Meet Nicola Stame, an Italian tenor and war hero who fought fascism and was murdered by the Nazis

As you face the main entrance of Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, on its right side runs a street, Via Torino, where on the theatre’s wall hangs a large, despondent laurel wreath.

Many years of midday sun have bleached the colour from the foliage and the tricolore ribbon attached to it. The wreath sits below a stone plaque which says (in Italian):

In 1939 in this theatre, while rehearsing Puccini’s Turandot in the role of Calaf, the tenor NICOLA UGO STAME was arrested for anti-fascism. For the courage of his ideas, after being tortured in Via Tasso, he was slaughtered with Nazi ferocity on the 24 March 1944 at the Ardeatine Caves

© Lalupa, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

There is so much to digest in this epitaph. But the first question is certainly this: who was this Nicola Stame, the rare tenor who not only played the hero but who was actually heroic?

When was Nicola Stame born?

Born in 1908, Nicola Stame – Ugo to his family and friends – grew up in Puglia, in the town of Foggia, birthplace of the composer Umberto Giordano. As the child of a single mother, his life was hard. Poverty was rife. At a time when bread cost 45 cents a kilo, a farm labourer might earn just one lira a day. Politics became riven between Mussolini’s populist fascism and those who believed the solution to widespread poverty was socialism. Ugo reached adulthood during the early years of Mussolini’s dictatorship, but he had no time for Il Duce.

Today professional sport has become a golden ticket out of poverty and on to unimaginable wealth. In the first half of the 20th century, the prospects for an Italian tenor were equally rich. There was a huge demand not only in Italy itself but abroad – particularly in the US and South America with their vast populations of Italian immigrants – where Italian opera was so dominant that even German and French operas were commonly sung in Italian.

When did Nicola Stame become an opera singer?

Like many other tenors who grew up in relative poverty – such as Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli – Stame had little or no musical education. We don’t know when and why he decided to pursue a precarious career in opera, but whatever long-term ambitions Ugo may have had were overwhelmed by the immediate need to earn a living; to take care of not only himself but his mother and his younger sister. So when he turned 18 he joined the Italian air force and learned to fly.

Stame’s final posting as an airman was outside Rome, at Ciampino. In 1933, now 25, he hung up his uniform to move into the city and study singing. It was quite common for talented singers in the armed forces to be discovered by well-to-do officers with a love of opera, who ‘invested’ in the singer’s career by paying for their training, so perhaps Ugo had been heard singing and urged by his fellow airmen to give it a go.

Over the next six years he studied in Rome with various conductors and distinguished singers. He married a fellow singing student and had his first child, Rosina, known as Rosetta; then, despite his aversion to Mussolini, he re-joined the air force twice and flew on missions to Ethiopia and Spain. There are no records detailing the 31-year-old tenor’s path to his big break as Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot at the prestigious Rome Opera. But, however tempting it might have been for the sake of his career, Stame steadfastly refused to join the Fascist Party.

Nicola Stame and fascism

In early August of 1939, while mid-rehearsal singing ‘Non piangere, Liù’, he was arrested for his non-compliance. The doors of Italy’s major houses were now closed to him, and he spent two months in jail. Within weeks of his release, Ugo’s next role was as the defiant Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at a theatre in the Circo Massimo. He was a marked man, constantly under surveillance by the secret police.

In April 1940 he sang in Tosca again, in Bergamo. A local critic wrote: ‘Young in years and a novice on stage… he sang the top register with great ease. Thunderous applause greeted him after the famous romance of the third act “E lucevan le stelle”, which he had to repeat at the insistence of the public.’

A month later and with Italy entering the war, he was recalled to the air force despite being branded a security risk. During the next three years Stame found himself alternating between bouts in uniform and appearances on stage, often doing both when he gave concerts for his air force comrades. He sang in Rigoletto, La bohème and Cavalleria rusticana in various houses in Rome and the provinces, while secretly becoming more involved in the communist group La Bandiera Rossa (The Red Flag).

After Mussolini was kicked out of office in 1943, celebrations were short-lived. Within days the Nazis were on their way to Rome. Stame had a chance to escape with his family to South America, where an impresario had already secured offers of work. But Ugo was stubborn. His country had to come before art. He told his daughter Rosetta: ‘It’s not politics. Right now, the choice is to be a man, or not be a man.’

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When was Nicola Stame captured by the Nazis?

Wearing his uniform, Ugo purloined weapons from the air force and joined the motley gang of soldiers, carabinieri and students who gallantly tried to stop the Nazis entering Rome at Testaccio. He went into hiding and took part in various small partisan raids, but was eventually betrayed and captured in January 1944, along with other members of La Bandiera Rossa.

Ugo was put in a cell in the Via Goito police station with an 18 year-old called Claudio Pica, whose family was constantly in trouble for advocating communism. Pica would soon adopt the stage name of Claudio Villa and become a star ‘popular’ tenor.

In the 1980s Villa described in his autobiography ‘a man with a romantic appearance and a warm and harmonious voice that could only be that of a tenor. His name was Stame. I didn’t know much more about him, not even his first name. Many years later I saw a photo of him and almost had a heart attack. That martyr had been my cellmate.’

Stame was taken to the Gestapo’s notorious headquarters on Via Tasso (now a museum to the liberation of Rome) where he was beaten and tortured, but said nothing. A German war tribunal sentenced him to five years imprisonment. In the Regina Coeli prison in Trastevere, in his tiny, gloomy cell, Ugo sang every evening – usually ‘Recondita armonia’ from Tosca.

A fellow inmate, Roberto Guzzo, wrote: ‘The voice vibrated melodiously. As it increased in volume, in tonality, the notes rose, filling the air with sweetness, our hearts with passion. We listened to him enraptured in religious silence. Even the gruff Teutonic guards listened in meditation.’

How did Nicola Ugo Stame die?

On 23 March 1944 on Via Rasella, a group of partisans ambushed the SS-Polizei-Regiment ‘Bosen’, killing 33. Retaliation was swift and fierce, with orders from Berlin that, within 24 hours, ten Italians must be executed for every dead German. In a frantic effort to meet the deadline, anyone suitable – no matter how insignificant their crime – was added to a list of potential victims, and a location was found where the executions could be carried out quickly and secretly.

The next day, meat trucks collected the selected men from various prisons and took them to Fosse Ardeatine, an old underground quarry close to the Appian Way and the Catacombs of St Callisto. The Nazis led the men into the tunnels of the quarry in groups of five, made them kneel, and then shot them in the back of the head. Among the 335 victims – five too many were rounded up but slaughtered anyway – were 70 Jews, several teenagers, two actors, five artists, a priest, and one musician: Nicola Ugo Stame.

After the executions were complete, the mouths of the quarry were destroyed with explosives in an attempt to obliterate evidence of the massacre. But within days, a dreadful stench hung in the air, and suspicions were aroused. In his autobiography, Stame’s former cellmate Claudio Villa claimed that he was among the first to raise the alarm.

After the war, the bodies were exhumed and a monument-mausoleum created in the Fosse Ardeatine. In Stame’s jacket pocket they found a toothbrush, a pitch-pipe, and a tuning fork in its case.

In 1994, an American news crew found former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke living in Argentina, where he had escaped after the war. Priebke had been the officer in charge of checking the list of victims at Fosse Ardeatine and had shot two of them himself. He showed no remorse and was shocked to find himself extradited to Italy to face charges of war crimes.

At his trial, one of the main witnesses was Rosetta Stame, Ugo’s eldest daughter, who was six when her father was shot. After she told a newspaper that Priebke had tortured her father, Priebke sued her for libel. He won the case and a settlement of 70 million lire (about €35,000). The judgment was overturned on appeal – he had indeed tortured Stame – but Rosetta Stame still had to pay all costs.

Priebke was first acquitted of war crimes on the defence that he was obeying orders. But on appeal he was convicted of murder, because he was ultimately responsible for the deaths of the extra five men at the massacre. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1998, he lived under house arrest in Rome. He was occasionally seen eating out in restaurants, and died in Rome in 2013 at the age of 100. After a funeral mass, the former SS officer’s body was seized by the Italian authorities and buried in a secret location.

Nicola Ugo Stame had two streets named after him – in Rome and Foggia – but we have no memorial of his voice. His family had for many years what they believed to be recordings of Ugo singing arias from Il trovatore but, cruelly, these turned out to be by Aureliano Pertile. No recordings survive of the heroic Puglian tenor.

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