Emma Calvé: the education of the singing artist I

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Emma Calvé (1858 – 1942) was one of the most famous sopranos of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in a small village in the south of France, her international career didn’t gain momentum until 1893 and she went to become the best paid artist in the Metropolitan Opera House, surpassing the income of Jean de Reszke, according to what the legendary tenor told Blanche Marchesi.

The first ten years of her career were, however, very difficult. After an initial period of studies in Paris, she made her debut at La Monnaie in Brussels and according to Mathilde Marchesi in her memoirs: “one day, in the month of May of that same year [1882], a visitor was announced, and a young and pretty dark-eyed girl was ushered into my study, holding in her hand a letter of introduction from Monsieur Gevaert, director of the Brussels Conservatoire. Her name was Emma Calvé. “Take this young artiste in hand,” wrote Monsieur Gevaert. “She has talent, but has still much to learn. I fancy her voice has not been properly trained. She has sung with some success in Brussels during the past year, and now wishes to work steadily with you.” I tried the girl’s voice, and found it so tired and overworked that I advised her to rest it for some time before beginning to take lessons. She followed my advice, and after the change of air that had been prescribed she returned to me with regained strength and began her studies. These were continued with me until 1884, when, in October, Messrs. Corti and Victor Maurel, then directors of the Paris Italian Opera, heard her sing at my house, and immediately engaged her.”

Blanche Marchesi also shares in her book how she felt about the young singer upon her arrival in Paris: “Her temperament at that time of her life was undeveloped, her imagination limited. She was very calm, quiet and self-possessed, and nobody could have dreamed that at one moment she would not only be a great singer, but become famous by her acting. She worked patiently until my mother had saved her voice, and developed into a delightful high light soprano. She suddenly declared that she would adopt the name of Calvé for her career, and on that day her wedding ring disappeared, she brushed her bandeaux à la vierge up, and Madame Boellmann [as she had been known until then] had ceased to exist.”

Calvé worked in Paris for two years without the success she had longed for and was chosen to play the leading role in the opera Flora mirabilis by Samaras at the Scala in Milan. In her autobiography, she recounts: “The night of my debut at the Scala, I was horribly frightened. I sang out of tune and lost my head completely. The audience hissed me, and quite rightly! How often, since then, have I blessed that fortunate hissing which made me realise my shortcomings and spurred me to undertake the serious studies which I so much needed! I returned to Paris in a state of despair, ready to make corsets rather than continue my career. I was rescued from this fate by M. Hugel, the well-known publisher, who took me to Madame Rosina Laborde. This remarkable singing mistress is so widely known that I need not enlarge upon her extraordinary gifts as a teacher. Her conscientiousness and her patience were beyond praise, and it was from her that I learned the fundamentals of my art. During the period that followed my disastrous appearance at Milan, I changed very greatly. Not only did my voice improve through the wise and experienced teaching of Madame Laborde, but my character and personality developed and crystallised.”

In 1891 she was chosen by Mascagni to create in Rome the role of Suzel in the opera L’Amico Fritz, together with the famous Fernando de Lucia and Paul Lhérie, the creator of Don José in Carmen. During her stay in the city, she studied with the soprano castrato Domenico Mustafà, perpetual conductor of the Coro della Cappella Musicale Pontificia. She was called to perform in the French premiere of Cavalleria rusticana in the role of Santuzza and presented in Paris the role that would become her most acclaimed character: Carmen. In her book My Life, published in 1922, she reflects on the vicissitudes of her career and devotes several pages to her teaching work and to the values she considers essential for young people who wish to dedicate their lives to the art of singing.

I try to teach my pupils at Cabrières something beside the pure technique of their profession. An artist worthy of that high title must not only have a complete command of his instrument. He must not only have a mastery of the difficult arts of diction, breath control, declamation, tone production, the colouration of tones —in fact, of everything that might be called the mechanical side of singing. He must also, and above all, possess a high intelligence, a well-informed mind, a sensitive and generous heart!

It is not, of course, possible to give these qualities to those who have not got them, any more than one can cultivate a voice that does not exist! On the other hand, just as the hidden qualities of a crude young singer may be brought out and developed by an experienced master, so the young intelligence can be stimulated to greater activity. These young people can be taught to read intelligently, to study, to think. They can be shown how greatly a well-equipped brain will assist them in their careers. Their minds and souls can be opened to a wider understanding.

It is for this reason that I am always glad to have my pupils stay with me at Cabrières, for there, in a daily and hourly intimacy, I can show them, little by little, the path that will lead toward a broader culture. I cannot, of course, teach them all they need, for I do not pretend to be a pedant or a professor, but I can guide them to the sources of information. I can indicate to them where they can find what they need. I can open their eyes to a hundred avenues of interest and knowledge to which many of them are blind.

I am often astonished at the ignorance, the extraordinary limitation, of some of the young people I know. The past is a closed book to them. Philosophy, psychology, the teachings of the great leaders, past and present, are entirely outside the field of their attention. I wonder sometimes how these young people have the courage to undertake an artistic career, with such an utter ignorance of what has been accomplished before them, with so little intellectual understanding of the problems they will have to meet and solve.

“Who was La Malibran?” they ask, when I speak of that great cantatrice to whom de Musset wrote his famous lines. “Who was Madame Carvalho?” “Was Rachel an opera singer?” “What is talent?”

I do not remember half the amusing and absurd questions I have been asked — questions that show a complete ignorance of the background of information that is so extremely important for an artist to have. But I cannot blame these young girls for their shortcomings, when I consider how many artists, even among those who have achieved a certain recognition, are equally ignorant and uninformed. As a group, musicians have often been accused of being limited in their outlook and lacking in general culture. An incident comes to my mind which bears out this accusation only too well.

The baritone who sang Escamillo, the bull fighter, in one of the early productions of Carmen, was one of those singers whose power of lungs far surpassed his intellectual grasp of his role. It was noticed by those who watched the rehearsals of the opera that he stalked through his last scenes in a most tragic and solemn manner. At the moment in the opera when the Toreador has won the love of Carmen and is full of confidence of his approaching victory in the arena, the dejected and unhappy demeanour of the singer was particularly absurd.

“What is the matter?” exclaimed Carvalho, who was directing the rehearsal. “Why are you so gloomy? Don’t you know this is a gay, triumphant scene?” The singer drew himself up with supreme dignity. “I always make my interpretation in accordance with the words,” he answered haughtily. “Does it not say, ‘Toreador, beware. A black eye is watching you?’ ” “Yes, yes! Certainly!” agreed Carvalho. “But I don’t see why that should make you unhappy. To whose eye do you think the song refers?” “Whose eye?” exclaimed the singer, indignantly. “Am I not supposed to be acting the part of a bull fighter in this opera? Whose eye, indeed! Why, the bull’s eye, of course!”

This poor man was unusually dense. Yet it is surprising how often almost equally absurd mistakes are made. Such ignorance is a very serious handicap for a singer who wishes to reach a really high goal in the operatic world. No musical aspirant can afford to neglect his general education and studies. No matter how taxing his technical training may be, other studies must be followed at the same time. History, literature, languages —all these are essential to the development of an interesting artistic career.

I have seen musicians who have gained a certain popularity and success through mere technical proficiency. But the really great creative geniuses that I have had the privilege of knowing have all been highly cultivated and intellectual people. I try to make my pupils realise these almost self-evident truths. I show them why, from a perfectly practical point of view, a knowledge of history and costume through the ages is of inestimable value in the interpretation of operatic roles and even of simple songs.

When, for instance, I was studying a role such as that of Messalina in de Lara’s opera of that name, I steeped myself in the classic literature that bore on the period. I studied the historic relics of that epoch of Roman history, and strove to recreate in my mind, not only a picture of the Empress herself but of the background in which she moved.

When Salignac was called upon to act the part of Christ in an opera built upon the story of Mary Magdalene, he purchased photographs of all the paintings by the great masters in which the head of Our Saviour appeared. He procured hundreds of these pictures from many different countries. He read and re-read the New Testament, and absorbed himself so completely in his subject that he was finally able to present a most touching and impressive interpretation of the role. It is only by such careful and conscientious studies as these that a singer can hope to lift his achievements above the dead level of mediocrity.

Text excerpted from My life, Emma Calvé, New York, 1922.