So much has been written about Emma Calvé that further writing might seem superfluous. But commentary on Calvé--with any degree of accuracy--mainly concerns her career from the middle 1890s when she began an international career. Her career during the 1880s, when covered at all by reference works, however, is a hodgepodge of misinformation and contradiction. Her name, her date of birth, the exact date of her debut, with whom and when and for how long she studied remain controversial, and we find almost as many "answers" to these questions as there are reference works. It must be admitted that much of this confusion is attributable to Calvé herself. Her autobiography, "Sous tous les ciels j'ai chanté" (Plon, 1940), is replete with factual errors; her earlier autobiography "My Life" (D. Appleton & Co., 1922) is almost totally anecdotal. Throughout her career she was notoriously vague about her age, at one period subtracting and at another adding a few years--whatever she felt was right for the "drama" of the occasion. In the end, I fear, her arithmetic became hopelessly confused.
Unlike Nellie Melba, Emma Eames, or Marie Delna, Calvé did not burst upon the operatic stage and become a "star" over night. Almost unique among the truly great singers of the past 100 years, she struggled for the first ten years of her career, running from teacher to teacher to improve her vocal technique, each time making yet another start, and encountering failure after failure. She was a woman of indomitable stamina but, luckily for her (and ultimately for us), she was surrounded by a relatively small group of highly influential people who, having as much faith in her as she did in herself, encouraged her to persevere.
Calvé had several factors agitating against her. She was born poor. She never received a baccalauréat and, as a result of a deficient education, she could not apply to the "better" conservatories--least of all to the most prestigious in all France, the Paris Conservatory, and without graduating from there, she did not, as thousands of other French artists, have a ghost of a chance of being engaged at the Paris national theaters, the Opéra and Opéra-Comique, until and unless she had proven herself elsewhere or was fortunate enough to have an "inside pull." Her financial inability to enter a conservatory also prevented her from studying with a teacher of note. Her first singing teacher, with whom she worked for two years, was a certain Jules Puget, formerly of the Opéra-Comique, who despite his retirement had still maintained good political connections with his old house and, from what little evidence we have, apparently with the Théâtre de La Monnaie in Brussels.
Emma Calvé was born Emma Calvet. Some references say Emma Roquer, others Rosa Calvet. Calvé herself tells us her family name was Calvet, changed to Calvé by her first teacher, Puget. Her birthplace, Decazeville, is a small town over 100 miles northeast of Toulouse in the department of Aveyron. We know that she was born on August 15, because she tells us so, as early as 1858 to as late as 1866. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians states "in 1863 [or 1866?]". Most reference works, however, accept the earliest date. She came from a family that could be classified as "comfortable peasants". Her father, abandoning farming, took a job building railroads in Spain. Calvé, at three months, was taken to Spain and lived there until she was six years old. She claimed that after these six years she had greater fluency in Spanish than in French, a fluency which never left her. On her return to France she entered a convent school where she was taught the rudiments of music. She left the school at fifteen before finishing her studies and, as her father was still working in Spain, her mother took her to Paris to seek a voice teacher. They found Puget. Since she had no money, Puget gave her free lessons for two years with the proviso that she would pay him back during the first two years of her theatrical career. Calvé who claimed then to be seventeen had a difficult life. Food was not always forthcoming. Puget, concerned about the health of his young student, even loaned Calvé and her mother money to buy food. While Calvé described Puget's extraordinary kindness, her autobiography is curiously lacking in any particular gratitude to an old man who trained a non-paying student and literally saved her and her mother from starvation.
Calvé mentions her debut at the Brussels La Monnaie. She attributes this extraordinary event to no one--a striking omission, since young singers who were not graduates of the Royal Brussels Conservatory or who lacked a powerful "protector" with an inside connection, would have been brushed aside. She informs us that her debut was in 1881 in Faust, which agrees with the annals of La Monnaie; Baker (op. cit.) states on 29 September 1882, a date which contradicts both Calvé and Mathilde Marchesi. In her autobiography (translated anonymously) Marchesi and Music (Harper Bros., New York, London, 1905, pg. 232-5), Marchesi wrote:
What is particularly striking about Calvé's letter are the statements "If I had sung in Paris. . ." and the "real success" at La Scala. These statements had to be borne of complete denial. It is true that she made her Opéra-Comique debut in early 1885. In those days young singers (and particularly those without the Paris Conservatory cachet) were given two-year contracts with litigation-free escape clauses beneficial only to the administration. Her contract with the theater should then have lasted until early 1887 but, from all evidence, was canceled in the spring of 1886. Calvé's performance at La Scala was not the "real success" of which she boasted but an unmitigated disaster. Calvé herself dates the premiere as "1884" and entitles the section devoted to it in her autobiography as "Fiasco à La Scala de Milan". Samara's Flor Mirabilis was actually premiered in 1887 with Alfonso Garulli and Antonio Magini-Coletti. Calvé was immediately replaced by a soprano named Di Monale. The work however was successful enough to have eleven performances, how many of which Calvé sang remains unknown.
Calvé wrote that she was so discouraged after the Scala debut that she decided to give up singing. Back in Paris, she confided in old Charles Gounod who told her, lovingly, that she could not expect to become a great singer in two or three years. He referred her to voice teacher Rosine Laborde, Marchesi's hated arch-rival. Calvé tells us she studied with the great Laborde for one year. Curiously, Marchesi in her autobiography waxed for nearly three pages on Calvé and published Calvé's devoted letter; yet Calvé in her autobiographies dismisses Marchesi with one sentence and praises Laborde lavishly for some three pages in "Ciel" and devotes nearly a chapter to her in "My Life," giving in both details of Laborde's career not to be found elsewhere in print!
The three-year contract with Sonzogno--so important to Calvé's developing her theatrical "legs"--is poorly documented. Marchesi is now out of the picture. We have only Calvé's account, and that account is hopelessly muddled. Every date that can be checked is inaccurate. What we can reasonably be assured of is Marchesi's statement that Sonzogno engaged her in July 1886 (although it would appear Calvé left Paris prior to December 1886) and Calvé's statement that the engagement was for three years. It would appear that Calvé (we must at this point take her word for it) made her Italian debut at La Pergola in Florence in September 1886. If we believe Calvé, she writes that, after her Florence debut, she sang at Bologna and Genoa and then returned to Florence on 30 October 1886 for a performance of Hamlet. Her debut at La Scala in Flor Mirabilis took place on 8 January 1887. Following this fiasco, she tells us she sang again in Rome, Venice (in Hamlet with Giuseppe Kaschmann and Félia Litvinne), and Naples (where apparently she and Fernando De Lucia sang the Neapolitan premiere of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana). Her standard repertory during her Sonzogno years consisted of Hamlet, Faust, Mignon, Pardon de Ploërmel, and La Jolie fille de Perth.
She returned to La Scala, this time apparently with success, on 7 April 1890, in Hamlet with Matteo Battistini, Litvinne and Francesco Navarini. On 31 October 1891 at Rome's Costanzi she created Mascagni's L'Amico Fritz with Fernando De Lucia.
Despite all the inaccuracies in Calvé's autobiography, I think it is safe to say that from at least September 1886 to at least January 1889, she was kept busy singing at the venues and in the roles already mentioned. What seems more likely is that Calvé studied with Laborde not after the 1887 La Scala fiasco (as she wrote) but rather after the three-year Sonzogno contract, since the only engagement she speaks of after her return from Italy was at least one performance of Pardon de Ploërmel at the Paris Théâtre Italien and then her "retour" to the Opéra-Comique on 1 July 1890. In November 1891 she sang the French premiere of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Opéra-Comique with Etienne Gibert (not "Gilbert" as written in her autobiography). Then on 25 November 1892 she sang her first Carmen at the same house and perhaps for the first time.
The year 1892 comes as something of a relief because it is at this point that Calvé's career emerges from the mists. She was invited to Covent Garden during May-July 1892 and sang seven performances of L'Amico Fritz, and eleven performances of Cavalleria Rusticana both with De Lucia. She returned to London for the 1893, 1894, 1898 to 1902 and 1904 spring seasons, singing in Carmen, La Navarraise, Amy Robsart, Mefistofele, Faust, Hamlet, Messaline, Maguelone and Hérodiade. She made her debut at the Metropolitan on 29 November 1893 in Cavalleria Rusticana, a double bill with Gounod's Philémon et Baucis in which Sigrid Arnoldson was also making her debut. On 20 December she sang her first Carmen, billed as the first New York production; and on 10 January 1894 the Metropolitan premiere of L'Amico Fritz. Calvé's Metropolitan career was sporadic, ending with a Sunday night concert on 24 April 1904.
Calvé reached the pinnacle of her success at the Opéra-Comique during the period 1895 to 1897 when on 3 October 1895 she sang the Opéra-Comique premiere of Massenet's La Navarraise (she had sung the world premiere at Covent Garden the year before) with Henri Jérôme (not "Gérome" and not on 15 October 1895 as written in her autobiography) and later, on 27 November 1897, when Massenet chose her, with Julien Leprestre and André Gresse, to create his newest opera Sapho.
Having captured the Parisian public solely through her performances at the Opéra-Comique, Calvé had to wait until 1899 to make her debut at the Paris Opéra. But at the date scheduled, she realized that she had strong competition elsewhere in Paris. Here is an undated letter, in the collection of the author, which I believe demonstrates what a superb (and charming) manipulator she had become. The director is Pedro Gailhard; "Sarah", of course, is none other than the great Bernhardt! Doucet is either the costumer or a go-between. What the embroiderer had to do with all this remains an historical secret.
Calvé's ruse is painfully transparent from the first; and it seems that she too realized it for, by the end of the third paragraph, she really states what is on her mind--frankly, she is not about to be upstaged by Bernhardt. But upstaged she most certainly would have been: Sarah's upcoming Hamlet (yet one more of her tantalizing leg roles) was the talk of the town. Calvé's debut as Ophélia had originally been set for Friday, 19 May 1899. Bernhardt's first Hamlet was actually premiered at her own theater on Saturday, 20 May 1899 (with the dress rehearsal on Friday, 19 May, to which the press was traditionally invited). I find it difficult to believe that the dress rehearsal for Massenet's Cendrillon took place at the Opéra-Comique on Saturday, 20 May, as the premiere itself did not take place until Wednesday, 24 May 1899. Calvé, however, ridding herself at last of all competition, managed to delay her debut at the Opéra, her first Paris Ophélia, until Monday, 29 May 1899.
As an aside, it is worth noting that Sarah Bernhardt, in a G&T testimonial appearing in the April 1903 French magazine Musica, wrote:
Despite everything, these two appreciated each other. They were, after all, both cut from the same bolt of cloth.
I have to confess that, ever since the early 1940s when I heard my first Calvé recording, I have been an unabashed fan.
Between 1900 and 1904 Lionel Mapleson recorded a vast number of cylinders in the Metropolitan Opera House. Six of these which have survived are of Calvé and represent the earliest recordings--by about six months--of her voice.
The G&T registers do not give precise datings for Calvé's London recordings. The 1902 Spring Season at Covent Garden began on 8 May and ended on 29 July 1902. Therefore, it must be within that time frame that she made her recordings. Her one Zonophone recording X-2033 (does anyone have a copy of it?) was probably made in the fall or early winter of 1902. Bernhardt's Zonophone recording X-2129, just 96 matrices later, could not have been recorded prior to the world premiere of Théroigne de Méricout on 23 December 1902.
Calvé's last recordings, for Pathé, were all made in rapid succession sometime in 1920. One writer remarked that these last recordings were "somewhat gruesome." I could not disagree more strongly. While her 1916 Victor recordings are better recorded, her 1920 Pathé recordings--some well recorded, others poorly recorded--show very little deterioration of the voice in the four-year interim. In fact, her voice at the age of 62 and after nearly 40 years of singing is in remarkable condition. The only noticeable deterioration is heard in the upper third of her voice, some notes of which she touches very gingerly, particularly in the Carmen Séguedille (but she had trouble with that number back in 1902!) and in La Perle du Brésil aria. What should delight all Calvé fans, however, is that 23 (or 24 if one considers the second verse of La Perle du Brésil) of the 27 sides Calvé recorded for Pathé are unique in her discography. For whatever reason, she had never previously recorded the Carmen Air des cartes, and here for Pathé she delivers a dark and brooding interpretation that goes well beyond the nice "vocalization" of most of her recordings and gives, for once, a suggestion of the dramatic intensity for which she was so famous. In my opinion, she leaves Norma Casta Diva pretty much where she found it; but her interpretation of "In questa tomba oscura" is an exercise--one might almost say a shameless display--of her chest tones. This coupling, by the way, although numbered in the first batch of her 1920 Pathé releases, was not published until the Oct.-Dec. 1923 supplement. There are also some truly startling selections: the "Coplas andaluz" is one of her very finest recordings. While Calvé was no La Niña de los Peines, her feeling for flamenco singing was profound. The recording, sung without accompaniment, however, begs for a good flamenco guitarist. Her singing of Hahn's "L'Heure exquise" is truly one of her most "exquisite" recordings. Why she recorded so many songs in English is a mystery. One can only conjecture that French Pathé intended them for the U.S. and British public. But, as so much else that went wrong in the history of that company--where Murphy's Law seems to have prevailed--not one of them was ever issued in any English-language market. Published in France solely, they, like the Spanish numbers, sold very poorly (some exist in only one or two known copies) and are therefore among her very rarest of recordings.
Cécile Merguillier was born in Paris on 11 November 1861. She graduated from the Paris Conservatory (class Archainbaud), where in 1879 she won a 2nd accessit and in 1880 a 1st Prize in singing and has the distinction of being the oldest soprano graduate to make recordings. Although Rose Caron was four years Merguillier's senior, Caron did not graduate until 1882. Merguillier also has the distinction of being one of the last (and the only one to record) of those agile, full-voiced sopranos légers so popular throughout 19th century French opera. Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, the "monster" of the period, was still performing at the Opéra and Opéra-Comique during the time Merguillier was in training and until a year after her debut. Eugène Archainbaud (born 1833, assuming Chair I in 1879, retiring in 1899) was one of the Conservatory's less successful voice teachers. Merguillier was his first prize-winning student; his other students, who have left us records, were Amédée Sujol (1882), Paul Daraux (1886), Jean Vallier (1888) and Louis Azéma (1897).
Merguillier made her debut at the Opéra-Comique on 28 December 1881 in Adam's Le Toréador. Merguillier was a lead soprano léger at the Opéra-Comique from her debut in 1881 until 1888. She returned for the 1891 and 1892 as well as the 1897 and 1898 seasons. She also performed for the season 1888-89 at La Monnaie, in 1895 in Moscow, and in the intervening years through the French provinces. She was the Philine in that tragic performance of Mignon on 25 May 1887 when the old Opéra-Comique burned to the ground. The troupe was homeless until October 1887 when the old Théâtre Lyrique (later named the Théâtre du Châtelet) became their new home, and Merguillier left. She appeared in a benefit concert at the Opéra in 1892. In 1902 she appeared again in a benefit concert, dubbed by Stoullig un festival monstre, held for the musicians' retirement fund of the Opéra-Comique. 127 former and current soloists appeared (from Capoul to Sibyl Sanderson to Mary Garden) accompanied by seven different conductors: Bruneau, Charpentier, Luigini, Marty, Messager, Massenet and Saint-Saëns.
While Merguillier's voice was fuller (one might almost say brasher) than Calvé's, they shared many vocal traits in common: a fully developed chest "register," a perfectly integrated scale to above the staff and a slightly pinched "heady" top. They were both part of the "old school" of French singing which, ten years later, was considered old-fashioned and no longer taught. Even though she was more or less in retirement when she made her recordings, the recordings themselves are of more than passing historical interest. Cécile Merguillier died in December 1938.
© Victor Girard, 1998