Opera singer Lucrezia Bori (1887-1960), known for years as the grande dame of the Metropolitan Opera, was one of its most beloved sopranos. In 19 seasons, more than 600 performances, and 29 roles with the company, her grace, style, and musicality made her a critically acclaimed and enormously popular star. Her artistic integrity, personal dignity, and lack of temperamental behavior also made her one of opera's most gracious figures. Following an illustrious stage career, her tireless dedication to fundraising efforts for the Metropolitan Opera earned her the nickname "the opera's Joan of Arc."
Bori was born Lucrecia Borja y González de Riancho on December 24, 1887, in Valencia, Spain, the daughter of a well-to-do army officer. She was a descendant of Renaissance Italy's powerful Borgia family; her name in Italian, in fact, was Lucrezia Borgia. Her family, however, insisted she change it for the stage. Bori made her first public appearance at a benefit concert in Valencia at age six. After a convent education, Bori at 16 decided to become a singer and went to Milan, Italy, for coaching. She made her professional debut at the Teatro Adriano in Rome on October 31, 1908, as Micaela in Carmen. Bori was subsequently hired by the Italian opera house La Scala the following season, where the promising young artist so enchanted German composer Richard Strauss that he insisted she sing the role of Octavian in the local premier of his Der Rosenkavalier in 1911.
Premiered at the Metropolitan Opera
Bori's long association with the Metropolitan Opera began in 1910 in Paris, when she was invited to replace an indisposed colleague as Manon in Puccini's Manon Lescaut with the touring New York company. After an enthusiastic response to her portrayal, two more performances were added and quickly sold out. Her first American appearance was in the same role at age 24, opposite the legendary Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, performed on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's 1912-1913 season in New York. A critic of that era quoted in the Record Collector praised Bori's performance as an "exquisite exhibition of legato singing" and "exquisite diction, impeccable intonation and moving pathos."
As Bori was enjoying the peak of her success, her career took a fateful and dramatic turn. Nodules on her vocal chords required delicate throat surgery in 1915, followed by five years of lonely convalescence. In a New York Times article she described her harrowing period of recovery, during which she once forced herself to be absolutely silent for two months. "I felt," she said, "as must those stricken with blindness just as the sun of spring flooded the world." Her discipline and courage were instrumental in her triumphant comeback to the Met in 1921, and her career flourished in the 15 years that followed.
Bori was known for her remarkably clear, true voice and dramatic prowess, capable of expressing passion as well as vulnerability and whimsical charm. Some of Bori's most famous roles included Mimi in La Bohème; Norina in Don Pasquale; Juliette in Roméo et Juliette; and Violetta in La Traviata, among others. Of her recordings, critic C. J. Luten wrote in Opera News: "Not everyone takes to her somewhat acidulous voice, but who can resist what she does with it? She radiates vivacity in Juliette's waltz … and in the Norina-Malatesta duet from Don Pasquale. Her legato, long line and pathetic accent … are masterful."
Bori's farewell performance at the Met, on March 29, 1936, was a moving tribute to a brilliant career still in its prime. After singing selections from La Traviata and Manon, the audience stood and cheered for 20 minutes in homage, with women weeping and men stamping their feet. Bori was later quoted in the New York Times: "I have no illusions about the length of time a singer may sing. I want to finish while I am still at my best."
Ensured Met's Survival Through Fundraising Work
Bori's "second career" with the Metropolitan Opera began in the early 1930s, when the company's survival seemed threatened by the Depression. In addition to a demanding singing schedule, Bori took on many outside engagements as the head of fundraising committees, including writing letters, meeting with benefactors, and traveling. In 1933, she was praised by Paul D. Cravath, then president and chairman of the Met board, who told the New York Times that Bori "did more than anyone else to make opera at the Metropolitan …a financial possibility." In 1935, she became the first active artist and the first woman elected to the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1942, she was elected president of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
On May 2, 1960, Bori suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She died in New York on May 14 at age 71, and funeral rites were held at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Bori, who never married, is buried in the Borja family plot in Valencia. Her will provided for the establishment of the Lucrezia Bori Foundation for charitable, educational, and literary purposes.
Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1991.
New York Times, May 15, 1960; May 18, 1960; May 22, 1960;May 24, 1960.
Opera News, November 1983; December 19, 1987; January 18, 1992.
Record Collector, December 1973.