The James A. Drake Interviews • Rosa Ponselle Discusses Her Recordings

ROSA PONSELLE ON HER RECORDINGS
An Interview by James A. Drake

.

(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

.

Do you recall when you made your very first recording?

Don’t ask me about dates because I’m terrible at them, but I remember being given a contract by the Columbia company around the time I made my Met debut.  No, it was before my debut—I’m pretty sure it was before it because I made the recording in the spring, and my debut with Caruso in Forza del destino was in the fall, in November [1918].

 

So you were still in vaudeville with [your sister] Carmela when you made the recording?

No, we were “on strike” from the Keith Circuit in 1917, or that’s what we told [Keith Circuit booker] Eddie Darling at the time.  But Romano Romani, whom I credit with “discovering” me, was an arranger and conductor for Columbia, and he and my so-called manager, [William] Thorner, convinced me to accept a contract from Columbia rather than Victor.  What I didn’t know until a few years later, when I did go with Victor, was that they had wanted me from the time I made my Met debut.  After my debut was a sensation, as the critics called it, Victor wanted to offer me a big contract and have me record arias and duets from Forza with Caruso.

.

Before the name change: Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo in vaudeville
(New York Clipper, August 8, 1917).

Carmela (left) and Rosa Ponselle (center) with Rosa’s secretary, Edith Prilik.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

Were you at all aware of Victor’s interest when Columbia wanted you to sign with them?

No, but I should’ve been because [Columbia] really rushed the contract through, and then had me make this test record.  Some of my friends said I should have Thorner try to see if Victor would take me, but he gave me this song and dance about how if I went with Victor I would just be a “beginner” and wouldn’t get much to record, but that at Columbia I would be “the queen” and would be their big star.

 

Do you remember the title of your test recording for Columbia?

Sure.  “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with Romani accompanying me at the piano.  That would have been in the spring of 1918, maybe March or April.

 

Where were the Columbia studios in New York City, where you made your recordings?

It was on the top floor of a new building, the Gotham, near Central Park.  It was a beautiful new building, and the studios obviously were brand-new, too.  I think there were four studios that took up that whole top floor.  I know it was at least twenty-four stories, that building, and the studios were on the top floor.

.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

.

Describe the process that making those recordings involved.

Well, there was just a small orchestra for accompaniment—mainly brasses and reeds, and these special [Stroh] violins that had a nickeled horn, like a curved megaphone, instead of a wooden body.  Those odd-looking violins were made just for recording purposes because their horns were fastened to a metal bridge, which made them very loud compared to a real violin—but they sounded awful!

 

How many were in the accompanying band, if you recall?

Maybe ten or a dozen players at most for vocal recordings.  They were on bleachers, I guess you could call them, a few feet above the floor.  The bleachers were shaped like a half-moon, so that the instruments were pointing toward the horn.  I remember that there was no player right behind me when I was singing.  The players were at my left and right, but with no one behind me because the sound of their instrument would have been right in back of my head.

 

When you were making a recording, could you see the recording machinery and the person who was running the equipment?

No.  All of that was behind a wall.  There was a little window in the wall so that the man directing the recording where the singer and the orchestra was could communicate with the people running the equipment.

.

Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

.

Was there a signal that someone gave to start the recording?

At Columbia, that was Romani’s job.  He would get a hand signal through the little window that I was just describing, and he would raise his baton and the recording would begin.  Now at Victor, I remember a buzzer that was used as a signal to start the recording.  That was before the microphone came in, of course.  After that, there was a system of lights, kind of like traffic lights.  The red light meant “stand by,” and the green one meant that the recording machine was already going.

 

Do you remember any directions you were given about how to sing into the recording horn?

Oh, that damned horn!  It was a real ordeal having to make a record with that horn, especially if you had a good-sized voice like mine.  You had to sing every note at almost the same volume—so if the score called for a pianissimo, you couldn’t sing it because the recording machine would barely pick it up.  You couldn’t sing too loud, either.  If you did, they [i.e., the recording engineers] said that it would “blast” the groove and ruin the record.  So anything forte, especially fortissimo, had to be sung by looking upward so that some of the sound wouldn’t do directly into the middle of the horn.  Or they would tell you to take a step back from the horn right before you would sing a note fortissimo.

.

“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”

.

Both you and your sister Carmela were offered Columbia contracts, correct?

Yes, they wanted to capitalize on our reputation in vaudeville.  We were one of the top acts on the Keith Circuit before I went to the Met, and our act consisted of fifteen minutes of mainly duets that I had done the arrangements for.  Three that always got us huge ovations were our duets of the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, “’O sole mio,” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.”  We recorded those for Columbia, and they sold well.

 

What is your opinion of your Columbia recordings?  Are there any that you remember especially well?

Well, those duets with Carmela, and another one from our vaudeville act, “Kiss Me Again,” which was my solo.  That record turned out pretty well.  One that didn’t like was the “Casta diva,” which I had to sing at a horrible tempo and with none of the dynamics that I used in the opera house.  I just thought of another duet recording that I liked:  the Trovatore “Mira d’acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo!” which I made with Riccardo Stracciari.  My God, what a voice he had—just like a shower of diamonds!  Now, of all of the solo opera arias I made for Columbia, I consider the “Selva opaca” from William Tell to be the best one.

.

The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.

..

Was it hard for you to leave Columbia after being so successful with them, and go to Victor?

It was bittersweet, I would say.  The men at Columbia were so nice to me—they really did treat me like “the queen,” just as Romani and Thorner said they would.  And it was bittersweet because although I made a lot more money at Victor, Caruso had died two or three years earlier, so I never got to record with him.

 

Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?

No, she stayed with Columbia.  And by the way, I didn’t “audition” for Victor.  I was at the Met by then, and Victor did everything they could to get me to sign with them.

 

What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?

Well, the ones that were done with the horn and the small orchestra for accompaniment were made in their Manhattan studios.  When the microphone came along and everything was electrical, I made a lot of my records at this church that Victor had converted into a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey.  The acoustics of that church were ideal.

.

From the “1930” Victor catalog (published November 1, 1929). Of Ponselle’s acoustically recorded issues, all but #6437 had been deleted by the time this catalog appeared.

.

When the electrical-recording process was introduced in 1925, do you recall how different it felt to make a recording with the new technology?

Oh, yes!  It was like night and day.  The orchestra was much, much larger, and they used regular instruments—real violins, in other words—and you could have a good-sized chorus and a pipe organ if the music you were recording called for them.

 

You made a number of recordings with a chorus, and one of your fan’s favorites is “La vergine degli angeli” with [Ezio] Pinza.  Do you consider that one of your best electrical Victor records?

No—it’s one of my least favorites.  My part, that is, not Pinza’s.  He sings beautifully on that record.  What I don’t like about it is that somebody in the control room turned up the volume on my microphone.  It’s a prayer, so it’s supposed to be sung piano—but because of the way they turned up the volume on the microphone when I was singing my part, it’s way too loud, nothing like a prayer would be sung.

.

Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)

.

How about your Forza trio recordings with Martinelli and Pinza?  Do you like those Victors?

Yes, they’re all right.  The blend of the voices turned out well.

 

Of all the duet recordings you made for Victor, the “Tomb Scene” discs from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli are prized by everyone who has heard them.  Is it true that you didn’t like them and that Martinelli had to convince you to allow them to be released?

That’s true, yes.  There again, the balance between our voices was wrong.  We recorded those duets twice, you know.  The first time was with the horn, and I wouldn’t let those be released because we were both too loud and the pace was too fast.  It’s like one of the Columbias that I made with that damned horn, the “Vergine degli angeli” with Charles Hackett.  He was an excellent singer—not the most beautiful voice, but a real artist—yet the recording was just awful.  It was all too loud, no subtlety at all.  The same with those first “Tomb Scene” recordings that I made with Martinelli and that damned horn.

When Victor persuaded us to re-record those duets after the microphone came in, the sound was much better, of course, but I thought the balance between our voices was still off, so I said I wouldn’t go along with putting them out.  Finally, Martinelli persuaded me to okay them.  He said, “Look, Rosa, the public will understand.  You sing so beautifully and your voice sounds just like it does on the stage.”  I could never say no to Martinelli, so I went along with him and let them be released.  When I hear them now, I’m glad I did.

 

What is your opinion of your Norma recordings, both the “Casta diva” and the “Mira, o Norma” with Marion Telva?

I’m fine with them, especially the “Mira, o Norma.”  Telva and I were in synch on every note.  We did that in the studio the way we did it onstage.  We held hands, and I would squeeze her hand gently a fraction of a second before I would begin a note.  Every time we did that duet, we were completely in synch because of the way we held hands.

 

Were any of your Victor Red Seals of older ballads like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, who conducted most of Victor’s popular-music recordings?

No, never.  I don’t remember him—I mean, I must have been introduced to him, but I wouldn’t know him if he walked into this room right now.  Rosario Bourdon conducted my Victor recordings.

.

An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.

.

As you hardly need me to tell you, you are one of the very few opera stars who made acoustical recordings, electrical recordings, and modern long-playing recordings.  You’ve talked about the day-and-night difference between making acoustical and electrical recordings, but what was it like by comparison to make high-fidelity long-playing recordings for your old company, RCA Victor?

What I wouldn’t have given to have had that recording system when I was in the prime of my career!  It was so easy making recordings that way!

 

Those LPs were made right here at Villa Pace, correct?

Yes, in the foyer, where the high ceiling and the walls and tile floor give the voice such resonance.  They set up the microphones there.  They brought in a seven-foot piano for [accompanist] Igor Chichagov, because it would have been too much trouble to move my concert Baldwin piano into the foyer.  And do you know that the man who oversaw those recordings was one of the men I worked with at Victor in Camden?  His name was Mr. Maitsch.  It was such a happy moment when he came here and we got to work together again.

 

The master recordings for those LPs were made on magnetic tape.  You had had some experience with having your singing tape-recorded by Lloyd Garrison, who recorded private albums that you sent to friends.  How different was it working the RCA’s technicians and their state-of-the-art equipment?

Well, the sound quality of the RCA equipment was leagues ahead of what Lloyd had used.  He had an ordinary [Webcor] tape recorder, but he did have a very good microphone that he bought for our private recordings.  But the RCA microphones were the ones they used in their studios, so of course they were the top microphones.

.

Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)

.

How many “takes” did you do of each of the songs you recorded for your LPs?

Well, if I liked the way it sounded, I just sang a song once.  Sometimes, they would ask me to do a second “take” just as a back-up—and sometimes I didn’t like the way I did a number, so I recorded it a second or maybe even a third time.  Now, that I didn’t realize until later, when I heard them on the discs for the first time, was that they [i.e., the sound engineers] had spliced different portions from different “takes.”  Now, that was something else I wish we’d have had in the old days.  I have a good ear, though, and when I listen closely I can sometimes tell where they did the splicing.  I can tell because the resonance changes just enough for my ear to detect it.

 

Did you rehearse a lot before you began recording the selections for those LPs each afternoon and evening?

Oh, hardly at all.  I just picked what I wanted to sing, and I handed the score to Igor [Chichagov] to play it while I sang it.  Now, he will tell you that he’s not happy with some of his playing because I didn’t want to rehearse.  I just wanted to keep going, and record as many songs as I could in one long day.  On a couple of the songs, I played my own accompaniment because it was easier for me to pace my phrasing.

 

Is there any one of the songs on which you played your own accompaniment that you remember especially well?

Yes, yes—“Amuri, amuri,” which is a Sicilian folk song.  It’s such an emotional song!  It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check while we were recording it.  Afterward, I was a wreck and we had to stop for quite a while until I could get my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged.

.______________

© 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.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

.

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

.

(Smithsonian Institution)

.

One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

.

(Radio Annual, 1949)

.

A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

.

.

Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

.

.

Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

_______

[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

.

.

Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

.______________

© 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.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) and Smithsonian Institution photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Part 2)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 2 of 3
James A. Drake

.

.

Let me ask you about many of the great singers whose names you mentioned earlier.  As I mention them, please tell me what comes to mind when you hear their names.  Let me begin with Geraldine Farrar.

Of all of the great singers I have been privileged to come to know, Geraldine Farrar was the most special to me.  The first performance in which I heard her was a Tosca with Antonio Scotti as Scarpia, and Alessandro Bonci as Cavaradossi, in 1909.  I still have the program from that performance, and her autograph is written across it.  I treasure that program more than any other—and believe me, I have many!

Almost twenty-five years later, in the 1930s, I had the privilege of working closely with her when she did intermission features during the Met broadcasts.  She based each of her features on the opera that we were broadcasting that afternoon—and to demonstrate various musical points that she was making, she would sing two or three bars from the score, accompanying herself on a little upright piano that was put in the box for her.

What was Farrar like as a person?

This sounds trite to say, but she was a star—a real star—but she was very approachable, very considerate, and very supportive of everyone she worked with.  When I first saw her in 1909, I thought she was even more beautiful in-person than in the photograph I had of her.  In those days, I had her photo in a frame next to my bed.  I was thoroughly smitten!  I see the same phenomenon happening today [1974] with Kiri Te Kanawa, just as I saw it happening with Anna Moffo a few years ago.

.

Geraldine Farrar (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

In the opera house, did Farrar sound like she does on her Victor Red Seal recordings?

Yes and no.  The mechanical-recording process was none too kind to women singers, except perhaps for coloratura sopranos.  In the [opera] house, Farrar’s voice was much larger than what you hear on her old recordings, and her middle range was much larger than her recordings would lead you to believe.  That’s why I’m so glad that several of her intermission features were saved as radio transcriptions.  Those transcriptions capture the gorgeous sound of her middle range.  None of her old recordings were able to do that.

You spoke about Evan Williams, and the warmth of his personality when you met him after a concert.  Did John McCormack, whom you not only heard but worked with on radio, have that same type of personality offstage?

No!  John McCormack was always cordial but very formal, rather aloof, and “all business,” as they say—not the genial Irishman that the public imaged him to be.  Although he was the most famous tenor of his time except Caruso, McCormack was always suspicious of any upcoming singers who were singing what he regarded as his songs.  I can remember a number of times at rehearsals, when he would take me aside and quiz me about other singers who were on the radio.  “Now tell me, Mr. Cross,” he once said to me, “who is this Bing Crosby, and what do you know of him?”  I answered that I knew Bing personally, and that he was a fine fellow.

“And what is his voice?” McCormack wanted to know.  “Well, he’s a light baritone,” I said, “and he’s a crooner like your friend Mr. [Rudy] Valée.”  I knew that McCormack liked Rudy Vallee because Rudy had him on his radio show and treated him like a king—and Rudy, of course, never sang any songs that were associated with John McCormack.

“This boy Crosby is doing my songs on his program,” McCormack said to me very sternly.  “Last week he sang my ‘Adeste Fidelis,’ and I don’t think I like that very much!”  I tried to remind him that this was the holiday season, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to McCormack.  After that conversation, I got in touch with Bing and told him about it—and then Bing invited McCormack to be on his radio program, and made a big fuss over him.  From then on, Bing and McCormack became good friends.

Around that same time, McCormack took me aside again and said, almost in the same words, “Now tell me, Mr. Cross, who is this James Melton, and what do you know of him?”  I said that I didn’t know Melton very well, not like I knew Bing, but that [Melton] was a light tenor who had been with The Revelers, and was now a soloist on the radio.  “Are you aware,” McCormack said brusquely, “that this boy Melton had the nerve to sing my ‘Macushla’ on the radio this week?  Does that boy think he can just steal my music and take money from my own pockets?  I’ll not allow it!”

.

John McCormack (G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

That’s how McCormack was—very suspicious and very possessive, as in referring to “my ‘Macushla.’”  Now, as a singer, he was in a league of his own.  No one but John McCormack sounded like John McCormack.  And I have to say that even in popular songs like “Macushla,” which he did essentially “own,” his flawless vocal technique is always evident.  I would go so far as to say that there are at least two of his Victor recordings which I don’t believe any other tenor will ever surpass:  “Swans,” which has the most beautiful diminuendii you’ll ever hear, and “Il mio tesoro,” which is one of the greatest recordings of this century.

If my research is correct, you were in the audience for the Met debut of Leo Slezak, in an historic performance of Otello with Frances Alda and Antonio Scotti.

And with Toscanini conducting.  What a night that was!  That was only a few weeks before I heard Farrar in Tosca.  When Leo Slezak made his entrance, everyone in the audience literally gasped:  he looked like a real-life Paul Bunyan!  When he sang “Esultate!” the applause went on so long that Toscanini had difficulty restarting the orchestra.  I have heard a number of tenors in Otello since then, but I have never heard one who could equal Leo Slezak in that role.

Not even, say, Giovanni Martinelli, or more recently Mario Del Monaco?

Not at all.  Mario Del Monaco either could not or would not sing at any dynamic level other than forte.  Leo Slezak could do a diminuendo, which very few other tenors could do.  The only ones who come to mind in that regard are Giacomo Lauri-Volpi in his prime, and Franco Corelli today.  Corelli has done diminuendi on the air, notably in “Ah, levez-toi soleil” in Romeo et Juliette.

Do you recall Lauritz Melchior singing Otello to Elisabeth Rethberg’s Desdemona at the gala performance for Gatti-Casazza in 1935?

Yes, I was fortunate to be there, and of course I heard Melchior many times after that in the great Wagnerian roles.

Having heard Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, how would you compare the two?  Would you consider them equals?

Not in Otello, no—if that’s what you mean.  In the Wagnerian roles, I would say that they were equals, at least in terms of the clarion quality of their voices.  But Melchior was incapable of subtlety, whereas Slezak was capable of infinite subtlety.  His lieder recordings, which he made relatively late in his career, are remarkable!  Melchior could never have done that.

.

Elisabeth Rethberg and Ezio Pinza at the Met (from The NBC Transmitter, December 1940)

.

The versatile Elisabeth Rethberg sang in the German wing of the Metropolitan wing, along with the Italian wing.  You also heard, as you mentioned, Maria Jeritza, who was also associated with some German roles in addition to her French and Italian ones.  And you also knew and heard Lotte Lehmann several times.  Can you compare them?

Oh, Lehmann was a thorough artist!  Jeritza was a fine interpreter and actor, as was Lehmann, but Jeritza was a better actor than a singer.  Lehmann could do it all—and she was witty, too.  I remember and intermission feature in which Jeritza and Lehmann were interviewed together, and Jeritza opened the interview by saying to Lehmann, “I have such good things to say about you, but I don’t think you’ll believe them.”  “No, I won’t,” said Lehmann with a laugh.

I also remember another intermission feature, a singer’s roundtable in which Lily Pons and Lotte Lehmann were interviewed.  Pons was always discreet about her age, and though she was rumored to be at least five years older than the claimed, her skin tone and her tiny physique made her look quite a bit younger.  In the interview, Lily laid out this beauty plan that was based on squeezing fresh lemons all over her face.  That’s how she kept her face so youthful-looking she said.  At that moment, Lehmann, whose face was quite wrinkled, got a great laugh by saying to Pons, “Tell me more about zeez lemons!”

Looking back on the great sopranos you worked with, including Lotte Lehmann, which ones were the most fun to be around and to work with?

In the 1920s and 1930s, the life of the party was always Rosa Ponselle.  Today, they would say that she “is where the action is.”  No soprano of her era had the kind of massive and reverential following that Ponselle did.  And, my God, she was funny!  She had pet names for all of us, and she treated everyone as a friend.  Then there was that voice—and there has never been another dramatic soprano that was equal to it.  Ponselle and Caruso were the two artists that everyone wanted to hear.  As Farrar said on the air, “When you hear Rosa Ponselle, you hear a fountain of melody blessed by the Lord.”  In the 1940s and 1950s, I had similar fun with Helen Traubel on tour. 

She too is reputed to have had a wicked sense of humor.  The same with Eleanor Steber.

They were great people, that’s why.  She made a few onstage mistakes, as they all do, but she laughed them off afterward.

And Eileen Farrell?

I certainly admire her singing—and, you know, she can sing popular music, especially blues numbers, as well as she can sing, say, Aida.  But she’s a very crude woman, very boorish, and she seems to be rather proud of it.

We spoke of James Melton, but in connection with John McCormack.  Melton’s career paralleled that of Richard Crooks.  What are your assessments of them as singers, interpreters, and actors?

In my opinion, one was an artist—Richard Crooks—and the other, Melton, was just a very fine singer.  Melton was at his best in songs like “Oh, Dry Those Tears” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” where the throb in his voice could accentuate the maudlin lyrics of those songs.  Crooks, on the other hand, was like a perfectly crafted cameo, especially in the French repertoire.  But he could sing almost anything and do it wonderfully.  When he was making recordings with the Victor Light Opera Company, his “Overheard the moon is beaming” from The Student Prince, or “If One Flower Grows in Your Garden” from The Desert Song, were musically excellent and dramatically intense.  And his Red Seal recording of the lullaby from Jocelyn will bring tears to your eyes, especially in the last few measures.

Staying with the topic of American tenors, you must have heard almost all of them.  Let me mention their names, and ask you to give me the impressions that come to your mind as you hear their names.  Let me begin with Charles Hackett.  Did you hear him in-person?

Oh, yes—several times.  I remember his Alfredo in Traviata, with Frieda Hempel as Violetta, and I also remember him in a Verdi Requiem with Rosa Ponselle, Margarete Matzenauer, and José Mardones.   Hackett’s was not a particularly beautiful voice—it was fairly large, though, a spinto tenor—but he was a superb musician and an excellent actor.  Hackett was a very nice-looking man, too.

.

Charles Hackett (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

Another American tenor of that era was Riccardo Martin.  Did you hear him at the Met?

Yes, only once, as Pinkerton in Butterfly, with Farrar in the title role and Scotti as Sharpless.  I think Rita Fornia sang Suzuki.  Riccardo Martin was rather tall and trim, and was an excellent actor.  It was said that Caruso was very fond of him, and gave him a lot of encouragement.  Although Martin’s prime years were a little before Hackett’s, I would put them in the same league—not the most beautiful voices, in other words, but excellent interpreters and actors.

Among the other American tenors who had successful careers at the Met after World War One were Orville Harrold, Mario Chamlee, and Morgan Kingston.  What do you recall hearing them in?

I heard Orville Harrold in Cavalleria rusticana, in a double-bill with Le Coq d’Or rather than the more usual Pagliacci.  Orville Harrold was another Paul Bunyan-type—a big, tall, broad-shouldered fellow.  His voice had a lyrical tone quality, but it was surprisingly large in the opera house. Kingston I saw in La Navarraise, which Farrar and Léon Rothier.  He sang well, and it was a sizeable voice, but he sang everything at forte or fortissimo, so his part in the performance was not on a par with Farrar’s and Rothier’s.

I heard Chamlee in his debut, which was in Tosca with Farrar and Scotti in February 1920.  I had heard his recording of “E lucevan le stelle,” which sounded rather like Caruso’s Red Seal record.  Later, I found out from my friend Gus Haenschen, who was at Brunswick in the old days, that Walter B. Rogers, who directed Brunswick’s equivalent of the Victor Red Seal, had coached Chamlee to imitate Caruso’s recording phrase by phrase.  But in the [opera] house, Chamlee didn’t sound anything like that.  It was a good voice, but not a great voice—and he certainly didn’t sound anything like Caruso.

Two other American tenors who come to mind were Paul Althouse and Frederick Jagel.  Did you hear both tenors?

Yes, I did.  Paul Althouse had almost two separate careers—first in the Italian and French tenor roles, and later in some of the Wagnerian heldentenor roles.  He was better, in my opinion, in the Wagnerian repertoire.  Frederick Jagel was a very capable tenor in the lyric Italian roles.  I remember his Turiddu being especially good, both vocally and histrionically.  Like Althouse, Jagel was a good, solid, reliable performer.  But neither of them had what I would regard as great voices.

You heard Caruso in his prime.  Please tell me everything you can remember about the experience of hearing and seeing him at the Met.

I first heard Caruso on March 15, 1910, with Johanna Gadski as Aida, Louise Homer as Amneris, Pasquale Amato as Amonasro, and Toscanini conducting.   At home, we owned Caruso’s Victor Red Seal of “Celeste Aida” (Victor 88025), which he had recorded in 1906, and the Johanna Gadski-Louise Homer duets from the second act [“Fu la sorte” and “Alla pompa, che s’appressa”].  We also had the two Red Seals of the Tomb Scene with Caruso and Gadski.  I played those Tomb Scene discs so many times that I could hear them in my sleep—but it wasn’t until I heard Caruso and Gadski sing it on the stage that I realized that several cuts had been made in those recordings.

In the opera house, did Caruso sound like he did on his many Red Seal recordings?

I didn’t think so.  His voice sounded smaller than it did on recordings.  I was expecting to hear a huge voice, and instead it seemed a good deal smaller but also much more nuanced.  In “Celeste Aida,” for example, his tempo was considerably slower than it was on the recording, and he did a lot of shading that you don’t hear on his recordings.  Of course, from the little seat I had way up in the balcony, I was hearing him from far away.  In the recordings, his voice was coming directly into my ears from the Victrola.

That’s a very good point, and one that’s overlooked in acoustical recording technology.  The singer was about five or six inches from the recording horn, which was fed directly into the max master, and the resulting recording was played through an acoustical speaker that was only a few feet from the listener—an entirely different experience, in other words, from hearing a great singer in a cavernous opera house, even one with excellent acoustics.

That’s one of the main reasons why, when I heard the first few measures of Caruso singing “Celeste Aida,” I thought to myself, “He doesn’t sound like his Red Seals.  He doesn’t sound like Caruso.”  Now, in retrospect I shouldn’t have listened to those Red Seals at our home over and over before going to the Met so I could compare them to the singer’s “live” voices.  But at the time, I didn’t realize that all of these singers used a different technique—well, not a different technique in the vocal-production sense, but rather a different approach—when they made studio recordings.

Was Caruso’s a beautiful voice in your judgment? 

Well, yes, in its own way.  His voice had the baritonal quality that you hear on his recordings—and there was no effort at all in his singing.  I remember that his movements onstage were more natural, I thought, than Gadski’s.  She looked rather stiff by comparison.  The makeup they used for her was awfully dark, almost the color of mud, which didn’t exactly help her.  Pasquale Amato, on the other hand, seemed very natural, and his Amonasro was very well acted.

Was there any part of that Aida performance in which you “heard” the Caruso voice that we’re familiar with on recordings?

Well, looking back, it was probably a mistake to listen to those recordings over and over again before going to the opera house.  What I was expecting to hear were those ringing high notes that I had heard in those Aida recordings.  In my head, I was listening to the recordings, especially of “Celeste Aida,” and as soon as I heard him singing the aria at a slower tempo, and with so much nuance, I was disappointed because I wasn’t hearing those trumpet-like high notes.

But I did hear them later in the opera.  It was at the end of the Nile Scene, when he sang “[Sacerdote!] Io resto a te!”  Maybe [Francesco] Tamagno sang high notes with such tremendous power—I don’t know—but when Caruso sang “Io rest’ a te,” I said to myself, “Yes!  That’s it!  That is Caruso!”  He had never recorded that music, so I was hearing him sing it—I should say, I was hearing him, meaning his real voice—for the first time.   There’s a lesson in that for people today.  Enjoy your records when you play them, but don’t expect the record to sound like the singer, or vice-versa.

.

Pasquale Amato (right), with Antonio Scotti and Lucrezia Bori
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

About Pasquale Amato:   in the opera house, sound at all like his Victor recordings?

On the stage, Amato’s voice was like a French horn.  It was quite large, though not as large as Ruffo’s was.  Like Caruso, Amato used a lot of shading in his singing, which doesn’t come across in his recordings.  There was such precision in that performance of Aida.  Toscanini saw to that!  But no, to answer your question, his recordings don’t do him justice.

After Caruso’s passing, many of the dramatic roles for which he was famous were assigned to Giovanni Martinelli, and the more lyrical roles to Beniamino Gigli.  You heard them many times in the ensuing years.  Are there particular performances of theirs which you recall vividly?

Yes, especially in Martinelli’s case.  You must remember that Gigli left the Metropolitan in 1932, but that Martinelli sang there until 1946.  Martinelli’s first in-house role was Rodolfo in Bohème, with Lucrezia Bori in 1913, and his last in-house performance was as Rodolfo, with Licia Albanese as Mimi.  Interestingly, Bori and Albanese were exactly the same height, and had almost the identical measurements.  Even their shoe sizes were the same.  Licia [Albanese] told me that when she tried on a pair of shoes that Bori had worn—they were Size 2—they fit Licia perfectly.

Were you in the audience when Gigli made his debut as Faust in Mefistofele?

Yes, and I think I heard almost every in-house performance that Gigli gave during his first season.  His debut was one of the most talked-about and the most anticipated in the circles that I was in.  Gigli had the most beautiful tenor voice I have ever heard.

Were there any similarities in Gigli’s voice, compared to Caruso’s? 

Not to my ears, no.  Gigli’s was the perfect lyric tenor voice.  It was a sizable voice, too.  The beauty of [his] timbre was indescribable.  If I were asked to write a dictionary, after the word “tenor” I would put a photograph of Beniamino Gigli.

.

Beniamino Gigli. Silly poses like this were Victor’s attempt to impart a more “down-to-earth image” to their Red Seal artists.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

..

Among other tenors who come to mind in the lyric roles were Tito Schipa, and later Ferruccio Tagliavini.  How would you compare them to Gigli?

In one role that I can think of, the title role in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, Schipa and Tagliavini were superb.  But I heard Miguel Fleta as Fritz, with Bori as Suzel, in 1923, and he was extraordinary!  In those days, L’Amico Fritz was occasionally paired with Cavalleria rusticana, since both were written by Mascagni.

On recordings, in my personal opinion, the two best versions of the second-act “Cherry Duet” are Schipa’s with Mafalda Favero, and Tagliavini’s with Pia Tassinari, his wife, as Suzel.  If you know L’Amico Fritz, you’ll know that the singing in the third act, such as the “Ah! Ditela per me,” requires some vocal heft.  That’s why Fleta and Gigli were excellent in L’Amico Fritz.  They could sing at any dynamic level, from pianissimo to fortissimo, and their techniques were excellent.

If I were asked to choose between Schipa or Tagliavini with Gigli in L’Amico Fritz, especially in the third act, Gigli would be my choice.  It’s remarkable, though, how much Tagliavini sounded like Gigli in the softer passages—but only in the softer passages.  Although he had a very fine career, I think that Tagliavini’s Gigli-like timbre worked against him.  He was always compared to Gigli, but his [Tagliavini’s] voice had none of the heft that Gigli had.

______________

© 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.

The Bain News Service photographs at the Library of Congress are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

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

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

.

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

.

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.
.

__________________________________________________________________________________

.

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.)
.

__________________________________________________________________________________

.

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.

.

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

.

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!”

.

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!

.

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

 .

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.

.

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)

.

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.”

.

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.

.

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

..

__________

[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.”

___________________________________________________

© 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.

The Jame A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 2)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 2 of 3)
By James A. Drake

.

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

.

Returning to Elisir d’amore when you sang it with Gigli, what do you recall of those performances?

My first Elisir with Gigli was in March 1930.  I sang Adina with Gigli, De Luca, and Pinza, with Serafin conducting.  I wasn’t cast for that performance—Editha Fleischer was supposed to sing it—but I got the last-minute call from Gatti-Casazza, and I went on in her place.  I did it well enough that he kept me with the same cast for several more performances.  I also sang Elisir with Tito Schipa as Nemorino.

 

How did Gigli and Schipa compare in Elisir?

Both of them were excellent as Nemorino, and both received ample applause for “Quanto è bella,” which is a better indicator than “Una furtiva lagrima” of the fit between the voice and the characterization of Nemorino.  In that role, Beniamino Gigli was the perfect Nemorino.

 

Even more so than Caruso, whom you saw and heard in Elisir?

I saw five performances of Elisir with Caruso as Nemorino, and I heard him sing “Una furtiva lagrima,” either as a published selection or as an encore, during the concerts I did with him.  As my late husband, Bruno Zirato, wrote in his book and said in radio interviews, Caruso never received more than cursory applause after “Quanto è bella.”  As soon as he made his exit, he would exclaim to Bruno, “Pigs!  They are pigs, these people in the audience!  I give everything I have to ‘Quanto è bella,’ and they do not applaud!”  Yet every time Gigli sang “Quanto è bella,” the audience would erupt in applause.

 

To what do you attribute the difference in the audiences’ reactions to Caruso and Gigli in that aria?

There were two factors, in my opinion, and I will try to explain them as precisely as I can.  The main factor of the two was Caruso’s splendid recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima,” of which he made two versions for the Victor Talking Machine Company—the first one with piano accompaniment [in 1904], and a subsequent one with an orchestra [in 1908].  Both versions were staples of the Victor Company catalogs in their day, and those recordings sold by the thousands.

Consequently, Metropolitan Opera audiences came to Elisir d’amore to hear Caruso sing “Una furtiva lagrima.”  Had he recorded “Quanto è bella,” the audiences probably would have applauded him as ardently as they did after he sang “Una furtiva lagrima.”  But other than that aria and “Venti scudi,” which he made with De Luca, Caruso never recorded anything else from Elisir d’amore.

.

.Benimino Gigli (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

. 

You were present at the ill-fated performance of Elisir d’amore at the Brooklyn Academy, when the performance had to be halted at the end of the first act because a blood vessel burst in Caruso’s throat.  Weren’t you to have sung Adina in that performance?

That happened on Saturday, December 11, 1920, and yes, I was to have sung Adina.  The day before the performance, however, Gatti-Casazza told me that for a variety of reasons—none of which he explained—he would have to give that performance to Evelyn Scotney.  I didn’t object, nor could I have objected to “the boss,” and I assumed that there would be many future performances in which I could sing with Caruso.

 

What do you remember about the trauma of that event? 

Early in the first act, before “Quanto è bella,” a small vein hemorrhaged in Caruso’s throat.  He was still able to sing, but a trickle of blood formed on his lower lip, and in order to wipe it away, he used the neckerchief of his costume.  Between phrases, he would dab his lips on the kerchief to blot the blood.  In the wings, when Gatti realized what was happening, he motioned to Bruno to rush to get more kerchiefs.  One by one, those were passed from the wings to Caruso, and as each became saturated with his blood, he put it in the circular well that was part of the scenery.

At the close of the act, Caruso was examined by a doctor.  Before the performance began, Gatti-Casazza had called for a doctor after Caruso noticed a small amount of blood when he was gargling in his dressing room.  I don’t know what the doctor did—I was not near him when he was treating Caruso—but there was an air of gloom backstage.

As I was standing near an elevator, Gatti-Casazza saw me, and he pointed to his nose and said to me, “Che naso!”—in other words, in English, “What a nose I have,” meaning that he had had a sort of premonition, and for that reason had not wanted me to sing Adina that day.  I didn’t believe him, although I nodded politely when he said it.  I think that when he saw me, he just felt that he should say something because he knew that I was disappointed by his decision to replace me with Evelyn Scotney.

 

On the topic of Caruso and Gigli, you mentioned that there were two factors in the difference in audiences’ receptions of Gigli and Caruso as Nemorino.  The first, as you explained, was attributable to Caruso’s recordings of “Una furtiva lagrima.”  What was the second factor?

Although Caruso could portray a bumpkin onstage, and even in a movie [3], his persona was inherently unlike the character of Nemorino.  Gigli, who was sweet, kind, and generous, was basically a simple man who had an extraordinarily beautiful voice.  Caruso, by contrast, was a complex man who, over the years, had acquired a level of sophistication which was reflected in every aspect of his daily life.

.

Would you give us some examples of how that sophistication was manifested in Caruso’s lifestyle?

With his extraordinary success came, of course, an ever-expanding personal wealth, which enabled him to acquire the finest of everything—the finest clothing, the finest automobiles, the finest homes, the finest objets d’art, and even the finest cigarettes, which were made exclusively for him from a special Egyptian tobacco.  Every fabric, whether it was the material of his shirts, ties, and handkerchiefs, or the sheets and pillowcases on his bed, was the most luxurious that money could buy, or else he would not have acquired them.

I cannot think of another artist who appreciated luxury more than Caruso.  Well, let me amend that because I can think of one:  Feodor Chaliapin.  But I can’t think of another tenor who appreciated luxury more than Caruso did.  He had risen from near-poverty in Naples, and when he became famous and wealthy, he indulged in luxury—almost boyishly so, in certain ways.

.

.Caruso with Bruno Zirato (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

For instance, when he retired to bed at night, Caruso wanted to be surrounded by goose-down pillows from head to foot.  So at his bedtime, my husband Bruno, who was his secretary, would delicately place one large pillow under Caruso’s head, and would systematically place six identical pillows around his body—two on each side for his arms and legs, and two at his feet.  Bruno said that the expression on Caruso’s face, as he closed his eyes and then spread his fingers on the pillows, was as tender and serene as a little boy’s.

 

Did Caruso ever speak of Gigli in your presence?

Indeed!  Not only did he speak of Gigli, he discreetly attended a performance of Cavalleria rusticana in which Gigli sang Turiddu.  Caruso didn’t attend the performance expressly to hear Gigli, but rather to be present for a triple bill that included the American premiere of a ballet called Il carillon magico.  The star of the ballet was Rosina Galli, who was Gatti-Casazza’s paramour at the time.

Caruso also came to see L’Oracolo with his old friend Antonio Scotti.  L’Oracolo was part of the triple bill, as was Cavalleria with Gigli and Emmy Destinn.   Backstage afterward, Caruso not only congratulated Gigli but embraced him as well.  A day or so later, he drew a wonderful caricature of Gigli, which he had Bruno hand-deliver to the Ansonia Hotel, where Gigli was living.

 

Caruso is quoted as having said, “He could have waited until I died,” or words to that effect.  Did he say that in your presence?

To the best of my knowledge, he never made any such comment.  First of all, it was entirely out of character for Caruso to make any negative remark about another singer.  Being a public figure, a “celebrity” as we would say today, Caruso was acutely aware that anything he said would be repeated, if not quoted, in one of the newspapers.  So he weighed his words very carefully when he was in the presence of others—which was most of the time.

What Caruso said in my presence after the triple-bill with Gigli in Cavalleria was, “I used to sound like that when I was young.”  He said that matter-of-factly, not ruefully, and certainly not enviously.  The way he said it was not that Gigli literally had the same voice that Caruso did when he was young.  Rather, he meant that one would expect a young, very gifted tenor to have the lyric sound that Gigli had.

 

Caruso would have had no reason to envy Gigli’s success in Chénier, in other words?

Of course not!  And that alleged comment about “waiting until I died” implies that Caruso was somehow preoccupied with death.  But the fact was that he had a new wife and a new daughter, and he seemed to us, and certainly to his doctors, to be recovering from the illness he had suffered.  He had empyema, which as my doctor-brother Dante explained to me, was an abscess that had formed in Caruso’s pleural cavity.  When he and Dorothy and their daughter Gloria sailed for Italy, where he could relax and regain his stamina, he looked well, although he had lost twenty pounds or more.

 

To be clear, then, you place no stock in the often-repeated statement, “At least they could have waited until I died,” which Caruso is alleged to have said when Gigli was given the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier

I don’t put any stock in it because it is contradicted by Caruso’s regard for Gigli when he heard him as Turiddu—and the caricature he drew of Gigli is the evidence I would point to.  Caruso never caricatured anyone he didn’t like or didn’t admire. [4]   But suppose, for the sake of the allegation, that Caruso did say it.  If so, he would have been referring to Gatti-Casazza, not Gigli, because it was Gatti who assigned and approved every cast.  Beniamino Gigli didn’t cast Beniamino Gigli, Giulio Gatti-Casazza was the one who cast Beniamino Gigli—and every other artist at the Metropolitan Opera.

.

.Giulio Gatti-Casazza and his wife, Frances Alda, October 19, 1915 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

Would you describe your relationship with Gigli as friendly, or merely collegial?

We weren’t social friends by any means—he was a shy man offstage—but I had a lot of affection for him, and I think he felt the same way toward me.  There are two special memories I have of him, and both occurred in connection with Elisir d’amore.  There was one passage that I had a slight problem with—and Gigli sensed it during our first performance together.  In every Elisir after that, when that passage was coming, he would turn toward me and say, “Andiam’, Cara, andiam’”—in English, “Go ahead, my dear, come on, you can do it!”  His encouragement made such a difference to me!

The second memory I have of Gigli was at the end of Act One of Elisir d’amore.  I was so taken by his singing of “Quanto è bella” that I said to him in the wings, “I have never heard that aria sung more beautifully than you have just sung it!”  I couldn’t come right out and say, “You sang just ‘Quanto è bella’ more beautifully than even Caruso sang it.”  That would have been improper.  But he knew what I meant, what I was actually saying, without making any mention of Caruso.

When I said it, his eyes told me that he wanted to be sure that he had heard me correctly.  An instant or two later, the look in his eyes showed that he realized what I had said.  He answered by saying, “Thank you—oh, thank you!”  Many years later, when he gave a farewell concert at Carnegie Hall, I went to see him after the performance.  Bruno and I told him that the beauty of his tones were the same as they had been when we first heard him.  He said to me, “You were not only my Adina, but you lifted the weight”—meaning the weight of Caruso’s legacy—“from my little shoulders.”

 

Do you remember the Met premiere of Andrea Chénier?

Yes, very clearly.  I was in the Caruso box with Dorothy [Caruso] for the first in-house performance of Andrea Chénier on March 7, 1921.  The premiere was supposed to be on February 26, but Gigli was ill and it had to be postponed.  He sang a performance in Philadelphia a few days before the in-house premiere [March 1], but I wasn’t there [in Philadelphia] so I can’t speak about it.  But the first in-house performance of Chénier was superb!

When Gigli sang “Un dì all’azzurro spazio,” it almost had to be repeated because of the prolonged applause.  I have heard many performances of Andrea Chénier since then, but no tenor I have ever heard could match Gigli for vocal beauty in that role.  But he was not the only “star of the show”:  Claudia Muzio was Maddalena, and she too was unmatched in that role.  That’s not just my opinion, but the opinion of Rosa Raisa and Rosa Ponselle.  Both of them said in my presence, at different times, that Muzio had no equal as Maddalena.

 

What was Caruso’s reaction, if you know, to the premiere of Andrea Chénier with Gigli?

A few days after the premiere, Bruno and I were having supper with Caruso in his apartment, and he asked me how Gigli had done.  I said that I thought he had done very well, and that the audience had reacted very favorably.  I was never less than honest with Caruso—even at his expense.  One time, I asked him why he sang two and three phrases in one breath when it would be more artistic to take breaths in the appropriate spots.  Although Bruno probably wanted to strangle me for being so brazen, Caruso answered me by saying, “That’s emotion”—meaning, that’s how he felt when he was singing, and that’s how he conveyed in his voice what he felt emotionally.

As far as Andrea Chénier is concerned, keep in mind that Caruso had sung it in London at an earlier point in his career.  He was more than familiar with [the opera], and he was pleased that Gigli had done well at the premiere.  As I said before, Caruso liked Gigli, and had no reason whatsoever to envy him.

 

Do you have any idea how Gigli regarded Caruso?

Yes, he regarded Caruso as we all did—as the King.  In deference to him, we addressed him as “The Master” [Maestro] when conversing with him.

 

What do you recall of Gigli’s Met debut?

What I remember the most was how exciting it was to hear such an exquisite tenor voice!  The beauty of Gigli’s voice was almost beyond description.  I have heard most of the great tenors, the tenor “stars,” for nearly seventy years, and not one of them had a voice more beautiful than Beniamino Gigli’s.  Now, at that time he had a tendency to turn toward the audience in “Dai campi, dai prati” and other solo moments, which was acceptable in many Italian [opera] houses.  But Gigli’s voice was so inherently beautiful that his tendency to sing to the audience was not that objectionable, at least not to me.

 

Was Faust in Mefistofele his best role during his debut season?

No, not compared to his Nemorino, nor to his Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana.  His Turiddu was better than his Faust, in my opinion.  It wasn’t the “Siciliana” [in Cavalleria] so much as the “Brindisi” and “Mamma! quel vino,” which he sang with complete abandon, yet without ever forcing his voice.

 

In what other roles do you recall hearing Gigli during the early years of his Met career?

I heard him in Tosca with Emmy Destinn [on December 10, 1920] but I would have to say that he was not up to her standards as an actor-singer.  He sang the music beautifully, of course—but unlike, say, Turiddu, he couldn’t convey the proper emotion for Cavaradossi during that early part of his Met career.  It wasn’t just that he was not an actor, and was not conventionally handsome.  I don’t know how to say it except that the role was “above” Gigli at that point in his career.  He didn’t have the demeanor of a painter, an artist, in that role.  By comparison, Lauri-Volpi had it in abundance.

I remember Gigli’s first Edgardo in Lucia during his debut season, and it was excellent in every way.  Edgardo is a vocal role, not really a dramatic role, although the last act requires at least a modicum of acting.  But one listens to Lucia, not watches it, because the roles are static and most of the music, especially the Sextet and the Mad Scene, is so familiar to audiences through recordings and radio broadcasts.

______

[3] The film to which Morgana is referring is My Cousin, a 1918 comedy produced by Jesse Lasky, of Famous Players—Lasky, in which Caruso portrayed a world-renowned opera singer as well as a simple, peasant-like cousin. Although the film was not as commercially successful as Lasky and his partners had hoped, its special effects (in particular, a scene in which Caruso shakes hands with himself as the “cousin”) were commended in the press at the time, and in subsequent histories of silent film.  See Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (Secker & Warburg, 1968), an oral history of the silent era, and Martin M. Marks, Music and the Silent Film:  Contexts and Case Studies, 1895-1924 (Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4]  Letter from Enrico Caruso to Leo Slezak, 1910:  “You should know that I make caricatures of great men or friends….”

__________________________

© 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.

.

Coming in Part 3 (Conclusion): Caruso and Morgana on tour, more recollections of the Met, and Morgana’s 1920 Victor test recording (MP3)

The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 1 of 3)
By James A. Drake

.

.

Born of Italian parents who had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Buffalo, New York in 1890, Nina Morgana (1891-1984) first sang in public performances in her native city’s Italian district in 1900. [1]  After studying in Italy with Teresa Arkel from 1909-1913, she made well-received debuts in Alessandria and in Milan.  When she returned to America, she was chosen by Enrico Caruso as one of his assisting artists in a highly-publicized series of concerts in the United States.  Morgana made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1920-21 season, having previously sung with the Chicago Opera Association under the management of Mary Garden.

In June 1921, scarcely two months before Caruso’s sudden death, Morgana married the tenor’s full-time secretary, Bruno Zirato (1886-1972), who later became the general manager of the New York Philharmonic and also served as Arturo Toscanini’s representative in North and South America.  Essentially self-educated and invariably self-assured, Morgana was well-acquainted with Beniamino Gigli, as she discussed in a number of interviews conducted by the author from 1973-1979. 

.

Bruno Zirato with Dorothy and Enrico Caruso on their wedding day, August 20, 1918. The location is the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.
(G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

__________________________________

 

You and Beniamino Gigli made your Metropolitan Opera debuts during the same season, is that correct?

In the same season, yes, and less than twenty-four hours apart:  Gigli made his as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele on November 26, 1920, and I made mine as Gilda in Rigoletto on Saturday, November 27.  But strictly speaking, my debut was not my first performance at the Met.  Several months earlier, on March 28, I sang three arias at a Sunday Night Concert, with Pasquale Amato and [violinist] Albert Spalding also on the program. 

 

Was Caruso [was] to have sung the Duke in your debut in Rigoletto?

Yes, but he was ill, so Mario Chamlee sang the Duke at my debut. [2]  Giuseppe De Luca sang Rigoletto.  Chamlee and De Luca were also my partners in Barber of Seville during that same season.  I also sang Nedda in Pagliacci with Edward Johnson as Canio and Antonio Scotti as Tonio in my debut season.  I was to have sung Pagliacci with Caruso originally.

 

In operatic circles, it is widely known that you were “discovered” by Caruso.  When and where did this “discovery” take place?

I can tell you precisely:  it was on Saturday, May 9, 1908, at 3:00 p.m., in Buffalo, New York, in one of the four suites on the top floor of the Iroquois Hotel.   I can be more specific by telling you that Caruso’s suite was the one atop the front of the hotel, which faced Eagle Street.  The hotel, which had one-thousand rooms, was still new at that time; it had opened for business in conjunction with the Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901.

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

Yes, I sang there in an exhibition called Venice in America, on the midway.  I was nine years old, and was billed as “Baby Patti” or “Child Patti” in the [Buffalo] newspapers.

 

It was at the Pan-American Exposition, on June 13, 1901, that President William McKinley was assassinated.  Do you recall anything about that tragic day?

The only memory I have is hearing adults around me saying very agitatedly, “The President has been shot!  The President has been shot!”  I was too young to know what “being shot” meant—and I also didn’t know what “president” meant, much less who the president was.  When I asked my parents about it, they tried to explain to me that in the United States, the president was “the king.”  Well, I didn’t know what a “king” was, so I just accepted the fact that someone important had been hurt in some way.

 

When you auditioned for Caruso, do you recall what you sang?

Yes, I sang “Caro nome.”  Just the “Caro nome,” without the recitative.  When I finished, Caruso patted me on the cheek and told my father, who came with me, that I had a very promising voice.  He told us that I would have to study in Italy, and he said he would write a letter on my behalf to the great Teresa Arkel, asking her to accept me as a pupil.  He did so, and about a year later, my father and I sailed to Italy.  During the day, while I was at Mme. Arkel’s having my lessons, my father worked as a laborer.

 

Obviously, Caruso detected the youthful promise in your voice, just as he did several years later with the young Rosa Ponselle.  Looking back, what do you think he heard in your voice that prompted him to refer you to Teresa Arkel?

Well, whatever he heard was not what Mme. Arkel heard!  In his letter to her, Caruso had written that he believed my voice would become a mezzo-sopranone, or in English, “a great big mezzo-soprano.”  When I sang for Mme. Arkel, however, she said that my voice would be fine for roles like Lucia, Amina in Sonnambula, and Adina in Elisir d’amore, which require an exceptional top.  And I had one, too.  By the time I left Mme. Arkel, I could sing the G above high-C effortlessly.  But vocally, I was certainly not going to be singing Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana.

 

When you were studying in Italy, was Caruso as famous there as he was in the U.S.?

Actually, no.  His recordings were well-known, of course, and hence his name was well-known, but since 1903 he had been at the Metropolitan Opera, not La Scala or one of the other houses in Italy.  The tenor who was admired when I was studying in Italy—not just admired, but adored—was Giuseppe Anselmi.  He was as famous there as Caruso was in the United States.  

Anselmi, whom I heard several times, had a gorgeous voice and a perfect technique, and was also extraordinarily handsome.  Anselmi was “all the rage,” so to say, as was Maria Galvany among sopranos.  It was Galvany, not Melba, who was adored in Italy, yet in America she was almost unknown other than on recordings.

.

Giuseppe Anselmi

.

A great tenor who sang during Anselmi’s time, and whom some historians claim was the equal of Caruso in certain roles, was Alessandro Bonci.  Did you see Bonci, and if so, what was your assessment of him?

The distance between Caruso and Bonci as tenors was about the size of the Grand Canyon.  They had nothing at all in common, either vocally or as men.  In Italy, it was rumored that Bonci was an unethical person.  He had played some part in obtaining a forged letter from Verdi, giving Bonci supposed permission to sing the “È scherzo od è follia” in a unique way.  I heard a recording of it, and Bonci’s performance was different yet acceptable.  But he was still in disrepute because he had paid someone to forge the letter from Verdi.

Personally, I saw Bonci as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he was wearing an over-stated costume topped by a large hat with an even larger feather protruding from it.  Frankly, he looked silly on the stage.  Vocally, his singing was pleasant enough, and it reminded me somewhat of Lauri-Volpi because both of them had exceptional high ranges.  But Lauri-Volpi was handsome onstage, whereas Bonci was a feather-bearing little man in an overdone costume with high-heeled boots.

.

Alessandro Bonci, 1910

.

Earlier, you mentioned having sung with Edward Johnson in Pagliacci at the MetWhen Johnson’s name is mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Opera, it is usually in reference to his tenure as General Manager, not as one of its significant tenors.  Do you recall the first time you heard him sing?

Yes, in Italy in 1910.  I sang with him there in Elisir d’amore.  At the time, he was singing under the Italianized name “Edoardo di Giovanni.”

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

My very first performance on an opera stage was as the hidden “forest bird” in Siegfried, at the Teatro Dal Verme.   Tullio Serafin, who was young and handsome—his hair was brown and thick in those days—had come to Mme. Arkel to ask if she had a pupil who could sing the part.  She told him that I could do it, and I did—I sang it hidden in a papier-maché “tree.”  Giuseppe Borgatti was the star of the performance.

I was also in the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala on March 1, 1911, which was led by Serafin.  The cast included Lucrezia Bori in the breeches role of Octavian, Ines Maria Ferraris as Sophie, and Pavel Ludikar as Baron Ochs.  During one of the curtain calls with the full cast, I held Strauss’s hand.

 

At the Met, Lucrezia Bori and Edward Johnson were famously paired as Romeo and Juliet.  But you knew both singers in Italy a decade before you made your Met debut?

Bori and Johnson were perfect for each other in Roméo et Juliette.  And, yes, I sang a number of performances with Johnson at the Met.  But his best partner among sopranos was Lucrezia Bori, not Nina Morgana.  I’m sure you have heard recordings of Bori, but have you seen photographs of her?

 

Yes, mostly studio portraits but a few candid ones, in various books about the history of the Met.

Most of her publicity photos were taken [of her] in profile, or else at an angle, rather than facing the camera lens.  She had an ocular condition called strabismus, which lay people refer to as having a “lazy eye” or, less kindly, as “cross-eyed.”  When she was relaxed, Bori’s right eye would tend to drift toward her nose.  My brother, Dante Morgana, a premiere ophthalmologist and surgeon, gave her exercises to train the muscles of her right eye to keep the eyeball centered.

.

Lucrezia Bori (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

Although fate deprived you of the opportunity to sing Pagliacci with Caruso, you sang not only Nedda but other major roles with almost all of the legendary tenors who inherited Caruso’s repertoire.

My best roles were Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in Bohème.  Although I also sang Mimì in Bohème, [General Manager Giulio] Gatti-Casazza said that I was not only better as Musetta, but that I was the best Musetta of the several sopranos who sang the role under his management.  

 

Do you recall some of the casts in your performances of those operas?

I sang my first Micaela in Carmen with Giovanni Martinelli and Miguel Fleta alternating as Don José, and with José Mardones as Escamillo.  I know of no other basso profondo who could sing Escamillo—later, Pinza sang it, but his voice was a less powerful lyric sound compared to José Mardones.  But Mardones’ range was so marvelous that he could sing Escamillo easily and convincingly.  In some of my performance in Pagliacci, Antonio Scotti sang Tonio and the “new boy,” Lawrence Tibbett, was Silvio. 

In the 1924-1925 season, in a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, I sang the part of the mechanical doll Olympia, with Miguel Fleta as Hoffmann.  In that production, Bori sang the roles of Giulietta and Antonia, and she did them with great distinction.  Later, Queena Mario sang Antonia, but with no distinction at all.

Perhaps you know that Queena Mario’s birth name was Helen Tillotson, a perfectly fine name.  She claimed that [conductor and coach Wilfrid] Pelletier, to whom she was married, had suggested the ridiculous name “Queena,” but I think she made it up herself.  I used to make her mad by asking, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

 

You sang several times with Giovanni Martinelli, who, perhaps with the sole exception of Caruso, seems to have been beloved by everyone, even by the other great tenors of that era.

I sang Eudoxie in the revival of La Juive with Martinelli as Eléazar, Leon Rothier as the Cardinal, and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel, the role she had created [at the Met] with Caruso in 1919.  In fact, other than Martinelli singing Eléazar in place of Caruso, the revival had almost the same cast as the [Met] premiere.  Ponselle sang most of the performances, but not all of them.  Florence Easton sang several Rachels, as did Elisabeth Rethberg later.

Among the other great tenors of that period, I sang with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi for the first time in Rigoletto in 1926, with De Luca and Mardones.  For that performance, with Gatti-Casazza’s consent, I made a change in Gilda’s costume:  I wore a pink gown in the first scene.  I also sang with Lauri-Volpi in Africana, with Ponselle as Selika, and I sang with him again in Pagliacci in the 1929-1930 season.  In Africana, Gigli was cast instead of Lauri-Volpi in several of the performances I was in, and Florence Easton replaced Ponselle in some of them.  Most were conducted by Serafin.

 

Do you recall the tenors with whom you sang in Bohème?

As I said earlier, Musetta was one of my best and most frequent roles, and I was especially fortunate to sing several performances with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo [in 1932].  A few times, Rodolfo was sung by Martinelli.  It’s not a role that one would immediately associate with him, but the color of Martinelli’s voice was light enough for it, and he restrained the volume of his clarion voice.  I also sang some performances with Armand Tokatyan, who was a very fine tenor and deserves to be remembered better today.

I was also fortunate to be in the opera house on the opening night of the 1921-22 season, when Gigli sang Alfredo to Galli-Curci’s Violetta at her debut.  I knew Galli-Curci before then.  Both of us had sung in Chicago when Mary Garden was the general manager.

.

Mary Garden (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

If one-half of the stories that have been told and written about Mary Garden are true, she must have been a formidable person.

Indeed, she was, but probably no more so than Melba or Patti before her.  They ruled their kingdoms—and they made those kingdoms.  No woman who achieved what Patti, or Melba, or Geraldine Farrar, or Mary Garden achieved, could have done so without enormous self-confidence.  Mary Garden, at least as I knew her, was not imperious at all, but she knew very well what her value was. 

She could talk about herself in a way that may sound conceited in the retelling, but from her standpoint it was simply a matter of fact.  I remember walking to the Chicago Opera house with my sister Angie, who traveled with me, and seeing Mary Garden coming toward us.  She stopped us and said, “Did you see my Carmen last night?” Not “How are you,” or “Wonderful to see you today,” but “Did you see my Carmen last night?” 

We hadn’t seen it, so we said so.  “You must see my next one,” she replied.  “There is nothing like it, and there never will be.”  She said that without a trace of haughtiness.  It was as if she had said, “You should carry an umbrella tomorrow because it’s likely to rain.”    

___________

[1]  The family of Nina Morgana, which comprised seven children, is remarkable not only for her success, but also her siblings’ successes. In addition to her brother Dante Morgana (who, as she mentions in the interview, became a nationally-known eye surgeon), her brother Emilio Morgana entered the priesthood and became a close friend of the friar-author Thomas Merton.  Another brother, Charles Morgana (Giuseppe Carlo Morgana), was an automotive inventor and a close associate of Henry Ford.  His older sister, Angelina Morgana, followed their brother Dante into medical school, where she became the only female in her class in the Medical Department (as it was then known) of the University of Buffalo.   She withdrew because of the harassment she experienced from the all-male faculty.

[2]  Here Morgana’s normally precise memory has failed her: on the day of her Metropolitan Opera debut (Saturday, November 27, 1920) Caruso sang a matinee performance of La forza del destino, and hence was not “ill.”
.

© 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.

_______________________________________
.
Coming in Part 2: Nina Morgana’s personal recollections of Caruso; Gigli’s premier at the Met; comparing the great tenors

.

110 Years Ago at the Victor Talking Machine Company (November 1907)

November 1907 marked the return of the Victor studio to Camden, from Philadelphia, after an absence of more than six years. The impending move got only a vague mention in that month’s Talking Machine World, in a story on a visit by distributor Max Landay, who said, “I understand the company will remove their recording laboratory from Philadelphia to Camden, into premises that are ideal.” The move was documented by Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer:

During November [1907] we moved the Laboratory from 424 So. 10th St., Philadelphia, to the building S.W. Corner Front and Cooper Streets, Camden, N.J., in which we occupied the fourth floor. The first large type “D” recording machine was installed in the Camden Laboratory prior to our moving into same. [“D” refers to Wilbur N. Dennison, who assigned a large number of patents to Victor over the years.]

To repeat a point we’ve made often (and wish we didn’t still have to, but old myths die hard): Any discography showing a Camden recording location between early September 1901 and late November 1907 is in error. For a detailed, documented chronology of Victor’s early studio sites, see Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations, 1901-1920.

__________

Here’s the complete pictorial section of Victor’s November 1907 catalog, courtesy of Victor expert John Bolig:

.

By the way, John’s landmark Victor Discography Series titles are selling out quickly as Mainspring winds down its book operation. Several are already out of print, and remaining inventory is in very short supply. If there are any titles you need, hurry over to the Mainspring Press website and order while you still can!

.

NEW • The “World’s Greatest Operas” Discography (RCA Victor Series) by John Bolig

Our thanks to John Bolig for the first fully detailed discography of the RCA-produced “World’s Greatest Operas” records. Data are from original RCA documentation at the Sony archives in New York. All issues were anonymous, but as you’ll see, some first-rate talent was employed.

John’s complete listing of RCA’s “World’s Greatest Music” records (a substantially revised and expanded version of our very basic  listing that was posted a few weeks ago) has also been posted.

Note that this listing is only for the original RCA-produced series. Other producers took over the “World’s Greatest…” series after the RCA Victor connection was severed in 1940.

.

.

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations (1901-1920)

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York: Fact-Checking the Victor Acoustic-Era Studio Locations
By Allan Sutton

.

.

.The facts:

  • There is no documentary evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company operated a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey, from September 1901 through early December 1907.
  • During that period, most Victor recording sessions were held in Philadelphia. A much smaller number, by Red Seal artists only, were held in New York at that time.
  • Very early Victor recording locations are only occasionally noted in the surviving company files.
  • Brian Rust and other early discographers, when confronted with this omission, behaved as usual — They guessed (incorrectly assuming Camden for September 1901 – November 1907 sessions that were actually held in Philadelphia), and then passed off their guesses as fact.

Now that the key points are out of the way, let’s look at the supporting evidence, from the memoirs of a man who was there at the time — Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer. The following studio chronology is based upon Sooy’s memoirs (Sarnoff Library, Princeton, New Jersey), with corroborating circumstantial evidence from the surviving Victor files:

The Camden > Philadelphia > Camden Chronology
(1900 – 1907)

 

Late 1890s – February 1900: Collings Carriage Factory Building (Front & Market Streets), Camden, NJ

According to Sooy, this was the site of Eldridge R. Johnson’s first experimental recording studio. No documentation of the recordings made there is known to have survived

 

February 1, 1900 – c. August 1, 1901: Johnson Factory Building, Camden, NJ

In late 1899, Eldridge Johnson began construction of a four-story factory building in Camden. Sooy recalled having moved Johnson’s recording equipment from the carriage factory to the new building on or around February 1, 1900. By that time, according to Sooy, Johnson was recording masters for Berliner.

Recording of Johnson’s own masters (i.e., those issued on his various Victor predecessor labels) began on May 1, 1900. The last of Johnson’s Berliner masters for which a date is confirmed was recorded two days later.

Johnson’s studio was moved from Camden to Philadelphia in September 1901, according to Sooy (and the Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated on October 3). The move was made to provide more space for the machine shop. Recording in Camden appears to have ended on August 1, 1901, and it would not resume there until December 9, 1907.

 

August 2 – September 4, 1901: No recording activity

 

September 5, 1901 – November 22, 1907: 424 S. 10th Street, Philadelphia

Sooy recalled that the Victor studio was moved to Philadelphia from its original Camden location during September 1901. The Victor files, which show that no recordings were made during August 2 – September 4, 1901, lend credence to  Sooy’s recollection.

Assuming this thirty-four day hiatus marks the Camden-to-Philadelphia transition, the last Camden session would have been Rogers & Pryor’s “Answer” (“pre-matrix” Victor 837, an August 1 remake of a May 31 session); and the first Philadelphia session would have been Frank Seiden’s “Rosinkes und Mandlein” (“pre-matrix” Victor 928, recorded September 5, 1901). The large numerical gap occurs because the Rogers & Pryor catalog number was allocated at the time of the original session.

Sooy recalled, “The moving of the Laboratory from Camden [to] Philadelphia was done…by Mr. MacEwan, a bob-tail horse and Mr. Nafey. Money in these days not being overly plentiful, MacEwan acted as teamster on the job, and Nafey, I guess, was boss; however, the moving was done in a very creditable manner… Upon entering our new quarters at 424 So. 10th St., or 10th and Lombard Sts., which was known as the colored belt of Philadelphia, we were furnished with considerable excitement in the neighborhood outside of making records.”

Philadelphia would host Victor’s main studio for six years. The studio was located on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Berliner Gramophone Company. A matrix-plating plant was housed in the basement, and a blank-processing department was opened on the third floor in January 1904. Stampers  were shipped to the Duranoid Company (and, for a time, to the Burt Company as well) for pressing. Victor also maintained a Philadelphia branch office in the Girard Building during this period.

As far as can be ascertained from documentary and circumstantial evidence, no Victor recording studio existed in Camden while the Philadelphia studio was in operation. Thus, the many modern citations of Camden recording sessions from September 5, 1901 through November 1907 are in error.

 

November 23 – December 8, 1907: No recording activity

 

From December 9, 1907: Front & Cooper Streets, Camden, NJ

During November 1907, the Philadelphia studio was closed, and a new studio was opened on the fourth floor of what would later come to be known as Building #15 in Camden. The transitional period is apparent in the Victor files, which show no recordings were made during November 23–December 8, 1907.

Assuming this sixteen-day hiatus marks the Philadelphia-to-Camden transition, the last Philadelphia recording would have been Alan Turner’s “The White Squall” (mx. B 4961, recorded November 22, 1907; delayed release on Victor 16006); and the first Camden recording would have been the Victor Orchestra’s “Army and Navy Medley Reel” (mx. B 4962, rejected takes 1 and 2, recorded December 9, 1907).

While many Red Seal sessions continued to be held in New York, the Camden studio was also used for Red Seal sessions beginning December 11, 1907. “From this time on,” Harry Sooy stated, “recording dates of a Red Seal nature were alternated between the Camden and New York laboratories to suit the convenience of the artists.”

On March 13, 1911, the studio was moved to the newly added seventh floor of Building #15. Additional studios were installed in the building over the years, the last major addition being a large room for orchestral sessions in late 1924. After RCA’s acquisition of Victor in 1929, the Camden studios were slowly phased out in favor of New York.

After attempts to record a large symphony orchestra in the regular studio proved unsatisfactory, the eighth-floor auditorium of the Executive Building in Camden was converted to a temporary studio in the autumn of 1917. The hundred-member Boston Symphony Orchestra under Karl Muck made its first recordings in the auditorium studio on October 2, followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on October 22.

In early 1918, Victor purchased the Trinity Church at 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, which it converted to a studio for large vocal and instrumental ensembles, as well as sessions requiring a pipe-organ regardless of ensemble size (the original church organ was eventually replaced with a more robust model). Recording commenced there on February 27, 1918. During 1928, the main floor of the church was used on occasion as a supplemental Vitaphone sound-stage, and a basement studio was used for soundtrack dubbing.

.

Victor’s New York Studios (1903 – Early 1920s)

Initially, Victor maintained a New York studio solely for the convenience of its Red Seal artists. Less-stellar  artists were required to travel to Philadelphia (or later, to Camden). Sooy stated that all Red Seal sessions prior to July 22, 1907, were held in New York, and file evidence seems to support his assertion.

 

March 26, 1903 – October 8, 1904: Carnegie Hall Annex (Room 826), New York

Victor leased studio space in the annex, not in the theater itself as has been stated in some works. Enrico Caruso made his first Victor recordings there, and as far as can be ascertained, all Carnegie Hall sessions involved Red Seal artists. Sooy recalled, “It was a great relief to get out of Carnegie Hall, and away from the Vocal Studios where vocal teachers were constantly trying voices, good, bad and otherwise.” The Carnegie Hall Annex studio was not a full-time operation.

 

October 8, 1904 – June 1, 1909: 234 Fifth Avenue, New York

As with the Carnegie Hall studio, this location was reserved primarily for Red Seal sessions and was not a full-time operation.

 

After June 1, 1909:

By the later ’teens, Victor’s New York studios were being used for popular as well as classical sessions, and cities usually are listed in the files (see DAHR’s free online Victor data for locations of each session). Victor operated its main New York studios at the following addresses during the remainder of the acoustic era:
,

June 2, 1909 – April 1912: 37–39 E. 29th Street, New York (first full-time New York studio)

April 1912 – January 18, 1917: 12–14 W. 37th Street, New York

January 19, 1917 — January 5, 1921: 46 W. 38th Street, New York

From January 6, 1921: National Association Building (28 W. 44th Street, 22nd floor), New York

.
By the later 1920s, Victor was operating at least three New York studios simultaneously, including leased space in Liederkranz Hall. These studios, as well as Victor’s Midwestern and West Coast studios and its field-recording locations, will be the subject of a future article.

________________

© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

The Playlist • Feodor Chaliapin: Highlights from “Boris Godunov” (Electrical Versions, 1925–1931)

Note: Acoustically recorded versions (1910–1922) are also posted.

MSP_HMV-DB934

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN (Albert Coates, cond.):
Boris Godunov — Coronation Scene

Hayes, Middlesex: November 26, 1925
HMV D.B.900 (mxs. Cc 7064 – 3 / Cc 7066 – 1)

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN (Rosario Bourdon, cond.): Boris Godunov — Varlaam’s Song (In the Town of Kazan)

Church studio, Camden, NJ: March 16, 1927
Victor 1237 (mx. BVE 26100 – 4)

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN (with London Symphony Orchestra, Max Steinmann, cond.): Boris Godunov — I Have Attained the Highest Power

Small Queen’s Hall, London: June 6, 1931
HMV D.B.1532 (mx. 2B 577 – 3)

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN (with London Symphony Orchestra, Max Steinmann, cond.): Boris Godunov — Clock Scene

Small Queen’s Hall, London: June 6, 1931
HMV D.B.1532 (mx. 2B 578 – 2)

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN, ANGELO BADA (with ROYAL OPERA CHORUS & ORCHESTRA, Vincenzo Belleza, cond.): Boris Godunov — Duet, Boris and Shuisky (Part 1)

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London: July 4, 1928 (live performance)
HMV test (mx. CR 2312 – 1)

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN: Boris Godunov — Farewell and Death of Boris

HMV D.B.934 (mxs. CR 375 – 1 / Cc 10938 – 3)
Part 1 — Small Queen’s Hall, London (relayed to Gloucester House): May 21, 1926 (Eugene Goosens, cond.) / Part 2 — Studio C, Small Queen’s Hall, London: June 13, 1927 (Lawrance Collingwood, cond.)

The Playlist • Feodor Chaliapin in “Boris Godunov” (1910–1922)

MSP_chaliapin-boris_composi .

Chaliapin performs the roles of Boris, Pimen, and Varlaam, in the Rimsky-Korsokov  revision of Mussorgsky’s original work. Discographic data are from the Gramophone Company and Victor Talking Machine Company files, courtesy of Drs. Alan Kelly and John R. Bolig.

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN: Boris Godunov — Yet One More Tale [Pimen, Act I]

Moscow: August 31, 1910
His Master’s Voice 022157 (mx. 2016½c)
Orchestra of the Imperial Moscow Opera directed by I.Semenov

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN: Boris Godunov — In the Town of Kazan [Varlaam, Act I]

Camden, NJ: January 30, 1922
His Master’s Voice D.A. 100 (mx. B 26100 – 2)
Studio orchestra directed by Josef Pasternack

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN: Boris Godunov — Once at Eve [Pimen, Act IV]

St. Petersburg, Russia: November 26, 1911
His Master’s Voice 022252 (mx. 2548c)
No conductor listed in the Gramophone Company file

.

FEODOR CHALIAPIN: Boris Godunov — Farewell and Death of Boris [Boris, Act IV]

St. Petersburg, Russia: October 15, 1911
His Master’s Voice 022221 / 022222 (mxs. 2492½c / 2493c)
No conductor listed in the Gramophone Company file

.

The Playlist • Arturo Toscanini and Walter Damrosch — Acoustic Recordings (1921–1923)

MSP_col-68001D_98078.

NEW YORK SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (WALTER DAMROSCH, conductor):
Norwegian Dances, Nos. 1 and 2 (Grieg, op. 35)

New York: May 1, 1923
Columbia 65001-D (mx. 98078 – 1)

.

“The La Scala Orchestra was made up of green Italian musicians and we found it very difficult to make them comprehend just what we wanted them to do for record making, and we, the Recording Staff, were not sorry when the engagement terminated… The sailing of the steamship on which they had booked passage, for some cause, was delayed or postponed on two different occasions, which prolonged the recording engagement, as the Victor Company thought it better to keep them engaged, fearing if they had open time they might sell their services to some other recording company.”
Victor recording engineer Harry O. Sooy (Memoirs, David Sarnoff Collection)

.

LA SCALA ORCHESTRA (ARTURO TOSCANINI, conductor):
Carmen (Bizet) — Prelude to Act 4 (Aragonaise)

Church Studio (114 N. Fifth Street, Camden NJ): March 31, 1921
Victor 64999 (mx. B 24750 – 6)

.

LA SCALA ORCHESTRA (ARTURO TOSCANINI, conductor):
L’ Arlésienne (Bizet) — Suite, No. 2 (Farandole)

Church Studio (114 N. Fifth Street, Camden NJ): March 11, 1921
Victor 64986 (mx. B 24984 – 1)

__________________

For a history of early attempts at symphonic recording, see A Phonograph in Every Home and Recording the ‘Twenties, both available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

.

 

The Playlist • José Mardones (1910–1923)

MSP_col-A5216_30417.

JOSÉ MARDONES: Mefistofele — Ecco il mondo
With studio orchestra

New York: April 9, 1910
Columbia A5216 (mx. 30417 – 2)

.

JOSÉ MARDONES: Mefistofele — Son lo spirito che nega
With studio orchestra

New York: April 8, 1910
Columbia A5216 (mx. 30415 – 1)

.

JOSÉ MARDONES & GIOVANNI ZENATELLO: Aida — Numi custode e vindice
With uncredited chorus & orchestra

New York: April 12, 1912
Columbia A5426 (mx. 36366 – 2)

.

JOSÉ MARDONES: La alegría del battalón (Serrano)
Studio orchestra conducted by Rosario Bourdon

Camden, NJ: March 9, 1923
Victor 921 (mx. B 27597 – 2)

.