Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana (1878-1936) was born in Rome to an esteemed surgeon and his wife. His initial ambition was to become a doctor like his father, but he abandoned his medical studies to take a government position at the Italian Consulate in Montevideo. It was during his days as a consular employee that Ferrari-Fontana found himself becoming more and more interested in music and singing. He made his first appearances in 1902 as a baritone in local operetta productions. Ferrari-Fontana spent the next several years appearing in musical comedy in South America and Italy. The famed conductor Tullio Serafin heard him and was impressed by his voice and stage presence. Convinced that the young baritone was really a lazy tenor, Serafin encouraged him to retrain his voice for the operatic stage. Following a brief but intense period of self-study, Ferrari-Fontana was engaged to understudy Giuseppe Borgatti, who was singing Tristan at Turin’s Teatro Regio. When Borgatti fell ill, Ferrari-Fontana was pressed into service for the evening’s performance and made his operatic debut as Tristan (!) on December 23, 1910. The reviews were glowing and the 32-year-old tenor was on his way to a brief but lucrative career on the opera stage.
Ferrari-Fontana appeared at the Teatro Colón during the 1911-1912 season and made his North American debut as Tristan with Boston Opera in 1913. Although he sang his role in Italian, his performance was well received. That same year he created the role of Avito in the world premiere of Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re at La Scala, a role he also sang at the local premieres of the opera in Paris, Monte Carlo, Buenos Aires and New York. Avito was the tenor’s one and only role at the Metropolitan, where he sang it eleven times during the 1914-1915 season. Ferrari-Fontana made a tremendous impression on critics and public alike at his Met debut. The esteemed W. J. Henderson wrote, “It may be said without hesitation that he sent an electric shock through the Metropolitan” and critics were still referring to the tenor as “unforgettable” when the opera was revived more than a dozen years later (with Giovanni Martinelli as Avito). Despite these accolades, Ferrari-Fontana never set foot on the Met stage again.
Ferrari-Fontana’s career took him to Rome, Naples, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, Rio, London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Chicago with a repertoire of such operas as Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Götterdämmerung, Otello, Aïda, Don Sebastiano, Norma, I Gioielli della Madonna, La Vestale, La Fanciulla del West, Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, Guglielmo Ratcliff, Carmen and Samson et Dalila. His private life was complicated and rather tempestuous. His first marriage, to the famed mezzo-soprano Margaret Matzenauer, ended in a very public and very messy divorce when his bride discovered that he was engaging in extramarital affairs. According to the tenor’s grandson, celebrated sculptor Michael Ferrari-Fontana, his grandfather indulged himself in an excessive lifestyle of wine, women and wild parties. After Matzenauer divorced him in 1917, Ferrari-Fontana married Maria Esther Telle y Pastor, who was 20 years his junior. The tenor’s health began to deteriorate as he entered his forties and his performances became fewer and fewer. He left the stage entirely in 1926, relocated to Toronto and concentrated on teaching. Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana passed away in Toronto on July 4, 1936, just a few days shy of his 58th birthday.
Essentially a self-taught singer, Edoardo Ferrari- Fontana seemed to instinctively know how to negotiate even the most treacherous and punishing music. He was, along with Giuseppe Borgatti, one of the top two Italian Wagnerians of his day. He was also one of the few Italians to attempt Wagner in the original German text. His operatic career, however, lasted barely 15 years, leading one to wonder how his voice might have held up under the demands of 25 or 30 years of singing. All in all, Edoardo Ferrari-Fontana was a tremendously gifted operatic artist, sadly underrated and deserving of a much better legacy. The tenor’s recordings are heartbreakingly scarce…fewer than 20 in all…and demonstrate a big, lirico-spinto voice and an expressive legato line. In this recording, Ferrari-Fontana sings "Madonna, con sospiri" from Wolf-Ferrari's I Gioielli della Madonna. This was recorded for Columbia Records in New York on March 1, 1915.