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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an item in the
Louisiana Historical Quarterly

published by the
Louisiana Historical Society

The text is in the public domain.

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 p318  A Modern Quasimodo

Victor Hugo's Quasimodo, the Dwarf described in his "Notre Dame de Paris," had a near duplicate in New Orleans, as we learn from an old clipping from the Times-Democrat of nearly two decades ago. Many of these romances are found in our cosmopolitan city, but few of them have their story told in such an interesting way as is done in this instance. It is given as follows:

There died a few days ago in an obscure room, dimly lighted, across from the French Opera House a remarkable character — a character as interesting as those created by the master romancers. He was one of the unhappy beings who come into the world dowered with great gifts and hampered in the expression of them by physical disability. Possessed of a tenor voice that would have made him famous had he been gracefully formed, his stature and physiognomy prevented him from singing save in a chorus, and even then the peculiarities of his construction were such that he could not appear without exciting comment. The well-groomed men and the fragrantly-attired women who saw and laughed at him in the French Opera House did not even know his name, nor could they distinguish in the singing of the impersonal chorus his fine, well-trained voice, nor know that the diminutive little man at whom they laughed possessed a soul that burned with the sacred fire.

A. Rapetto was the little man's name. He was an Italian. For forty years he sang in the chorus of the French Opera in New Orleans, and sometimes traveled abroad with the troupe. Music was the passion of his life, and the light and glitter of the stage was as the hearth fire of home to him. He loved the delicate effects of an orchestra consummately trained and led by the skill and fervor of a master; he delighted in the dramatic crash of the voice and the instrument, and though he knew that he could never thrill an audience by the fine things which he felt he was able to perform with his voice, rather than not sing at all, he sang in the chorus. His last words were: "Oh my poor theatre! I shall never see you again!"

Rapetto was not five feet tall. Like Quasimodo, he was a dwarf, stout and ungainly, none of the grace of his mind nor the power of his voice showing in his awkward body and limbs. On a short neck was set a great head dominated by a nose of surpassing magnitude, an assertive, threatening nose such as made Cyrano de Bergerac fight for the pleasure of fighting. Had this head been placed on a tall, well-formed body, even the nose could not have prevented recognition of the genius of the singer, but nose and body combined killed  p319 his ambition in the bud; for how could a hero with such a nose and such a body adequately interpret the grand ideas and emotions of an opera. It was impossible. The people would have laughed as they laughed when he showed himself in the chorus.

Rapetto took his disappointment like a man. Not only had he been a student of music, but he had acquired something of the sculptor's art. During the daytime he had made busts of plaster and sold them when he could. A good part of his time was spent in designing statuary figures for the Carnival floats.

"He was little and not very pretty," said an attaché at the French Opera House, "but he was a fine man, yes. He was a good, noble man, and brave, too. He did not mind when the people in the theatre laughed at him, but he made everybody else understand that they could not make fun of him."

Rapetto was a philosopher. Recognizing that destiny had prevented him from carrying out the high ideas and using the superior gifts with which he had been born, he accepted the situation without complaint and did not, as in case of many others under the same circumstances, become soured because of his affliction. He knew that he could not ever be a great singer. He knew that, as a sculptor, his ability was limited. But life, such as had been given to him, he enjoyed without useless recriminations. His love for singing he gratified and at the same time made something out of it, and when he was not working for the Carnival organizations he amused himself by making busts of the head of his church and the hero of Italian nationality — Leo XII and the intrepid Garibaldi.

Despite his lack of physical beauty, Rapetto was twice married. During his younger days he married a chorus singer, and a week before his death he married his housekeeper. By his first wife he had a daughter, who married Mr. Rosi, a watchmaker in Bourbon street. This daughter and her husband are both dead. But Mrs. Julie Lambert, daughter of Mr. Rosi, and granddaughter of Rapetto, is living. She sang in the chorus of the French Opera Troupe last season, and is at present with the troupe in New York. Thus, grandfather, daughter and granddaughter have all sung in the chorus of the French Opera House.

A few years ago an accident added to the natural misfortunes of the old chorus singer. One night he stepped on a trap, the trap gave way and he fell through it, breaking both legs. After a while he was able to go back to the stage, his voice being still unimpaired; but he had been growing stout and the weakness of his limbs was such that he finally, much to his sorrow, had to abandon the footlights  p320 altogether. The last year of his life he spent in his front room across from the Opera House, where he could look at it, working there in a hopeless way among his plasters and his casts, for he missed the music and the light of the stage, and he died with the thought of them in his mind — a poverty-stricken singer and sculptor.

The house where Rapetto lived is in Toulouse street. Last night the alley leading to it was dark. in a rear room sat Rapetto's widow, a thin, weak-looking woman. Talking to her was an old lady of strong countenance, and black eyes — an old lady with white hair and black dress and a cloak in which a rose was fastened. The room was bare and comfortless. That day the furniture of six rooms in the house had been sold for $12.50 — six beds and six armoirs and the accompaniments.

The widow did not have a picture of Rapetto, but the old lady volunteered to obtain one from a neighbor. After a few minutes she reappeared with the neighbor and a large crayon drawing of a man about twenty-five years old with a very large nose.

Mrs. Rapetto had acted as housekeeper for the dead man. A week before his death they were married. Most of the conversation was carried on by the old lady, who said that her name was Mrs. R. Benbury, and that she was a daughter of Gen. C. Lacoste, who in his day was a rich sugar planter and a member of the Legislature.

"I went to the St. James convent and the Ursuline," said the old lady, "and I had everything I wanted; but now I have only one little room, and I must work hard to keep myself in that. My husband and I went all over the North together. He served in Fenner's Battery and was spoken of as a very brave soldier."

"She has a son, but he doesn't do anything for her," said the neighbor.

"Oh, he is all right," replied Mrs. Benbury, "I simply do not know where he is at present. I did, however, try to get a pension for my old man, but the lawyer who took my money did not do anything. I was without a cent and asked him to help me with a little change. He said that he would compromise on a bottle of wine; but I told him that I would not drink with a rat."

Mrs. Rapetto said that her husband had died from cancer. She showed the visitor in the front room. There were busts of McKinley, Garibaldi, Leo XIII and Archbishop Jansens. On all sides were evidences of the little man who had worked there; but the singer and the sculptor had left the place forever.

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Page updated: 19 Apr 06