courtyard, victims of the enraged savage mobs,” she later recalled.
The experience prompted Raisa to leave Bialystok and join a relative who found refuge on the Italian island of Capri. In her joy, she sang out an open window in the evening. “Of course the whole island could hear me, and the next day they knew it was the dentist’s cousin who had been singing,” she wrote in her memoirs, selections of which were worked into a biography by Charles Mintzer.
The local priest asked her to sing in his church, and a wealthy couple got her an audition at a Naples conservatory. She so impressed one of her teachers in Naples that he brought her with him to America, where he doubled as director of the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company, as it was then known. He insisted she take the stage name Rosa Raisa, judging that her birth surname, Burchstein, didn’t sound cultured.
“I am a Jewess and I wanted the public to know; yet Maestro said, ‘No not yet, Raisa. Wait till the public has truly received you,’” she recalled in her memoir.
Rave reviews quickly became the hallmark of her career. The New York Globe wrote she had a “voice like unto no other that we hear today.”
In Chicago, where she made her debut in “Aida” at the Auditorium Theater in 1913. For both her and the city, it was love at first sight, sort of.
“And from the first day I arrived, Chicago has been my home,” she told Studs Terkel in 1959. “You have opened your arms and you still love me, and I still love the people, my friends of Chicago.”
The notices of her 1913 debut in Verdi’s “Aida” were favorable, but the company’s director warned the press that, as a young performer, she would have “diamond in the rough moments.” She was 20 and didn’t return for four years.
After she sang Mascagni’s “Isabeau” in 1917, Raisa and Chicago were an item for almost four decades. She appeared in hundreds of performances in Chicago and on tour.
She married Italian American baritone Giacomo Rimini in 1920.Their daughter was born in Chicago in 1931. The family had celebrity status in the city and beyond, sometimes to unfortunate consequence. In 1932, The Associated Press reported on an attempt to blackmail the Raisa and her husband with the threat their child would be harmed unless a ransom was paid, according to her biography. A disabled war veteran was arrested and confessed, according to that account, without injury to any parties.
Upon Raisa’s retirement from the Chicago’s opera company later in the 1930s, she and her husband operated a school for opera singers in the Congress Hotel, where they lived.They also continued to concertize together.
Having shared so much for so long, Rimini’s death in 1952 was devastating for Raisa. “As the years went by, I missed him and his beautiful companionship more and more,” she wrote. “He had the priceless gift of telling the most interesting stories. Giacomo Rimini was always, in the best sense of the term, ‘the life of the party.’ ”
In 1956, Raisa moved to California where her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren lived. She worked on her memoirs, but they were unfinished when she died in 1963. What she did leave was a plot twist worthy of an opera.
Friends, fans, and relatives were shocked to read on the front page of the Chicago Tribune:
“Los Angeles, Oct 1 — Private graveside services were held today in Holy Cross Cemetery for Rosa Raisa, 70, internationally known soprano and one of the best known opera singers of her generation.”
How could she be buried in a Catholic cemetery? She had painful memories of Christian mobs slaughtering Jews in Bialystok. She fiercely resisted taking a non-Jewish stage name. Her English was peppered with Yiddish sounds and expressions. She recorded “Eli, Eli,” a Hebrew lament that God has allowed the tragedies Jews have suffered.
She told a Los Angeles Yiddish newspaper: “I also have got a home in Santa Monica but my dream is to take a trip to the land of Israel and make my home there.”
She performed at benefits for Jewish charities. Mintzer, her biographer, was puzzled. Raisa was a Jewish celebrity. So wouldn’t Catholic officials demand proof that she had converted before allowing her burial on consecrated ground? But as Mintzer reported in “Rosa Raisa,” he couldn’t find any paper trail of a conversion.
In 1983, Mintzer visited Raisa’s daughter Giulietta, known as Jolly. “I assume you are interested in my mother’s last days and her funeral?” she asked. Knowing the end was near, Jolly said, Raisa expressed a wish to lie next to her husband in death.
Rimini was Jewish on one side, Catholic on the other, but identified with the latter. So he had been buried in consecrated ground in Verona, Italy.
Raisa was interested in the intersections of various faiths. Once she asked Claudia Cassidy’s Irish husband if there was a Jewish paradise. “Of course,” he replied, “Right next to ours. We can visit.”
Somehow Jolly never got around to shipping her mother’s remains to Verona. But she found a way to express Raisa’s spiritual commitments, though others might think them incompatible.
Jolly gathered some of her mother’s favorite Jewish artifacts and buried Raisa under a gravestone engraved with a cross in a Catholic cemetery. Inside the coffin were a Star of David, a Torah scroll, as some say, and photographs of Raisa’s parents, which she had kissed before going to bed every night.
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