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Did I ever tell you your great-grandmother was Madame Patti?’ These were the words, casually dropped into conversation over tea that lit the spark of my interest in Adelina.

I was home on holiday from Florence, Italy, and my mother and I had been catching up on family news, but nothing had prepared me for any surprises of this kind. I shook my head, perplexed. Madame Patti? The name sounded familiar but like many people I couldn’t remember exactly who she was. My mother paused for a moment as though unsure whether to continue, but then looked me straight in the eyes and gave me the most incredible piece of information. ‘Of course, Madame Patti was one of the most famous opera singers of her time. A great lady. Italian. With a castle in South Wales.’ Seeing my raised eyebrows she added, ‘You can believe the story or not. In any case, perhaps you would like to do a little research when you get back to Florence.’

So how on earth could Adelina Patti have been my great-grandmother? I had always understood my granny was an orphan, brought up by two fashionable dressmakers in London. My mother knew no more. She had heard the story from her older sister quite recently, and perhaps she might be able to give me some further information. Naturally my interest was highly aroused, but mixed with slight scepticism. However, when I returned to Florence I took out membership with the British Institute Library, and with the help of my husband up a tall ladder and a friendly librarian, I discovered a row of dusty books on the top shelf of the music section that were about to change my life.

Although I was busy running a small business and looking after a family, I found time to devour book after book along with century-old newspapers and magazines. I visited the archives of theatres and museums on several trips to London and later in 1989, I headed to Wales to see Adelina’s Victorian-Gothic castle, Craig-y-Nos, which at the time was empty and falling into disrepair. Today, the castle has been restored and is used as hotel and events venue, with mementos of its former illustrious owner on display throughout the building.

Recently I read that a biographer should fall a little in love with the person they are writing about and begin to think and feel like them – and this is what was happening to me. The more I discovered about the life of Adelina, the more fascinating she became; captivating, intelligent, courted and adored, she was the unrivalled Queen of Song and the first real star of the operatic stage. Her private life too was enough to fill the pages of a book, including her three very different husbands and scandalous affairs. Often egocentric when she was young, she became kind and generous, as she grew old.

Gradually, from my research and notes, I formed the idea of writing a book. After all, if Adelina really was my great-grandmother (and I had come across several clues that pointed in this direction), I felt I owed her a new biography. The only comprehensive one I had found dated back to 1920. Since then others have written about her, one can read about her and see pictures on the Internet and one can also hear a recording of her voice made in 1906 when she was an elderly lady.

But then there were several more changes in my life in Italy. I moved southwards from Florence and finally settled in Umbria; the idea of a book was almost forgotten, until one day I came across my old typewritten manuscript. On reading it through again I thought, ‘Why not try to get it published?’ I rewrote it several times on my computer until I was satisfied. I hope it will spark interest in Adelina’s fantastic life on and off the stage, and I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Yvonne Rogers Read the full review on Agora Classica


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