Frances Alda (1879 – 1952) was a New Zealand-born, Australian-raised operatic soprano. She was one of the world’s most celebrated singers during the first three decades of the 20th century and was a frequent onstage partner with Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera.
This account below, taken from her fascinating 1937 autobiography Men, Women, & Tenors, describes her debut at La Scala, working with Toscanini, and meeting her future husband Giulio Gatti-Casazza, then director of La Scala, who would become became director of the Metropolitan Opera for 27 years, from 1908 to 1935.
Gatti-Casazza and Toscanini had come together to see me at the Hotel Milan.
I didn’t know I was establishing a precedent in Gatti’s life as a director when I refused to go to see him in his office at La Scala, as a note from him, which I found waiting when I reached Milan, asked me to do. I replied that if he wished to see me, he must come to my hotel. And he came. He brought Toscanini with him.
Now they sat in the salon of my suite and asked me questions. Could I sing this role? Could I sing that? Could I sing the other?
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ I said to all their questions.
To judge from my replies, I was the most accomplished opera singer at large anywhere. I know Toscanini’s eyes twinkled and the corners of his mouth quirked into a smile.
But nothing shook the evenness of Gatti’s solemnity.
He was planning, so he told me, to present Charpentier’s Louise at La Scala for the first time. The opera was to be sung in Italian. Having heard and seen me as Gilda at the Verdi Festival in Parma, he wished to engage me to create the role of the French sewing girl who is Charpentier’s heroine.
I was hesitating before I replied, and Gatti went on to tell me that the première of Louise was set for a date in February. It was then October. I should have three months in which to prepare myself for the role before I should be required to return to Milan for rehearsals.
Also, in the coming April, Chaliapin, the famous Russian bass, was returning to La Scala to sing Boito’s Mefistofele, which he had sung there several seasons before. Gatti offered me an engagement to sing Marguerite in that opera with Chaliapin.
I agreed to both proposals, signed the contracts, and next day… I went back to Paris.
Gatti-Casazza saw me off at the station — the old, grimy, barn-like station of pre-Mussolini days. Franco Alfano [the Italian composer who would complete Puccini’s Turandot in 1926], whom I’d been seeing a lot of in Milan, was there too. He and Gatti exchanged glances that didn’t altogether reflect the punctilious courtesy of their greeting. My last glimpse of Milan included the two men — Franko gay and smiling, Gatti very grave, very formal, and yet (as well to admit it, I said to myself, as I arranged my cushions, travelling-rug, books, flowers, and my griffon Pitchu for the journey) very interesting.
For two months I worked on the role, though I was singing occasionally at concerts during that period. I went about Paris and saw the sewing girls going home from the workshops in the evenings, tired but bravely gay; defiant in their youth and their poverty and their eagerness for life. I saw how meagre their lives were, and how desperately they reached out for any scrap of pleasure or excitement, and how, because of this hunger of youth in them, many of them became caught in the toils of a city like Paris; became its victims and its captives.
I began to understand Louise as I felt Charpentier wanted her understood, and as I must understand her in order to present her to an audience in a foreign city so that they would feel with her, through my interpretation of the role, that all that she did and all that happened to her was logical and inevitable, and had in it the beauty that all things that must be have in them.
I had to make Louise real, as well as sing the music her creator had written for her to sing, perfectly.
Working with Toscanini
Very early in the new year, I went to Milan for my first rehearsal with Toscanini.
In the rehearsal room at La Scala, Gatti sat off in one corner. He leaned his elbow on the arm of his chair and rested his cheek against his hand, eyeing me gravely. He had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen in a human being. Like deep pools.
Toscanini sat beside the pianist. He kept his eyes closed as he listened, only lifting a finger now and then to mark the time.
I began to sing.
Act One, Scene One, enter Louise.
I sang the role straight through; through the big aria in the Third Act that is so difficult to sing, through the final scene in which Louise spurns her dying father’s plea to return to the security of her home, pushes off his detaining hand, and goes back to her lover and to the wild life of the city that has marked her one of its victims.
The pianist struck the final chord.
Its echoes died away in the still room.
No one spoke. Then Toscanini leaned across the pianist’s shoulder and closed the music book on the rack. Only then did he open his eyes and look at me.
Blandly, in Italian, he asked:
‘In what language were you singing?’
Of course I was. Who wouldn’t have been?
I glared at Toscanini, at the cowed and silent pianist, at Gatti-Casazza brooding in his corner. Without deigning to reply I marched out of the rehearsal room, out of the theatre and back to the Hotel Milan.
For three or four days I remained there in a state of injured dignity.
Now, recalling my mood then, I know what a fool I was. A spoiled girl of twenty-three who just couldn’t take it. But, remember, life hadn’t given me many knocks up to that time. It had all been smooth sailing. Successes had come as thick as blackberries in summer. My Italian pronunciation had drawn no adverse comments in Parma or at Covent Garden. Who, I demanded fiercely, was this maestro to criticize me now?
Meanwhile, Gatti-Casazza came to the hotel to apologize and to ask me to come back to La Scala.
Indignantly, I refused.
He sent me notes.
I tore them up.
More notes followed.
In the meantime, and secretly, I was studying Louise harder than I’d ever studied any role before.
Finally, I relented to the point of considering Gatti’s proposals.
He pleaded with me to return to La Scala. There, he said, Toscanini would go through the score of Louise with me word by word, as Massenet had taught me Manon before my début at the Opéra Comique. In that way, my pronunciation of the Italian words would be perfect, so that at the première every syllable would be understandable to every person in the audience.
I went back. Of course I did. I had never had any intention of giving up singing Louise, which would be a great step forward in my career. But I did have every intention of humbling that maestro Toscanini who had injured my pride.
No queen was ever more careful of her dignity than was I at the next rehearsal. No one was ever more punctilious than Toscanini in teaching me the correct pronunciation of the phrases as we went through the score.
Only once his puckish humour bubbled up again.
He mimicked my pronunciation of a word.
Immediately I stopped singing. I lifted my finger at him. ‘I must tell you, maestro,’ I said in French, ‘if you do that once again, just once, I shall walk out of here quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.’
He took it from me.
Why, heaven only knows.
Now, recalling that childish fit of temper and hurt pride on my part, I think too of the innumerable times later on that Toscanini taught me the roles I was to sing; his infinite patience and inspiring enthusiasm, and all that I owe him. And I feel like humbling myself before the forbearance of a very great artist.
I have seen him respond quite differently when other prima donnas turned haughty and asserted their temperaments and their pride. I shall never forget his scene with Farrar. At a rehearsal he stopped her, correcting her singing of a phrase. Repeating the passage she sang it exactly as she had sung it before.
Again, Toscanini stopped her.
‘You forget, maestro,’ she said magnificently, ‘that I am the star.’
Without opening his eyes, Toscanini shook his head wearily. ‘I thank God I know no stars except those in heaven which are perfect,’ he replied.
The passage, needless to say, was sung as Toscanini wished it to be sung.
But to come back to Louise.
Debut at La Scala
Does any singer ever make her début at La Scala without feeling that she is singing not just to the living audience, but also to the shades of the great singers who have made the fame and the traditions of the opera house?
As always in those days I was following in the footsteps of Melba. As a New Zealander — which to most persons, except New Zealanders — is accepted as the same thing as an Australian, despite the little matter of a four days’ and five nights’ sea journey between the two islands — it was inevitable that my voice should be compared and contrasted with Melba’s. I was following, too, after my Aunt Frances Saville, as these two great singers had followed Patti and Jenny Lind and the great Italian singers of my grandmother’s day.
It was a great tradition, that of the foreign singers who have won Milan’s critical acclaim.
I must not fail it.
On that night of the première of Louise the house was filled. Every seat in it. From the wings, waiting for my entrance cue, I could see the vast sea of faces in the orchestra, the tiers of boxes filled with the aristocracy of Milan— men and women with names that had been sounded as mediaeval battle cries, and with the city’s rich and powerful bankers and manufacturers and merchants. My eyes went above these to the packed galleries. There, leaning forward, intent and highly critical, were the music-loving people. Many had gone without their dinners to pay the price of a gallery seat at that night’s opera. Many carried memories of great singers heard at La Scala through a generation. All were jealous of their city’s reputation for the best opera in the world.
All, nobleman and bourgeois, rich and poor, the fashionable and the unknown, had come to judge of a Frenchman’s ability to compose music — an art most of them quite frankly believed belonged exclusively to the Italians. And to judge of an Englishwoman’s voice and her art of singing.
Il bel canto.
Could a Frenchman create it? Could an English voice pour it forth to satisfy their ears and hearts?
Next morning all the reviews spoke of the impatience during the first two acts, ‘which was curbed only by interest in and appreciation of the new singer.’
My experience of that appreciation began the minute I came on the stage. The Scala is so built that there are two rows of boxes on either side of the stage and looking down directly on it. One of these belonged to the officers of the garrison in Milan. That night it was full of uniforms.
When I made my entrance I saw the officers lean forward in unabashed curiosity.
‘Che bell’ occhi!’ a voice exclaimed.
There was something so impudent and young and debonair in this admiration so frankly expressed that I returned the compliment by singing directly to that box through a good part of the opera. Which obviously delighted the occupants.
At the close of the aria in the Third Act there was tremendous applause from the whole house, and calls for me. I had to bow again and again, holding up the progress of the act, a thing, as I was to learn later, that infuriated Toscanini. He always wanted each act to be played and sung straight through from beginning to end without interruptions, like a perfect composition. And without the intrusion of the singers’ personalities on the work of the composer.
Audiences at La Scala
Audiences at La Scala were not always so hospitable to new works. When Butterfly was given there for the first time, the house had hissed and booed. And this, even though Rosina Storchio, Milan’s adored prima donna, was singing the title role. In the scene where Butterfly comes on with her baby in her arms, there was a howl of derision:
‘Il piccolo T—–,’ naming the man who was known to have been Storchio’s lover and the father of her crippled child.
I was present at the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, which was given a few nights after that first performance of Louise.
I sat in a box with Gatti.
The house was packed, and one felt the antagonism of the audience immediately after the overture. That antagonism was grimly silent, however, until the scene in which Golaud and Pelléas wander in the vaults underneath the castle, Golaud brooding on his jealousy and his desire to murder his brother.
Then the distaste for Maeterlinck’s mysticism and Debussy’s musical rendering of it burst all bounds.
Such hoots and shouts and stamping of feet!
At the conductor’s desk I could see Toscanini, magnificently imperturbable, going right on conducting, as though perfect, sympathetic silence reigned. I could see the violinists and cellists draw their bows, and the pianist’s fingers move over the keyboard. But not one note could I hear above that raucous din.
Perhaps to placate the public after that failure, Gatti staged a marvellous ballet.
That, I well remember, was the first time I ever saw Rosina Galli dance.
She was then a child of fourteen or fifteen. Her mother, who was a caretaker in a Milan apartment house, had brought her at the age of eight to the Scala’s ballet school to be taught. Even then Rosina was a marvellous little artist.
I told Gatti so as we sat together that night and watched her.
‘Perhaps,’ he said.
His eyes were not on the stage. They were on me.
How strange, when one thinks that this girl whom we watched together should have been the one to come between us after we were husband and wife.
[Gatti-Casazza married Alda in 1910, they divorced in 1928, and he married Galli in 1930.]
Feodor Chaliapin at La Scala
Two other singers I met at La Scala that season whom I was later to sing with many times in New York, and well.
Amato, whose Metropolitan début was made a few weeks before my own. And the tempestuous Russian artist, Feodor Chaliapin.
Chaliapin had sung at La Scala before. Soon after Gatti became Director he arranged to produce Boito’s Mefistofele. Boito was one of the Board of Directors of La Scala and one of the ablest, most gifted musicians of our time. He had been Verdi’s friend and the librettist of many of his operas. But Mefistofele was his own creation, words and music.
Gatti considered several basses for the title role. But not one seemed to him good enough.
One day a Russian nobleman, passing through Milan, presented letters to Gatti-Casazza and asked to be shown about La Scala. Finding that the Russian knew much about opera and music, Gatti confided to him his difficulty in finding a bass singer for Mefistofele. The Russian recommended his own countryman Feodor Chaliapin. He assured Gatti that if the performances at La Scala could be set some time during Lent, a season when the theatres in Russia used to be closed, Chaliapin would be allowed to come to Italy.
It was so arranged. Chaliapin came, to find himself, before he had sung a note, the centre of a terrific storm.
Were there not basses in Italy? the press and the public were shouting? What need had Gatti-Casazza to send to Russia for one?
Only Chaliapin’s superb singing and acting of the part saved the day. Not even the most rabid chauvinist could fail to give praise to so great an artist, whatever his nationality was.
When Chaliapin returned to La Scala in April 1908, to sing Mefistofele again, this time with me as Marguerite, he received a tremendous ovation. He played the part naked to the waist, with a leopard skin thrown over his hairy chest. A Satan far removed from the suave tempter in black and scarlet tights and cape and point cap such as Marcel Journet had worn when I sang Faust with him.
Chaliapin: ‘Don’t ever go to America’
Chaliapin was morbidly sensitive to any criticism. He could not forget that when he had sung in New York — I think it was in 1905 or 1906 — he had not been well received. The American public had been affronted by his unconventional costumes and by his impassioned acting.
‘Don’t ever go to America, Alda,’ he kept telling me in Milan. ‘It’s a terrible place. Nothing would induce me to go back there again.’
He did come back, of course. Later. And New York went quite mad about him that time.
But he was still the temperamental Russian, full of whims and notions, and a despair to the stage managers and stage hands because of his always wanting some bit of scenery changed or some property arranged differently to allow him a chance for some new stage business. Everyone connected with the Metropolitan could understand the desire for revenge that prompted one of the stage hands, after hoisting Chaliapin in armour onto the mule for his entrance as Don Quixote, to stick the mule’s haunches with a pin.
Up went the mule’s heels. Down went its head.
Up, down; up, down.
Chaliapin went on the stage in a series of bucks that made him appear like a clown at a rodeo.
Offer from the Met and Caruso
Chaliapin’s warning to me against America came too late.
Immediately after the première of Louise, I had received a visitor. Mr Rawlins Cottenet of New York. He was, he told me, the secretary of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera Company. He had heard me the night before at La Scala, and he had gone out and promptly wired Mr Otto Kahn, then Chairman of the Board, and asked permission to offer me a contract with the Metropolitan for the 1908-1909 season.
Melba at Hammerstein’s¹. Alda at the Metropolitan.
What a turn of the wheel!
I accepted the offer Mr Cottenet made me. When Gatti-Casazza came one afternoon to take me for a motor drive I told him that I should be singing in New York the next winter.
The great treasure of the Metropolitan was Caruso. On nights when he was singing, every seat in the house was sold out. Gatti paid Caruso twenty-five hundred dollars a performance. He was worth every penny of it in box-office receipts.
Caruso and I quickly became friends. We had met before. I had sung with him at Covent Garden two years earlier. I always loved his boyishness, and the irresistible of humour that made him play pranks with everyone, on and off stage.
Falling in love
How long does it take a woman to find out that a man — any man — is in love with her?
I think, even before I said good-bye to Gatti at the Milan station after he had engaged me to create Louise, that I knew he was going to fall in love with me, if he wasn’t so already.
There were those unmistakable signs…
But why go into them? Every woman has seen them at one time or another.
Is there a woman alive who isn’t secretly pleased when she finds a man has fallen in love with her? If there is, I never met her. That first, elemental pleasure has nothing to do with what she thinks of the man; or whether she feels that delicious falling in-love sensation coming over her when she is with him or thinks of him. It is ever so much more primitive than that. It hasn’t so much to do with the man himself as with the woman’s sense of her power and power to charm. It’s a symbol of her success as a woman. And everybody knows that women have a keener appetite for success than men ever have. It means more to them. They take it more seriously.
Which may be the reason why most successful women are so much less attractive than the majority of successful men.
I am not concealing the fact from anyone that I am not a feminist. You couldn’t make a feminist out of a woman who knows, and doesn’t care if the world knows it, too, that in some things she’s as elemental as Eve, and as unashamed.
It was my woman’s amour propre that was flattered by having the dignified director of La Scala waiting humbly to take me out to parties in Milan, and writing me notes full of extravagant Italian expressions of admiration of me as a woman, even more than as a singer.
When I went to Warsaw for a month’s engagement at the opera there, before I was due to return to Milan to sing with Chaliapin in Mefistofele, the notes followed me into Poland. Telegams and letters every day.
I learned later, Gatti had been in communication with the director of the Warsaw Opera. He asked that I be released from my engagement before the date set in the contract, giving as his reason for this, that he wished to start rehearsals for Mefistofele immediately. He brought all the prestige of La Scala to bear on the Warsaw director, who finally acceded to his demands and informed me that I might terminate my engagement there several days before I had expected.
‘Well, at least that is better than nothing,’ Gatti wrote me, admitting without apology that he had been pulling wires to get me back to Milan.
In 1908, Giulio Gatti-Casazza became director of the Metropolitan Opera. On 7 December 1908 Alda made her debut there. On 4 April 1910, Alda and Gatti-Casazza married.
It was in New York that Alda furthered her career, appearing to acclaim in such famous operas as Martha, Manon Lescaut, Otello, Faust, Mefistofele and La bohème.
She began recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1908 and several of her records became best-sellers. She created the title roles in Victor Herbert’s Madeleine and Henry Hadley’s Cleopatra’s Night, and Roxane in Walter Damrosch’s Cyrano. She sang regularly with Enrico Caruso.
Alda and Gatti-Casazza separated in 1928 and then divorced. In 1929, she left the Met but continued to give concerts, make radio broadcasts and appear in vaudeville.
The above paragraphs are taken from her 1937 autobiography Men, Women, & Tenors.
She died of a stroke on 18 September 1952 in Venice, aged 73.
1 – The Victoria Theatre (1899 – 1915) was a prominent American vaudeville house during the early years of the twentieth century. Theatre mogul, Oscar Hammerstein I, opened it in 1899 on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. The theatre was closely associated with the Paradise Roof Garden above it, and the two venues came to be known collectively as Hammerstein’s.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.