Italy’s Tonina Torrielli: ‘I didn’t know I was singing at the first Eurovision’

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When Tonina Torrielli represented Italy in the Eurovision song contest in Lugano, Switzerland, in May 1956, not only did she never discover how well her song performed, as just the winner was announced after a secret vote, but she was not even aware she was taking part in the first edition of what was to become the biggest music competition in the world.

“They packed me off, just like a parcel, to Lugano, without saying what it was for,” said Torrielli, who lives in Turin, where the 66th Eurovision song contest is taking place. “So I went and sang and that was that, I didn’t know it was the first European song contest as nobody was talking about it.”

Her career singing in music competitions lasted until the mid-1960s when she opened a music shop called Maschio on Piazza Castello in the centre of Turin with her late husband, Mario Maschio, who was a drummer.

The shop also became famous, and for the next four decades was the place to go for music aficionados. “Even today, people come and ask: ‘Where is Maschio?’” said Shpetim Xhani, a concierge at the building next door. “It was very well known; people came from everywhere as you could find every kind of music there.”

Maschio may be gone – a clothes shop has replaced it – but music fever is very much in the air as Piazza Castello and other squares and parks around Turin fill with buskers and local musical acts in the leadup to the Eurovision grand final on Saturday.

“There’s a really lovely atmosphere,” said Dino Ricchiuti, who was playing his saxophone steps away from Maschio, where he used to shop for musical equipment. “After two years of the pandemic, which caused a lot of bands to stop working, Turin has sprung back to life.”

Italy is hosting Eurovision for the first time in 31 years after the glam pop band Måneskin won the 2021 edition with a showstopping performance of Zitti e buoni. The band from Rome have enjoyed phenomenal success since, including supporting the Rolling Stones at a concert in the US in November.

Måneskin celebrate after winning the 2021 Eurovision song contest in Rotterdam
Måneskin celebrate after winning the 2021 Eurovision song contest in Rotterdam. Photograph: Peter de Jong/AP

Måneskin’s victory, along with the fact that Italy is this year’s host, has helped revive the contest in a country that has withdrawn from the event on numerous occasions over the last 66 years, citing lack of interest.

In 1974, Rai, the state broadcaster, censored the competition over fears that the title of Italy’s song, Si, sung by Gigliola Cinquetti, who was Italy’s first Eurovision winner in 1964, might have given a nod to the public to vote yes in support of a forthcoming referendum on divorce. Italy last withdrew from the competition in 1997, returning in 2011.

Now the country is the most successful among the “big five” automatic qualifiers, along with France, Germany, Spain and the UK, after finishing in the top 10 in eight of the last 10 contests. Mahmood, who came second in 2019, is again competing this year, singing Brividi, a classic Italian ballad, in duet with Blanco.

“It’s hard to compare this contest with the last one, although we’re very happy to be representing Italy on home soil,” said Mahmood. “We’re really ready for it, and hope to give it our best so that our music gets better known abroad.”

Torrielli got her big break singing competitively in the Sanremo music festival, which began a few years earlier and was the inspiration behind the Eurovision song contest. Still wildly popular in Italy today, whoever wins Sanremo goes on to sing for the country at Eurovision.

Tonina Torrielli
Tonina Torrielli. Photograph: Paola Maschio

Torrielli, nicknamed “Candy Girl” because she worked in a sweet factory, became an overnight sensation when she beat more than 6,400 hopefuls from across Italy to earn a place among the 15 who competed in the Sanremo festival in March 1956.

“The owner of the factory would hear me singing opera songs, and so pushed me to take part,” said Torrielli, 88. Her song, Amami se vuoi, came second, but because the first Eurovision allowed two songs for each of the seven countries that participated, Torrielli represented Italy along with that year’s Sanremo winner, Franca Raimondi.

Torrielli again competed in Sanremo, coming third in 1957 and second in 1958, and travelled the world to take part in other music festivals.

Federico Capitoni, a journalist and music critic, said Eurovision had become more fashionable in Italy, mostly thanks to Måneskin, but Sanremo still ruled the roost. “If you think about who’s participated at Eurovision in the past, nobody remembers who they are,” he said.

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Not quite true. Torrielli, who spoke from hospital, where she had had an operation after a recent accident, still receives fan mail. There is also a page dedicated to her on Facebook, where supporters share clips of her songs.

Surprisingly, however, she is not such a big fan of her own music. “If you asked me the lyrics to my own songs, I wouldn’t remember,” she said. “But ask me to sing the likes of Mi chiamano mimi [by Puccini], I know them all by heart as opera is the music I love.”