Antonio Paoli (1871-1946) was a gigantic voiced dramatic tenor who enjoyed an impressive, albeit complicated, career in the early days of the 20th century. Born Antonio Emilio Paoli y Marcano in Ponce, Puerto Rico, the future tenor’s parents introduced him to opera as a young child and he began to study voice before he reached his teens. The youngster’s parents were very supportive of Antonio’s singing ambitions but, sadly, they both passed away when the boy was only 12 years old. Orphaned, Paoli was sent to Spain to live with his older sister Amalia, who was already building a career as a singer. It was Amalia who took charge of her younger brother’s support and schooling.
After completing his education at Monastery of El Escorial and the Military Academy at Toledo, Paoli was assigned to the Royal Guard of Spain’s Queen Maria Cristina. His ambition to be a singer had never dimmed, however, and the young man left his position in 1897 to continue his vocal studies in Milan. After two years of intense training, he made his way to Paris, where he made his operatic debut as Arnoldo in Guillaume Tell in 1899. The critics and public were unanimous in their praise, and Paoli was soon on his way to an international career.
Over the course of the next decade and a half, Paoli made numerous appearances in Milan, Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence, Genoa, Turin, Bologna, Madrid, Valencia, Barcelona, Lisbon, London, Graz, Vienna, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Budapest, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio, Havana, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. The tenor was most at home in the dramatic tenor repertoire, including such operas as Il Trovatore, Aďda, Pagliacci, Carmen, Samson et Dalila, Lohengrin and his greatest triumph, Otello. Although he was never invited to the Met, Paoli enjoyed a lucrative career that kept him busy until the outbreak of WWI. It was around that time that the tenor suffered a most unfortunate reversal of fortunes. He began suffering from vocal issues and soon found himself unemployable, even in minor theaters. Bad investments stripped him of his fortune and he was compelled to seek out other means of employment to make ends meet. In 1915, 44-year-old singer made his debut in a very unlikely profession…a prizefighter. The strapping six-footer fought a half dozen bouts as a heavyweight before retiring due to a fractured wrist.
Following his ill-fated career as a boxer, Paoli underwent surgery on his vocal cords and, after several months of recuperation, re-emerged in early 1917 as Samson at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome. Amazingly, his voice was better than ever and he was able to resume his career on the stage. The 1920s found the tenor singing mainly in the Americas. He settled in San Juan, where he gave his final operatic performance as Verdi’s Otello at the Teatro Municipal in 1928. The 57-year-old Paoli then concentrated on teaching at the music school his sister had founded. A 1938 stroke left him temporarily speechless and paralyzed, but he regained his health and voice. His final public performance was at a 1942 service commemorating the one year anniversary of the death of his sister, Amalia. The tenor’s voice was remarkably well preserved, despite his advanced age. Following a long battle with cancer, Antonio Paoli died on August 24, 1946 at the age of 75.
Antonio Paoli made dozens of recordings (including the very first complete recording of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci) for the Gramophone Company between 1907 and 1911. In these recordings, we hear a bright, robust dramatic tenor with a very powerful upper range. Paoli was also an effective vocal actor, sometimes short on subtlety but always thrilling. Here, Paoli gives a powerful performance of "No! Pagliaccio non son!" from the end of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. This recording was made in Milan for G&T in June of 1907.