At the time Luisa Tetrazzini arrived on the international opera scene, Italian sopranos had fallen out of favor. Most of them sang with a style that emphasized the separate vocal registers, and their hefty chest tones were often perceived as uncouth or grotesque. So most of them sang only in Italy, Spain and South America. Tetrazzini was one of the exceptions. She sang in the Italian tradition of florid song and specialized in the "coloratura" roles. The fioratura required of these roles had at one time been considered a constituent part of the singer's art. Very high notes (above a d) were an extra, exciting if one possessed them, but not absolutely essential. Tetrazzini had the flexibility to navigate the breath-taking fioratura and also possessed the brilliant high notes. This combination allowed her to thrill listeners with a flamboyant, if not always tasteful, delivery.
Tetrazzini made her debut in Florence in 1890, followed by a tour of Italy. Her debut at Covent Garden in 1907, as Violetta (in La Traviata ), was a sensation. Oscar Hammerstein invited her to New York to perform the same role at his Manhattan Opera in 1908. She performed for one season at the Metropolitan Opera (1911-12) and continued to perform internationally for many years. Lina Pagliughi (whom she first met in San Francisco when Pagliughi was seven years old) paid this tribute to Tetrazzini:
Apart from being a unique singer — for never there was or will be another voice like hers — she was an astonishing human being. Until the very end, she could tackle Es and E-flats with a security and a roundness that left me gasping... She was the most marvelously kind and humane person, and everyone who knew her could not help but respect and love her deeply. In fact, her home was always full of young people, not only asking for advice — they still did in those days — but also enjoying the pleasure of her good company.
Tetrazzini suffered a stroke and died a short time later in 1940.
One of the joys of old recordings lies in the fact that the performer could not "fix" any errors, so you hear the "real thing". The sometimes humorous down-side is that the 78 rpm records could play only a few minutes (this is why Toscanini refused to record for many years), so a lengthy aria (or other piece of music) had to be shortened. This necessity led to some hilarious cuts and outrageous tempi. If you listen carefully to this sample, you can hear the "orchestra" speed up — the conductor got the signal that they were running out of record. And this disk plays right down to the label!