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

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

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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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.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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

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

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 • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

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

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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. 

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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)

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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.

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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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.

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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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.

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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.

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

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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.”    

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

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

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

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