Opera And The Task Of The Prima Donna
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A broken note! It cannot be sung over again.
The orchestra goes on. Another singer takes up the cue. The performance continues. You take tip your role again at the proper moment. It is all so relentless!
The broken note does not fall into a net like the acrobat who has missed his footing and has another trial. You cannot stop the performance and sing the unfortunate phrase over again. No—to that ex-tent you have marred the performance, and however well you may sing through the rest of the opera, that broken note will break again in every newspaper the next morning.
Fortunately there are singers to whom this never has happened and never will happen so long as they conscientiously consider themselves able to fulfill their missions as artists. It is not only because they have voice and method, but because they also possess the will-power to impose upon themselves the rigidregime which should govern the life of a singer.
There are hundreds of beautiful voices. But why does one see almost always the same names leading the list of prima donnas at the great opera houses? It is not a fad. It is a necessity, because those singers —that handful—are the only ones who can stand the strain of a grand opera season in a house of large dimensions and give satisfaction to the public.
Where are all the other lovely voices that promised so much? They have failed. Why? Because their owners were unwilling to adapt themselves to the stern necessities that govern the life of a prima donna. It is a grand triumph to feel a great audience "rising" at you; but it is a triumph gained at the sacrifice of almost all the pleasures of life. I have questioned many of my distinguished colleagues. Always it is the same story—a story of continual sacrifice, not from the moment of the first success, nor even from the first step upon the stage, but from further back, from girlhood, from the period when the work of preparation began. The sacrifice of everything that interferes with her art and her career is what makes a "great" prima donna of the woman with the requisite voice and method. Even the athlete can learn a lesson in training from the prima donna, with this difference : the athlete can "break training," but the prima donna never can.
I am naturally active. Yet in a season of fifteen weeks I have set foot upon the street for a short walk just once. The chief part of the time it was driving from my residence to the opera house for rehearsal or performance and back again to my residence for study or rest.
Society? How fond I should be of it if I could enjoy its entertainments with a free mind! But the functions I feel I can attend during a season without fear that my so doing will interfere with my obligations as an artist, you can count on fewer fingers than those of one hand. I had an opera box at my disposal. I doubt if I occupied it more than three or four times in fifteen weeks. If I had sung Tuesday night in Philadelphia and was obliged to sing Kundry on Thursday. do you think, much as I longed to see a performance, that I would jeopardize my task and run the risk of not doing my full duty toward my public by attending the opera on Wednesday? No, I would rest from the strain of Tuesday the better to be ready to bear the strain of Thursday. It is one thing to be one of a great public, another to sing for that great public. Once I went to an afternoon concert just to treat myself to some singing that I wasn't doing myself. As I was leaving with the rest of the audience, a woman. a total stranger, came up to me.
"Please go right home and go to bed," she said.
`Gotterdannenug' to-morrow !
And she was right. I felt she was. So I went home—and went to bed.
Take a day when rehearsal has been called for half-past ten in the morning. 1 am up at eight. By nine o'clock my accompanist is at the piano and I go over some of the uncertain passages. An opera, and especially a Wagner music-drama, is such a big affair that even if you have sung it many times it still is necessary to "get up" on it every time you sing it and to rehearse it. no matter how long it has been in the repertoire. At half-past ten I am at the opera house and. if it is a music-drama that is in rehearsal, 1 am not likely to get away till half-past four or five in the afternoon. I have been standing and acting and singing most of the time, and usually without stopping for anything to eat, for it is not well to sing until some time after a meal. Yet when I get home, hot and tired, the first thing is the bath, and even then only something light to eat, for the system is too exhausted from the strain to assimilate the dinner that an ordinary person would eat after such an arduous day and so long a fast.
But even then work is not over. Supposing that you have been rehearsing "Tristan" that day, and the following night you are to appear in "Gioconda." These are works of totally different schools, and to be "up" on them practically at the same time is a great test of vocal method. I have to turn at once from "Tristan" to the Italian work so as to become permeated with it before I go on the stage the next night. But I am too tired to stand at the piano and sing. So I rest on the sofa and listen to my accompanist while he plays over the music of my role.
After that I take the score to bed with me—literally —so that if, during a wakeful hour in the night or in the early morning, I should think of some point (and one often does at such times). I am able to turn to the music and work it out. Thus practically the whole time a singer's mind is on her task.
Some people think a prima donna has a chance to rest in her dressing-room between the acts. Let me dispel that illusion. When I sing Valentine in "Les Huguenots," I do not appear until the second act, but in order to have time to dress and to "warm up" my voice, I am at the opera house at seven o'clock. As for rest between the acts—the Valentine costumes are elaborate, and all my time. when not on the stage, is occupied in dressing. For Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni," I get to the opera house by half past six, for I am obliged to be on the stage soon after the raising of the curtain. As soon as my first scene is over I hasten to my dressing-room and hurry into the black costume which I wear later in the same act. Even after that I have no leisure, for I ant obliged to change to another black costume.
After the first act of "Tristan and Isolde," the Isolde is happy if she still is alive. for the act is very long and Isolde is constantly on the stage, and almost constantly active. Yet she has. no time to rest. She knows that no matter how much she hurries, the stage will be ready before she can change her costume, and she fairly races so as not to keep the stage waiting any longer than necessary.
You might think that during the long, long wait between the second act and Isolde's cue late in the third act ( for she does not go on until nearly the end of the third act ) the prima donna would have an agree-able relaxation from the great scenes of the first and second acts. Yet that hour and twenty minutes in the dressing-room is the severest strain of all. Do I rest during this long interval? Oh, no. I keep walking about my dressing-room and singing. Other-wise the vocal organs would sink into a state of lethargy and I should not be able to key them up for Isolde's tremendous scene, the "Love Death," over Tristan's prostrate form.
When I sing Selica in "L'Africaine." I begin dressing at half-past five, for I have to "make up dark" for the role—stain my face and arms. There are hurried changes of costume in this opera too. One night, between the acts of "L'Africaine." one of the directors of the opera house brought Lord Charles Beresford and Sir Cavendish-Bentinck to call on me behind the scenes. I was obliged to remain standing during their call, while various barbaric ornaments were being fasteed to my costume.
One Saturday afternoon. after the second act of "Tristan," my little niece, thinking I would have a long time for rest and relaxation, came back to pay me a visit. After watching me a while from the lounge, she exclaimed :
"Why, Aunt Lillian ! If I'd known you carried on so. I wouldn't have cone in. I thought this was your time for rest."
Rest? The prima donna never rests. Every girl who really is going to be a prima donna is at it when she is young and keeps at it till she retires—that is, if she has the inborn love of it. Often I hear young women who are starting out to become singers say: "I will do anything, I will make every sacrifice for my art !" But they won't.
The real prima donna says nothing. She makes the sacrifices, and when she stands before the publicand finds herself in good voice and sees her audience hanging on every note and thrilled by every sound that issues from between her lips, she feels that all her sacrifices have not been sacrifices at all, but a joyous offering to her art.