Famous Singers of To-day and Yesterday - Part 8

Part 8

Signor and Signora Gardini had a beautiful estate in the Campagna of Italy, to which they retired between seasons, and where they enjoyed entertaining their guests. Signora Gardini was devoted to the cares of her household, and proved herself to be an excellent housekeeper and an accomplished cook.

In this home nothing was wanting to make it a most delightful place of residence for even such a spoiled child as a prima donna. But alas! this happy life was destined to end very soon. Colonel Mapleson in his memoirs declared that Gerster was a most difficult person to get along with, and now Signor Gardini was forced to the same conclusion, for it was reported that the beautiful prima donna was in the habit of giving way to frightful outbursts of temper. To this cause is attributed the loss of her voice, as well as the loss of her husband. The "Villa Mezzana" was closed, and portions of the estate let to various small farmers. Madame Gerster went with her children to Paris, but soon after moved to Berlin and became a vocal teacher. She was only twenty-eight years of age when at the height of her fame, and at thirty her career was over. Referring to Mapleson once more, who was never inclined to mince matters when he was annoyed by a prima donna, we get the following anecdote. While travelling between Louisville and Chicago, the sleeping-car in which Gerster was travelling broke down and had to be side-tracked. Madame Gerster was requested to change into another car, as it was impossible to continue in the one which she was occupying, but she positively refused to move. She had paid to ride in that car, and in that car would she go and in no other. No arguments could induce her to change her mind. At last an expedient was discovered,--the station agent at the nearest place was a remarkably fine-looking man. He was dressed up and introduced to her as the president of the road. He flattered her till she began to soften, and then told her that the company would be under great obligations to her if she would consent to use another car. He had a Brussels carpet laid from the door of her car to that which she was to occupy, and the lady, pleased at the deference shown to her by so high an official, at last consented to make the change.

Some of the press criticisms of Gerster's performances during her tour in 1881 were highly amusing. The following were selected from a paper published in a large Southern city: "Mrs. Gerster's Lucia is the Lucia of our youth, and our first ecstasies arose as from a nest of flowers as fresh and adorable as ever," whatever that may mean. What it ordinarily described as a walk was pictured in the following mysterious sentence: "Her light tread as of a restless and frightened bird." Some of her trills were described as "aflame with pa.s.sionate intoxication,"

while others were "white and wet with the tears of grief." All this excellence was manifested with "never a scream to mar her singing." Such admirable descriptions must have gone far towards reconciling those who were unable to see and hear the great songstress.

There is and has been much fault to find with American musical criticism. Excellent musicians have been subjected to the vulgar abuse of self-sufficient ignoramuses. A movement was recently put on foot to establish a school of musical journalism, and possibly the following selection, which was written concerning a lady of excellent musical ability and of world-wide reputation, may be allowed here as an argument in favor of a proper training for critics. For absolute vulgarity it may be awarded a first prize. It was written in 1882 in a city which lays claim to civilization, and the only excuse for its introduction is the hope that it may serve a good end.

"The divine ---- was as resolute as usual, which, by the way, she ought to be, being well seasoned. The editor of this paper makes no great pretensions in the way of musical criticism, but when a genuine six hundred dollar grand spiral subsand twist, back-action, self-adjusting, chronometer-balanced, full-jewelled, fourth-proof, ripsnorting conglomeration comes to town, he proposes to hump himself. Her diaphragm has evidently not, like wine, improved with old age. Her upper register is up-stairs near the skylight, while her lower register is closed for repairs. The aforesaid ---- performed her triple act of singing, rolling her eyes, and speaking to some one at the wings, at the same time. Her smiles at the feller behind the scenes were divine. Her singing, when she condescended to pay attention to the audience, to my critical ear (the other ear being folded up) seemed to be a blending of fortissimo, crescendo, damfino or care either. Her costume was the harmonious blending of the circus tent and balloon style, and was very gorgeous, barring a tendency to spill some of its contents out at the top. The Italian part of the business was as fidgety and furious as usual, and demonstrated what early a.s.sociations with hand-organ and monkey will accomplish.

"The venerable and obese freak of nature,----, was as usual, his appearance very nearly resembling a stove in a corner grocery, or water-tank on a narrow-gauge railroad. He was not fully appreciated until he turned to go off the stage. Then he appeared to the best advantage, and seemed to take an interest in getting out of sight as quickly as possible, an effort in which he had the hearty approval of the audience."

Maurice Strakosch, on behalf of Christine Nilsson, brought suit against a paper published in a large town in New York State for printing an article under the head of "Nilsson Swindle," in which the bucolic editor declared that Nilsson was no singer and could not be compared with Jenny Lind; therefore she had no right to charge Lind prices.

Marcella Sembrich, who made her debut in 1877 as an opera singer, is one of the most talented musicians of the century. She was born in Galicia, at Lemberg, in 1858, and was taught music by her father, while very young. She appeared in a concert at the age of twelve, playing both the pianoforte and the violin. She continued her studies on these instruments under Stengel and Bruckmann, professors at Lemberg, and then went to Vienna to complete her studies under Franz Liszt. Here, however, she was found to be the possessor of an unusually fine voice, which she began to cultivate under Lamperti the younger, and she decided to become an opera singer.

Her engagement in Athens, where her debut took place, was highly successful, and she next appeared at Dresden in October, 1878, where she remained until the spring of 1880, acquiring a high reputation. In June of that year she made her first appearance in London, under the management of Mr. Ernest Gye, and was so successful that she was engaged for the two following seasons.

Of the impression made by her in London, one of the critics wrote: "Her voice has been so carefully tutored that we cannot think of any part in any opera, where a genuine soprano is essential, that could present difficulties to its possessor not easily got over _per saltum_."

Sembrich was included with Patti, Gerster, Di Murska, and Albani, as one of "the great lights of the day," in 1880.

In St. Petersburg Mlle. Sembrich once gave a concert which drew an immense audience, all the tickets being sold. The receipts, which amounted to over nine thousand rubles, were handed over to the poor students' fund. At this concert, the audience had the opportunity to admire her in the capacities of singer, violinist, and pianist. As a violinist she could be listened to with pleasure; as a pianist she was considered worthy of a place in the front rank, particularly as an excellent interpreter of Chopin, while as a singer she was one of the "great lights of the day."

Mlle. Sembrich married her former teacher, Stengel, and has for many years made her home in Dresden.

She is an ardent horse-woman, and is said to have called forth a somewhat doubtful compliment from the Emperor of Germany, when her horse became frightened during a military review, and she succeeded in managing the animal with great skill. "Madame," said he, "if you were not the greatest singer in the world, you would be empress of the circus."

In 1897 Mlle. Sembrich made a tour of the United States, singing in concerts in most of the large cities, and fully maintaining her high reputation.

In 1879, at Turin, another young American singer made her debut, at the age of eighteen. Marie Van Zandt came of a New York family of Dutch extraction. Her mother was a singer of some renown, and had been a member of the Carl Rosa company. Marie was taught singing by Lamperti, and after her debut in Turin she went to London, and appeared at Her Majesty's Theatre, where she was well received on account of the freshness of her voice and her unaffected style. The following year she appeared in Paris at the Opera Comique as Mignon, and made such a success that she was immediately engaged for a term of years.

Although her voice was extremely light, it was of sweet quality, and marvellously flexible. Her success in Paris was instantaneous, and she became the pet of society, besides which she was, strange to say, well liked by her fellow artists, and admired by her impresario. Ambroise Thomas, the composer, declared her to be the very impersonation of Mignon, and she sang in that role sixty-one nights to crowded houses. It is doubtful whether any singer ever won more rapid fame. At the end of her season she had impresarios from Sweden, Russia, England, and America offering her engagements. It is said, too, that no less than six composers wrote operas for her, and that Delibes's "Lakme" was one of these.

In November, 1884, Rossini's "Barbiere" was revived, and Miss Van Zandt was cast for the leading part. She was, however, so overcome by nervousness that she lost her voice, and was, in consequence, treated most shamefully by the press and public of fickle Paris. She therefore obtained leave of absence, and played in Copenhagen and other places, appearing in St. Petersburg on December 17th. In 1885, when she returned to Paris, the hostile attacks upon her were renewed, and M.

Carvalho agreed to break the contract. Notwithstanding a riot, which was carried on chiefly by a mob of about a thousand persons, who surrounded the Opera House, Miss Van Zandt made a great success. The people in the house, with a few exceptions, gave her a double recall, men waved their hats, women their handkerchiefs, and there was an immense burst of applause. The rioters kept at the back of the boxes.

She now went to London and created a great impression in "Lakme," at the Gaiety Theatre.

An incident of her early career in Paris carried with it a certain amount of romance. A young Frenchman bribed her cabman to take her to a certain restaurant after the opera, where he and his friends were waiting to invite her to supper. Through the vigilance of her mother the plan was frustrated, but the story of the incident reached America, and came to the ears of a young man who had been an early playmate of the prima donna, and whose affection had grown stronger as time pa.s.sed on.

He went over to Paris, and challenged the young Frenchman to mortal combat. The Frenchman acknowledged the irreproachable character of Mlle.

Van Zandt, but expressed himself as being quite at the service of the gentleman for any amount of fighting. Details of the fight are not on file.

Miss Van Zandt was born in Texas, where her father owned a ranch, and her childhood was spent in the enjoyment of the free life of the plains.

Her family later removed to New York, and then to London. She met Adelina Patti, who was so pleased with her voice that she gave her every encouragement, and is said to have called her her successor. But there have been so many successors of Patti!

A few years after Miss Van Zandt's debut, an amusing rivalry sprang up between her and another young American soprano, Emma Nevada. So bitter was the hostility, that one evening, when Miss Van Zandt was taken ill suddenly during the performance, her friends went so far as to declare that she had been drugged by the adherents of Miss Nevada. Such little quarrels are frequent among prima donnas, and are doubtless largely engineered by the newspapers, whose appet.i.te for the sensational is enormous.

On April 27, 1898, at the mayoralty of the Champs Elysees district in Paris, Marie Van Zandt was married to Petrovitch de Tcherinoff, a Russian state councillor, and professor at the Imperial Academy of Moscow, after which it was announced that she would retire from the stage.



To every opera-goer of the past ten years the name of Nordica has become almost as familiar as that of Patti was during the last generation.

Nordica, or rather, Giglia Nordica, was the name a.s.sumed by Lillian Norton when she made her debut on the operatic stage. She was born in Farmington, Me., and at the age of fifteen, giving great promise as a singer, she entered the New England Conservatory in Boston, Ma.s.s., where she studied voice under John O'Neil. Three years later she graduated from the Conservatory with honors. She was remarkable for her beauty and amiability as much as for her voice, which was a soprano of the purest kind. During her years of study at the Conservatory she gained much experience by singing in church and in concerts, and for a time she accompanied Samuel R. Kelley's Tableaux d'Art Company, receiving for her services as vocalist the modest compensation of five dollars an evening.

[Ill.u.s.tration: _Nordica._]

On leaving the Conservatory, she was invited to sing in concerts in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, and New York, where she took leading parts in the oratorios of "Elijah," "Creation," "Messiah,"

etc. In 1873 she was engaged for a concert tour in England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, and France, during which her repertoire consisted of cla.s.sical music only. During this tour she sang at the Crystal Palace, near London, and at the Trocadero in Paris. She then went to Milan, where she studied opera under Signor Sangiovanni, and made her operatic debut at Brescia, in "Traviata."

In October, 1880, she was engaged at Genoa for fifteen performances of "Faust," in which she took the part of Marguerite. She next sang at Novara, where she took the part of Alice in "Roberto," and was afterwards engaged for thirty-five performances at Aquila in "Faust,"

"Rigoletto," and "Lucia."

Her next engagement was in St. Petersburg, where she sang in "L'Africaine," taking the role of Inez, in "The Marriage of Figaro" as Cherubino, in "Mignon" as Filina, in "Ugonotti" as Queen Marguerite, in "Don Giovanni" as Zerlina, and in "Il Propheto" as Berta, besides other operas. Thus she acquired in a comparatively short time, and by dint of extremely hard work, quite an extensive repertoire.

In 1882 she endured the crucial test of the Grand Opera House in Paris, where, in spite of the "Claque," which is so frequently organized to kill off new singers, she made a grand success, and an engagement for three years ensued. Some years later, however, in spite of the renown which she had gained, fickle Paris grew cold, and critics were laconic.

At this time Nordica did not need the approval of Paris, for she was well established among the great singers of the period, and it is recognized that, while a success in Paris is considered an important conquest, a failure counts for little. The firm establishment of the "Claque," which is so well described by Mr. Sutherland Edwards, and the proverbial caprice of Parisian audiences, are sufficient to take the edge off of defeat. At the termination of her engagement in Paris, in 1883, Nordica married Mr. Frederick A. Gower, who shortly afterwards was supposed to have lost his life while attempting to cross the English Channel in a balloon. This matter remained a mystery for many years, for, while there was no doubt that he started on the perilous journey, nothing was ever after seen or heard of him or of the balloon. The question of his death, therefore, remained in doubt, and when, after a lapse of more than a dozen years, it was announced that Madame Nordica was about to enter the bonds of matrimony a second time, she suffered much annoyance from the rumors which were spread about to the effect that Mr. Gower was in various parts of the world. These rumors never proved to have any foundation, and, except for the annoyance, must have been somewhat flattering as evidence of the interest taken in the prima donna by the public.

In 1887 Nordica sang in Berlin, and made a complete capture of the Berlinese, a most unusual achievement for an American prima donna. She also appeared in London at Drury Lane, and by the sweetness and freshness of her voice, and by the alternating charm and intensity of her style as an actress, she won a firm and lasting hold on the British public. She now enjoyed the most marked social attentions, and sang at a state concert at Buckingham Palace before an audience composed of princes, princesses, dukes, Indian royalties, etc. The Princess of Wales came forward and thanked her, the prince added his word, and her triumph was complete. The climax was reached, however, when she was commanded by the queen to sing in Westminster Abbey. She sang "Let the bright Seraphim," which selection has for years been the standard for state occasions. Indeed, it may be said that when a prima donna has been commanded to sing "Let the bright Seraphim," in Westminster Abbey, she has achieved the highest honor possible in England. Madame Albani has exceeded this in having had the honor of lunching with the queen, but this latter was more a tribute to her worth as a woman than as an artist.

One of Nordica's greatest a.s.sumptions has been that of the role of Elsa in "Lohengrin." She has the feeling, the artistic understanding, which, combined with beautiful vocal gifts, brings out the most delicate shading of the part. It is doubtful whether any greater representations of "Lohengrin" have been given than when Nordica sang Elsa, and Jean de Reszke the t.i.tle role.

Her success in such parts led her to devote her attention more particularly to Wagnerian roles, and in 1894 she sang with great success at Bayreuth.

Nordica has for several seasons visited the United States as a member of the Abbey and Grau Opera Company, which contained such singers as Emma Eames, Melba, Calve, Scalchi, the De Reszkes, Plancon, and La.s.salle. In 1897, when Abbey and Grau failed, Madame Nordica was a creditor to the extent of $5,000. When the affairs of the company were arranged, an agreement was reached with Madame Nordica, by which she was to receive $1,000 a night. To her surprise, she afterwards discovered that Melba was to receive $1,200, Calve $1,400, Jean de Reszke $1,200, with an additional percentage of the receipts. To add to her humiliation, the part of Brunhilde was given to Madame Melba, whose health, by the way, collapsed suddenly after her first performance of that part, and necessitated a speedy departure for Paris. Nordica left the company, and in doing so had the moral support of the public, for, while there were many complaints about the excessive salaries demanded by opera singers, there seemed to be no reason why Madame Nordica should not insist upon her share. Statements were also made to the effect that Jean de Reszke would never again sing with Nordica.

The years 1896 and 1897 were years of much financial depression in the United States, a fact which does not seem to have been fully appreciated by opera singers, for the collapse of the season seems to have given rise to considerable bitterness of feeling.

Madame Nordica took unto herself Madame Scalchi, the contralto, and Barron Berthald, a young tenor, who in a night achieved fame, and toured the country giving concerts, but with little success. Whatever truth there may have been in the reported coolness between Madame Nordica and Jean de Reszke, either diplomacy or the exigencies of the opera singer's hard lot brought about an ostensible reconciliation; for in London, during the opera season of 1898, Jean de Reszke sang Tristan with Madame Nordica as Isolde, when a critic wrote, "We have so often been told that this music cannot be sung, and we have so often heard it shouted and declaimed by Tristans who could not sing, and by Isoldes without a voice, that it was a double joy, not only to hear it sung, but to hear it superbly sung, with all the confidence and apparent ease one is accustomed to in a Schubert song, or a Ma.s.senet romance."

Madame Nordica is now in her prime. What new honors she may win we cannot foresee, but she now stands high in the front rank of the great singers of the day. In 1896 she married Mr. Zoltan Doehme. The engagement, which had been once broken off, came to a sudden climax while Nordica was in Indianapolis. Mr. Doehme suddenly appeared, having travelled from Germany, and in a few hours they were married without any display or previous announcement.

Madame Nordica wins many friends by frank, engaging cordiality of manner, while her impulsive nature and enthusiasm help her over many difficulties. One may imagine the consternation caused in the Boston Symphony Orchestra by her startling declaration, at a rehearsal, that they were like a Kalamazoo band. Perhaps the sore is still open, but her winning manners will close it the next time that she comes among them.

One of the most brilliant singers among the number of Americans who have, during the latter half of this century, won distinction on the operatic stage, is Emma Nevada. She is the daughter of a physician named William Wallace Wixom, of Nevada City, Cal.

As a child she was so musical that she sang in public when only three years old. Her mother died when she was quite young, and she received her education at a seminary in Oakland, California. She was now consumed by a desire to go to Europe and make a study of voice, and she became one of a party of girls under the care of a Doctor Eberl, who was to escort them and keep them under his protection in Berlin. When the vessel anch.o.r.ed in the Elbe, the pa.s.sengers were transferred to a smaller steamer to be landed. Dr. Eberl went on board the little steamer with the rest, walked into the cabin and died. This was a terrible calamity for the party under his care, but Emma Wixom succeeded in finding her way to Berlin, where she sought advice with regard to her voice, and was recommended to go to Marchesi at Vienna.

It is said that on reaching Vienna she found her funds exhausted, but she sought Madame Marchesi and told her her circ.u.mstances. Marchesi was so much captivated by her voice and manners that she offered her a home and took care of her until her debut.

Through Marchesi's influence an engagement was secured for her in London, where she made her debut in "Sonnambula" in 1880. On making her appearance in public, Miss Wixom followed the custom of a.s.suming the name of her native place, and so became Emma Nevada. Concerning her debut a critic of the time wrote: "Mapleson has brought a new prima donna, Mlle. Nevada, who is gifted with a very light voice, which is, however, extremely flexible, and is used very effectively in the upper registers. The great merits of her voice lie in her staccato effects, chromatic runs,--which she gives with great purity,--and notes in altissimo. The defects are excessive lightness of tone, lack of good lower notes, and a rather imperfect trill. She won many friends by her refined manners and culture, and if not a great singer she is certainly an agreeable one."

Another admirer tells us about a performance of "Lucia." In the roulade duet between the flute and the voice, after the compet.i.tion was ended and her full, firm shake, as effortless as the simplest strain, was about half over, she ran off the stage, the shake continuing just as perfect all the way, and as she disappeared left a final note away up among the clouds. But with all this brilliant execution she delighted as much by her sustained notes, which were of beautiful, flutelike quality. She also won the affection and respect of all her a.s.sociates, by her kindly ways.