Josephine Busalacchi Rottman was not the typical 1950s housewife when she decided that she wanted to try singing.
By singing, she meant opera.
So Busalacchi, as she became known professionally, began taking voice lessons. Then the mother of three daughters, she first did ironing in exchange for her private voice lessons. She was good and soon no one cared if she did the ironing.
In 1957, Busalacchi became the first Metropolitan Opera Auditions regional winner from Wisconsin. "She won the Chicagoland Music Festival, singing before 100,000 people at Soldier's Field," said her brother, Tony Busalacchi. It was a rare win for someone not from Illinois. Other triumphs followed. The soprano made her local debut in the Florentine Opera Company's production of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" at the Pabst Theater. She toured nationally with Boris Goldovsky's company, singing opposite Sherrill Milnes in "Tosca." She even sang on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Busalacchi decided that, as supportive as her family was, she could not continue to pursue a national career that kept her away from Milwaukee. Instead, she continued to sing in the Midwest. In 1965, with her husband and brother, she launched the Milwaukee Opera Company, later known as the Milwaukee Musical Theater. Busalacchi, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease a few years ago, and passed away in 2005. She was 79.
She grew up in the Third Ward, where her father ran the Busalacchi Macaroni Co. "I can remember playing among the bags of semolina," she once said. Busalacchi graduated from Lincoln High School and later married Richard Rottman. She loved her family but wanted something more, too. "Some women play bridge well and others can cook and sew," she said in one interview in 1957. "I wanted some means of expression, something I could do well (besides the dishes and the laundry) and so I tried to become a good singer."
Busalacchi later admitted that she was petrified as she began competing and performing in national circles. "I swallowed two lumps of sugar for energy and then prayed to God," she said, following the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in Minneapolis. "And I had never been on an airplane before I flew out here to New York," Busalacchi said of the trip that followed.
Professionally, she was known only by her maiden name, her brother said. "Her rationale was that her voice was Busalacchi - not Rottman - and besides, if you're going to sing opera, an Italian name goes farther than a German one," he said.
Believing that a company was needed to give local singers the chance to develop, they began the Milwaukee Opera Company.
"It lasted for 30 years," Tony said. The company did a variety of performances, also bringing the likes of "Hansel and Gretel" into local schools.
Busalacchi handled much of the production and direction. Although she was not in every production, the company's name really became synonymous with her own.
"Josephine could be a diva, but she would do anything for you," said Jeffrey Olson, now costume shop manager with the Skylight Opera Theatre.
"There were many, many young singers who would have never had any kind of career, but for her," he said.
Busalacchi's husband, a Miller Brewery worker, provided more than just moral support.
"Whenever the opera company was in a pinch, he wrote a check," Tony said. Richard Rottman died in 1996.
In 1998, the Civic Music Association named Josephine Busalacchi its Distinguished Citizen.
Music remained her refuge.
"They were still playing operas for her at the Lutheran Home," her brother said, adding the music she loved seemed to ease the symptoms of her Alzheimer's disease.