Francesco Tamagno - The Fantastic Tenor and First Otello August 11 2023

Francesco Tamagno was born in Turin on December 28th 1850. His family was from the peripheral area “Barriera di Milano”, where they run a trattoria (small family-run casual restaurant). Unfortunately, after the Cholera outbreak of 1854, parents Margherita and Carlo were left with only 5 of their 15 sons. Among which, Francesco Domenico and Giovanni, who will study music together at the “società di giovani dilettanti” (Young amateurs society).



Francesco Tamagno 1904

Some municipal records show us that Francesco Tamagno’s first appearance was in 1865, when he sang “spazzacamino” (Chimneysweep), which will be praised by Verdi as well.

Tamagno was 14 back then, so it is likely that he sang in mezzo-soprano (countertenor), he was probably taught by Don Cagliero at Valdocco’s oratory.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A gorgeous cabinet-style photo signed by maestro Tamagno in 1904, just a year before his death at age 55. Photo by Guigoni & Bossi, Milan.

From 1870 to 1873 he attended the music high school founded some years before in Turin. During the first year he had to leave for military service, but his period away was reduced by an amount of money paid by the father. Thanks to an agreement with the school, which implied withholding a percentage of the salary, he is soon cast in some minor roles.



His debut as a supporting actor was on February 27th 1872, with the role of Gasparo of “La colpa del cuore” (Heart’s guilt). Even though he was cast in more parts the following year, he abandoned the school.

He then looked for an agent, which he found in Antonio Rosani, from Milan, on June 29th 1873. The contract was not economically fair to Tamagno, as it was decided that he would get the same salary for 5 years, no matter how many roles or the amount of the compensation. This showed his lack of experience, however, the agent will advise Tamagno and help him career-wise.

The precise date of his debut in a main role is unknown, but it was probably during January of the following year in Palermo, with the title role in Donizetti's Don Sebastiano. Of his following role in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera and its appreciation from the public we found traces on newspapers as well. He then travelled to Ferrara, Rovigo and Venezia performing Donizetti's Poliuto, Rossini's Stabat Mater and other pieces from Verdi, Meyerbeer, Bellini, and others.

Francesco Tamagno uns cabinet photo unknown role

Although he was under contract with A. Rosani, he also agreed on working with the agent G. Donatelli and he got his first plays abroad. He will be in London and Barcelona from October to May, performing 12 new roles, including the tenor soloist in Verdi's Requiem.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A cabinet photograph of the Italian tenor shown in role

Assisted by the father and the brother Giuseppe, Tamagno wanted to undo the contract with his first agent, with whom he had to exchange a lot of letters and will have to pay a penalty to. Rosani, sincerely worried for Tamagno’s career, suggested him to rest in Italy, but Tamagno, working with the new agent Donatelli, refused opportunities in Italy in favour of going to Barcelona in 1877 as well.

He came back for his long awaited debut at La Scala in Milan, where he insisted on performing “L'Africana” and not “Aida”. Until this point, although much appreciated abroad, Tamagno did not have much space on specialized press in Italy.



Years from 1878 to 1890 saw Tamagno involved with tours across South America. The chosen actors of the troupe would depart from Italy and rehearse on the ship, then perform from May to November, during the Italian theater “low season”. Unfortunately, Tamagno was known to have seasickness. In fact, Donatelli had to insist a lot before the tenor accepted the gig.

Despite the difficulties, on April 14th 1878 at Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Tamagno performed Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata and described it as one of the 4 best nights of his life. The others being his Otello in Milan and Paris and Il Profeta in Berlin.

While it was considered a big personal success, his performance was not largely covered by local correspondents, as Tamagno did not have a close relationship with them. It has to be said, in fact, that he was a very private person. He had a daughter called Margherita (like Tamagno’s mother), but although he spent a lot of time with her, no one ever got to know who the mother was.



Verdi and Tamagno

March 1881 was the first time Tamagno got to work with Verdi for Simon Boccanegra. Verdi had a personal way of working on plays: he started from the draft, then went through composition and finally got to the instrumentation. This lead to a late distribution of roles and scripts to singers, which also meant the need of reviews directly during rehearsals, sometimes in front of everyone.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A gorgeous photograph of Maestro Verdi and Francesco Tamagno, signed by Verdi ca.1895

We know that during the rehearsals of Simon Boccanegra, Tamagno and Victor Maurel (who will later on have the role of Jago in Otello), the two main roles, had some gossiping going around about each other’s health condition and performances. This will make Verdi doubt Tamagno as a fit for Otello, as he did indeed praise him, but also pointed out that his skills could be improved. However, Tamagno and Verdi also worked together on Don Carlo in January 1884.

During the years before Otello, from 1881 to 1886, Tamagno was very busy performing around Italy and abroad. He added 6 new roles to his repertoire: Faust in Boito's Mefistofele, Arnold in Rossini's Guglielmo Tell, Eleazar in Meyerbeer's La Juive, Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Fernando in Donizetti's La Favorita and Didier in Ponchielli's Marion Delorme.

He was also well applauded in his hometown, at Teatro Regio in Turin, with Poliuto. However, he got sick in between plays and because of commitments made before he had to leave the public disappointed, leading to some harsh critics.



Following the suggestion of Verdi's editor Giulio Ricordi, Tamagno spontaneously runs for the main role of “Othello” by sending a letter to Verdi, before the piece was even completed. Composition began in 1884 and around 1886 Verdi started thinking about performers, but it is well documented that he did not write “Otello” thinking of Tamagno. On the contrary, Verdi was not convinced by Tamagno’s actorial skills and was worried about the lines that had to be said in a low voice.

Francesco Tamagno signed photo as Otello

However, continuously solicited by editor Ricordi, director Faccio and Tamagno himself, who also refused some engagements in order to have time for Otello, Verdi agreed on having an audition and after that he even changed some parts of the play to adapt it to Tamagno’s voice.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A beautiful vintage photograph of Tamagno in his signature role of Otello, signed and date by Tamagno himself in Buenos Aires, 1896

On November 1st 1886 Otello was completed and Verdi started personally supervising the execution. He particularly cared about singers following the rhythm of music more than using the voice to make an impact on the public.

Keeping in mind what happened with Simon Boccanegra, Verdi arranged a period of private studies between him and Tamagno. It took place in Milan, because in Genoa (where Verdi usually stayed) there was a Cholera outbreak. He then proceeded with collective rehearsals, which lasted from January 6
th to 27th.

February 5th 1887, Otello’s premier in Milan, was an exceptional event for the theater world. Media coverage was huge, the public kept applauding and Verdi was profusely celebrated, he came out in between acts to receive applauses.

Together with Tamango performed Victor Maurel (Jago),
Giovanni Paroli (Cassio), Vincenzo Fornari (Roderigo), Francesco Navarrini (Lodovico), Napoleone Limonta (Montano), Angelo Lagomarsino (Un araldo), Romilda Pantaleoni (Desdemona) e Ginevra Petrovich (Emilia), under the baton of Franco Faccio.

On top of positive reviews from newspapers, Tamagno also received private letters from fans, excited to see his performance again. However, Tamagno fell ill and the second representation had to be shifted of 2 days. It turned out that his health condition was not the best during his first night too. During the season he fell ill again and even had to interrupt a play. Nevertheless, Tamagno was now publicly appreciated as an actor as well.

Otello World Premiere Program Libretto 1887

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program-libretto for the world premiere performance of Verdi's Otello at Teatro La Scala, season 1887, with the famous cast including Francesco Tamagno, Victor Maurel and Romilda Pantaleoni.


There have been different opinions on the Tamagno-Verdi relationship, some said that the latter could not stand the tenor, but it was not true. It may have started with some misunderstandings, but their relationship improved with time. Verdi was also fond of Tamagno’s daughter Margherita, who also appeared on the stage to bring him flowers. The last performance of the season, on April 5th was another big mundane event.



In Turin’s Regio Theatre copies of letters and documents about Tamagno are collected. Especially letters from January 31st to May 9th 1887, a period on which he was playing Otello in Milan and Rome. By reading them we know that his compensation was of 6000 lire (Italy’s currency at that time) and that he bought “Villa Margherita” in Varese for 80000 lire. He was a butterfly collector and he had around 4000 types, some of which are really rare nowadays, a collection still visible in Varese. Together with it he also collected stuffed exotic animals.

Francesco Tamagno and daughter  signed cabinet photo

Despite his reputation of being very attentive to money, sometimes even stingy, as we have evidences of him preferring second class or having the whole day ruined because he had to pay custom duty on candles he bought abroad, we learn from these documents that he was providing for all his family, he also lent them money and sometimes even to friends.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Francesco Tamagno and his only daughter Margherita

The link Tamagno-Otello became strong soon, but he did not perform in all the performances. In fact, in October-December 1887 he was busy in Madrid and in May-September 1888 he had his usual tour in South America.

There were two other singers, Oxilia and De Negri, who performed in Otello and had a respectful success and following. However, people liked Tamagno the most and kept complimenting him until the point that Verdi was annoyed at the public for only celebrating the performers (Maurel too) and not the artwork.

We do not know if this was the reason or not, but Verdi did not go to Rome for Otello's performances, for which Tamagno, with a compensation of 4500 per performance, was the most well paid. We know though from a letter, that Tamagno responded to some critics moved by the author himself, apparently saying that the tenor was exaggerating some sounds and Tamagno defended himself saying that he did no more than what he did in Milan with him. Rome’s nights were participated by important public figures, even Queen Margherita, also a fan of Tamagno.

Criticized by some for his high demanded compensation, Tamagno also made sure that by contract he would be paid at midday on the day of the play. His high fee was surely well recompensed as most nights got sold out. In Rome, he was even hired in two different theatres (Argentino and Costanzi) around the same period. He also performed Otello in Palermo and Naples, but not in Turin, Bologna, Florence or Parma. After some hesitation, he also agreed on performing in London, where he was so powerful to even influence the choices of other singers.

An early recording of  "Esultate!" the opening line of Otello in Verdi's opera sung by Francesco Tamagno between 1903-1905.


There were, however, also negative feedbacks, such as English newspapers accusing Tamagno of just relying on his powerful voice and not taking care of the scenic interpretation. Once in Palermo the public started protesting as Tamagno said a word wrongly, but he openly admitted his mistake and was applauded again.



Before starting a new tour in North America, Tamagno went to Oropa, in order to rest a bit, but he was involved in a charity concert, which also happened in Turin. It is said that for his trip to America, which started on November 16
th, he had a first class ticket paid by the theatre company and he exchanged it for a second class one, keeping the difference for himself. In New York, thanks to an interview (held in French as he knew no English) we got to know a more human part of the tenor: he explained how he was linked to art only, as a family would be a “sin” for an artist, he openly said that he did make a lot of money, but that he took care of his sister and her six children as well, his sister in law and her 4 children and many other cousins and brothers. So they were not living as rich people. He smoked cigars, but not before singing, same as eating, only after the performance was over.

Tamagno in the Metropolitan Opera

The troupe travelled to Chicago, Mexico City and San Francisco, Otello was the main attraction, even though the singers surrounding the leading stars (the female lead was Adelina Patti) were not on the same level.

[IMAGE] A program for a performance of Rossini's Guglielmo Tell at The Metropolitan Opera starring F. Tamagno as Arnoldo in the 1890s

After the usual stop in Buenos Aires, Tamagno went back to Varese, where the daughter Margherita made her debut as an actress in Fumagalli’s comedy “La Piccola Lauretta” (Little Laura). Tamagno kept being scripted in Italy, where he was left complete freedom in choosing what to sing. He then left for Lisbon and Moscow, stopping at Wien and Warsaw.

Tamagno’s success was not only Otello, in fact in 1892 and 1893 he prepared 2 new roles, written especially for him by Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo: Puccini’s Edgar premiered on March 29th and Leoncavallo’s I Medici the next year, but they all did not turn out a big success as hoped and Tamagno will soon stop performing them.



The following three years saw Tamagno involved in tours around the world, but in particular in official debuts at the Metropolitan Theatre on New York, the Covent Garden of London and the Opéra of Paris. He performed Otello, Aida, Guglielmo Tell,
Gli Ugonotti, Il Trovatore, Poliuto and L'Africana. Despite his wide repertoire, in America he was criticized with words that implemented the negative feedbacks he already got from the English press in the past.

Francesco Tamagno as Helion in Messaline

Tamagno was described as a singer who took advantage of his powerful voice, but did not have enough technical skills. He did not manage to capture the audience and, in fact, he will not be back to the States. In England, however, he was invited to perform at Queen Victoria’s birthday celebrations. In 1896 he performed for the first time in St. Petersburg, Russia.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Vintage cabinet photograph of the tenor shown as Helion in De Lara's opera Messaline.

In France, he was not criticized for his voice or acting, but for his cachet. Other than that he had a huge success and in one of his interviews he even mentioned he would move for some time to France. He did indeed buy in 1897 “Villa Jolanda” in Ospedaletti, close to Sanremo, where he will spend a lot of moments of his last years.

In Italy, his popularity kept increasing and he was nominated Commander of The order of The Crown.



While keeping busy with his global tours, Tamagno was also involved with charity concerts, especially in his hometown. Here, he also celebrated his “nozze d’argento” (silver wedding) anniversary on December 15th 1898.

January 6th of the following year saw the daughter Margherita getting married to Alfredo Talamona, a young textile industrial entrepreneur from Milan. Tamagno liked his son-in-law a lot, so much that he will be accompanying the tenor with the piano and will also be his secretary during his last years.



From 1900 on Tamagno dropped some of his usual engagements and focused on concerts and appearances where he did not have to sing the whole performance. His health conditions were in fact getting worse, especially his heart was suffering, even though the voice was not really affected. He still went on tours, but less intense and with longer rest periods in-between. During one interview he said that he was leaving the Art “before she could leave him”.

Francesco Tamagno family photo

Between 1903 and 1904, when technologies allowed, Tamagno recorded some of his pieces in his villa in Ospedaletti for the G&T Company, who paid him an amount just to do the recordings and a 20% royalties on sold albums. The first one which saw the light was “Niun mi tema”. He was quite satisfied with the results, therefore he agreed on continuing with different formats as well, but unfortunately he will not have the time.

[IMAGE] One of the few family photos known of Tamagno

After some performances, when his health condition was noticed by many, especially because he had to interrupt Otello in Rome, Tamagno took a full year of rest, during which he only appeared at 2 charity concerts.

In the beginning of 1905, Tamagno took part in some performances, but, after a happy moment thanks to the birth of his grandchild in July, he was struck by thoracic nerve pain. His conditions were followed by the press, more than one newspaper gave out daily news and unfortunately, some of them were too optimistic.

During his last moments Tamagno was surrounded by his family, and on September 1, 1905 the sad news was spread. Newspapers covered it widely, giving space to his biography and also fan letters. Many telegrams from friends and even unknown supporters reached Villa Margherita.

Following his will, his corpse was embalmed and the coffin had a glass part on the top, in order for people to see his face. The funeral was held in two parts, one in Varese on September 4
th and one the following day in Turin, where a procession around the main streets took place. His coffin was placed in the family mausoleum, 34 meters of height, together with his brother Domenico, also recently deceased.

tamagno Otello Finale

Francesco Tamagno in the finale of Act IV from Verdi's Otello

Tamagno’s properties and money went for the most part to the daughter Margherita and some also to some charity associations in Turin and Milan. Despite the inheritance, Margherita and her husband started having financial problems in 1911 and ten years later they divorced.

With his death at the age of 55, Tamagno’s life was short but extremely eventful and impacting on the music world. He sang in 14 nations, 51 cities, 61 theatres for a total of 431 performances and 47 different roles. His exceptional lungs and voice made his high-pitched tones unique and so far unmatched.



Otello London Premiere Program 1889

- Francesco Tamagno Autograph 1904

- Francesco Tamagno Autograph Letter 1901



Manuel Garcia (1775-1832): Patriarch of a Singing Dynasty

Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato

Enrico Caruso: The New York Years

Opera Tenors: Top Historical Spanish Singers

Tebaldi & Del Monaco: Signed Handkerchief from Otello

Otello “in blackface” – a dying trend?


Interested in authentic autographs?


Tamino Autographs @2020 - All rights reserved.