Miguel Burro Fleta (1897-1938) was an extraordinarily popular tenor whose brief, turbulent and tragic life is the stuff of legend. The last of fourteen children, Fleta was born in Aragón near the close of the 19th century. He began his working life as a field worker but enjoyed singing the folksongs of his region. Encouraged by his friends, Fleta entered a Jota competition in the fall of 1917. Although he didn’t win, his participation led to studies at the Conservatory of Barcelona. There, Fleta met the woman who would become his mentor, lover and mother to two of his children, Luisa Pierrick. Fleta’s vocal coaching with Pierrick had lasted less than two years when, shortly before his 22nd birthday, the young tenor made his operatic debut in Trieste. The role was Paolo in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini under the baton of the composer himself. Pierrick aggressively promoted her protégé/lover throughout Italy, perhaps pushing the tenor beyond his youthful limitations. Within three years of his debut, Fleta was compelled to cancel performances owing to throat issues…an alarming omen of things to come.
Fleta’s rise was meteoric. Before reaching the age of 25, the young tenor had sung in the major theaters of Budapest, Prague, Vienna, Monte Carlo, Rome, Genoa, Madrid, Buenos Aires and others. He created the role of Romeo in Zandonai’s Giulietta e Romeo in Rome in February of 1922 and made his Metropolitan Opera debut on November 8, 1923 as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca. Fleta became the darling of critics and public alike during his years in New York. He sang thirty-seven performances of nine operas at the MET…Tosca, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Andrea Chénier, Aïda, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Carmen, Pagliacci, L’Amico Fritz…and seemed destined for a long and illustrious career in New York. A January, 1925 performance of Rigoletto, however, would be Fleta’s final appearance at the MET.
Fleta was scheduled to return to the MET for the 1925/26 season, but broke his contract, ostensibly to perform mandatory service in the Spanish army. Meanwhile, in Milan, preparations were underway for the premiere of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot. When news reached New York that Fleta was among the cast, MET management was furious. The MET filed suit against the tenor, finally winning a judgement of $20,000…and enormous sum in those days. Needless to say, Fleta never sang in North America again. Ironically, Calaf was not a role that suited Fleta and he abandoned it after only a handful of performances. One wonders if the tenor’s rash decision was worth it.
A 1928 tour took Fleta across the South Seas…nearly 100 performances in ten months…and he returned to Spain exhausted. His voice was beginning to deteriorate and he found himself turning more and more to zarzuelas in order to keep performing. Fleta also appeared in the film, “Miguelón, El Último Contrabandista” in 1934. The film, sadly, was a commercial failure. Fleta also became involved with Franco’s Falangist movement. Loyalist forces put a price on his head and he was forced to sell his properties and flee. His final operatic performance was an April, 1937 Carmen in Lisbon. Fleta now lived in hiding, fearful that the Loyalists would catch up with him. In the end, what caught up with Fleta were years of excess. Unchecked eating, drinking and carousing…not to mention an early case of syphilis that had never been properly treated…eventually stopped the tenor in his tracks. While resting in La Coruña, his health rapidly deteriorated. Renal failure was the culprit and, despite a valiant struggle, Fleta expired on May 29, 1938. He was only 40 years old.
Miguel Fleta’s was a remarkable instrument…rich and baritonal, with pealing top notes that sent audiences into a frenzy. His sensitive artistry and attention to musical detail were extraordinary…not a single note was ever wasted. Yet Miguel Fleta squandered this magnificent gift during his brief career through extravagant living, risky career choices and just too much singing. Be that as it may, it is impossible to imagine it any other way. That was Miguel Fleta.
Fleta recorded nearly 100 sides for Victor and HMV between 1922 and 1934. Here, Fleta sings Mylio's aubade, "Vainement, ma bien-aimée" from Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys. This recording was made for HMV in 1931.