The lives of the three friends were connected professionally; they worked together many times.[2 Rita's family and upbringing was middle-class. Her father, Domingo Montaner Pulgarón, was a white pharmacist and her mother, Mercedes Facenda, a mulatta; she herself was short in stature, moderately good-looking with a fine smile, and intelligent. She learnt English, Italian and French at religious school, and at 10 attended the Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana. There she studied music: solfege, theory, harmony and piano; at 16 she started on voice lessons. She was from the start a potential star: her first press notice came in 1912, her first press photograph in 1913, in 1915 she received two bronze medals for piano.
In 1917, Montaner played Mendelssohn in her final examination at the Peyrellade Conservatory in Havana; she graduated in piano, song and harmony with a gold medal. Rita married a lawyer, Dr Alberto Fernández Díaz, in 1918. They had two sons, Rolando and Alberto. The marriage lasted until his death in 1932, and she married again, twice. At the end of her life, when she died of cancer, there were widespread public demonstrations of grief at her funeral. She had embodied the feelings of a turbulent era between Cuban independence and the Castro revolution. March 1922 saw the launch of Rita's career at a concert of typical Cuban music in Havana, organized by the composer Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, a friend of her family: he persuaded her husband to let her appear and sing.
From then on, no husband could stop her! She performed twice in May, on piano, then as a singer. in major lyric concerts. In October, she sang on the first radio broadcast in Cuba. Rita Montaner in 1923 Next year, Montana had a full professional program of work. She sang duos with Eusebio Delfín, and solo, pieces by Alberto Villalón, Ernesto Lecuona, Sánchez de Fuentes and others. She sang a duet from La Gioconda by Ponchielli with the soprano Lola de la Torre, and solo on other opera pieces, for example, Caro nome from Verdi's Rigoletto.
Alejo Carpentier wrote his first article for La Discusión in praise of her voice and vocal technique. Rita's voice had a huge range, from mezzo-soprano (or perhaps soprano in her younger days) to slangy rough black Afro-Cuban numbers (see discussion at Voice classification in non-classical music). Rita's career continued along similar lines for several years. Her work as a singer and pianist with such maestros as Lecuona, Jorge Anckermann, Delfín, Sánchez de Fuentes and Gonzalo Roig was successful and immensely respectable, as befitted a middle-class married woman of those times. Gradually, however, a change began as she became fully adult.
She performed in popular, but slightly vulgar theatre (Zarzuela; bufo); she travelled to other countries; she became a recording star. It became clear that performing in public was the most important thing in her life, and this was hardly compatible with her role as a bourgeois wife and mother. The first signs of change came in 1926, a year which started conventionally enough... In 1926 Rita sang on stage to Lecuona's piano in his 7th Concert of Cuban music at the Teatro Nacional. On vacation in New York she needed an appendix operation; after recovering she performed at a benefit concert for the blind.
Then she auditioned for the Schubert brothers, impresarios, who offered her a contract. Significantly, perhaps, her husband returned to Cuba. She made her debut in the Schubert Follies together with Xavier Cugat at the Apollo Theater. Later she had a great hit with a review entitled A night in Spain.
Back in Havana, she made her debut on stage in zarzuelas in 1927. Playing in La Niña Rita, o La Habana de 1830 (music by Eliseo Grenet and Lecuona) she sang the Congo-tango Mamá Inéz. The title role here was played by Caridád Suarez, with Rita in blackface and male drag as El Calesero (the coachman). The second one-act work on the same program was the premiere of Lecuona's La tierra de Venus, where Rita sang Canto Siboney, which is still a Latin standard. Her three-octave voice was perfectly suited to creolized lyric music.  Montaner la diva From 1927 to 1929 Rita recorded about fifty numbers for Columbia Records, including hits from the revues and zarzuelas she appeared in, such as Ay, Mama Inés, Siboney, Noche azul, Lamento esclavo, and the first recording of El manisero (Peanut Vendor).
She went to Paris for the first time, performing at the Olympia and Palace theatres. Still in Paris, she appeared in Josephine Baker's Revue. Here, according to Gonzalo Roig, she began to change, becoming more bohemian, something of a diva, and generally more competitive and combative.  In November 1928 she returned to Havana. In 1929 Rita travelled to Madrid and Valencia, then to Paris before returning to Cuba in 1930.
In 1931 she travelled to Broadway under contract to Al Jolson for his musical Wonder Bar, which was set in a Paris night-club, for which she was by now more than qualified! When she was in Cuba, Rita had a regular engagement at the Edén Concert, a nightclub right in the centre of Havana (Zulueta Street, near the Parque Central). Armando Romeo, later orchestra leader at the Tropicana, gave an interview later in life: "There we would be, with Rita singing: Mejor que me calle, que no diga mas, que tu sabes lo que yo se! (Better I shut up and say no more, since you know what I know!) —while outside the caberet walls you could hear shooting in the streets." The shooting in the streets was President Gerardo Machado trying to keep control. In 1933 Rita went to Mexico City, with Bola de Nieve as her accompanist. She put him on the bill under his nickname, without consulting him. "It was the greatest favour she did in my life!" was Snowball's perhaps ambiguous comment.
Bola was already of the opinion that she was becoming unbearable. "Rita's shows at the Teatro Iris were triumphant, but her mouth got the better of her" (Sublette p390). She mocked Agustin Lara's favourite singer Toña la Negra (María Antonia Peregrino 1910–82), who had been a fan of hers, and the press built up a vendetta between them. Lara announced that she was prohibited from singing his compositions.
Montana moved to the Teatro Politeama for a revue. Singing, with Bola on piano, she had a huge success, with people standing on their chairs. Rita had laryngitis at the final concert in her honour, so Bola filled in for a triumph which launched his career. On 1 April 1933 she married Ernesto Estévez Navarro. He was born in Cárdenas, Cuba, but had been deported to México.
They were divorced in 1938. Montaner next organized a smaller company with Pedro Vargas, whom she injudiciously paid in advance. In El Paso, Texas, Vargas denounced her as an enemy of Mexico, hoping to prevent her return to his country. "Rita tore into him, and told him he was a priests' faggot (and much else!)" Bola said later in life when interviewed about her. Rita, furious, left the company, and Bola found himself looking at a third-class ticket to Mexico City. The arrival of sound in films had created new opportunities for musicians, and Montaner launched on a new career as a film performer.
After a musical number in a 1934 film, she made two films in 1938. Radio, too, was developing as a mass medium which was wide open to musical talent. La Montaner was to make good use of both these opportunities. But by now her temperament was getting out of control.
Gonzalo Roig retailed the story of her sacking from the Lecuona show María la O at the Teatro Martí. During a duet with the tenor about the rekindling of betrayed love, she began to tear his clothes off on stage! That was a step too far for the management. She divorced Ernesto Estéves in 1938, and married in 1939, for the third time, to the advocate Dr Javier Calderón Poveda. In 1941 Rita worked up a sketch of habits and popular criticism, interspersed with songs, which occupied a segment on the CMQ radio program La suprema corte del arte. She invented the personas of La Chismosa (Gossip) and La Marquesa, as a vehicle for an attack on corruption and the happenings of the day. This ascerbic commentary on social and political events had its effect: CMQ pulled the segment a month later! A year later, RHC-Azul gave her a program Yo no sé nada (I don't know anything!) to do the character La Chismosa again, and again the government (Fulgencio Batista's first term) applied pressure to get it taken off the air.
Much later, in 1946, she had a third chance. CMQ gave her a program Mejor que me calle (Better I shut up! – a line from one of her songs) in which her street character, Lengualisa, had a side-kick Mojito (Alexandro Lugo). When the government (Ramón Grau's second term) tried to bribe her, she talked about it on the program! But, on the day of the first anniversary of the program, her brother (a policeman) was killed in a drive-by shooting. It surprised no-one that the culprits were not found.
The program continued until February 1948. There was, however, a warm side to Rita, in the way she helped people who were in need. The famous Tropicana cabaret opened in Marianao, Havana, at the very end of 1939. The best-known choreographer there was called Rodney (Rodrigo Neira). He was a former dancer who had contracted leprosy: he became disfigured, poor and socially isolated.
Rita intervened to save him from the leprosarium, supported his family and gave him accommodation in her house. She also helped Chano Pozo before his career took off. She got him a job at the radio company RHC-Cadena Azul as a door-man and bodyguard. There he sang and played conga in his spare time; he was first hired as a musician by the Havana Casino orchestra. Read more on Last.fm.
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