Born Raitza Burchstein in the Russian sector of late nineteenth-century Poland, Rosa Raisa ascended with blinding quickness to the upper echelons of the operatic world. A child witness to a pogrom in which dozens in her hometown were killed, young Raitza left her Russian-language native town and traveled to Italy where she trained with Barbara Marchisio who grounded her in the early and middle nineteenth-century Italian vocal tradition. After a successful Italian debut, she came to the Chicago Opera in the fall of 1913. There she remained for 24 years as reigning dramatic soprano. The lustre of her powerful instrument and the dramatic intensity of her stage personality made her an icon of the Chicago company, regarded with awe and respect throughout the world.
Raisa’s parents were Jewish and she remained fiercely proud of her heritage throughout her life, although she converted to Catholicism only weeks before her death in order to make possible burial next to her husband in Italy. Raisa left Poland for Italy, where other relatives had already emigrated. An audition for Maestro Vincenzo Lombardi led to a scholarship at the Naples Conservatory with Marchisio accepting her not as a class member, but as a private pupil. Marchisio also counseled the girl with the “exceptional” voice in matters of career preparation, good health, and adequate sleep. Raisa graduated in June 1911 and sang “Bel Raggio” for the ceremony. After performing in several orchestral concerts, she made her operatic debut on September 6, 1913, at the Teatro Reggio in Parma. Her Leonora in Verdi’s Oberto prompted the reviewer in Orfeo to describe her voice as “magnificent, rich in sonorous and powerful notes of beautiful timbre.” Although reservations about her awkwardness were mentioned, the writer predicted, “she will be splendidly successful.”
Only two months after her first performance on any stage, Raisa sang in Baltimore and Philadelphia before making her Chicago debut, singing first at a singers’ showcase at the Blackstone Hotel, then as Aida. The following January, Raisa sang the only secondary role of her career, taking on the First Flower Maiden in Parsifal. Her first Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company tour took her to Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Milwaukee before the end of April 1914.
In May 1914, Raisa sang at Covent Garden, introducing her voice to English audiences in Aida and later singing Elena in Mefistofele and the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro. Paris heard her as Nedda and Desdemona and Modena made its acquaintance with her in a long run of Zandonai’s Francesca di Rimini. Rome followed, then a season in Buenos Aires. Raisa made her La Scala debut in 1916, again as Aida. Later, she created in that theater the role of Asteria in Boito’s Nerone (1924) and was the choice of Puccini and Toscanini for the title role in the 1926 premiere of Turandot.
In 1920, Raisa married Italian baritone Giacomo Rimini. They sang together often and, upon retirement, opened a school of singing in Chicago. Critics were fond of Raisa, absorbed by her dramatic intensity and authority — and a voice described by the feared Claudia Cassidy as “a royal purple dramatic soprano shot with gold and fire.”
Rosa Raisa as Maliella