Saturday, August 15, 2015

From Alice’s Scrapbook: A Diva of the Golden Age of Opera

The first halftone photo to appear
in an American periodical, 
December 2, 1873.
In his history of American magazines, published in 1957, Frank Luther Mott wrote, “In these latter days, when everyone has his picture in the paper now and then, it is hard to understand the passion for portraits that was general in the nineties. But it was possible then, for the first time, for middle-class readers to collect portraits of the great; and thousands of them did.” If that was the case in the 50s, it’s even more so now, when photographs are ubiquitous and inescapable. But when Alice was collecting pictures for her scrapbooks, the technology that allowed magazines and newspapers to reproduce photos was new.

This was the halftone printing process, which broke down an image into a series of dots of varying sizes—it’s the same principle that newspapers still use today, which you can see if you look closely at a printed black-and-white photo. The technique was first developed in the 1870s, and newspapers and magazines very quickly began replacing engravings with photos. Photographs could be transmitted by wire and printed more or less instantly, while engravings had to be produced by hand. A skilled engraver like Timothy Cole of The Century might be paid up to $300 for a page-size woodcut, whereas a halftone could be purchased for less than $20. By the early 1890s, it was clear that halftones would soon replace engravings entirely.

Photo of Max Alvary as Siegfried
from Alice’s scrapbook
Notable figures from the world of art, literature, music, drama, politics, and science were popular subjects for magazine photography. Some magazines even published series of portraits of famous men and women on pages that were printed on only one side so they could be cut out and pasted into scrapbooks without destroying the page. Alice saved many images from Munsey’s Magazine, which ran a regular section called “The Stage” featuring photos of the stars of the theater and opera. Alice was a regular theatergoer and though she may not have had an opportunity to see grand opera in the 1880s and 1890s, it was clearly something she was interested in.

Alice’s scrapbooks contain photographs of some of the great figures of opera in the late 19th century, including Edouard de Reszke, a Polish bass known for the role of Méphistophélès in Gounoud’s Faust, and the great Wagnerians Max Alvary and Rosa Sucher. Also featured is the dramatic soprano Lillian Nordica, who was one of the most celebrated American opera singers of this period.

Photo of Lillian Nordica
from Alice’s scrapbook
Lillian Allen Norton was born in 1857 in Farmington, Maine and received her musical education at the New England Conservatory in Boston. After she graduated at the age of 18, she went to Milan for further study, and first performed there in 1879 as Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Now known as Lillian Nordica, she performed in St. Petersburg, London’s Royal Opera House, and at the Bayreuth Festival, where she created the role of Elsa in Lohengrin.

In 1891, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in 1898 she first appeared in what would become one of her most celebrated roles: Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure. As she told a reporter from the New York Herald, this was a “most trying role. Most of it ranges so low that it is best suited to a mezzo soprano; yet the Walkure Shout requires a high soprano. Yes, you must be so note perfect in that role that nothing can disconcert you.”

While Nordica enjoyed great fame and fortune in her professional career, her personal life was troubled. She was married three times, all unhappily (she was about to divorce her first husband when he disappeared in a mysterious hot-air balloon accident), and by the 1910s was in poor health. Nonetheless, she set off in 1913 for an Australian concert tour. Her ship ran aground on a coral reef and was stranded for three days in the Gulf of Papua. Nordica contracted pneumonia, from which she never really recovered, and she died in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1914.
Coca-Cola advertisement, ca. 1906,
featuring Lillian Nordica

Lillian Nordica’s childhood home in Farmington is now open as a museum, and the town celebrates Nordica Day every year on August 17, which commemorates the day in 1911 on which the diva performed for her home town.

Additional photos and information can be found at the Maine Memory Network’s online exhibit, Lillian Nordica: Farmington Diva.

You can listen to a recording of Brünnhilde’s battle cry, captured live at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903.

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