The Tampa River Walk

Norma Tina Russo

Norma Tina Russo (1902-1977)

Prepared by the Historical Monument Trail Selection Committee, Friends of the Riverwalk.

 

            Born on August 7, 1902, in Naples, Italy, her original name was Concetta Centonze, but she was called “Tina” from the beginning.  Her mother was Amalia Fratta and her father Luigi Centonze.  A soprano, she began her career at fourteen by singing in Naples for internationally famous Enrico Caruso.  He was sufficiently impressed to recommend her to his own mentor, Francesco Vergine.

            She made her debut at 19 with the San Carlo Opera of Naples, singing in Carmen.  An article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on March 14, 1946, confirms that she was recruited to the United States by the director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but did not report the truly exceptional terms of her contract.  Translated into English, it read:

With this private contract duly signed, the Director of the Caruso Theatre (Academy) of New York will pay the artist Signora Norma Tina Russo (Tina Centonze) the salary of $400.00 per night, less 10% payable to [her agent].  The artist (Lyric Soprano) is scheduled to appear for sixty (60) consecutive performances commencing May 14, 1923.  The artist is to be furnished transportation (first class) from Naples, Italy to New York, with a benefit performance [in Naples] at triple salary ($1,200.00) before beginning this contract.

            A guarantee of $400 per performance, with a minimum of 60, meant that she was promised a salary of $24,000 – a huge amount at a time when most people earned only $2,000 or $3,000 per year.  Exactly when and why she added “Norma” as her first name isn’t known, but as in the contract above, she usually was called “Tina,” not “Norma.”  Newspapers of the era usually termed her “Mrs. Russo.”  That was the usage in a La Gaceta article on March 2, 200l, when writer Eugene Cropsey said: “In the next nine years, she met with great success performing in recitals and singing various operatic arias in the concert halls of New York and New Jersey.”

            But the promise of her 1923 contract was not to last, probably because of pregnancies.  She had married Pasquale Russo in Italy, before coming to America, and they soon had three children, all born in New York:  Anthony, Rosetta, and Lya (pronounced “Leah.”)  By 1932, the family was in Ybor City, and Tina Russo never would return to the New York stage.  The La Gaceta article said that it was “a fateful vacation [that] left Mrs. Russo stranded in Tampa with no money, speaking little English and three small children to care for.”

            According to her granddaughter, Carol Olive of Brandon, Pasquale Russo took his family to Tampa on a pretended vacation and abandoned them.  The year, 1932, was the depth of the Great Depression, and having been pregnant three times during her nine years in America, it was doubtful that any impresario would be interested in promoting her return to New York.  Pasquale’s motivation in leaving his family is unclear, but although he occasionally returned, Tina had to support their children by teaching music.

            She did this primarily under the aegis of the federal Works Progress Administration, more commonly known as the WPA.  It was an agency of the Democratic New Deal that restored the economy, and Florida was unusual in that its branch for the arts was headed by a woman, Carita Doggett Corse of Jacksonville.  Corse is in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, and it is likely that she and Russo knew each other.

The WPA ended with the beginning of World War II, and Russo finally divorced her estranged husband in 1946, the year after the war ended.  Meanwhile, she had become an American citizen in 1939, the year that the war began in Europe.  Benito Mussolini was a fascist dictator in Italy by then, and as an Italian citizen, she would have been considered an enemy alien after the US entered the war in 1941.

Her certificate of naturalization, dated October 27, 1939, was for the US District Court in Tampa.  She was listed as “Concetta Centonze Russo,” and the document included a photo.  Data on other personal identification said she was female, age 37, was 5 feet, 4 inches, and weighed 125 pounds.  Her hair was brown, while her eye color was described as “black.”  Skin color was “white” and “complexion” was “rosy.”  The blank for marital status said was filled in with “married,” but the form did not require the spouse’s name.  Nettie Tidwell, Deputy Clerk of the US Court in Tampa, signed the document.

During the next decades, Russo went on to produce many recitals, concerts, and grand operas, often under the aegis of the Italian Club, which still is extant on 7th Avenue.  She also taught voice and helped charitable organizations by producing benefit performances.  Perhaps her biggest contribution to Tampa was in bringing numerous New York stars here.  Her crowning achievement may have been in 1962, when she hired young Placido Domingo for Madame Butterfly:  it was only his second appearance in the United States.

Opera is the most expensive of arts, and several times she mortgaged her house to pay debts.  Her complicated financial arrangements can be seen in that the various companies she managed included the Sun State Opera, San Carlo Opera, and L’Opera de Florida.  These constant financial difficulties were heightened in 1969, when a burglar broke into her Central Avenue home and stole much of her valuable collection of music artifacts.  Worse, he beat her so severely that she lost sight in one eye.  She nonetheless produced Rigoletto from her hospital bed.

Her artistic friends showed their appreciation when they contracted with Hollywood star Bob Hope to attract a large audience for a retirement fundraiser at the Lakeland Civic Center in May 1976.  Bob Hope was strongly associated with USO shows during World War II, and Russo had produced benefits in Florida for that organization, too.  Seventeen of the 27 individual sponsors listed on the 1976 program were associated with the Brandon Opera Guild; corporate sponsors included La Gaceta, the Lakeland Ledger, the Orlando Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Tampa Tribune/Times.

An article in the Tampa Tribune at the time emphasized the point that Russo voluntarily took on this debt because she wanted to improve the quality of life in Tampa.  She told reporter Bruce Jones:  “When I first came to Tampa there was no culture at all.  Nobody sang anything.  We just had a jungle.  That’s the truth.”  The article also emphasized the importance of Russo’s culinary abilities:  “Tenor Giuseppe Campora of Italy…said, “I come here all the way from the old country for her lasagna, not to sing opera.”

Governor Reubin Askew had presented Russo with the First Annual Governor’s Award for Fine Art in 1970; in the photograph of that, she is wearing sunglasses to hide her eye injury.  She died February 15, 1977, at age 74, and is buried in East Tampa’s Garden of Memories.  Two years later, in 1979, mayors Nick Nuccio, Bill Poe, and Bob Martinez joined together to proclaim “Norma Tina Russo Day.” 

Nearly a quarter-century after that, famed impresario Anton Coppola honored Norma Tina Russo by dedicating the world premiere of his 2001 opera, Sacco and Venzetti, to her memory.  Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in Massachusetts in 1927 for reasons that probably were more political than criminal, and their cause attracted worldwide attention, especially among Italians.  The Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was packed, and Opera News gave the premiere a rave review. 

A few days earlier, an operatic tribute to Norma Tina Russo was held at Hyde Park’s Friday Morning Musicale.  At that time, La Gaceta quoted former Mayor Dick Greco:  “With undaunted courage and determination, Mrs. Russo not only brought international talent to the area, but also offered the opportunity for development and growth of local talent.”  The following year, in 2002, the Italian Club immortalized her with a bronze plaque in the Grand Stairway of the historic building.

Metropolitan Opera diva Licia Albanese said of her friend:  “To me, Norma was a woman of undeniable charm and beauty.  I was always struck by her beautiful face with its white-rose complexion…framed by her black hair and accentuated by intense dark eyes.   Moreover, she was a good soul with a heart every bit as beautiful as she was to the eye.”