The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Conclusion) and her 1920 Victor Test Recording

NINA MORGANA
Part 3 (Conclusion)
By James A. Drake.

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Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?

Yes.  Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s.  I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika.  But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933].  Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà.  The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.

Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932.  Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.”  I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill.   In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.”  Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.

 

You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala.  I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.

The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg. [5]  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met.  It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì.  It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded.  I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice.  So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.

 

Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?

Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920.  He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno.  [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now.  Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920.  The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.

 

Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang?  The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.

Yes, we had a copy of it.  Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.

 

Do you still have that test pressing?

No.  My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.

 

When did you make your test recordings for Victor?

 In 1920.  On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.

 

Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?

Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal.  It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it.  I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.

 

How many test recordings did you make that day?

Just two.  I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.

 

Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?

No.  I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.

 

Were you pleased with what you heard?

With “Come per me sereno,” yes.  But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”

 

Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?

It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn.  I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me.
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NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno

Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.)
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Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?

There were two reasons, really.  The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly.  As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me.  After he died, of course, that became a moot point.  The other reason had to do with my husband.  Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.

 

You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano.  Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds.  To what extent did he really “know” music?

 He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach.  He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them.  He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines.  It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep.  I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.

 

But he could not read music, correct?

No, not at all.  Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch.  Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.

 

Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?

Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire.  As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.”  Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought.  As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”

 

Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?

It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons.  Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited.  Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons.  They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème.   And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home.  So that was that.

 

Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini.  From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.

He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time:  “Per Dio!  If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!”  When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.

Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice.  Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso.  But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.

Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.

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Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend.  One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.

We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood.  That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served.  From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.

When we got into the car, he exploded!  “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”

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You sang under Toscanini.  Do you recall how many times?

 The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.

 

How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals? 

“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind.  He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel!  He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig.  Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza.  It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.

 

Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?

Definitely not!  He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!

 

Did he finish the rehearsal?

 Yes, but he rushed through it.  He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best.  At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!

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Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him.  Do you recall how many you sang with him?

 In all, there were eleven.  The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920.  He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall [1920], two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.

 

Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?

No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers.  He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci.  I think he did one with Mary Garden, too.  One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli.  Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him?  But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him.  He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.

Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him.  And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him.  But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso.  The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.

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This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)

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What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?

The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program.  He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar.  Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.

Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program.  Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections.  After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.

After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together.  Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him.  That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it!  Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.

After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?”  That’s when the fun would begin!

He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!”  This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta,  Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.”  Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”

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You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?

Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place.  I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika  [on April 12, 1932].   When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.

Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias:  he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.”    After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs.  He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me.  Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.

After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys.  That was the last selection on the printed program.  As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore.  Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you!  He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”

If that isn’t a tour de force, what is?  I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert.   Gigli’s entire career was that way:  fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.

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Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)

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[5] Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune:  “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.