An Interview With Marcella Sembrich
( Originally Published 1907 )
EARLY in the season of 1898-99 there was a performance of "Traviata " in the Metropolitan Opera-House which might be described as " an occasion of superlatives "—including the largest auditorium, the' biggest audience, the finest singers.
Grand opera in itself is a culmination and combination of the greatest efforts of the greatest minds. There is, in the first place, the plot of the libretto, which in the case of " Traviata " was the masterpiece of Dumas, France's greatest dramatist—a man who labored all his life as tho achievement required only work, and who yet possessed such mental power as no amount of work could achieve.
After Dumas comes the librettist who transposed the story into suitable Italian verse to be set to music. And then we have the work, the inmost thoughts, of Giuseppe Verdi, Italy's greatest living composer. There was a day when each of these spark-ling melodies that now delight the whole world was born in the soul of Verdi, and heard by him alone. But he patiently put upon paper every note that his years of study and his gifted soul impelled.
The work of the composer, the dramatist, and the librettist belongs to the past, how-ever, and that audience of five thousand people did not bestow much thought on them. Nor did they think very often of the orchestra, composed of fifty thorough musicians, who really worked more during the performance than any of the other participants.
It may be mentioned here that in all grand operas the orchestra plays continually; it is the wall upon which the picture is hung. There may be pauses in the singing, but the conductor's baton never rests.
People seldom appreciate the vast knowledge of music and the remarkable ability in sight-reading which these orchestra players possess. Not one of them but has worked at his art from childhood ; most of them play several different instruments; and they all hold as a creed that a false note is a sin, and a variation in rhythm is a fall from grace. The director is their temporary deity who commands the orchestra beneath and the stage above—a little universe of music. He holds all together and dictates the tempo, the expression, and the phrasing. His commands are for the time being immutable as the laws of nature, for any serious disobedience would cause the whole structure to fall to pieces.
The five thousand listeners gave some applause to the director after the playing of the introduction, and they gave a little more to the chorus—those earnest workers who serve grand opera as the stokers do a ship.
Then the tenor received a good deal of applause—his reward for training his voice, studying music, memorizing operas, over-coming nervousness, and singing in public twenty years.
But the great applause, the " bravos," the cheering, the excitement, were reserved for the star, the soprano—Marcella Sembrich ! It is always impressive to witness such a success. It is inspiring to know that one woman can so stir the hearts of the people.
Madame Sembrich's voice is as perfect a voice as the world has ever heard. Yet her greatness consists more in her art than in her voice. She has not been satisfied merely to use her gift as nature gave it, but she has acquired a mastery of tone-coloring so that every tone has a meaning of its own, and seems to express a distinct emotion. In the last act of " Traviata " the quality of her tones, always beautiful, but ever varying as her art dictates, conveys to the listener surely and truly the approach of death and the hope of heaven. This is great art indeed. No wonder the audience fairly gasps as the last sweet tone leaves the lips of the pale Violetta and soars away into infinite space.
It was the day after " Traviata," when, in response to a knock at Madame Sembrich's door in the Hotel Savoy, a mellow voice said, " Come in."
On my obeying this summons, the singer was " discovered "—as the librettos have it standing near her grand piano, alone, and as unostentatious as your own sister.
There was no effect of the impressive prima donna, all flowers and frills and frou-frou. She was quite alone, just as lesser mortals sometimes are; and she furthermore spared her visitor from any sense of interrupted work, or great haste, or the magnitude of the occasion.
She was just a courteous, quiet lady who seated herself beside the visitor and talked earnestly about music and work.
When asked how early she began to study the art seriously, she replied: "When I was six years old. My father taught me the piano until I was ten. He was a very gifted man. Then I also studied for a while with Dr. Stengel, who is now my husband, and with Epstein in Vienna."
On learning that her visitor was acquainted with Vienna, Madame Sembrich's face lighted up (she has a radiant smile) : " Ach ! then you speak German? And from this point she talked altogether in German, which is more akin to her native Polish.
She is fluent, however, in all the continental languages. " We have to know them all, for we need them constantly," she explained. In reply to other questions, the singer told enthusiastically of her early work.
I can not say I was ever discouraged, for I so enjoyed my art that it was always of absorbing interest; but my whole life has been made up of hard work, always work. I also studied the violin and composition, and I used to rise early and go to bed late, for I worked six and seven hours a day,"
Madame Sembrich is one of the most thorough, all-round musicians on the lyric stage to-day, for she is not only a singer, but has played successfully in public on piano and violin. Her rare gift of voice was not discovered until she was seventeen. Then her great knowledge of music enabled her quickly to develop the voice, and it was not long before she appeared in opera and made her first great success in London. When asked if she was ever nervous, the answer came promptly :
Oh, yes, very nervous ! Now I am always nervous. But in the early days it was not so bad. When you are young and have a beautiful voice, you think it is all that is necessary, and are not nervous, because you do not realize the depth and extent of art. But as you grow older you appreciate the possibilities of art—you know what it implies, and how perfect you wish to make it; and then you are nervous. It is more nervous work, too, for such artists as Madame Patti, Madame Melba, or myself, who travel about and sing first in one place and then in another, because each time we have to win our audience and make a new conquest. In Europe, at the great opera-houses such as are in Vienna or Berlin, it is different, for there the singers are engaged permanently. The public knows how well they can do, and if sometimes they are not at their best, they know the public will excuse them. I find I am more nervous, too, as my reputation increases, for more is expected of me."
Referring again to her studies, Madame Sembrich counted over thirty-seven full operas that she has learned. It is well to consider for a moment what this implies. Aside from the native gifts of voice, musical talent, and dramatic temperament, there must be years of practise in singing and acting; then the words of each opera must be memorized, sometimes in three languages. After studying, originating, and mastering the action, the music must be learned, and every word wedded to a certain tone, and every tone to a certain beat of time. Herein the actress has but a slight task compared to the opera singer, for in the drama it matters not if a word comes a moment sooner or later ; but in grand opera a second's deviation might cause a discord.
Madame Sembrich delights in the opera " Traviata " because of its intense action.
" But I like, too, the lighter operas. The merriment of ` Rosina ' amuses me as I act it."
One more question was asked as her visitor arose to go.
" Is it true, Madame Sembrich, that you walk two hours every day ? "
" Yes," she answered good-humoredly. " I had just returned today when you came. I started at eleven and got home at one."
Regular and rigorous in her daily life even yet! Upon meeting Madame Sembrich, one receives an impression of graciousness and greatness not to be forgotten.