THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nisei songbird Toshiko Hasegawa soared in Italy and beyond

bioline_Greg Robinson

This week’s column, which forms part of our series uncovering the fascinating story of Nikkei opera singers, centers on the Nisei soprano Toshiko Hasegawa, who lived in Italy and distinguished herself by her performances of Cho-Cho-San in Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and other parts, starring at opera houses such as Milan’s La Scala.

Born in Sacramento, Calif. to Tatsunosuke and Shige Hasegawa, Toshiko Hasegawa spent her early years in Stockton, where her family ran a dry goods store. According to her own later testimony, she was a tomboy as a child, and preferred playing outside to taking music lessons. One day, however, she attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” in Sacramento, and was so thrilled by the spectacle that she resolved on becoming an opera singer. After attending the University of the Pacific in 1929, she moved to New York to study singing with Arturo Vita. She spent five years doing music training in New York and Boston. In the fall of 1934, she returned to the West Coast, where she sang a concert on KTAB radio, then performed a recital, featuring a mix of arias and Japanese songs, on a Christmas program sponsored by the Japan Society of San Francisco. In February of 1935, Hasegawa was invited by the San Francisco Opera Association to perform the second act of “Madama Butterfly” as part of a larger benefit concert. The concert marked the company’s first performance by a Nisei. Following her performances, Hasegawa embarked on a recital tour that took her to such nearby cities as Stockton, Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Toshiko Hasegawa in the Pacific Citizen
photo by/courtesy of Greg Robinson

Sometime in mid-1935, Hasegawa moved to Milan, Italy for further training, and began singing studies with conductor Angelo Ferrari. In February of 1936, she made her European debut as Cho-Cho-San as a guest artist in Bologna, Italy. Shortly after, she sang “Madama Butterfly” and “La Boheme” at Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, Poland. In 1937, she made her French debut in a benefit performance of “Butterfly” at the municipal theater in Enghien, near Paris. That same year, she sang in Portugal at the Coliseu de Recreios in Lisbon. In January 1938 she sang “Butterfly” in Palermo opposite tenor Mario Filippeschi, then sang the same role shortly afterward in Monaco at the Theatre de Monte Carlo. In 1939, she opened the new Arena del Corso theater in Fano, Italy, with a performance of “Butterfly.”

During the late 1930s, Hasegawa toured South America four times with Italian opera companies. In November of 1936, Hasegawa visited Sao Paulo, and sang “Madama Butterfly” and “La Boheme.” Interviewed by the Japanese Brazilian newspaper Burajiru Jiho, she stated that she was especially happy to be in Brazil, “because there are so many Japanese here and so at least I can speak Japanese.” (In fact, Hasegawa had been to Japan only once, as a child, was unable to read Japanese writing, and mixed her Nihongo with English, Nisei-style). The journal reported that her most fervent wish was to eat Japanese food while in Brazil, and more broadly to do something for Japan as it would be a future center of world culture. In September of 1937, she sang “Butterfly” with the Compania Lirica Italiana at the Teatro Argentino in La Plata, Argentina. In 1940, she was able to leave war-torn Italy and return to South America, where she sang “Butterfly” to great reviews and audiences in Sao Paulo. A local Japanese newspaper described her as “our dancing princess.” After her performance in November of 1940 in Rio de Janeiro, the newspaper El Imparcial raved, “It is a pleasure to hear Toshiko Hasegawa, a perfect artist, who has a admirable vocal timbre that gives the opera of Puccini an uncommon interpretation.”

Hasegawa resided in Italy during the war years. While most forms of entertainment were banned by the Fascist government for the duration, opera was permitted, and Hasegawa was able to continue singing and earning money. In 1941 to 1942, she sang in “Madama Butterfly” at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma (opposite the famed baritone Tito Gobbi as Sharpless) and in Leghorn (Livorno). In 1942, she sang a concert in Venice, appearing for the first time at the famous opera house La Fenice. In 1944 she sang “Butterfly” for the first time in Turin. On multiple occasions she sang in Genoa. She also toured Franco’s Spain. In December of 1942, she sang “Butterfly” at the Liceu in Barcelona. During this period, she lived in Milan. When food became scarce, amid the rigors of war and occupation, she dealt with farmers in the surrounding area to provide herself with sufficient food, especially rice. Once Nisei GIs from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team were sent to the area in 1945, Hasegawa invited them to her home for the Christmas holidays, where she hosted them and made them rice and homemade tsukemono (pickled vegetables). Beginning in July of 1945, she sang a set of special concerts for the Nisei GIs.

Despite her multiple engagements, it was only after 1945 that Hasegawa was invited to perform at the famed Milan opera house La Scala. One morning in 1946, shortly after completing an engagement in Genoa, Hasegawa was at her home in Milan when a messenger arrived from La Scala to explain that the regular singer engaged to sing Cho-Cho-San that day plus her understudy had been taken ill. Could Hasegawa sing the role at that afternoon’s performance? Thus it was that she first sang at La Scala, and received praise from the management and from conductor Antonio Guarnieri. Following this triumphant appearance, she began to receive more regular engagements. She returned to South America, where in November of 1948 she sang Mimi in “La Boheme” in Rio de Janeiro opposite the famed tenor Giuseppe di Stefano. In January of 1949, she sang Violetta in La Traviata at the Teatro Lirico in Turin. In December of 1950, she sang Cho-Cho-San in Leghorn (Livorno). It turned out to be a historic occasion because of the appearance of Carlo Bergonzi as Sharpless — it was his last performance as a baritone before he changed to the tenor roles for which be afterward became celebrated.

In 1949, after a 15-year absence, Hasegawa returned to the United States to visit her family, who had been sent to the War Relocation Authority camps following Executive Order 9066, and who had then resettled in Chicago. By then, she admitted, she spoke Italian better than English. In an interview she gave during her visit, Hasegawa stated, “I would like to sing in the country, but only if I were 20 years younger. I could not longer bear the struggle of making a reputation from the start.” She nevertheless agreed to sing a set of arias for the Chicago Japanese American Music Club at a farewell tea in her honor. She added a warning to young singers: “If it were not for my love of acting, I would never have remained on the operatic stage. There is too much politics, too much backbiting. So many singers drop out because of this.”

During the first half of the 1950s, Hasegawa continued to perform around Italy, both in “Butterfly” and other roles — one of her favorites was Nedda in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci.” She returned to La Scala in May of 1951 to sing Cho-Cho-San, performing in alternation with Licia Albanese. In September of 1952, she sang “Butterfly” at the Teatro Alfieri in Turin and then in December sang the same role at the city’s famed Teatro Carignano. In 1954 she sang Cho-Cho-San in Cremona. Most notably, during these years she sang seven times at the Augustus theater in Genoa (fittingly, given her South American tours, the theater where she performed was located on the Corseo Buenos Aires).

I have been unable to locate information on Hasegawa’s later life. However, her career represents a clear example of the opportunities that some exceptional Nisei were able to open for themselves. Toshiko Hasegawa died in Chicago in 1986.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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