Giacomo Volpi (Lauri was a later addition to distinguish him from two other tenors of the same name) was born on December 11th 1892 in the little Italian village of Lanuvio to the south east of Roma. Orphaned at the age of 11, he was sent to the seminary of Albano for secondary education and
continued with law studies at the University “La Sapienza” of Roma. After graduation, he won second place at a singing competition and began vocal studies at the Academia di Santa Cecilia in Roma under the tutorship of the legendary baritone Antonio Cotogni, then 83 years of age, reputed as one of the finest vocal teachers in Italy. Their relationship and Lauri-Volpi’s studies were cut short by the onset of the First World War, and when Lauri-Volpi returned, a captain with a distinguished fighting record behind him, Cotogni had died. He fell out with Cotogni’s successor, Enrico Rosati, and eventually left the Academy.
Lauri-Volpi managed to make a name for himself in New York and enjoyed immense popularity and status as the Met’s prime tenor during the 20’s, appearing in some 232 performances in a total of 26 operas. This included the American premiere of Turandot in 1926 with Maria Jeritza as the princess and the first Metropolitan Luisa Miller in 1929 with Rosa Ponselle as Luisa.
He stayed with the Met until 1933. In his last two operatic seasons, when the Met fell under hard times, and contrary to other rival tenors, he accepted contractual salary cuts proposed by Gatti-Casazza, the then General Manager of the Met. His motives were allegedly to pay homage to Gatti-Casazza, whose authority had disciplined and gathered, in America, celebrated singers from many nations. He then returned to Italy, as did Gigli.
The fascist uprise in Italy prevented him from leaving the country and Mussolini regarded him highly both as a singer and writer. However, high exponents of the fascist regime as well as the media considered Lauri-Volpi to be an enemy and extraneous to their propaganda, partly why he sought “exile” in Spain. Lauri-Volpi had planned to return to the Met for the 1940-41 season, but the onset of World War II changed his plans. Mussolini made him a full colonel in the Italian Army and he often served singing at patriotic and military functions.
After the war, Volpi kept touring a large part of Europe incessantly, always returning to Burjasot in Spain, his second home away from home, with his beloved Spanish wife and voice mentor, the soprano Maria Ros. His international reputation was not damaged due to his alleged fascist sympathies, and his reputation for having been the favourite tenor of Mussolini son, Bruno, did not prevent him from appearing in allied countries: England (1946/54), France (1947/49/52), Belgium (1947/48/49), Portugal (1946), Denmark (1947), Sweden (1947) and Holland (1954). In post-war years, his presence yet again was becoming highly acclaimed but his voice had deteriorated slightly. Still, he received considerable popular acclaim well into the 50’s. He performed in public until 1959, when he sang as Manrico (Il Trovatore) in Rome.
Lauri-Volpi had also become the epitome of a divo with his many outbursts of latin temperament and self-indulgent appraisal of his own instrument throughout his career. His hot temper caused many a disagreement with both envious fellow soloists, opera directors and conductors, especially Toscanini (yet he chose Lauri-Volpi at the expense of Pertile to tour Berlin in 1929), as well as stage personnel and orchestra members. He was very proud of his voice, “la voce solitaria” as he coined it, and alas, very outspoken, and this alienated him many people. He was at the same time a highly cultured man, unusal for a tenor, and particularly respected for his many insightful comments on music and vocal training, many of which he published, counting Cristalli viventi (Roma, 1948), Voci parallele (Milano, 1955), and Misteri della voce umana (Milano, 1957).
Even though at an old age, Lauri-Volpi enjoyed stunningly good health, more the reason why his death on March 17 1979 came somewhat unexpected. He died in Burjasot near Valencia, at the age of 86.