Then & Now | Carmela Cafarelli, Opera Diva and Harpist

(Carmela Cafarelli in costume. WRHS Library.)

Carmella Cafarelli (1889-1979) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and began her musical education at the age of four under the tutelage of her father Rocco Cafarelli, a renowned Italian harpist who had immigrated to Cleveland in the 1880s.  When Carmela was eight years old, master harpist Henry B. Fabiani settled in Cleveland and became her mentor and tutor until his death in the 1920s.  At age 12, Cafarelli began playing harp for visiting opera companies in Cleveland. From 1918-1921, Cafarelli was solo harpist for the Cleveland Orchestra.

A desire to study voice led Cafarelli to Italy to attend the Conservatoria Santa Lucia and the Reale Accademia Filarmonica Romana where she earned diplomas in both voice and harp.  She made her operatic debut in Florence in 1923, and toured Italy for the next 3 years.  While her time in Italy was successful, she wished to return to the United States.  The State Department, however, blocked her return declaring that her 1918 marriage to Italian citizen, Allesandro Chiostergi, had made her an Italian subject. The Italian government also denied her a passport because her husband had become a naturalized American citizen. Re-entering the U.S. on a visitor’s passport, she regained her American citizenship and divorced Chiostergi in 1932.

In 1934, Cafarelli formed The Cafarelli Opera Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and presented Madame Butterfly. Well into the 1960s, the company presented an annual opera in Masonic Auditorium, with Cafarelli often taking on the role of the leading soprano herself.  In the 1940s and 1950s, the company was the only local opera company in Cleveland.  Carmela Cafarelli obtained numerous honors and awards for her musical talents including the “Serata d’Onore” (Night of Honor), a prestigious Italian opera award.


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