Three American Sopranos CDR (NO PRINTED MATERIAL))
Lillian Nordica, Olive Fremstad and Ada Adini

52027-2 (2 CDs)  | $ 36.00


Note: Original CD set is Sold Out; you will receive a CDR Version

Three American Sopranos CDR (NO PRINTED MATERIAL))
No singer has received more requests at Marston than Lillian Nordica (1857- 1914). The American-born artist mastered the entire soprano repertory from coloratura parts to Wagner roles. Like so many of the greatest singers on early records, Nordica is instantly recognizable; she for the lovely, individual timbre of her voice, the perfectly controlled emission of tone, and the accuracy of execution. Olive Fremstad (1871-1951) moved to the United States at the age of ten from Sweden. She received rave reviews for her 1906 Metropolitan Carmen and created the role of Salome at the American premiere of the opera of the same name. Her voice was rich and expressive. Ada Adini (1855-1924) spent most of her career outside of the United States. Her remarkable and versatile soprano voice is extant on five extremely rare Fonotipia sides. All five are presented on this 2-CD set and for the first time truly represent her beautiful voice.
CD 1 (77:18)

Columbia Phonograph Company, New York City

1.LA GIOCONDA: Suicidio! ... In questi fieri momenti (Ponchielli)4:01
  3 April 1906; (M-3-1) (30133-1) Published only as a dub on IRCC 232 
2.IL TROVATORE: Miserere (Verdi)4:21
  with Marcello Reseninil, tenor
3 April 1906; (M-5-2) (Unknown) Published only as a dub on IRCC 237
3.IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)3:42
  3 April 1906; (M-6-1) (30134-1) Unpublished 
4.IL TROVATORE: Tacea la notte placida (Verdi)3:42
  3 April 1906; (M-6-2) (30134-2) Published only as a dub on IRCC 232 
5.DIE WALKÜRE: Ho-jo-to-ho! (Wagner)2:45
  Early 1907; (M-95-1) (Unknown) Unpublished 
6.HUNYADI LÁSZLÓ: Nagy ég, mit akar mit akar velök akirály? (Erkel)3:07
  23 May 1907; (30144-1) 30144 
7.Damon (Stange) 3:51
  29 April 1910; (30483-1) 30483 
8.From the land of sky-blue water (Cadman)1:34
9.Mighty lak' a rose (Nevin)2:11
  29 April 1910; (30486-1) 30486  
10.LA GIOCONDA: Suicidio! ... In questi fieri momenti (Ponchielli)3:51
  2 February 1911; (30133-2) 30133  
11.TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Mild und leise [Liebestod] (Wagner)4:27
  2 February 1911; (30652-1) 30652 
12.Annie Laurie {Traditional Scottish} (Douglass-Scott) 2:44
  2 February 1911; (30653-1) 30653 
13.Mandoline (Verlaine-Debussy)1:50
  3 February 1911; (30657-2) 30657 
14.DIE WALKÜRE: Ho-jo-to-ho! (Wagner)2:19
  3 February 1911; (30659-1) Published only as a dub on IRCC 95 
15.MIGNON: Oui, pour ce soir... Je suis Titania [Polonaise] (Thomas)3:58
  3 February 1911; (30661-1) 30661/ Transposed down a semi-tone to A 
16.Ständchen, Op. 17, #2 (R. Strauss) 3:03
  16 February 1911; (30677-1) 30677 
17.SALVATOR ROSA: Mia piccirella (Gomes)2:19
  16 February 1911; (30681-1) Unpublished 

The [Lionel] Mapleson Cylinders
Recorded in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

18.LES HUGUENOTS: Three excerpts from Valentine-Raoul duet (Meyerbeer)5:59
  with Jean de Reszke, tenor
11 March 1901
19.TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Three excerpts from Love Duet, including a portion of Brangäne's Warning (Wagner)6:10
  with Georg Anthes, tenor and Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto
9 February 1903
20.TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Excerpt from Liebestod (Wagner) 1:48
  7 January 1903 
21.TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Excerpt from Liebestod (Wagner) 2:04
  9 February 1903 
22.DIE WALKÜRE: Ho-jo-to-ho! excerpt (Wagner)0:35
  16 January 1903 or 12 February 1903  
23.DIE WALKÜRE: Ho-jo-to-ho! excerpt (Wagner)1:24
  21 February 1903 
24.DIE WALKÜRE: Scene beginning "[O hehrstes] Wunder! Herrlichste Maid!" (Wagner)1:47
  with Johanna Gadski, soprano; Marie Van Cauteren, soprano; Mathilde Bauermeister, soprano; Ernestine Schumann-Heink, contralto; Louise Homer, contralto; Camille Seygard, soprano; Marguerite Marilly, soprano; Marie Maurer, soprano; and Carrie Bridewell, soprano
21 February 1903
25.SIEGFRIED: Two excerpts from Act III Finale (Wagner)3:32
  with Georg Anthes, tenor
19 January 1903
CD 1 (78:42)

The [Lionel] Mapleson Cylinders (Continued)

1.GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG: Three excerpts from Immolation Scene (Wagner) 6:13
  28 February 1903 
2.GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG: Three excerpts from Immolation Scene (Wagner)4:10
  23 January 1903 

Società Italiana di Fonotipia, ca. late 1904 to early 1905, Milan

3.AIDA: O cieli azzuri (Verdi) 2:05
  XPh 553-1; 39110 
4.AIDA: O cieli azzuri (Verdi) 2:06
  XPh 553-2; 39110 
5.IL TROVATORE: D'amor sull'ali rosee (Verdi)3:03
  XPh 571; 39112 
6.La Serenata (Braga) 2:57
  with Anemoyanni, violin
XPh 579; 39211
7.HÉRODIADE: Il est doux, il est bon (Massenet)3:07
  XPh 580; 39216  
8.HISTOIRE D'AMOUR: Grand Air (Samara)3:00
  XPh 581; 39215  

Columbia Phonograph Company, New York City

9.TANNHÄUSER: Dich, teure Halle (Wagner)3:32
  21 January 1911; (30635-2) A5281  
10.LOHENGRIN: Einsam in trüben Tagen (Wagner)4:25
  30 January 1911; (30645-1) A5281 
11.DIE WALKÜRE: Du bist der Lenz (Wagner)2:00
  5 November 1913; (39081-1) A1451 
12.DIE WALKÜRE: Ho-jo-to-ho! (Wagner)1:59
  28 October 1913; (39073-1) A1451 
13.TRISTAN UND ISOLDE: Mild und leise [Liebestod] (Wagner)4:44
  5 November 1913; (30707-2) A5521 
14.DON CARLO: O don fatale (Verdi)4:14
  7 November 1913; (36807-3) A5521 
15.TOSCA: Ora stammi a sentir (Puccini)2:32
  23 October 1913; (39061-1) A1505 
16.TOSCA: Vissi d'arte (Puccini)3:38
  21 January 1911; (30644-1) A5282 
17.MIGNON: Connais-tu le pays (Thomas)3:00
  23 October 1913; (39060-2) A1505 
18.CARMEN: Près des remparts de Séville [Séguedille] (Bizet)2:17
  31 January 1911; (30646-2) A5282 
19.Les filles de Cadix (Delibes) 3:22
  31 January 1911; (30647-2) Unpublished 
20.Wiegenlied (Brahms)2:22
  23 October 1913; (39062-1) A1488 
21.Ach, wie ist möglich (Thuringian Folk Song)3:26
  28 October 1913; (39074-1) A1488 
22.Stille Nacht (Gruber) 3:23
  30 March 1911; (30708-1) 30708 
23.Annie Laurie {Traditional Scottish} (Douglass-Scott)3:38
  21 January 1911; (30637-1) A5273 
24.Long, long ago (Bayly)3:20
  31 January 1911; (30636-2) A5273 


CD 1:
Tracks 1, 3-4, 10-12,15 accompanied by orchestra; Track 2 accompanied by orchestra and chorus; Tracks 5-9, 14, 16-17 accompanied by piano; Track 13 accompanied by piano and harp
Languages: Italian [1-4, 10, 15, 17]; German [5, 11, 14]; Hungarian [6];English [7-9, 12, 16] and French [13]


CD 2:
Tracks 3-8 accompanied by piano; Tracks 9-24 accompanied by orchestra
Languages: French [3-4, 7-8, 17-19]; German [9-13, 20-22]; Italian [5-6, 14-16] and English [23-24]

The Mapleson Cylinders

CD 1:
Track 18 with Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Phillippe Flon
Tracks 19-25 with Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Alfred Hertz
Languages: Italian [18] and German [19-25]


CD 2:
Tracks 1-2 with Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by Alfred Hertz
Languages: German [1-2]

Photographs: Girvice Archer, Luc Bourrousse, Roger Gross, Charles Mintzer, and Robert Tuggle
Producers: Scott Kessler and Ward Marston
Audio Conservation: Ward Marston
Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi


Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko, Raymond Edwards, Lawrence F. Holdridge, Peter Lack, and William R. Moran for their help in the production of this CD release.


Due to the rarity and uniqueness of the recordings in this release, Marston would like to thank the following for providing the best possible source. Without their help, this compilation would not be possible:
CD 1, Track 1: Richard Bebb
CD 1, Track 1 and 2: William R. Moran
CD 1, Track 5: CD 1 Track 17: Robert Ziering
CD 2, Track 3, 4, and 8: Lawrence F. Holdridge
CD 2, Track 5: J. Neil Forster
CD 2, Track 6: Sir Paul Getty
CD 2, Track 19: Steve Smolian


The Mapleson cylinder recordings were provided through the courtesy of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Original cylinder to tape transfer: Tom Owen, sound engineer; tape to DAT transfer: Adrian Cosentini, sound engineer. Additional sound engineering provided by NewSound Productions, sound engineer Mark Knox. The Original six-disc LP record album of the complete Mapleson Cylinders is still available for purchase directly from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Archives.


For further information on Lillian Nordica's recordings, see "Recordings and Lillian Nordica" by William R. Moran, found in Yankee Diva, Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera, by Ira Glackens, Coleridge Press, New York, 1963, pp. 285-300.


Cover photo: Nordica as Isolde in Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde'
Back cover photo: Fremstad as Armide in Gluck's 'Armide'


Lillian Nordica

Madame Nordica is the dean of the guild of dramatic sopranos now before the American public. She has a strong, penetrating, powerful voice which ranges easily to the high C. She has all her life been a close and intelligent student of vocal art, and she knows how to sing. Her voice has a bad spot just above the treble clef and her art has never enabled her to smooth over this break. It does not often mar her singing, however, and, doubtless, few hearers notice it. Madame Nordica has never achieved as much by the communicative force of a flaming temperament as by fine intelligence. Her triumph as Isolde was a conquest of intellect. Her Brünnhilde was profoundly reflective, and her Kundry a decidedly literary product. But it must be borne in mind that her intelligence has enabled her to succeed in a wide variety of parts. From Norina in Don Pasquale through Marguerite, Sélika, Valentine and Aida up to the portentous Wagnerian heroines is a long progress. Madame Nordica naturally does not sing now with the freedom of voice which she had ten years ago. But she is still an artist and her methods command warm praise.

I hope Madame Nordica was pleased with these words of “warm praise” from the great critic W.J. Henderson, who was in a particularly acidulous mood when he wrote the article from which they come, “Where the singers really stand/A frank explanation of the good and bad methods employed by famous women in opera today,” in The Ladies’ Home Journal for January 1910. (In the next month’s issue he blasted the great men singers of the day.) Paragraph sub-headings in the article give a good idea of the generally withering contents: “Where Tetrazzini Fails,” “Mary Garden is Not a Great Singer,” “Fremstad and Homer Both Hampered by Poor Technique,” “Geraldine Farrar is a Victim of the Big Tone Habit.” It is something of a comfort to read “Melba’s is the Most Glorious Voice of All,” but, alas, when we read on (and let us hope that Madame Melba did not), we learn that “Melba’s singing has always lacked expressiveness, partly by reason of the quality of the tone and partly because of shortcomings in the temperament of the singer.” In this context, Henderson’s praise of Nordica seems lyrically effulgent. And well it might be; many opera historians consider her the greatest of all American singers. It is significant, however, that it was precisely at the time that Henderson was writing of her as being no longer in her prime that she made most of the records from which we must judge her art.

Lillian Nordica’s extraordinary life has been documented in one of the best researched and most thoroughly readable of operatic biographies: Yankee Diva, Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera, by Ira Glackens, Coleridge Press, New York, 1963. As the author says in Chapter Two, “The story of Lillian Bayard Norton is a study in determination.” Nordica herself said, “God didn’t give me my chin for nothing.” She was born in Farmington, Maine, on 12 December 1857, and named Lillian after an elder sister who had died at the age of two. Another sister, Wilhelmina, had a fine voice, and at great sacrifice her family sent her to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston to study with John O’Neill, a truly excellent and formidable teacher of the old school. Wilhelmina Norton died of typhoid fever in 1868. When Lillian was fourteen her family realized that her voice reminded them of Wilhelmina’s, and O’Neill accepted her as a pupil. Her four years with him were “stained with tears and sodden with discouragement,” the diva later recalled, for “many cannot stand four years of fault-finding.” After studying repertoire in New York with Appolonia Bertucca Maretzek, she sang in a number of concerts with P.S. Gilmore’s brass band, between 1876 and 1878, in various American and English cities and in Dublin, Brussels, and Paris; she was very successful and in London sang for the first time with Janet Patey and Edward Lloyd, stalwarts of the Victorian musical scene.

In Paris she had lessons in “dramatic action” from Delsarte, then went to Milan, where she studied with Antonio Sangiovanni, who found her technically ready for a debut in opera and taught her Lucia, Linda di Chamounix, La Traviata, I Puritani, Faust, Il Trovatore, Les Huguenots, Norma, and Aida. On 10 March 1879 she made her operatic debut as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni at the Teatro Manzoni, Milan, taking the stage name of Giglio Nordica, chosen for her by Sangiovanni. She then appeared in Brescia in La Traviata and in Novara as Violetta and Alice in Roberto il diavolo. Tosti, on holiday in Como and a fellow-guest of Lillian and her mother, was so delighted with her voice that he coached her in Mefistofele and Faust. She sang Faust in Genoa and with the same company in Faust and La Traviata in Nice and Monaco. Her last appearances in Italy were at L’Acquila in Rigoletto and Faust, after which she secured an engagement for the winter season 1880-1881 at St. Petersburg, where she sang Philine in Mignon, Marguerite in Les Huguenots, Berthe in Le Prophète, Inès in L’Africaine, Isabelle in Robert le diable, Simone in Jean de Nivelle by Delibes, Eudoxie in La Juive, Amelia in Un Ballo in maschera, Donna Elvira, Violetta, Cherubino, Sulamith in Die Königin von Saba, and Marguerite in Faust. After a concert tour of Germany, Lillian returned for a second season in St. Petersburg and Moscow, then went to Paris, where she studied with Giovanni Sbriglia, teacher of Jean de Reszke and Plançon. She made her debut at the Opéra in Faust on 22 July 1882, and subsequently sang Ophélie in Hamlet, which she studied with the composer.

In 1883 she made the first of three unfortunate marriages, this one to her rich cousin Frederick Allen Gower, who more or less forced her to give up her career, although she did make her American stage debut in a few performances in New York, Boston, and Chicago for Colonel Henry Mapleson, who had been trying to engage her for a long time. In July 1885 Gower, who had become passionately interested in ballooning, made an ascent from Cherbourg and was never seen again: apparently he sank into the English Channel.

Disencumbered of the paranoid Mr. Gower, Lillian resumed her career with more performances for Mapleson in Boston in January 1886, after which she toured with the company, gradually gaining ground with the critics, who on her first appearances had been reluctant to echo the raptures of their European colleagues. In the summer she sang for Mapleson on tour through the British Isles, and made her London operatic debut as Violetta at Covent Garden on 12 March 1887 in a seedy and doomed season, winning much acclaim, and even more when she sang Gilda. Lillian read in the newspapers that Augustus Harris was planning an extremely brilliant season at Drury Lane Theatre in June, and with her typical impetuosity went to ask him for an engagement. The future Lord Mayor of London was distinctly reluctant to engage anyone who had been singing at cheap prices for Mapleson, but the conductor Mancinelli persuaded him to put her on the reserve list. In the event she was needed, for the prima donna, Madame Kupfer-Berger, proved a disappointment, and Lillian appeared as Violetta on the second night of the season, 14 June, with Fernando de Lucia, who was making his London debut. She added Donna Elvira (with Maurel), Faust, Aida, which she sang for the first time without any rehearsal, then she agreed to learn the role of Valentine in Les Huguenots in less than a week, aided by Jean and Edouard de Reszke, and at the end of the season she was a star as far as London was concerned. In Ira Glackens’s words, “After eleven years of public singing, Madame Kupfer-Berger’s heaven-sent vibrato had unlocked the magic door.”

To Herman Klein, who interviewed her for the Sunday Times, she said: “I know my voice is not yet under entire control. A singer should never be satisfied, but go on working, working all the time.” Harris began his first Covent Garden season in May 1888, and Nordica appeared as Carmen, Sélika, Aida, Marguerite, and Valentine, holding her own against Melba, Albani, and Sigrid Arnoldson. The competition grew gradually more formidable during the ensuing years as Eames, Calvé, Litvinne, Adams, De Lussan, and Ternina became regular members of the company, and Nordica never chalked up a very large number of appearances. She must have noticed that Albani, who had never managed to eclipse Patti in the Italian repertory, was making a speciality of Elsa in Lohengrin (Melba noticed it, too, and added the role to her repertory in 1890), and after her first visit to Bayreuth in the summer of 1888, with Klein, Lassalle, and the de Reszke brothers, Lillian began to make her plans to transform herself into a Wagnerian soprano. It is doubtful whether, at first, she realised how far-reaching her achievement would be—the first non-German soprano to sing all three Brünnhildes, and Isolde. Her first Elsa at Covent Garden in 1889 was beautifully sung, but scarcely the great interpretation that she would gradually mature.

In 1889-1890 she toured America (including a visit to Mexico City) with a company organized by Henry E. Abbey, for whom she made her Metropolitan debut as Leonora in Il Trovatore on 27 March 1890, singing with Tamagno, with whom she also appeared during the tour in Aida, L’Africana, and Otello; however, here again she was overshadowed by Albani and Patti, who were definitely the stars of the season.

She had now taken up her residence in London and was sought after both professionally and socially by royalty and the aristocracy. In 1891 she met the Hungarian baritone Zoltan Döme, whom she married in 1896. In January 1891 she sang Faust at Monte Carlo, returning in March to sing Juliette to the Roméo of Jean de Reszke.

For their first Metropolitan season of 1891-1892 Abbey and Maurice Grau had not originally envisaged engaging Nordica, but when she heard of it she signed a contract with the impresario C.A. Ellis for a four-months’ concert tour of the U.S.A., knowing it would be to her advantage to be on the spot. Sure enough, on 18 December Nordica was called upon to sing Valentine to replace Albani, who was ill; she repeated her great success in L’Africaine in January. She would often say, “Plenty have voices equal to mine, plenty have talents equal to mine; but I have worked.”

She now began her incessant concert tours all across America, doing her best to get her fair share of performances at the Metropolitan and not neglecting Covent Garden, where she sang for the last time in 1902. In 1894 Cosima Wagner invited her to sing Elsa in the first performances at Bayreuth of Lohengrin, and after two months of the most gruelling rehearsals Nordica’s performances were an extraordinary triumph. She never minded hard work, so she returned repeatedly to study her roles with Cosima. She put her Bayreuth success to good use by making a rapturously received tour of Germany, singing in concerts and opera. At the Berlin Royal Opera her Elsa was ecstatically reviewed by Engelbert Humperdinck:

Her singing and her acting were both masterly. Having enjoyed a perfect Italian training, her voice is ... clear and euphonic, displaying a uniformly developed beauty and an almost classic art. Her piano is particularly charming and effective and yet entirely without the tremolo with which many singers hope to hide the want of soulful warmth. (Quoted by Glackens, p. 177.)

On 27 November 1895, Nordica and Jean de Reszke sang their first Isolde and Tristan, conducted by Anton Seidl, at the Metropolitan.

Even those who had an abiding faith in the wonderful possibilities of her talent thought that she had undertaken a task to which she might perhaps prove unequal. She came away with flying colors. Not only did she sing with the charm and beauty of tone, the impeccable intonation, and the clarity of phrasing, which made her famous, but besides she carried through the character, possibly the most arduous in operatic literature, with a splendour of tone, a freedom of posture and gesture, and an authority that amazed the onlookers. (The New York Herald, quoted by Glackens.)

During a performance of Lohengrin on 15 April 1896 the opera subscribers presented her with a diamond tiara which she can be seen wearing in many a photograph, and also in the famous Coca-Cola advertisement for which she posed when her third husband, George Washington Young, was playing ducks and drakes with her carefully amassed fortune on the stock exchange. (This colorful advertisement is still reproduced, often incorrectly attributed to Lillian Russell, whereas Russell’s portrait is adorned with Nordica’s name!)

A famous fracas was caused when Nellie Melba calmly usurped the role of Brünnhilde in Siegfried, which Lillian had been expecting to add to her repertoire in the 1896 Metropolitan season, together with the Walküre Brünnhilde. By this time Nordica had become an expert in gathering the sympathies of the press, and after having excoricated Melba, Maurice Grau, and Jean de Reszke (who, it seemed, had persuaded Melba to learn the role) she announced that she would not be singing at the Metropolitan that year, but would go on a concert tour featuring the final duet from Siegfried! In the event the episode, so distressing to her then, merely served to enthrone her as the leading and irreplaceable Wagnerian soprano of her time, for Melba’s single performance of Brünnhilde was a flop (as she herself was the first to admit) and she badly strained her voice in the attempt; the de Reszkes’ sister-in-law, Félia Litvinne, though a majestic singer whose records thrill us today, could not satisfy audiences and critics who had heard Nordica and were longing for more.

In March 1897 Walter Damrosch brought his touring opera company, starring Lilli Lehmann, to the Metropolitan and had the brilliant idea of engaging Nordica as a guest artist. She jumped at the chance of singing Siegfried there at last, as well as Lohengrin. Later, in London, through the intervention of Seidl, the great artist went out of her way to make friends again with Jean de Reszke, and the historic partnership was able to continue (even more remarkably, she also made her peace with Melba).

On 11 January 1898 Nordica sang her first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde for the Damrosch company in Philadelphia, and with the same company at the Metropolitan, on 4 February, she added the Walküre Brünnhilde. The only other major roles that she would add to her repertoire from now on were Kundry (24 November 1904) and La Gioconda (28 November 1904), both at the Metropolitan. She opened a new festival when she inaugurated the Prinzregenten Theater in Munich as Isolde in 1901, returning there the two following seasons. She sang Elsa and Isolde in French at the Paris Opéra, the former in 1897, the latter in 1910. In the last glorious decade of her career, despite a slow but steady decline, she maintained her place in the forefront of American singers, an international star, who, though she no longer programmed the Queen of the Night’s arias, was still able to show off her remarkable versatility, singing Venus in Tannhäuser one night and Leonora in Il Trovatore the next; on 17 February 1900 she replaced Sembrich as Violetta at a few hours’ notice.

In 1907 Henry Russell engaged her for a tour with his San Carlo Opera Company, and she appeared as Gioconda, Valentine, Violetta, and Leonora: on the last day of their engagement in Los Angeles she sang La Gioconda in the afternoon and La Traviata in the evening. In November 1907 she sang La Gioconda and Aida for Hammerstein at the Manhattan Opera, but he terminated her contract: he was not interested in presenting her Wagnerian repertory, and in the Italian repertory she was expensive.

On 8 November1909 Henry Russell invited her to open his new Boston Opera House in La Gioconda; on 8 December she sang at the Metropolitan for the last time, as Isolde. In 1910 she again toured with the San Carlo Company and in 1911 she appeared again in Berlin as Isolde, which she repeated in Boston and Chicago in 1912, these performances sandwiched between concert appearances all over America, with two concerts in London in 1912. Her final operatic performance was in Boston, as Isolde, on 26 March 1913. Her last appearance in America was in Reno, Nevada, on 12 June 1913. On June 17th she set sail for Australia with her concert party. She sang well in Australia and New Zealand and enjoyed a great success; her very last performance took place in Melbourne on 25 November 1913. The bad luck that had pursued the great woman all her life now caught up with her; she experienced a nervous breakdown, probably brought on by overwork and the stress of a painful separation from her third husband. When she was well enough to travel she decided to continue her concert tour through Singapore to St. Petersburg, ending in Paris and London. On 27 December her ship was grounded on a coral reef in the Torres Strait; during the ensuing days of distress she caught pneumonia and died in Batavia, Java, on 10 May 1914.

The Nordica records

Like many of the greatest singers on early recordings, Nordica is instantly recognizable; the lovely, individual timbre of her voice, the perfectly controlled emission of tone, the accuracy of execution, and the characteristic vocal style stamp all her recorded work with the Nordica personality. Opera lovers often find her records disappointing on first hearing, for the Columbia Phonograph Company never succeeded in catching more than a muffled echo of the great voice, and in any case she was fifty years old and past her vocal prime when she began recording.

On page 213 of Mary Lawton’s book Schumann-Heink, the Last of the Titans (The Macmillan Company, New York, 1928) Schumann-Heink is revealing:

She was a most wonderful coloratura singer and had a perfectly placed voice. She sang as nobody I ever heard sing—nobody. She could have gone on, I am sure, many years longer than she did, had not her tremendous ambition to sing in German opera over-ruled her good judgment. With that lovely coloratura voice she tried operas that were too much for her, not realizing how far she should go. I firmly believe that if, instead of turning to Wagner operas, she had kept on as she was, a lyric artist, she would be singing to this day. She didn’t know the German language, and she tackled the most difficult German roles. She did it wonderfully, but it robbed her of her beautiful voice too soon.

Serious vocal fatigue may first have become apparent in 1907, when Hammerstein resorted to un-gentlemanly maneuvers to remove her from the roster at the Manhattan Opera; in 1909 Gatti-Casazza also used underhand methods to force her out of the Metropolitan. As far as we can judge from reviews her performances at that time varied: she seems to have sung well in Paris in 1910, in Berlin in 1911, and in Boston in 1910, particularly as Marguerite in Faust. Reviews of other concert and opera appearances suggest that bronchitis, arthritis, and other ailments adversely affected her singing.

Herman Klein got her into the Columbia recording studios and, despite repeated disappointment in the results, she doggedly went on trying until she had recorded about forty sides, of the most interestingly varied material. She considered only a handful of them fit to publish, and the few unpublished titles that have survived are treasures indeed.

Her voice is “old fashioned,” of the fresh and limpid quality so prized by American and British audiences in the days of Patti. Her scale is equalized throughout its exceptionally wide range, her attack is unfailingly clean and ringing, after the manner of Patti and Melba, her diction is clear and lovely and her vowels are equally matched. She shuns the tremulous and squally emission that Latin audiences of around 1900 had come to expect and like from dramatic sopranos. Even in “Suicidio!” her tones remain perfectly steady, the three registers perfectly blended. She can boom out “fra le tenebre” with the best of them, but her chest tones are meticulously produced in the old-fashioned Italian manner that she had learned from her Irish teacher in Boston. Thanks to her early studies of coloratura, she sings “volavan l’ore” with lightness and grace. The unpublished 1906 recording is particularly successful in catching the warmth and freshness of her medium register. However, even in 1906 and more noticeably in 1911 her high notes, whilst fearlessly attacked and properly supported, have a rather “white” and “open” sound, and she occasionally pauses before launching them. My teacher, Vincenzo D’Alessandro (1876-1968), sang in the first season of the Boston Opera in 1909 and heard Nordica on opening night in La Gioconda, and whilst admiring her voice and artistry, he reported that she “whistled like a train” on the high notes. On the Mapleson cylinders of 1901-1903 her high B and C seem better integrated into the scale and she is generous with them.

On page 261 of his biography, Glackens tells us how she would “pace the floor with clenched fists, crying ‘Those head tones! Why can’t I get them when almost every two-cent singer can?’” (This was in 1913.) What a tragic picture! The constant singing of Wagner’s heaviest roles and the pitting of her voice against the full flood of the orchestra must have strained the mechanism of her voice so that she could no longer produce fluty head tones, although she could always command the loud high notes required for Brünnhilde. Her friend Nellie Melba should have passed on to her one of her favorite maxims: “Never sing loudly a note that you cannot sing softly.” On records, Nordica does not sing softly in the head notes any higher than G.

Whether she is singing loudly or softly, throughout her range her voice floats beautifully on the breath. If she finds herself short of breath (as, for instance, in the cabaletta to “Tacea la notte”), she cunningly alters the phrasing to admit extra breaths. She leaves nothing to chance; she has calculated all her effects during her long hours of compulsive practicing at home. Whether it be Wagner or Verdi, Nevin or Debussy that she is singing, she always caresses the music lovingly. In songs she is charming, in opera thrilling—at least, so far as we are allowed to hear through the compressed and murky sound, for the Columbia engineers seem sometimes to have hung a blanket over the mouth of the recording horn (Fremstad’s and Mary Garden’s Columbia records also suffer from this muffling effect).

Her greatest records are “Ah rebeges” from Hunyadi Lázló and “Damon” by Max Stange (not Max Strange, as always labeled and listed). The former, a formidable example of dramatic coloratura singing, is Ersébet’s aria in Act Two of Erkel’s opera and was added to the score in 1850 especially for the soprano Anna de Lagrange (1825-1905). Nordica must have learned it from her Hungarian husband; she sang it everywhere, in galas at Covent Garden and in Act Two of Die Fledermaus at the Met, as a guest (lucky audiences, to hear this and Sembrich singing the Czardas on the same night!).

Nordica revels in the wide-ranging intervals of the aria, displaying all her powers from A natural below the stave to the high C. There is some slight simplification but she demonstrates the most thrilling solidity, warmth, and brilliance of tone. Ten years earlier her staccati were doubtless more spontaneous and she would not so obviously have gathered together her resources before attacking the high notes. Still, the high B in the repeat of the melody is one of the great examples on record of a flawless, full-voiced attack on a high note, and it is followed by the stunning phrase in which she soars up to an easy and radiant high C.

“Damon” is a contrast. The entire song lies between E, first line, and the upper G, and Nordica enchants us with her beautiful legato line of instrumental perfection. She largely ignores Stange’s dynamic markings and substitutes her own varied palette of color and dynamics, interpolating some trills and staccati. She captures perfectly the wistful melancholy of this pastoral air (rather naughty in the original German version). In her book on singing technique the composer Liza Lehmann, who dedicated several songs to Nordica, describes the lovely effect she would make when she chose to sing E, first line, softly in medium register instead of in the more robust chest register, filling the hall with her pianissimo; there are several examples of this in “Damon.”

“Io son Titania” is a souvenir of her early days; at concerts in London on the 11th and 13th February 1888 she sang “Il soave e bel contento” from Pacini’s Niobe, the Queen of the Night’s second aria, “Let the bright seraphim,” and “Una voce poco fa.” In 1911 her tone is still lovely and the high notes are brilliant, full and rounded, the trills are excellent, and the runs creditable, without challenging Tetrazzini or Sutherland. She transposes the aria a semitone down and makes a big cut. The effect is not one of youthful abandon—how could it be, at fifty-five years of age and after fifteen years of singing Isolde? Still, of all the great Isoldes of history, only Callas and Lilli Lehmann would have been able to rival her virtuosity and versatility.

The “Liebestod” of 1911 begins well, and Columbia has obviously tried to supply a worthy instrumental accompaniment. Nordica takes more breaths than in her live recordings of 1903, but her broadly sweeping phrases and well-sustained tone, not to mention her marvelous use of portamento, seem to promise a great record. Unfortunately it soon becomes necessary to hurry the tempo to fit the music onto one side of a twelve-inch record, and it seems that poor Nordica loses enthusiasm as she scurries on. At least she ends on a ravishingly beautiful sustained F sharp, piano. Like Melba, she takes care that the last note of a song should be a thing of special beauty to linger in the listener’s memory, not only in the “Liebestod” but also in songs like “From the land of the sky-blue water.”

Poor recording cannot spoil the splendor of her singing in two selections from Il Trovatore. Her magnificent high C in the “Miserere” disconcerts her mysterious dilettante tenor, but he struggles gamely on to the end. Nordica always made a big effect with this number, which she often programmed in her concerts. The aria “Tacea la notte placida” was the first she ever sang in public, on 11 June 1874; her two unpublished recordings of 1906 contain some lovely phrases sung with fresh and silvery tone, with one of her inimitably secure and pealing attacks on high B flat in the cadenza. It is interesting to hear Tietjens’s ornaments, as taught to Nordica by Bertucca, though it is slightly puzzling (as Will Crutchfield pointed out to me) that the variations are not identical in each take—perhaps one set was meant for the first stanza and the other for the second? Though she still has the trills, in the runs and the high notes for “Di tale amor,” the effect is undoubtedly labored, as she herself seems to have realized. In a letter to Herman Klein dated 15 May 1908 Nordica wrote:

When I get back, May 24th or 25th, I shall as soon as possible make a thorough trial for records. At present I am terribly discouraged about them. Still, I’ll try once more and do my very best — but, for some reason I do not seem to have any success with them. There is not one which I or my family think fit to put before the public. Of all I think the first half of Tacea la notte the best. Ah! well, I’ll try again; perhaps I’ll be more successful ... (Quoted in Herman Klein, Great Women Singers of my Time, G. Routledge & Co., London & New York, 1931.)

Listeners will be surprised by her cavalier treatment of the rhythm in Strauss’s “Serenade” and Debussy’s “Mandoline”; the explanation is that she learned her art in the 1870s, and she brought the style of 1870 to her modern songs too, as though they were by Abt or Gounod. She sings the “Serenade” in an untraceable English version that is probably her own revision of the standard translation by Paul England, though most of the words seem destined to remain forever unintelligible. In this record her entries are sloppy and she sounds nervous and unhappy.

All her recordings illustrate what Walter Damrosch meant by the “rhythmic diffuseness” that made her difficult, though exciting, to accompany. Her freedom with the time makes her vigorous, impulsive, and charming singing of Genariello’s Serenade “Mia piccirella” from Salvator Rosa particularly effective (she has transposed it into D flat, a tone below the original). Her singing of “Annie Laurie,” her best selling record though a poor recording of her voice, is a model of simple legato, though she embellishes the vocal line with acciaccature, suggesting the “Scotch snap.”

When Lionel Mapleson, librarian of the Metropolitan, began to record two-minute snatches of live performances in the theater on his Edison phonograph, he must have found that the voluminous and brilliant tones of Nordica made a clear impression on his delicate wax cylinders; he recorded her often and a gratifying number of fragments have survived. They add an extra dimension to our knowledge of her art.

Though far off, the great voice can be distinctly heard ringing out above the orchestra and echoing round the vast auditorium. Her phrasing of the “Liebestod,” sculpted in majestic periods and great arches of sound, is most moving, the portamento, an essential feature of nineteenth-century Wagnerian singing, lovingly applied. Three fragments from Brünnhilde’s battle-cry show that in 1903 she was still singing it as Wagner wrote it, whereas in her two studio recordings, she committed to wax a disconcerting “concert version,” almost a paraphrase! The mounting excitement of the Siegfried finale is enhanced by the two singers almost seeming to improvise their impassioned exchanges. Various cylinders taken during two performances of the Immolation Scene from Die Götterdämmerung give the adventurous listener a vivid impression of her greatness. Here she repeatedly hangs onto the high notes longer than Wagner has requested, but, somehow, always gets back together with the orchestra; the very noisy accompaniment of Hertz does not give her any trouble.

How exciting to be able to hear her (just) with Jean de Reszke in faint, short snatches of the great duet from Gli Ugonotti (which they sing in the Italian translation of the old Royal Edition). Although much is obscured by the noisy surface, a surprising amount can be heard of Jean, including the high C flat of “Dillo ancor, tu m’ami” and an unwritten ornament on the high A of “Vo con lor a morir.” Their voices seem beautifully matched, of a similar weight, brilliance, warmth, and purity of tone. Nordica’s ascent to the high C followed by a downward chromatic scale is thrilling.

Let us take leave of this indomitable artist and gallant trouper on a note of triumph. In 1912 she gave two last concerts in London, the first at the Queen’s Hall on 14 June with the New Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mr. Leopold Stokowski, singing Isolde’s Narrative and Curse and Brünnhilde’s Immolation, to which she added a group of songs with piano accompaniment, in which, according to the Times critic:

One had time to realize that the voice is not quite all that it has been, that high notes are taken with difficulty which used to be quite easy, and that the difficulty occasionally resulted in flatness or impure tone. In the last scene of Götterdämmerung such details became of little account, because there was the strong musical interest, the unfailing sense of the beauty of the phrase, the pure round tone in the quiet passages which conveys the dignity of the music to perfection. In this remarkable performance Mme. Nordica had an admirable colleague in Mr. Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the New Symphony Orchestra ....

The Morning Post wrote:

Madame Nordica’s songs with piano accompaniment were delicate, graceful and full of expressiveness ... there was full expression of the beauty of voice and the perfection of style which has always marked her singing ... Madame Nordica’s singing yesterday was a lesson to many and a pleasure to all ... What perhaps was the most striking feature of the attitude of the audience was the way in which those nearest to Madame Nordica—ladies and gentlemen— ressed forward at the end to shake her by the hand.

Ada Adini

The authoritative Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo (Roma, Unione Editoriale, 1954, Vol. I, pp. 138-9), gives biographical details for two different sopranos, Ada Adini and Ada Adiny-Millet (sic). The most casual glance suggests that these two entries really refer to one and the same person, especially when both ladies are accredited with having sung Brünnhilde and Isolde under Martucci in Bologna in 1894! John Freestone (who first introduced me to Adini’s lovely singing, some forty years ago), in his liner notes to Symposium 1172 (a CD of Paris Fonotipia records from the collection of Harold Wayne), points out that even the indefatigable archivist Harold Rosenthal, in his notes to the revised edition of the Mapleson Memoirs, warns the reader not to confuse the Italian soprano Ada Adini with the American soprano Ada Adiny!

Miss Adele, or Addie Chapman, was born in Boston, probably in 1855 (Bauer and others give 1858), and died in Dieppe in 1924. She studied in Paris with Pauline Viardot Garcia and Giovanni Sbriglia. The useful Dizionario Universale dei Musicisti of Carlo Schmidl (Sonzogno, Milano, 1926 edition, Vol. I, p.13) describes Ada Adini’s career as “bellissima,” marvelling at her capacity to sing, in Vienna, Germany, and Russia, in 1897-1898, Les Huguenots and Carmen in French, Aida and Don Giovanni in Italian, and Wagner’s operas in German. Schmidl does not seem to know Adini’s nationality or dates, but states that she made her debut in I Puritani at Casalmonferrato in 1876, after which she sang the Dinorah in Varese that is usually listed as her debut. He must have heard her in the theater, for he most untypically eulogises her: “This radiant vision of an artist was an admirable singer who, apart from an excellent singing method, boasted flawless diction, striking acting powers and a powerful voice that was perfectly in tune.”

Gathering together what we can learn from various scattered sources, it seems likely that after her studies in Paris she adopted the stage name of Adini for her Italian debut, changing it - though not, perhaps, consistently - to Adiny when she made her debut at the Paris Opéra as Chimène in Le Cid on 6 May 1887. We assume that the Spanish tenor Antonio Aramburo was her first husband and Paul Milliet her second, and that she was “Adini” to the former and “Adiny” to the latter!

From Kutsch & Riemens we learn that Adini and Aramburo sang together in Mapleson’s season in New York and on tour in 1879, but curiously these seem to have been Miss Chapman’s only appearances in her native land. I have not been able to discover whether she sang for Mapleson in London, though Aramburo certainly did. In Vol. 43 N° 4 of The Record Collector (December 1998), in an amazingly detailed article, Hernàn L. Vigo Suarez reports that in 1882 Adini and Aramburo sang Il Trovatore at the Teatro Lirico, Barcelona (and so, I suppose, also in Madrid and perhaps elsewhere in Spain), and then Il Trovatore and Lucrezia Borgia in Berlin.

During her career as Adiny at the Paris Opéra, which lasted until after she had made her few records, she appeared as Donna Anna, and in, L’Africaine, Henry VIII, Sigurd, Patrie!, and La Juive. She sang in the world premières of Ascanio by Saint-Saëns and Histoire d’amour by Spiros Samara.

Her early Italian successes were confirmed when she sang at the San Carlo, Naples, for the first time in 1883; how fascinating to discover that after singing Elvira in Ernani and Inès in L’Africana, she sang Adalgisa to the Norma of Teresina Singer, a rare venture for a soprano in those days. She returned in 1884 to sing not only Paolina in Poliuto with Enrico Barbacini, but even Lucia di Lammermoor with Leopoldo Signoretti! In the season of 1893-1894 she sang Fioretta, the role for “primo soprano drammatico” in Leoncavallo’s I Medici; Fanny Toresella sang the lyrical role of Simonetta.

On 26 December 1894 Adini opened the season at La Scala, Milan, as the “other” Brünnhilde, in Reyer’s Sigurd. That season, when the publishing house of Sonzogno held sway, she also sang in I Medici, Patria!, and as Charlotte in Werther with Rosina Storchio and Fernando Valero. I have been unable to confirm reports that she sang Le Cid and La Navarraise in Milan at this time. She brought her Italian career to a triumphal conclusion with performances of La Walchiria at the Teatro Regio, Turin, in 1898 and at the Teatro Costanzi, Rome, in 1899.

In 1880 she had sung in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, and may have returned to Latin America in later years. She sang in Vienna in 1896 and 1897. It would be nice to know more about her performances in Germany and Russia in 1897-1898.

She first appeared in the stellar opera seasons at Monte Carlo in 1895, when she sang in the then popular Amy Robsart of Isidore De Lara. In 1896 she sang in Il Trovatore with Tamagno and Blanche Deschamps-Jehin, and created Frédégonde in the world première of César Franck’s Ghiselle; the title role was created by Emma Eames, who rather haunted poor Adini, for she was also in Ascanio at the Opéra and sang Elisabeth to her Venus in Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. Eames does not mention her Bostonian colleague in her memoirs, and unfortunately Adini never published hers. In 1903 Adini returned for the last time to Monte Carlo for three performances as Hérodiade in Massenet’s opera (for which her husband Paul Milliet had written the libretto) with Emma Calvé as Salomé, Tamagno as John the Baptist, and Maurice Renaud as Hérode—a dream cast.

At Covent Garden she does not seem to have been able to entrench herself, although she was engaged for four seasons between 1894 and 1897. In 1894 she sang two performances of Aida with Jean de Reszke, getting off to a good start, but her only other performance that year was as Valentine in Les Huguenots with a far from stellar cast. In 1895 she had the distinction of singing Donna Anna to Patti’s Zerlina, and also sang Venus. In 1896 she repeated Venus and Aida, whereas in 1897 she was heard as Donna Anna and the Walküre Brünnhilde.

Reviews of her Donna Anna in the Patti performances suggest that English critics disliked her “tremolo.” George Bernard Shaw went to Paris to review the first performances of Ascanio, although he despised the Opéra and French methods as much as ever Verdi did. Of Adiny he writes that she “is undeniably what we call a fine figure of a woman; but her tremolo and her superb screaming power leave in the shade even the lady who played Desdemona here in Verdi’s Othello at the Lyceum last year.” (He was referring to Aurora Cattaneo.)

The Adini records

Though forgotten by opera historians and confusingly divided into two separate sopranos by encyclopedias, Adini has always been a name to conjure with among record collectors because of the fabulous rarity of her Fonotipia records. Now gathered together and republished for the first time, it is gratifying to hear how very fine these legendary recordings are. What a pity that they are so few! The Fonotipia company began recording in Milan and Paris at the end of 1904. Whereas their Italian recordings are famous for lifelike reproduction of leading operatic singers in arias and ensembles (would that Nordica had been able to record for them!), the Paris Fonotipias are mostly mediocre or poor recordings of a curious collection of singers ranging from current stars of the Opéra and Opéra-Comique to distinguished dilettantes and faded relics of yesteryear. All of the records seem to have sold very badly—there may not even have been a catalogue of them—and many are known to exist today only as isolated, unique copies, which collectors have been able to hear through the generosity of Dr. Wayne. Of this list of singers, leaving out of consideration the fascinating efforts of the aged Capoul and Gailhard, Ada Adini is perhaps the most accomplished professional (though the contralto Marie de Reszke, an aristocratic dilettante, has a splendid voice and method and sings like a great artist on the one unpublished sample pressing that has survived).

Fortunately, the Adini records are, technically, among the best of the Paris series. Her voice is most beautiful in timbre, impeccably produced from the bottom of the scale to the top, and floats on the breath. The tone, in its pearly warmth and freshness, reminds one of Nordica. Though they were about the same age Adini sounds younger, but then her career had been much less stressful, though she, too, was a Brünnhilde.

What about the “tremolo” that those carping English (and Irish) critics bemoaned? Well, it turns out to be a light, fluttering vibrato that would not bother most people today and that does not seem to me to be particularly intrusive (it does not, for example, increase when she sings louder or goes up the scale). It is merely typical of how some “French” singers produced their voices (though not, usually, those who had studied with Sbriglia: Plançon, Nordica, Jean, and Edouard de Reszke did not flutter!), and not only singers: Sarah Bernhardt declaimed that way. If anything, her vibrato is less obvious than that of her fellow-student Litvinne or the younger Mary Garden.

Her least interesting offering is the potboiler Leggenda valacca by Braga, which she sings in a decently solid style without many nuances. On the other side of the original record she comes to life, perhaps inspired by the idea of immortalizing on wax some of the words penned by her husband for the music of Massenet’s Hérodiade. Her grand phrasing and vibrant tones are very similar to Calvé’s approach in her famous record, but Adini makes a point of rounding and softening the high notes in a particularly appealing way. Here her breath spans are long, showing her to be still in her prime; curiously, she needs more breaths in “D’amor sull’ali rosee,” which is probably her best record nonetheless. Her tone is ravishing, and deliberately darkened to wonderful effect in the lower medium, her phrasing is in the grand tradition, all the awkward high notes are beautifully placed, and the trills are forward, brilliant and perfectly resolved. The lovely high D flat, sung piano, and the fluent accuracy of her downward scale remind us that she had once sung Dinorah and Lucia. She catches the mood of the piece and takes her time: small matter that time runs out and she is unable to finish the aria! It is a great record just the same.

In two different takes of the second stanza only of “O patria mia,” sung in French, she demonstrates her versatility and control by taking the high C piano in take 1 and forte in take 2, both notes being extremely successful. How lucky Spiros Samara was to obtain the services of Calvé for Flora mirabilis and Adini for Histoire d’amour. Adini’s record of a charming arioso that apes Massenet without ever quite arriving at a tune must be one of the loveliest of all records in the major rarity category. How exquisitely she shapes the vocal line, which gives her plenty of opportunity for showing off the extraordinary beauty of her upper F sharp. She has mastered the pronunciation of French so that the clarity of her pronunciation never disturbs the roundness of her tone.

Olive Fremstad

In the 1904-1905 season patrons of the Metropolitan who wanted to see Parsifal (at special prices) could choose between Nordica or Fremstad as Kundry. “It was universally agreed that both were excellent. Krehbiel preferred the seductive youthfulness of Fremstad despite a little strain on her top tones in the garden scene; Henderson inclined toward the subtler intellectual concept of Nordica, who also sang the music with greater breadth and power.” (Irving Kolodin, The Story of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1953.)

Just a glance at her photographs—especially, perhaps, the striking series by Mishkin reproduced in Robert Tuggle’s marvelous book The Golden Age of Opera (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1983)—would convince anyone that Olive Fremstad was an actress of an intensity and conviction untouched by any changes of style and taste over the past hundred years.

She was never a flawless singer. In the article in the Ladies’ Home Journal for January 1910 quoted above, the scorching pen of W.J. Henderson relishes exposing her weak points:

Olive Fremstad, who used to be a mezzo-soprano singing contralto roles, is now a dramatic soprano and sings Isolde, Brünnhilde and Kundry. Her voice, however, continues to be true to itself, inasmuch as its quality remains that of a mezzo-soprano. This is not altogether a disadvantage, since it imparts to her delivery a certain warmth of tonal colour, which might otherwise be lacking. Her emission of tone is remarkably interesting because it is so full of expedients, but it would be a highly unsafe model for a student. Her scale is tolerably well equalized, and her use of head tones is so ingenious that it covers many natural deficiencies in her upper register. Madame Fremstad reaches her loftiest flights in interpretative eloquence, which is chiefly the outcome of intellectual application. She plans her readings with consummate care, but her conceptions begin in poetic imagination, for she has temperament and creative faculty. Indeed, imagination is the salient feature of this singer’s art. Her technic, as intimated, is largely composed of makeshifts necessitated by the forcing upward of her voice, but her interpretation is the product of inspiration and intelligence. She is wonderful as a singer chiefly because she triumphs over herself. She is great as an operatic delineator because she has saturated herself with the spirit of every one of her roles. She is an extraordinary artist in spite of an unstable technic.

Even in his reviews of her first appearances at the Metropolitan, Henderson had praised her despite her technical shortcomings, as for example in his retrospect of the 1903-1904 season in the Sun of 24 April 1904: “She has great magnetism, a rich and temperamental voice, a warm and eloquent face ... a finely wrought dramatic style of singing and high intelligence.” And after a Parsifal in 1906 he conceded that in the second act her Kundry rose “to a level of thrilling power ... seldom reached at the Metropolitan.” He naturally was less enthusiastic about her gradual hoisting of her voice up into the tessitura of the Wagnerian dramatic soprano, and many critics agreed with him about the “questionable” results she obtained in her first attempt at the Brünnhilde of Die Walküre in 1905.

The extraordinary woman who inspired novels and short stories by such writers as Gertrude Atherton, Willa Cather, and James Huneker was born Anna Olivia Fremstad in Stockholm on 14 March 1871, the first child of a Norwegian clergyman and his Swedish wife. When she was still very small the family moved to Minnesota, where the child soon drew attention to herself at revival meetings by her organ playing and her soulful singing. She studied singing in New York with Frederick E. Bristol and for a while was soloist at St. Patrick’s cathedral. She occasionally sang in orchestral concerts, and in 1891 she was asked to tour with Anton Seidl. In 1893 she went to study with Lilli Lehmann in Berlin. Sparks flew when these two forceful personalities clashed (Lehmann would throw books or heavy bunches of keys at the heads of girls who could not understand the intricacies of her method), but Lehmann helped Fremstad to launch her career as a mezzo-soprano in Germany. In 1895 she made her operatic debut as Azucena in Il Trovatore in Cologne, where she seems to have remained until 1900, when she accepted a contract from Munich. In Germany she sang a vast range of roles. She sang in Bayreuth in 1896, and in 1898 sang Brangaene in Vienna to the Isolde of Lilli Lehmann, with whom she also appeared in Norma. She appeared in Amsterdam and Antwerp. She was well received in two seasons at Covent Garden but does not seem to have made any enduring impression; in 1902 she sang Ortrud to the Elsa of Nordica and Brangaene to the Isolde of Litvinne, also appearing as Fricka in Die Walküre and in Der Wald by Ethel Smyth. In 1903 she repeated these roles and added Venus in Tannhäuser and Fricka in Das Rheingold.

From the time of her highly successful Metropolitan debut as Sieglinde in Die Walküre on 25 November 1903 she seems to have determined to appear at that theater exclusively, spending her free months studying her interpretations and continuing the transformation of her voice from a mezzo-soprano into a Wagnerian dramatic soprano. She progressed from Sieglinde, Venus, and Kundry to the Walküre Brünnhilde; on 1 January 1908 she sang her first Isolde, which also marked Mahler’s debut in the house as conductor, and in the same year she added the Brünnhildes of Siegfried (with Mahler again) and Götterdämmerung (with Toscanini). Later she ventured Elsa.

Her Carmen was extremely well received by the critics: “The Carmen of Bizet and Mérimée, not the traditional Carmen of the Metropolitan” (Henderson, in the Sun), but it did not become a popular favorite, any more than her Santuzza. Her most successful roles outside the Wagner canon were the Armide of Gluck and Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann; she only enjoyed a succès d’estime as Sélika, rather more as Tosca.

It appears from what one reads, and from the evidence of photographs, that her one performance of Strauss’s Salome, on 22 January 1907, before the board of directors of the Metropolitan banned the opera, must have been fine. A shocked Henderson reported that “Miss Fremstad ... coddled the severed head a good deal more” in the rehearsal than in the performance, in which she “moderated her transports.” Fortunately, after so much hard work - including a visit to the morgue to test the weight of a real human head - she was able to sing further performances in Paris, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1907. She also sang Armide at the Opéra in 1910.

For the Chicago Opera she sang one performance each of Die Walküre and Tristan und Isolde in January 1913. Boston heard her twice: she sang two Isoldes in January 1913 and on 24 November she sang Tosca, her last operatic appearance anywhere.

Fremstad was blandly driven out of the Metropolitan by Gatti-Casazza, who found her “difficult.” Inducing temperamental opera singers to resign by being systematically rude or uncooperative to them has always been a favorite method of managers. She was not allowed to bid farewell as Isolde, as she desired, but was fobbed off with Elsa, this last performance taking place on 23 April 1914. Gatti-Casazza soon realized that he had been too hasty, for before long scandal drove Gadski off the American stage and the Met was left with no star Wagnerian soprano. He persuaded her to return for the 1917-1918 season, but America’s entry into the war removed German opera from the repertory.

She once told a reporter: “I spring into life when the curtain rises, and when it falls I might as well die. The world I exist in between performances is the strange one, alien, dark, confused.” Into this world she now retired, until her death in 1951. In her book The Rainbow Bridge (New York, Putnam, 1954), Mary Watkins Cushing paints an extraordinarily vivid picture of the eccentric, embittered semi-recluse that Fremstad became. Trying to impart to her occasional students the theories of “whirling currents of air” in the cheekbones that she had learned from Lehmann, she was not content with the fanciful anatomical drawings of Lilli’s textbook Meine Gesangskunst, but kept on her piano a pickled human head sawn down the middle that the poor girls were forced to look at.

Why did it all have to end in 1914? In 1920, when Gatti ignored her request to allow her to sing the Wagner operas again, in English, many another opera house would have been glad to add her distinguished name to their roster. What stopped her from going elsewhere? Critical commentary on her performances suggests that her voice had succumbed to the strain of singing roles that were really too high for her, and she did not dare to go back to the stage, especially before new audiences requiring to be won over. (I myself do not hear any real evidence of vocal wear in her recordings.)

It is easy to understand why she was tempted to force her voice into an uncongenial repertoire: her contemporaries Edyth Walker and Margarethe Matzenauer, and many others, passed from Brangaene to singing Isolde. Wagner was all the rage, and the soprano roles were much more attractive, offered more scope to a singing actress, and were much better paid.

The Fremstad records

It was scarcely to be expected that an artist so prickly and unyielding and bearing aloft such exalted ideals as Olive Fremstad would take kindly to the idea of singing into a horn in a cramped recording studio to the accompaniment of a much reduced orchestra, though that she could unbend and consent to choose pieces with a view to sales is proved by her having recorded such a piece as “Tenting tonight on the old camp ground” (unpublished, alas, and lost to us). Unfortunately she also indignantly rejected the test pressings of her “Immolation scene.” We have to make do with the short list she vouchsafed to us, and, despite the usual vagaries of Columbia recording techniques, they are remarkable records indeed.

The record of “Elisabeth’s Greeting” is by far the best, and this one outburst of gloriously fresh and brilliant tone is enough to make us understand why she was so famous—although in the theater she sang Venus more often than Elisabeth. The impact of her personality and the dazzling thrust of her singing in this aria never fail to impress even those opera lovers not very familiar with acoustic records. Some of the apparent pitch problems in her discs may have been caused by a wavery motor in the recording machine, but it would not be surprising if she were occasionally a little sharp in “Dich teure Halle” when she is singing with such unbridled energy. Although her breath control is almost always exemplary, and she generally sings very long phrases without any difficulty, in both the Tannhäuser and Lohengrin arias she has to cut short a phrase for lack of breath.

So excellent is her singing of Elisabeth’s Greeting, a soprano aria if ever there was one, and so easily does she pass from ravishingly lovely sustained soft singing to full-powered brilliance, that we ask ourselves again what kind of voice she actually possessed. Today our ideas of what a mezzo-soprano should sound like are conditioned by memories of Fiorenza Cossotto or Marilyn Horne. No mezzo today sounds like Edyth Walker, Sigrid Onegin, or Margarethe Matzenauer, all contemporaries of Fremstad from the German school who also sang soprano roles; no sopranos sound like Lilli Lehmann and her school. Actually Fremstad herself does not sound very much like a Lehmann pupil, although she has obviously been subjected to severe discipline in her training; Lehmann squeezed her own voice ruthlessly, and Fremstad’s is usually quite free and floating.

After listening to Fremstad’s records again, I am struck by her resemblance to Onegin or to Julia Culp, the Dutch contralto whom modern listeners tend to think of as “sounding like a soprano” (and who descended, in her training, from the Marchesi school). The vocal method favored by the Lehmann school placed great importance on the development of head resonance all through the range, and scrupulously avoided throatiness. Fremstad’s registers have been perfectly blended, as we can hear, for example, in “Connais-tu le pays,” a most beautiful piece of singing though scarcely a haunting interpretation (we have to go to Patti for that); when she sinks into the chest register she is careful not to “boom” but maintains an artistic balance between the medium and chest registers. We cannot know what she sounded like when she arrived at the Met in 1903, but by the time she came to make her first records in 1911 she had so developed the head register that she could sail up to the high B of “Dich, teure Halle” with ease. The medium register is, perhaps, darker and warmer than a modern soprano’s would be, but at the same time more “heady” and less throaty.

Although Henderson complained that her technique was a set of tricks, today, when singing techniques have deteriorated alarmingly, it is rather a pleasant change to hear how Fremstad exploits the head register to rise to the top notes; it sounds easy and brilliant—at least, it does in Tannhäuser, which suits her. Less of a complete success is “Non la sospiri la nostra casetta” from Tosca, which at first hearing sounds simply like a delicately refined piece of singing, very appropriate for Tosca in cajoling mood. To follow the record with the score is to discover that actually Fremstad is repeatedly singing high-lying phrases piano where Puccini has written forte; on the “passage notes” F and G flat in the phrase “Al tuo fianco sentire” her voice will not expand in the authentic Puccini manner, so she substitutes a fine and very lovely pianissimo tone. Having perfected this method, she naturally uses it to sing the ascent to high B flat (“le voci delle cose”) more gracefully than anyone except Caballé. She is perfectly capable of attacking individual high notes forte, like the high A flat at the climax, but she cannot sustain long passages of full-voiced “Italian” singing in a soprano tessitura. “Vissi d’arte” has pleased a lot of modern critics; sung slowly and reflectively, it is quite individual and very touching. She manages the climax marvelously, with a full-voiced B flat followed by a most beautiful, soft A flat; she utters the final question memorably, an artistic effect that defies critical analysis.

“Elsa’s Dream” would perhaps be more satisfactory if the recording were less muddy; coming after “Elisabeth’s Greeting” it is rather a letdown. Brünnhilde’s Battle-cry is surprisingly successful, for the high notes are all there; the slightly disconcerting thing for the modern listener is that the Fremstad method of using the head register to extend her range means that the high B and C are smaller, more concentrated notes than we are accustomed to hearing in “Ho-jo-to-ho” from a Nordica or a Nilsson. Her singing is accurate and quite exciting, and the trill is splendid. The middle section is a trifle rushed, perhaps. Although she does not have the almost Italianate richness and brilliance of Gadski at her best, her singing is always more secure and finished than that of her hated rival. Unfortunately “Du bist der Lenz,” the big moment from one of her greatest early roles, is a weak recording and a pallid performance, despite the occasional beautifully turned phrase. The “Liebestod,” like Nordica’s not a completely successful record through no fault of her own, seems lovingly phrased and carefully thought out, with a firm legato line, though she is sparing with her portamento, using it very firmly when Wagner has asked for it, otherwise supplying it discreetly.

Her reluctance to use portamento is again noticeable in “O don fatale,” her best record after the Tannhäuser. Her style is neither German nor Italian, but her own. It does very well, and if she had been able to enjoy electrical recording this might have been considered one of the very best performances of this taxing aria. Her tempo at the end, which some critics have considered rushed, is the traditional tempo at which the passage was always sung in those days. She uses an edition, known also to Clara Butt and to Eleonora de Cisneros but not to me, that gives the singer time for a deeper breath by substituting “Forse andrà” for “A morte andar vedrò.” Unfortunately she steps well back from the horn for the high notes (the C flat of “Ah! ti maledico” comes from a long way off); she almost loses control of the B flat on “Ah! Un dì mi resta,” perhaps because her vowel was too open, but the B flat in the final phrase is triumphantly placed. An exciting interpretation that rivals the splendid, more obviously Italianate one recorded for the same company at about the same time by de Cisneros (née Miss Eleanor Broadfoot).

Her well-vocalized “Séguedille” from Carmen sounds elegant though not very seductive, and the unfortunate shriek at the end (vocal acting?) might well have scared off the hardiest dragoon.

Like her sister prima donnas, Olive recorded a group of simple songs for her less sophisticated fans. “Stille Nacht” she does not sing at all well, repeatedly and most untypically forcing out F (first space) in chest register, then when she tries the same note in medium it comes out weak and wavery. Although she cannot introduce any great variety of color into the two stanzas of Brahms’s “Wiegenlied,” her vocal line is quite lovely, and she sings “Ach, wie ist’s möglich dann” in a masterly fashion. One wonders whether she taught “Long, long ago” to her teacher, Lilli Lehmann, who made a weird but attractive record of it, or whether it was the other way around. Fremstad turns it into a haunting display of legato singing, with firm and limpid tone, and her “Annie Laurie” is equally distinguished. (Fremstad and Nordica sing this song in the same key, D flat.) There is a very obvious break in the voice in this song, as though the majestic Olive had a frog in her throat, but Miss Cushing swore that this had not been present on the advance sample pressings! It seems likely that Columbia had made more than one take of the song, and the version that the singer passed for issue was not the one that found its way into the shops.

Where so few records survive of such an important and exciting singer, the discovery and publication of a previously unpublished and unknown title is cause for rejoicing, especially when it contains a gracefully and lightly sung high C. It cannot be said that the flirtatious “Les filles de Cadix” was tailor-made for Fremstad, though she sang it in her guest appearances in Act Two of Die Fledermaus and maybe often in concert. She sings it accurately, with trills that are good in the medium register and brilliant in the head register, and with some distictly odd phrasing involving pauses in peculiar places. The recording is muddy and indistinct, but it sounds as if she is rather a glum maiden of Cadix.

©Michael Aspinall, 2003


Peter G. Davis: The American Opera Singer, Doubleday, 1997.

______ (Includes exhaustive discussion of the lives and art of Nordica and Fremstad, with many well-chosen excerpts from reviews.)

Over the past ten years, I have received more requests to re-issue Lillian Nordica’s records than those of any other singer. The idea has always enticed me but I have felt somewhat daunted at the prospect because in nearly every case, these letters ask, “Is there anything that can be done to improve the sound of her records?”

Lillian Nordica’s Columbia recordings did not adequately capture the size and color of her voice due to a deficiency in their recording apparatus. In fact, most of Columbia’s recordings from that period possess a constricted sound with little dynamic range and minimal low frequency response. Their recording equipment was simply unsuitable for registering the subtleties of the human voice. During the LP era, several attempts were made to reissue Nordica’s recordings but these poor transfers, replete with excessive artificial reverberation, only served to tarnish the great diva’s reputation. Even with today’s advanced technology, there is little that one can do to recover the softer tones of Nordica’s voice, lost in the Columbia recordings. Nevertheless, with digital technology, one can reduce the surface noise without detrimentally effecting the voice. In transferring Nordica’s records, I have employed a judicious amount of computerized de-clicking and de-noising to attenuate the noise, thereby bringing her voice more clearly into focus. I should mention here that I have applied the same principles in remastering the 1911 Columbias of Olive Fremstad and Ada Adini’s French Phonotipias all of which, unfortunately, suffer from similar deficiencies.

Remastering Nordica’s Mapleson cylinders presented a formidable challenge. These recordings are so primitive and possess so much surface noise as to invite the remastering engineer to use every tool in the digital arsenal to excess. With today’s technology, it is possible to remove much of the noise from these cylinders thereby allowing the voices to be heard with more clarity than ever before. This sort of processing has its negative aspects, however, as it gives voices a hollow and unnatural sound. The results of such digitization are, to me, both astonishing and disappointing. After much thought and experimentation, I have taken my customary moderate approach. For these transfers, I have used digital de-noising techniques to a greater extent than I would for 78 rpm commercial discs but not to the detriment of the voice. Unfortunately, there is little that I could do to improve the almost inaudible cylinders from Les Huguenots.

It is my sincere hope and belief that technology of the future will be able to capture a clean, natural sound from damaged, inferior sources. Perhaps this will be through digital technology or, as crazy as this may sound, from simply capturing errant sonic debris from the ether.