Forgotten Opera Singers

Forgotten Opera Singers

Dec 7, 2013

Lina Bruna Rasa (Soprano) (Milano 1907 - Milano 1984)

On a chilly October day in 1984, a few lonely mourners followed a simple casket to a grave in Milan. They remembered a woman who had lived in seclusion, incarcerated in a mental institution for nearly forty years. They were indeed few, and they wept. They had known her when her name meant "verismo" to an adoring world, and they had been faithful to the end. They remembered to visit from time to time, and, on occasion they took her for short automobile trips, so that she, too, might remember . They said that she did remember and that she enjoyed those brief moments of freedom. They said that she smiled though she did not speak. Hers is an extraordinary story!  Lina Bruna Rasa was born on 24 Sept 1907 in Padua, Italy (Padova) and began musical studies at the age of fourteen. It was very apparent from the beginning that she was a dramatic soprano and that her instincts as an actress would play a major role in her stage development. So impressed were her teachers, that she was persuaded to make an unscheduled debut at Venices Teatro La Fenice on 20 May 1925, singing "Suicidio" from La Gioconda. Lina was seventeen years old! She finished her studies during the summer of 1925, and before the year was out made her opera debut at Genoa's Teatro Politeama as Elena in Mefistofele with Maria Zamboni, Giulio Rotondi and Ezio Pinza. The reviews were tremendous and the director of Turin's Teatro Regio offered Lina a contract for ten performances in Mefistofele with Rosina Torri, Aureliano Pertile and Nazzareno de Angelis under the baton of Gino Marinuzzi. She debuted at the Regio on 21 February, 1926, and, with these performances, her reputation and career were assured. The revival was a most impressive success, but it was the unknown Lina who walked away with the headlines. The city of Treviso engaged her for seven additional performances of the opera in April and later in the year she sang Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera at Reggio Emilia. The priest/composer, Refice, unveiled his opera/oratorio Trittico Francescano at Assisi in October with Lina in the role of St. Clare. She veritably swooned with religious passion during several of the episodes, and Refice declared her to have been greater, in every way, than he might ever have expected.  Milan's Dal Verme presented her in Mefistofele at years end, and on 6 January 1927 she debuted at Cairo's Teatro Reale as Elena. On the 24th, she sang Aida for the first time and in February she sang in Buttis Omonizia. Her stay in Egypt continued until well into April with a long visit to Alexandria after which she traveled to Lausanne for her first performances of Cavalleria Rusticana as well as her debut in Il Trovatore. At Reggio Emilia, Lina repeated the role of the saint from Assisi, with Refice on the podium, and in September she appeared as the Trovatore Leonora at Carpi. After a debut at Piacenza in Il Trovatore, on 16 November she debuted at La Scala in Mefistofele with Giuseppina Cobelli, Pertile and Tancredi Pasero under Toscanini's direction. Lina's ovations were endless, and Toscanini, pen and contract in hand, received her commitment to an extended stay at Milan during the following spring.  After performances of Cavalleria Rusticana at Bari, Lina debuted at Trieste's Teatro Verdi in Smareglia's I Pittori Fiamminghi, and at Piacenza she sang Maddalena di Coigny for the first time on 28 February 1928. On 17 April she returned to La Scala for two performances as Dolly in Sly with Pertile, and on the 6th of May she sang in Andrea Chenier with Pertile and Carlo Galeffi. At the conclusion of "Vicino a te", during the musical postlude, the applause built to a crescendo so great that Ettore Panizza seemed to be conducting air. The next day's newspapers reported that the orchestra could not be heard.  Mascagni and Lina met for the first time at Venice on 19 July when he conducted her in Cavalleria Rusticana in the Piazza San Marco before some forty thousand people. The chemistry was immediate and he prevailed upon her to learn Isabeau for an upcoming revival at his home theater, the Goldoni of Livorno. On 18 August she attempted the role and was a failure; so poorly did she sing, in fact, that she was replaced immediately by Tina Poli Randaccio. However, Mascagni decided that his hometown should have an opportunity to see Lina at her best, and he replaced Isabeau with Cavalleria Rusticana at later performances. Her success was enormous and she was rushed to Bergamo, where, at the Teatro Donizetti, she debuted as Santuzza on 30 August with Galliano Masini and Domenico Viglione Borghese. Four scheduled performances became six. The legend had begun!  After a sensational Tosca at Forli with Pertile and Giovanni Inghilleri, Lina returned to La Scala for additional performances of Sly and a new opera La Maddalena in which she used her prodigious histrionic talents to the fullest, according to contemporary reviews. In January 1929 she opened the Palais de la Mediterannee at Nice as La Gioconda and later in the month sang Margherita in Mefistofele for the only times in her career in a cast that included Gina Cigna as Elena and Pertile as Faust. The spring found her back at La Scala for Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar Saltan and Franchetti's Germania, after which she departed for South America. Lina debuted at the Buenos Aires Teatro Colցn on 14 June in Andrea Chenier with Georges Thill and Apollo Granforte and later sang in Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana and in the South American premiere of Respighi's Compana Sommersa. She and Granforte visited Rosario with Tosca and in late August, at Montevideo, she sang in Chenier with Thill and Granforte and in Tosca with Pedro Mirassou and Granforte. Her reviews were extraordinary and audiences were enormously responsive but Lina's debut season was to be her farewell season, as well. She never again appeared in South America, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.  In the autumn she appeared at Bologna as Desdemona with Renato Zanelli, and in Compana Sommersa with which she also opened the La Scala season on 7 December. In January 1930 she sang Venus to the Elizabeth of Gina Cigna and the Tannhauser of Antonio Melandri and in March she sang in Guglielmo Tell with Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Benvenuto Franci and Pasero. She again brought audiences to their feet in Andrea Chenier and she ended her Milan season with Vittadini's La Sagredo. In May Lina debuted at Zurich with Tosca and in September she sang in Otello at Bari's Teatro Petruzzelli with Zanelli. In October Lina returned to Livorno where, at the Terrazza Mascagni, under the composer's direction, she sang in Zanetto with Gianna Pederzini. The year ended at La Scala as Loreley with Francesco Merli and Carlo Tagliabue.  1931 presented several debuts for Lina, Cavalleria Rusticana at Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice, Il Trovatore at Monte Carlo and Guglielmo Tell with Merli and Franci at the Verona Arena. She also returned to La Scala for Cavalleria Rusticana, to Bergamo for Tosca with Alessandro Ziliani and Luigi Rossi-Morelli, and to Bologna for La Wally with Melandri and Armando Borgioli. Lina Bruna Rasa had risen to the very top of Italy's operatic ladder and she had every reason to be happy. But, late in 1931 an acute depression began to manifest itself , and there were several evenings when she failed to appear for scheduled performances. Rome and Naples, Italy's second and third theaters, refused to hire Lina, though many entreaties were made, and some of the other large theaters backed off from making commitments.  In 1932, La Scala presented Lina only as Santuzza. Palermo presented her in La Forza del Destino in March; Florence's Communale invited her to appear as Elena during the Maggio Musicale, and the Verona Arena mounted a stellar revival of L'Africaine with Margherita Carosio, Gigli and Armando Borgioli in August. Lina also sang in several of Italy's provincial theaters including Aida at Pola and Tosca at Parma's Teatro Reinach, but it was Mascagni who would step into a difficult situation and salvage the better part of her year, and ultimately, the rest of Lina's career. He arranged contracts at Como for Isabeau and at Brescia, Novara and Pisa for Cavalleria Rusticana. The performances at Pisa were particularly wrenching for Lina and she suffered severe panic attacks when Mascagni turned over the baton to Maestro Benvenuti Giusti for the third performance. It was all she could do to complete the evening. In 1933 she debuted at Parma's Regio as Aida and in February she portrayed the Ethiopian princess to great acclaim at Barcelona's Liceo. Mascagni again received the call, and in April he presented her at the Casino of San Remo as Santuzza in what was billed as a gala performance in their honor. Lina was happy in his presence and the performance was a complete triumph. In the summer she sang in Andrea Chenier and Selvaggi's Maggiolata Veneziana for Italian Radio, in Ballo in Maschera at Ancona with Pertile and in Aida at Carpi. It was during these performances that her colleagues first began to notice serious problems. Giovanni Breviario, in his autobiographical sketches, stated that, "she was already manifesting the symptoms of mental illness that would finally overtake her". The year ended with eight performances of Cavalleria Rusticana for Italian radio, four each at Turin and at Rome, all under Mascagni's direction. They were relayed to radio stations throughout Italy and were extraordinarily successful. In the annals of Italian Radio, there is no other revival that approached eight performances.  Lina continued to be coached and coaxed by Mascagni , and in 1934 she appeared in Isabeau at Piacenza and Novara as well as in a recorded performance for Italian Radio with Mascagni on the podium. After a two-year absence she sang at La Scala in May, appearing as Elena with Caniglia, Galliano Masini and Pinza,and in June she sang Fedora for Italian Radio. At the end of the month Lina made her German debut at Frankfurt as Tosca with Nino Piccaluga and Mariano Stabile. In August Lina traveled with Mascagni to the small Sicilian town of Noto for a memorable revival of Cavalleria Rusticana. Masini, who was there for Andrea Chenier with Pampanini and Granforte, recalled that it was a truly mesmerizing operatic experience and that Mascagni was excited in a touchingly childlike way at their success. Masini, like Mascagni, was from Livorno, and they were lifelong friends. Lina then performed Tosca at Bari with Angelo Minghetti and Giuseppe Danise. Shortly after the company left Sicily, Mascagni devoted his full attention to the world premiere of Nerone which he fully expected to be presented at Rome's Coliseum. The plan fell through, and after long negotiations with Mussolini, who wanted to stage the opening in Rome, it was scheduled for La Scala in January of 1935. Mascagni again went to the well and chose Lina as the prima donna of his new work, a risk which paid off handsomely as she was generously praised by all of Milan's critics the day after the premiere. The rest of the cast, Carosio, Pertile, Granforte and Pasero were equally lauded, and though the opera failed to gain a foothold in the repertory, it was enormously popular in its first season and in its subsequent premieres at Livorno, Bologna, Genoa, Rome, Naples and Zurich. Lina was in high spirits after her triumph and shortly thereafter appeared in La Forza del Destino at the Carlo Felice with Gigli and De Angelis. In April she returned to Livorno for Tosca with Luigi Marletta and Granforte and in June she recorded the role of Venus for Italian Radio with Maria Pedrini, Melandri and Tagliabue. The ever faithful and adoring Verona public saw her as Santuzza at the Arena in July and in October, she recorded La Sagredo for Italian Radio.  Lina's mother died in 1935, and after a period of mourning, Lina attempted a return to the stage, but her attachment to her "anchor" was so complete that she completely collapsed. She cancelled all performances of Nerone at Genoa in January of 1936 and no amount of persuasion from Mascagni and others could convince her to attempt appearances. In February she felt well enough to sing Elena at La Scala with Caniglia, Pertile and Pasero, but following those few performances Lina disappeared for nearly six months. She despaired of ever singing again and expressed enormous fears about her abilities. Her colleagues were incredibly kind and encouraging, and she finally found the strength to appear at Milan's Giardini Pubblici in August as Santuzza and Tosca, and with Mascagni's continuous solicitation, appeared with him at Livorno in late August as Santuzza. The audience, many of whom were aware of Lina's fragility, rewarded her with stomping, standing ovations at each of the four performances, and, after further persuasion she debuted to tumultuous applause in Nerone at Rome's Teatro Reale in December. The strain of such intense concentration was more than Lina could bear, despite her success, and she refused to honor her commitment to debut at Naples San Carlo in the role later in the season. Fidelia Campigna, who had replaced her in one performance at Scala and for the whole Genoa engagement, was called to the rescue again.  Mascagni convinced Lina to sing Santuzza with him at Monte Carlo on 1 April, but she found herself unable to sing in Nerone at Scala when it was reprised ten days later. She was now weaving in and out of her private world, and in June, she felt well enough to travel with Mascagni to Zurich for the last two staged performances of Nerone ever given.  On 26 June, 1937 at the Casa del Fascio in Castel San Giovanni, Lina sang a performance of Tosca for an invited assemblage of Fascist dignitaries (fascio meaning Fascist headquarters, among other things). The story is told that at the conclusion of "Vissi d'arte", she received an enormous ovation, and, as she raised herself from the floor, Lina reached into her cleavage and slowly revealed an Italian flag which she held aloft with both arms outstretched. The ovation was, of course, monumental.  July and August were occupied with a tour of eight Italian towns as Santuzza, during which she seemed to be in a trance most of the time. Commentators referred repeatedly to the incredible intensity of her performances and of the total passivity with which she went through her daily routine. At Milan's Castello Sforzesco and at Genoa's Politeama she was hailed as a genius when she repeated Cavalleria, and in late September she appeared with Italian Radio as Isabeau. To this day, the story of her attempted suicide by throwing herself into the orchestra pit during a performance of Cavalleria, persists. And, it is always placed during 1937. Perhaps it was!  After another long absence, Lina appeared as Santuzza in the winter of 1938 at Cremona's Teatro Ponchielli. Lina Pagliughi attended the first performance - "Lina Bruna Rasa! I still tremble when I think of her Santuzza". She continued to appear very sporadically in Cavalleria and on 1 August, before some 15000 people Mascagni presented her at Rome's Caracalla in Isabeau with Nino Bertelli and Granforte. It was a complete triumph and she returned five nights later for a second performance. A few days later at the Castello Sforzesco Lina sang Tosca with Giuseppe Lugo and Viglione-Borghese. In November she traveled to the Netherlands in a special train compartment with Mascagni for Cavalleria Rusticana at The Hague. The trip had been planned for months and it was uncertain until Lina was actually on the train, that it would become an event. The performance is preserved on recording and gives us the sense of her enormous commitment and intensity. Antonio Melandri was her Turiddu.  1939 began with two remarkable events in Lina's pathetically anemic career. On 1 Feb she made her opera debut at Venice's La Fenice as Tosca, and two weeks later she debuted as the Puccini heroine at Naples' Teatro San Carlo. Lina was triumphant at Venice where she seemed in total command, but she was less successful with the Neapolitans, despite her intuitive intensity. In September, she returned to Bergamo for Elena with Olivero, Giovanni Malipiero and Pasero.  In 1940, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Cavalleria Rusticanas premiere, Mascagni and Lina undertook a tour to Venice, Rome, Trieste, Genoa, Milan's Scala, Naples, Florence and Livorno. Among her colleagues were Gigli, Masini, Ziliani, Bechi, Granforte and Tagliabue and every performance was sold out weeks in advance. The famous recording with Gigli was made during their stay in Milan and it tells us exactly what Lina was all about in this role. One cannot help but be amazed at the conviction and integrity of her performance. The voice has a vibrancy that is almost unbearable. She appeared with several other conductors in a number of Italy's provincial opera centers in celebration of the anniversary, and at each theater she was hailed as a national heroine. But, it was over! She continued to sing occasionally in Tosca and in Cavalleria Rusticana until the middle of 1942, but only in very small theaters with little-known casts. On occasion Mascagni would send a limousine to pick her up and return her to her hotel, so uncertain was it that she would even be able to find her way. Giovanni Breviario recalled a performance at Lecco in 1941 - "The poor thing was already in a very bad state, but her marvelous voice came to life as soon as she began her scenes. This miracle happened only on stage. We were all very affectionate toward her, but when not on the stage, she was passive, apathetic, would not speak and remained doggedly clinging to her handbag".  In July 1942, while Lina was resting at Pesaro's Lido, she was persuaded to sing a performance of Cavalleria at their outdoor arena, and on the 20th, she gave her last performance in a staged opera. The reviewer of "LAdriatico" kindly stated that it was a vivid recollection of a great artist.  Lina was sporadically institutionalized at a home near Milan, and by 1948, it was felt that she was well enough that she might sing some concerts. She very much wished to return to the stage and on 27 July she sang at Busto Arzisio. Arturo Toscanini traveled to hear his beloved Lina and left the theater with tears streaming down his face. The tour was terminated a few evenings later, and when Lina attempted to reengage herself in October, she was forced from the stage in the middle of a performance. She could no longer remember simple tunes, and words did not come at all.  For the next thirty-six years, Lina Bruna Rasa survived in solitude in a mental facility in Milan, hardly remembered and rarely seen.  As she languished in her very private world, a few of her colleagues did remember. Augusta Oltrabella - "I studied with Maestro Manlio Bavagnoli, the father of the conductor. Among his pupils was Lina Bruna Rasa, the greatest Santuzza and Maddalena of them all". Gilda Dalla Rizza - "I took on Santuzza, but not for long. I felt I was not in the same league in this role as Lina Bruna Rasa". Enzo De Muro Lomanto - "The experience of singing Turiddu with Lina Bruna Rasa was comparable to nothing else in my long experience on the lyric stage. She made all of us want to be just that much better, and I think we were".

Chronology of some appearances

1925 Venice Teatro La Fenice Gioconda Aria Suicidio
1925 Genoa Teatro Politeama Mefistofele (Elena)
1926 Torino Reggio Emilia Un Ballo in Maschera (Amelia)
1927 Cairo Teatro Reale Mefistofele (Elena)
1927 Milano Teatro alla Scala Mefistofele (Elena)


Columbia, Milano 1928
Mefistofele (Boito): Concertato, ferma ideal purissima with Ferdinando Ciniselli and Bruno Carmassi D5329 WB1021

Columbia, Milano 1928-04-26
Manon Lescaut (Puccini): In quelle trine morbide D12589 WB1908
Tosca (Puccini): Vissi d'arte D12589 WB1911

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-11
Aida (Verdi): Rivedrai le foreste, pt 1 with Carlo Galeffi D18052 BX286

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-11
Andrea Chenier (Giordano): La mamma morta D14716 WBX285

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-12
Aida (Verdi): Su dunque sorgete, pt 2 with Carlo Galeffi D18052 BX288

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-12
Mefistofele (Boito): L'altra notte D14593

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-12
Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni): Voi lo sapete DB2123 WBX289

Columbia, Milano 1928-05-18
Mefistofele (Boito): Spunta l'aurora pallida D12617 WB2002

Columbia, Milano 1931
Complete Andrea Chenier (Giordano) with Luigi Marini and Carlo Galeffi


  1. What a wonderful find. I shall be back many times. Thank you.

  2. I love this site! So intriguing. I will give it a call out on my FB fanpage and also, in time on my blog. Many thanks for this work!

  3. I am listening to this wonderful singer as I write. What a sad story... Would that she were more widely known!

    1. Yes Dear Michael, it's really very sad, but she is great.
      All the best