October / 14

Immigrants, Women, and Singers in the early twentieth century 

Mariela Ceva (CONICET-Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas; CIS-IDES-Centro de Investigaciones Sociales- Instituto de Desarrollo Económico y Social)  

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, approximately two million Italians arrived in Argentina. Most of them were peasants, farmers, and industrial workers, but there were also businessmen, teachers, musicians, and artists. In all cases, people were looking for opportunities that could not find at home. 

Photograph of Adelina Agostinelli with her signature. Source

Among this large and diverse group, some arrivals on the shores of the Río de la Plata were female singers. One of them, Adelina Agostinelli, born in Verdello, Bergamo in 1882, developed a successful career as a soprano. In just 8 years, she sang on various European stages and in countries such as Argentina, Chile, and the United States. At the age of 21, in 1903, Adelina made her debut at the Teatro Fraschini in Pavia singing Fedora and Tosca. She appeared with Giorgio Quiroli, who had been a teacher at the Milan Conservatory and would soon become her husband. Quiroli appeared to open many doors for Adelina: he had been a renowned teacher, he had a long relationship with South America, and he had solid ties with theater managers while he was an artistic director. Adelina Agostinelli’s career and migration offer insights about several things. What did the opera singers who arrived in Argentina in the first quarter of the century know about the country? How did they learn this? What routes did they follow to ultimately end up in South America? 

​Those who embarked on tours had the support of other family members; professional knowledge about the world of performance was commonly shared from parents to children. This family influence was common in many European countries. In addition, successful artists brought parents, siblings, and neighbors with them. In part, the bonds established during their training as well as their family backgrounds contributed to the development of individual performing careers. The truth is that Adelina soon had a dizzying career. Between 1903 and 1928 she sang on more than thirty stages throughout the world and became a diva in her time.

Her appearances were discussed in specialized magazines and in national newspapers. Her world was one that bridged the Atlantic. Compared to others, she also had a relatively brief career, one that lasted only two and a half decades and which she gave up in her late 40s. ​

Despite early fame in Europe, Adelina Agostinelli was unknown when she arrived in South America. That quickly changed. The coverage she received in Argentine newspapers made her and other artists like her quite well-known. As a result, just two months after her arrival, Agostinelli appeared on the front pages of newspapers and her performances were publicized as “grandiose spectacles”.  ​

The case of this Italian woman reveals a dense web of relationships that allowed for her mobility and that enabled her to advance professionally. In this sense, between 1906 and 1908 the achievements of Agostinelli (and those of her husband) were remarkable. In many performances, Adelina Agostinelli appeared with Titta Ruffo, an internationally-acclaimed Italian baritone. Her work with this artist placed her in a privileged place in a competitive world of these singing divas. 

After 1910, Agostinelli decided to settle in Buenos Aires. The closing of this period would be at the inauguration of the Teatro Coliseo de Zárate, in the province of Buenos Aires. On this stage, on October 14, 1928, Adelina’s singing career came to an end.

Adelina Agostinelli singing Tu che le vanità (from the opera Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi) in 1910

In the case of Agostinelli, her career and her connections how show one’s professional career was not limited to a single theater or manager; instead it was in constant evolution. Agostinelli and other artists performed at several great opera houses such as La Scala, the Metropolitan, and the Teatro Colón, as well as at other lesser known, less imposing theaters, ones that were further away from the great metropolises, in places such as Paraná, San Nicolás, and Zárate, in Argentina. There, these singers interacted with communities and local cultural figures, and with journalists, who in the cultural or social pages not only wrote favorable reviews, but also encouraged readers to attend the performances.

In some reports, journalists described women like Agostinelli as great modern divas. Yet in cases such as this one, they were not just modern women operating in a transnational world but also women supported by a traditional structure: family. 

The story of this soprano reveals the contours of a history of a group of professionals who crossed national borders and who benefitted from the opportunities that their skills and networks afforded. They were stage artists; professionals on the move; women who in some cases became migrants and adopted one of their many destinations as their new place in the world. 

Further Reading
  1. Mariela Ceva. “Las aventuras de una soprano italiana en América del Sur. Adelina Agostinelli. (1882-1954).” Studi Emigrazione, LVII, n. 219, 2020. 
  2. Mariela Ceva. “Del artesano a la prima donna: actores de un proceso entre materialidad, circulación y espectáculo.” En Bernasconi, Alicia; Ceva, Mariela y Devoto, Fernando J. Grandes ilusionesMiradas sobre la historia de los teatros del litoral rioplatense, Teseo, Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires: 2022. 
  3. Mariela Ceva. “El mercado musical italiano en la argentina entre 1895-1914.” América Latina en la Historia Económica, 29(2), 1, 2021. 

Immigrants, Women, and Singers in the early twentieth century