A Talk With Lillian Nordica
( Originally Published 1907 )
IT was during one of Patti's farewell seasons at the old Academy of Music that a young American girl, by the name of Lillian Norton, first appeared as a prima donna. She made a success, but not a sensation, for she had not then the halo of a European glory, and people were in those days too intent on the passing star to note any rising one.
But later on, when she Italianized her name, they applauded the same voice more loudly, tho their attention was still more directed to the foreign artists who appeared every year.
The American girl all this time never relaxed her determination, but kept on working with a will, learning rôles there was no prospect of using, and studying all things in her line. At last she was engaged by the Metropolitan Opera Company ; but her name was not printed at the top of the list, and she was not held out as the magnet to fill the house on the opening night. In the end, tho, she sang oftener than any of the other sopranos, for when they were indisposed she it was that always came forward. There was never a role she could not sing, and never a time she was not ready.
The dormant appreciation of her countrymen became at last thoroughly aroused. Since then her success has swept onward with unabating force. The following season in New York the enthusiasm she inspired was so great that one large club of opera-goers presented her with a diamond tiara, and the people that year had to stand in line when buying seats to hear Madame Lillian Nordica.
The Waldorf-Astoria, where she lives when in New York, is quite a contrast to the humble New England home in Farmington,. Me., where she was born. This hotel is a city in itself, and the visitor who inquires for some distinguished resident is conducted personally along the marble avenues and carpeted byways and through the beautiful " palm-garden." The door of Madame Nordica's apartment was opened by a white-capped maid, who seated the caller and then left the room. It was the day of a blizzard, and from this sixth-floor elevation the snow-storm without was of superb fury. It battered against the window as tho maddened by the sight within of the prima donna's cosy parlor, of the shaded electric lights, the wide-open grand piano, and the numerous long-stemmed roses, in various tall jars, fragrant and peaceful as a summer's day. Through the silken draperies of a doorway could be heard the sound of voices, of occasional laughter, and then—a scale, a trill, and a soft high note. It was an exquisite grand-opera effect with the whistling storm by way of orchestral accompaniment.
Soon the curtains were parted and Madame Nordica entered—a woman of regal height and figure, but with manners thoroughly American and democratic.
"Do you mean to say you came through all this storm to see me ! You are certainly very brave." These were her first words; then she drew up a comfortable chair, and added : " Well, it's just the sort of day to talk and take things easy."
Madame Nordica's tones convey even more than her words, for her voice is notice-ably beautiful in conversation. It is fascinating in its variety, its softness, and its purity. Her face is also very expressive, as well as beautiful, with a complexion remarkably fine, teeth of absolute perfection, and thoughtful blue eyes set well apart.
She wore a house-gown of pale, clinging blue silk, and, with the exception of her wedding ring, had on no jewelry.
She told first of her birthplace and home.
"I was the sixth girl, and I think my parents were rather tired out by the time I came. I wasn't even baptized ! " Then she talked of her work.
" I studied first in Boston, and sang there in church but I made my concert début here in New York with Gilmore at the old Madison Square Garden. He took me with him afterward to Europe. When I returned to America I sang in all the Italian operas, especially Verdi's."
Madame Nordica still holds to-day a supreme place as a singer of the Italian school, altho her greatest fame has been won in the Wagner rôles.
When asked if she had ever met Verdi, the singer replied in the affirmative.
" I met him in Italy, but only once. I was much better acquainted with Gounod, and also the modern composers, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, etc., but now I devote my chief time to Wagner."
This led to inquiries about Madame Cosima Wagner.
" Ah, I lived right with her for three months, and it was a great privilege for me. Her husband's music is to her like her very eyes. She taught me the German and helped me in every way. ` Lohengrin ' had never been sung in Baireuth, and I was to create there the rôle of Elsa."
A remarkable honor this was, indeed : to be the first Elsa in Wagner's own temple, under the guidance of his own wife, with the grave of the great composer fairly in sight, and memories of the " Mad King " on all sides-the king whose ears were deaf to the functions of state, but open to the art of heaven.
" It was a great opportunity for me, but I sometimes thought I would have to give it up. Oh ! I have been so discouraged ! I have wept barrels of tears ! "
This is a kind message for the great singer to send to the many struggling aspirants who may today be working under discouragement.
Madame Nordica insists that "work is everything. The voice is but the material ; it is the stone from which the cathedral is built."
After her great success in Baireuth, the American prima donna sang Elsa in New York.
" But I had to sing again in Italian, for the rest of the company had not learned the German. It was through my efforts that they have since studied these rôles in the original, and we now sing all the Wagner operas in German."
It was a great musical event when Jean de Reszke and Madame Nordica appeared as Tristan and Isolde. This love-tragedy done in music is perhaps the most profound of all operas. It is somber with sorrow throughout; even the great love-duet in the second act is too intense and grand in its motifs ever to be called happy. It is not the joyous emotion of youth, but the fervor of maturity, where life itself is staked for a mighty love. This second act is a wondous musical scene. It is in the moonlit gardens of the Cornish castle where Tristan and Isolde meet clandestinely, while Bragaende, the faithful attendant, keeps watch in the tower above. She is not seen, but the calm sustained tones of her watch-tower song soar out in contrast to the intense love-music like a beacon-light on a turbulent sea.
Another very popular rôle of Madame Nordica's, tho altogether different in style, is Valentine in "The Huguenots." Her sustained and crescendoed high C in the third act of this opera is worth a long journey to hear. Madame Fursch-Madi in years agone used to sing this rôle very grandly, but she was plain of feature ; whereas with Madame Nordica her Valentine is so beautiful to behold that the audience is aroused to greatest sympathy with the hero's struggle between love and duty.
"Our art is so very legitimate," Madame Nordica thoughtfully remarked. " The painter or the writer can take advice, can be assisted, and has time to consider his work; but we must face the music alone, at the point of the bayonet as it were, for every tone must come at the right moment and on the right pitch. The actress has neither of these requirements to meet. It is very trying, also, to sing one night in German and the next time in some other language. Indeed, every performance is a creation. No wonder we are so insistent on the applause. A painter or writer can say to him-self, if his work is not at first well received, ` Just wait till I am dead ! ' But our fate and fame are decided on the spot."
Madame Nordica grew enthusiastic as she talked, and her face was all animation.
" It is easy to criticize us, but hard for an outsider to appreciate the difficulties of our art. No one is in a place he does not deserve—at least not for any length of time. And I believe, too, that no one lacks for opportunity. When people say, So-and-so has a beautiful voice, and ought to be on the Metropolitan stage, just inquire what that person can do. Very likely she only knows one language, and probably can not sing a single act of one opera straight through. Why should she be on the Metropolitan stage? A girl came to me not long ago who had been singing with some English opera company. She had a beautiful voice and said she could sing everything, which I found to be true. I asked why she did not go to Mr. Grau, and she replied, quite disheartened, that he would do nothing for her. Then I asked, ` Are you ready for anything.? I feel quite sure he could use you now as the page in "Romeo and Juliet." ' ` Oh,. I wouldn't sing a secondary rôle ! ' she quickly exclaimed. Now that girl makes a great mistake. To sing well one beautiful aria on the same stage with such artists as the two De Reszkes and Madame Melba would do her more good than to sing the first rôles in a poor company."
Madame Nordica spoke very earnestly as she related this story of a lost opportunity, which so plainly points its own moral. Another incident she told gives the reverse side of the same idea:
" I remember one day some singers were discussing another member of their company, and claiming that he did not deserve his high position ; but I protested, and said :
'Just consider what that man can do. He knows every language, has a fine stage presence, a good voice, and can sing every rôle in the repertoire. Now where will you get another to fill his place? '
"Our art today is very different from what it used to be. People wonder who will replace Patti or some other retiring singer; but if one should appear who adequately filled the vacant place, we would at once hear people saying, ` She only sings colorature rôles and nothing but Italian ! ' No, the great artist today is the one who has mastered all, who does the work of three in former years, and not one who shines forth temporarily in a few special rôles."
Madame Nordica can certainly speak with authority on this point, for she is one whom we may truly say has " mastered all." Her repertoire is astonishing in its scope and variety ; and when we consider that out of eighty-seven million people, which is our present population, including the colonies, she is the only one today who sings the three " Brünhildes " of Wagner and also his " Isolde, " we can then better appreciate Madame Nordica's achievement. It needs a very great mind to grasp and portray these Wagnerian creations. Brunhilde, the war goddess, must be both tender and heroic—as it were, divinely human. No composer but Wagner could have imparted these qualities ; but he was himself a sort of musical Jove, who wielded the scale like a thunderbolt. If any one doubt this, let him hear and behold the wonderful " Ride of the Walküre," those five war maidens, daughters of Wotan, who chase through the clouds on their armored steeds, and call one another in tones unearthly, to an accompaniment of whizzing strings, and clanging brass, and a torrent of intricate chords. The music depicts the fierce clash of the elements, the war gods in battle, the clamor of shields, and the furious dash of wild horses. Above it all there rings out on the air the weird, far-reaching cry of Brunhilde, the leader of the Walküre maidens, and her call is repeated from the East, from the West, from the uttermost mountain-peaks, by her sister spirits, who are sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed by the fast-rushing clouds, through which their steeds gallop and plunge.
Whoever can hear this wonder-work and not bow to Wagner's greatness is surely a musical degenerate.
" My progress has not been by leaps and bounds," Madame Nordica presently announced; "it has been more tortoise-like; and I have sometimes seen others sweep past me with apparently little effort. But in the end justice comes around to all. What is it Mrs. Carter says in ` Zaza' about success? ` It comes from much misery.' Yes, there is very much of that. ` And much work,'–ah, a great deal of that. ` And a little luck, '—yes, a very little of that ; it is not good to have much luck."
As I arose to go, Madame Nordica added with a smile : " You see I could talk on this subject all day. The sum of it is, success comes from steady daily work. You must work well in the morning, and then work some more in the afternoon—and it is well to practise between times too ! "