Sunday, May 2, 2021

Rosa Raisa, Chicago’s Jewish Diva in the Golden Age of Opera.

She was born Raisa [pronunciation] Burchstein in Białystok, Podlaskie, Poland on May 30, 1893. Even at a young age, her voice attracted attention, and she traveled through Poland as a child singer. She fled the Bialystok pogroms of 1907 to settle in Italy. Her potential was discovered by a wealthy family that sponsored her vocal studies in Naples with the great teacher Barbara Marchisio, a legendary soprano of the 19th century. 

Raisa Burchstein made her concert debut in Rome in 1912. She was then introduced to the conductor Cleofonte Campanini and her operatic career was launched.

Campanini himself said, “I know she is young now and not fully developed artistically, but mark my words, one of these days she will be known all over the world as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos.”

Campanini engaged Raisa to sing during the 1913 Verdi centennial celebration in Parma. She sang the dramatic role of the seduced heroine, Leonora, in the revival of Oberto, Verdi’s first opera. Raisa Burchstein’s success was so phenomenal that Campanini immediately brought her to Chicago for the 1913-14 season. But first, he shortened her name. He asked her the meaning of “Raisa” and when she answered, “Rose, in Russian,” he created the melodious name, Rosa Raisa––“Rose Rose.”

Who was Cleofonte Campanini? He was a virtuoso conductor, comparable to Arturo Toscanini. But Toscanini conducted in New York, the operatic capital, while his rival spent most of his time in Chicago. Campanini didn’t have recordings to extend his fame. 

Above all, Campanini died in 1919, at age 59––young for a conductor. Had he lived through the splendid Chicago seasons of the 1920s––who knows how well he might be remembered now?

ROSA RAISA IN CHICAGO
Raisa’s first role with the Chicago Grand Opera at the Auditorium––her first appearance in the United States––was in the first week of the 1913 season in the title role of Aida. Although Raisa was well-received from the start, she remained somewhat in the background during her first season with the company. She was not the flamboyant type at all, and of course, was very young at the time. 

The Yiddish-speaking Jewish opera-lovers of the West Side called her Unzer Raizele (Our Rosie), as she had been born humbly, as Raisa Burchstein, in Bialystok, Poland.

The director of the Chicago Opera Company, Cleofonte Campanini, had discovered Raisa in Italy, where she had come to live and study after escaping the 1907 pogroms in Bialystok. Campanini brought Raisa to Chicago, where he and his wife guided her career and acted as virtual parents to her until the impresario's death in 1919.

When World War I began, Raisa remained in Italy, missing the 1914-15 Chicago seasons.

When Raisa arrived in Chicago from Italy for the 1916 season she brought with her the baritone Giacomo Rimini. They opened the season with Aida. That year Rimini and Raisa appeared for the first time in Chicago in the opera, Falstaff, with Rimini as Sir John and Raisa as Mrs. Page.
Raisa and Rimini in costume aboard ship.


She did return in 1917 to sing the first American performances of Mascagni’s Isabeau, Montemezzi’s La Nave and Respighi’s La Fiamma.

In 1920 Raisa and Rimini were married. They continued to sing together and later taught together.





Photograph of Raisa by Daguerre Studio, Chicago. “To Miss Elizabeth Stein Remembrance Rosa Raisa Chicago, 1920.”


In the 1919-20 season Raisa became identified with a significant new role, Bellini’s Norma, staged for the first time in Chicago in 25 years.

The overwhelming event of the 1919-20 season was the death of Cleofonte Campanini. The company gave him a farewell as theatrical as his life had been, with a memorial at center-stage of the Auditorium, home of the Chicago Opera.

Raisa had married Giacomo Rimini, the Italian-Jewish baritone in 1920. They continued to sing together and later taught together. 

In the 1920s, the company toured the country, delighting audiences everywhere with performances of Mary Garden’s Cleopatra and Rosa Raisa in Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess). 

In 1924 Toscanini engaged Mrs. Raisa for the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy, to create Asteria in Boito’s posthumous opera, Nerone, and most significantly, to create the title role of the icy Chinese princess in the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [pronunciation] on April 25, 1926.
Rosa Raisa as Princess Turandot. Full-color poster for the world premiere of Turandot, April 25, 1926, at La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy. Turandot is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, posthumously completed by Franco Alfano in 1926, and set to a libretto (the text of an opera) in Italian by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni. Soprano Rosa Raisa created the title role.






In 1936, she sang Leah in the American premiere of Rocca’s The Dybbuk in Detroit.

The couple’s Chicago home was in the Congress Hotel. One of Raisa’s voice students in the late 1930s, Charlotte Pomrenze Handwerger, described the scene in an interview with Chicago Jewish History Magazine: “A beautiful fourth-floor suite on the northeast corner of the hotel, with a bay window overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Mrs. Raisa, impeccably groomed, dignified, wearing pearls, with pulled-back hair, would be seated at the piano. Giacomo Rimini was present, as well, during some of the sessions––a large, imposing man. Their daughter Giulietta ( born in 1931), would sometimes pop into the room. Each summer, Raisa, her family, and servants would pack up and move their household to Italy, to their villa near Verona.”

Charlotte chose to marry young and raise a family instead of pursuing an operatic career––much to the disappointment of Raisa, Rimini, and Charlotte’s parents. (Her father, Dr. Herman M. Pomrenze, was a leading figure in the Labor Zionist movement.) She did go on to sing for many years, in choruses, including Max Janowski’s. Her husband, Robert Handwerger, was the cantor at Temple Emanuel for 43 years (1945-88). 

Chicago Jewish History Magazine spoke with another visitor to the Raisa-Rimini home in the 1930s, Tybee Hyman Grais. Tybee would accompany her good friend and cousin, the late Shirley Hyman Cotton, to her voice lessons, and would help out by turning the pages of the music as Shirley sang. Tybee remembers Raisa as being a wonderful, gracious lady, who included the girls in the dinner parties she held in her suite. Giacomo Rimini would act as cook, preparing heaping plates of pasta. Tybee remembers the thrill of going from the hotel through the underground passage––called “Peacock Alley”––beneath Congress Street, directly into the fabulous Auditorium for an evening of opera. 

In 1937, upon retirement from the stage, they opened a singing school in Chicago. 

Lois Salter sent me this 1943 photo of her mother, Shirley Hymen Cotton - (July 22, 1917—August 28, 1987), who was a student of Rosa Raisa.
Professional Name: Shirley Sorrelle, 26 years old, Soprano.
Photograph (Nov. 23, 1943) - George Nelidoff Studio, 721 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.





She would say, “We sang together, we quit together, we teach together.” After Giacomo Rimini’s death in 1952, she retired to her Pacific Palisades home with her daughter. She divided her time between California, Chicago, and Italy and returned here for many performances of the young Lyric Opera. She gave her entire opera wardrobe to the Lyric in 1956.

In the mid-1950s Mrs. Raisa maintained a vocal studio in the Fine Arts Building at 410 South Michigan Avenue. Across the hall was the office of the young theatrical manager Danny Newman. In 1948, he had married the great Yiddish actress Dina Halpern. Mr. Newman would listen for the departure of Mrs. Raisa’s students, and when she was free, they would converse in Yiddish through the open doors of their offices, so as to improve his Yiddish language skills.

Despite Mrs. Raisa’s hopes, Shirley did not pursue further operatic study––although, like Charlotte, she did continue to sing professionally.

Rosa Raisa was a star in Chicago’s first golden age of opera in the early decades of the 20th-century. Before her death in 1963, she encouraged and applauded the beginnings of Lyric Opera’s current golden age.

Her last local performance was at an outdoor concert in Grant Park in 1938. Only World War I or serious illness could keep her away from her adoring fans in Chicago.

Indeed, Rosa Raisa would remain the backbone of the Chicago Opera Company’s dramatic wing for over 20 years. She sang all the great roles. The volume and intensity of her voice were magnificent. 

Records never fully captured her voice, not the records of those days. But it was a huge voice of wonderful warmth and color, and it belonged to the most warmhearted woman. No doubt one of the reasons for the lavish language is that it was impossible to hear her in opera without being emotionally stirred. She was generosity itself, on and off the stage, and her voice and presence shared the color and opulence of the great roles. Raisa’s voice struck straight at two vulnerable places: the spinal cord and the heart.

The audience at the October 4, 1963 opening night of the Lyric Opera of Chicago season found a rose pinned to every theater seat. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Rosa Raisa who had died on September 28, 1963, and the house was decorated with some 3,700 roses donated by Medard C. Lange.

The opera being performed that night offered a particularly apt memorial to Chicago opera’s great Jewish soprano. Verdi’s Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) is about the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and contains the stirring “Va, Pensiero,” the chorus of the captive Jews on the banks of the Euphrates. They think of home and sing the nostalgic words, “Fly, my thoughts, on golden wings.”

Rosa Raisa is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, Los Angeles County, California.

by Bev Chubat
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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