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Who Was Antonio Paoli?

Essay by Néstor Murray Irizarry, 

director of the Center for Folkloric Research of Puerto Rico

“I only regret that you were not born earlier, because you are the greatest and most humane interpreter of my Otello”.

In Verdi's autograph to Paoli in “Rides and visits”. The Newscast, Valencia, Spain, 1904 .


     Music is a language and communicates ideas through sounds; and it expresses a particular ideology, at a given time and in places determined by a certain type of aesthetic that is not necessarily valid for all times. "The present of each area" - says Olivera - "contains its past and these products are the crystallization of the expressiveness of each era".

      In Paoli and Verdi similar characteristics and aspirations coincide. Both teachers, in their respective areas of creative work, maintain a fervent patriotism. Sincerity, simplicity and rectitude will be constant guides in all your lives. Passionate about nature -Paoli and Verdi- liked to stay in direct contact with the flora and fauna.  

      Verdi crowned his life at the age of 74, with Otello, uniting Shakespearean tragedy with Latin musical genius. His evolution as a composer has been interpreted in many different ways. His technical mastery evolved a lot, it is true, but the peculiar qualities and characteristics were always the same. It is very curious to note that Paoli, above all composers  “classics”, he always had a preference for Verdi. Nature is stronger than the will.

      The great authors almost always achieve new directions in art. On this side, there is no doubt that Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) cannot be considered a great author. However, he always kept his spirit open to new trends, and was able to leave an artistic production that synthesizes the evolution of a whole century of music, which is why he can be considered a great author.

      Verdi is a "liberal" author par excellence. It is known that as a politician, he was a revolutionary. For some time, some of his works came to mean a battle cry, of revolt. And Verdi's personality is all the more interesting. And Verdi's personality is all the more interesting, since the evolution of Italian music embodied in his work is extremely interesting.

      The true testimony of love for the country is fundamentally built on the pedestal of our own cultural identity expressed in the origins of our being and our destiny. The artistic work, as a tribute to strength and life, as longing and aspiration, travels latitudes and advances over the domain of continents. Antonio Paoli, equipped with all the expressive means at his disposal, enriched the great operas of his time.

      Antonio Emilio Paoli y Marcano (b. April 14, 1871, Ponce—d. August 24, 1946, Santurce) performed Verdi's Otello, according to the tenor himself, five hundred and seventy-eight times during his successful international musical career.

      Paoli always had for all the difficult situations of the soul a gesture, a look, an attitude that externalized them and gave them relief, and that is the work of Paoli and of the great artists, of those who know how to feel human passion, in everything. what she has of terrible and beautiful:

“…because in Paoli, the phrase comes from the heart, passes through the brain and takes its musical form in the privileged throat. And that is where the secret of his triumphs lies, that is why he dominates and moves his listeners, because he knows how to live his character…”.

      The prominent writer Luis Bonafoux-Quintero (1855-1918) who lived for many years in Europe, particularly in France and Spain, referring to the debut of his "compatriot" at the Paris Grand Opera in 1899, commented:

  "Last night he sang at the Grand Opera in Paris, achieving a real triumph, the Spanish tenor Antonio Paoli..."

“…In Paris there is a tenor, and that tenor is Spanish… he is very Spanish, although Puerto Rican and from Ponce; Spanish by feelings, by ideas, by character, by customs, even by the figure, with the addition of the Mazzantini cape and the round hat to go to rehearsal at the Grand Opera in Paris. Spanish of good stock is his whole family”.

      Antonio Otero Arce, who since 1876 was head of the Bazar Otero Ponce institution, had the privilege of witnessing Paoli's debut in Paris on the night of April 30, 1899:

“Imagine our friends the joy of this Puerto Rican, from Ponce at the same time. The emotion overwhelmed us to the point of wanting to shout to everyone: He is our countryman. It's from Ponce."

      Otero Arce affirmed that on no other occasion had he felt such an intimate pleasure when attending a theater. Otero would have liked to have his family, all his friends and music-loving townspeople by his side, in short, someone to whom he could palpably express how his nervous system vibrated and how great his pride and satisfaction were, which reached him to the limit. deepest of your feelings.

      The tenor himself commented that very young he was taken to Spain, and that

“I am intimately Spanish, never American: my language is Spanish; even more: my religion is Spanish, because I am an apostolic Catholic.” However, he always felt Puerto Rican and his nostalgia for his country was continually expressed:

“Sixteen years ago (1887) I went out, still a child, leaving the smiling beaches of my beloved land to search in different regions, what was difficult to find here (in Puerto Rico); means of progress and elements to realize the aspiration of being a good fighter in the eternal struggle of those who aspire to a better future. And when, back in the old continent, I was able to obtain the award for my efforts by feeling flattered, by the applause of the DILETTANTI of Barcelona, Paris and London, in those moments that represented victory for a pilgrim absent from the homeland, the memory This one came to my memory and the triumph made me more pleasant, to my never forgotten countrymen, as a tribute of my adoration to the blessed Puerto Rican land. Today I realize this aspiration; and in presenting to you the product of my artistic efforts, if I can get my countrymen to give them their sanction, I will feel a thousand times happier and prouder than when in strange lands, I bowed to the thunderous applause. Greetings, then, gentle Nereid of these seas in which an eternal rhythm of light and poetry seems to accompany the placid murmur of the waves that give kisses of love to the flowery cradle of Agüeybaná.

Save Homeland!”

      It is very important to point out that Paoli's beautiful and profound expressions, a reflection of his indisputable love for his blessed land, were written in 1901, at the age of thirty, a time of great success for the tenor in Europe, and he himself year he undertook an international tour of artistic triumphs with his performances of Wagner's Lohengrin operas; Otello and The Troubadour, by Verdi. In his full swing Paoli gives his people the best of his art. According to Jesús M. López, Paoli's historian, the year 1901 was the time when Paoli offered the largest number of recitals in the main cities of Puerto Rico in his native country.

      In the newspaper La Bruja de Mayagüez it was commented that Paoli was a Puerto Rican celebrity and that later his name "will be universal", sealed with the enthusiastic applause of the public in Europe and America. The correspondent, who had recently heard Paoli sing, gave his opinion and observed that since the tenor had left the first lyrical scene in France, from the Paris Grand Opera, to go to the United States, “he has been parading his merits in triumph race through the main cities of the world”. They also rejoiced at the power of Paoli's talent, who drew applause from everywhere, moving audiences, regardless of the most opposite temperaments, from the enlightened German, to the phlegmatic English, to the Russian and the Austrian. He wondered, then: Isn't it portentous that latitudes and climates disappear due to the power of an artist, ethnographic reasons are erased and the fussiness of patriotism is muted?...

      When Paoli disembarked in San Juan in 1901, he was cheered by hundreds of people who had come to the dock to welcome him with music.

      In 1900 he married a young Austrian named Josefina Vetiska in Vienna. When he returned to Puerto Rico in 1901, on a honeymoon trip, he offered a concert in the San Juan Cathedral and another in the present-day Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe Cathedral in Ponce, where he gave thanks to God for the gift of his voice. It is also presented in Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico, Central America and New York.

      On May 31, 1901 Paoli, accompanied by his wife Josefina and before a large crowd of the public, sang in the Cathedral of Ponce in a solemn party in honor of the Virgin Mary organized by the Daughters of Mary of the Stately City.

      In addition, that same year the Spanish colony in San Juan sponsored an evening-concert by Paoli, at the Casino Español, on the night of July 24. At the end of the first act, Paoli received a nice gift consisting of a watch; pendant of a lyre, all bronze, fire-gilded, with stone garrisons and with a declaration engraved on the back of the clock, which read as follows: "the Spaniards of Puerto Rico, to the eminent tenor and compatriot Antonio Paoli." The organizers of this evening considered Paoli a glory of Puerto Rico and Spain at the same time.

      According to Antonio Arnaldo (Tonino) Paoli, his only son, and the fruit of his marriage to Josefina Vetiska, on his first visit to Puerto Rico in 1962: “…as an artist, my father was considered an Italian in Italy, and in Spain, a Spaniard”. Affirming, on that same occasion, that he had come to deny “the lie propagated by so many that my father had once denied being Puerto Rican…he loved Puerto Rico dearly and showed it by coming here to live his last years and die.”

      The outcome of the Spanish-American War, according to his son, depressed and disappointed Paoli. The attitude assumed by Puerto Ricans in 1898 in the face of the results of the North American invasion, especially in his hometown, Ponce, moved the tenor for considering it an "improper act."

      Paoli always wanted to give his best to America and his country, particularly to the town of Ponce, where unfortunately he had difficulties. On June 23, 1922, he returned to Puerto Rico, after twenty years of absence. He sang in San Juan and Arecibo. In Ponce, the tenor had to authorize the placement of a poster, in front of the Broadway Theater, announcing the "suspension of the act due to lack of public." The tenor apologized and took pleasant and sad memories from his town.

      The eminent musicologist and teacher Arístides Chavier (1867-1942) commented on the act of grievance, in Ponce, against Paoli:  

      “And when that artist, enjoying a world consecration, prepares to make us sharers in the beauty and charms of lyrical art …And offers the native star the brilliance of his fame, then it is necessary to agree that such an artist must gloriously occupy the highest summit moral of our respectful admiration and affection.”


      Chavier, an eyewitness to the entire event, narrates that the leadership of the Juan Morel Campos Club: Juan Carlos Ramos, Eustaquio Pujals, Fausto Percy and Federico Ramos Escalera appeared at the Hotel Maliá, together with the mayor Francisco Parra Capó, Pedro Albizu Campos and a large representative crowd of the "simple townspeople". In the Club Morel Campos the "great Ponceño" was splendidly entertained. Chavier affirmed that that "demonstration of the people was the most humane thing that the noble people of Ponce have witnessed."

      In New York, Paoli received the news that an article had been published in the newspaper El Día de Ponce accusing the tenor himself of being “bad Puerto Rican.” Indignant Paoli writes about this incident:

“…The coat of arms of my entire life, and the deep love that I profess for the island where I was born make the… accusation fall from its base…”

      The following year, 1923, and on a tour of Cuba, he insisted to the journalists of the time that “I was born in Puerto Rico…”. Also, in 1939 he emphasizes that he is an "authentic jíbaro"... and that...

“I have never denied my country, despite the fact that I still hold Spanish citizenship. I cannot deny it… I am not a citizen of Puerto Rico because such citizenship does not exist. That's it".

      Nine years ago he had confessed to the same journalist José A. Romeu that he never denied that he was Puerto Rican and from Ponce and that he spent his childhood in the Forty Strings, a field located near El Vigía;

“How well I remember everything! All those scenes from my childhood are still vivid in my memory. I can talk about the guasimilla, the calambreña, the jácana, the guayaba, the almacigo, the caimito, the mamey, the jagüey, the cupey, the guamá… I descend from Spaniards. I am proud to belong to the Latin race whose superiority over the Saxon race I believe to be undeniable”.

      Paoli thought that the United States of America was a progressive people because they had the money, the strength, the initiative, the mercantile and entrepreneurial spirit. They represented, for the tenor, the material part of human progress, which for Paoli was not synonymous with culture and civilization. It is very different, he said, to own large organizations, buildings that reach the clouds, enormous factories, millions of dollars, than to reach supremacy in everything that means spiritual progress, art and letters.

      Paoli commented that the North American people is a "child" people because it was in the "Childhood" of its evolution. Hence, adds the tenor, he does not approve of Puerto Ricans "adopting their uses and customs here," possessing, as we do, a civilization and a history inherited from our ancestors. Puerto Rico, in his opinion, must reaffirm "the values of its race, and not distort them...".

      In a review that appeared in 1925, it was commented that Paoli's glory is the glory of Puerto Rico, and it is the most solid and beautiful that a human being can aspire to. Paoli not only represents for the people of Puerto Rico a genuine value whose consistency stands out vigorously among the most eminent singers of Europe and America, but he is also a "true lover of this country," who now recognizes him with all the affection and love of their collective soul, … and for whom the inimitable tenor does not deny him the opportunity to hear him once before marching through strange lands…”.

      It is very fair to remember that Paoli in 1928, among other presentations he made in Puerto Rico, sang the opera Otello, by Verdi, with the International Opera Company at the Municipal Theater of San Juan. At the end of this work, the theater was shaken by his interpretation of Otello, "as had never been heard...". Paoli also sang in the same theater and period El trovador, by Verdi. The applause of the public present in the theater was “robust, crazy, endless”.

      Antonio Paoli dearly loved his country and Spain. The human being who never tired of repeating that "my heart is loyal and my friendship sincere" lived his whole life proud and grateful to the Spanish people.

      In Spain Paoli knew the greatness of the Augustinian spirit in the centuries-old classrooms of the Royal College of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. He studied and cultivated his culture, under the direction of the Spanish Augustinian Fathers, from the age of fourteen. Paoli was a Tertiary of the Order of San Agustín de El Escorial. There the infanta Isabel de Borbón heard him sing and from there he left for Italy where he became a great singer.

      To the royal protection of Queen María Cristina, mother of the last Catholic King of Spain, Don Alfonso XIII, Paoli owed his career and that of his brothers Carlos and Amalia.

      For this reason, in irrefutable proof of his gratitude to Spain and its Queen, Paoli kept his Spanish nationality until his death.

      The Paoli Academy, founded in Puerto Rico by Amalia and Antonio in 1929, and later the organization of the Paoli Conservatory in 1932, is another sincere example of the respect and love that Antonio Paoli felt for rescuing the musical values of his country. .

      It is very fair to remember with admiration and respect the human being who kissed the sands of our beaches a thousand times. To the great Puerto Rican pilgrim and ambassador, without an embassy; the proud squire, without a shield, who traded his sword for his vibrant voice; and who, in the absence of a shield, created his own…his original shroud.

Hail Pauli!

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