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Legendary tango singer Nelly Omar dies, 102

Nelly Omar photographed at her prime, when men would literally die for her.
Started performing in 1924, went through every phase of the music genre of her choice

Argentine tango singer Nelly Omar, popularly referred to as “Gardel in skirts” for her powerful vocal delivery both live and in unforgettable recordings, died yesterday morning due to advanced age health problems for which she had to be hospitalized. She was 102.

She was born Nilda Elvira Vattuone on September 10, 1911, at the La atrevida farm in the small town of Bonifacio, in the Guaminí district in Buenos Aires Province. There were ten children in the family. In 1918, her father, Genoa-born foreman Marcos Vattuone, was one of the organizers of a performance by the José Razzano-Carlos Gardel duo at the town’s Teatro del Pueblo. Nilda met Gardel backstage after the performance. Full of admiration, she later recalled that, “From that day on, I followed in the footsepts of the beloved Gardel.”

Although, as a young woman and in true flapper style, she declared she wanted to be a plane pilot. Her brothers had all enjoyed “baptism flights,” and young Nelly wanted the same for her. “I told my father, ‘Now it’s my turn!’, but he answered, ‘You just wait.’”

Vattuone died an early death from cardiac arrest, leaving his wife to raise the ten children by herself. The family moved to Buenos Aires looking for job opportunities. Nelly started working at a textile factory at age 12 to help her family. All the while, she studied acting, music and dance.

Nelly Omar started singing professionally in 1924, when tango was all the rage here and abroad (where the dance was modified to have less physical contact and became “Ballroom Tango”), Omar was the possessor of a great singing voice and clear, firm phrasing. She gradually built a devoted following until reaching the pinnnacle of her fame in the 1940s and 50s, when she also appeared in several movies. It was on the big screen, precisely, that she performed Nobleza de arrabal and Tu vuelta, two tangos that will be forever associated with her accurate, moving renditions. Other trademark tangos in her repertoire include Sur, Amar y callar, Del tiempo de la morocha, and Manoblanca. Omar also developed an outstanding career as a canción criolla performer, a genre rescued from oblivion by a new generation of musicians.

Omar had her singing breakthrough when she was spotted by tango musician-composer Ignacio Corsini, who took a liking to Omar’s peculiar type of singing a tango repertoire traditionally written for men. With Corsini as mentor, Omar performed on Splendid, Mayo and Rivadavia radio stations. She was only 17 when she auditioned for cello performer Miguel Deledicque, who heard her sing A mi madre. Omar was hired on the spot to join the Cenizas del fogón group. The ensemble was directed by José Luis Suilas, a successful artist at several radio stations.

Between the years 1932 and 1933, Omar sang on Radio Stentor (which broadcast from Florida 8 in downtown BA). She sang duets with a sister. “We used to perform temas camperos, songs typical from the Buenos Aires Province, milonga and canción. But tango I sang solo,” she recalled years later.

Omar cemented her reputation as a powerful, dramatic female voice of tango when she was hired by Radio Belgrano (back then the leading station) to sing on the primetime segments. The scripts for her Radio Belgrano shows were written by no less than the revered tango poets Enrique Cadícamo and Homero Manzi. Omar shared the Radio Belgrano shows with Libertad Lamarque and Agustín Magal-di, two big names in the world of tango.

In 1935, Omar married Omar Molina, a band performer on the radio. Although they separated after just two months, the marriage, legally, lasted eight years. In Omar’s own words, she did not divorce right away out of affection for her mother in law. Although she was later involved in affairs with other men, she never married again.

In 1937 Omar met Homero Manzi, then a buddying tango composer and poet, with whom she became romantically involved. The two shared the same studio at Radio Belgrano. The author of countless tango songs, Manzi is said to have composed the classic Malena in Omar’s honour. According to other sources, Malena was dedicated to Malena de Toledo, an Argentine singer he met in Sao Paulo during a stopover on his way back to Buenos Aires from Mexico. Although the Malena mystery was never solved, Omar did admit that the tangos Solamente ella, Ninguna and Sur were written for her.

As legend has it, Manzi courted Omar for several months, and was so persistent that she warned him that she was a married woman. It was no use, for Manzi continued to flirt Omar more passionately, writing lyrics for her. Manzi went as far as promising her that he would divorce if she did the same.

But Manzi’s efforts to woo Omar were useless. He died prematurely in 1951.

“I felt great admiration for him as a poet. He was not vulgar. I never liked vulgar men,” Omar said in an interview recalling her suitor. “But ours was an impossible love. I was still suffering my failed marriage and decided to concentrate on my career.

“When you’re in love,” she said referring to Manzi, you plunge into it. After he was taken ill I could not avoid having some consideration for him and telephoned him. His family would not allow me to see him. One day I got a 4am call. It was his doctor, who said, ‘Nelly, I sent his relatives home, now you can come to bid him farewell.’”

Omar built a reputation as an ardent woman, and rumour had it that a man committed suicide after she refused to see him. Omar herself confirmed the rumour. “One (of my suitors) committed suicide, for I could not correspond his love. It was March 18 when she told me, ‘If you won’t say yes to my proposal, I’ll kill myself,’ Omar recalled. Three days later, a mutual friend broke the news to her. “I was not moved, because, in my view, you can never be so blind before adversity.”

Omar eventually had an eight-year-long affair with Aníbal Cufré, who died of cholera.

Decades later, in 1993, when she was already 82, she met Héctor Oviedo, whom she defined as “A perfect gentleman. I fell for him, but for him it was something stronger. We were happy.”

Omar recorded her first tango album in 1946 under the Odeón label. Accompanied by Francisco Canaro’s orchestra, Omar sang Adiós pampa mía, Canción desesperada, El Morocho y el Oriental, Rosas de otoño, Sentimiento gaucho, Sus ojos se cerraron, Déjame no quiero verte nunca más, La canción de Buenos Aires, Desde el alma, and Nobleza de arrabal. In 1951 she was signed by RCA Victor, recording a 78 rpm album with Domingo Farafiotti’s orchestra. The album included La descamisada and Es el pueblo, with Fanny Day’s chorus providing background vocals.

Omar forged a close relationship with First Lady Eva Perón in 1940. Years later, Omar said that Evita loved her singing style, and helped her get a spot on Radio Splendid.

“Only once in my life there was somebody who did all that was necessary to let me sing on Radio Splendid. It was Evita, but she did so without my asking her to. She could not understand why I was not given a slot. I paid her back recording the milonga La descamisada and the march Es el pueblo.”

In 1955, following the Revolución Libertadora, Omar was blacklisted for her close links to Peronism.

She travelled to Montevideo, Uruguay, where her friend Tita Merello offered her a singing role on a stage production. Omar then flew to Venezuela, where she stayed for nearly a year.

She returned to Argentina during Arturo Frondizi’s term in office, but retired shortly after.

She staged a huge comeback in 1972 with guitarrist José Canet, and never left the stage again.

—Herald staff with Télam, online media

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