Songbirds – Amelita Galli-Curci, Mady Mesple, Luisa Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba, Lily Pons & Joan Sutherland
They were lovely and immensely popular ladies, usually sopranos, who sang with great charm expression and navigated the upper musical atmosphere with spectacular agility and florid displays of vocal gymnastics. Some had extraordinary voices, some made the most of lesser instruments. The best of them brought emotion and understanding to their art.
Amelita Galli-Curci (1882 – 1963) was a star of the first magnitude. Dark, slim, and graceful, she had a light supple voice and personality to burn. In her prime she was nearly the equal of Caruso as a box office draw. When she sang, your imagination could see her shoulders as they shrugged or her eyebrows when they arched. You could feel the joy or the sadness in her voice. She had, as the composer Mascagni told her, a voice with a unique timbre, instantly recognizable anywhere and she used it to express honest emotions as well as vocal fireworks.
Her family had no money for teachers, so she taught herself to sing by practicing vocal exercises. She made her professional debut in 1906 and gave her last performance in 1936. She lost most of her fortune in the stock market crash of 1929 but she earned back enough to spend her retirement years in the beach city of La Jolla in Southern California and, when she died at age 81, was able to leave a quarter of a million dollars to aid music students.
Mady Mesple (1931 – ) was born in Toulouse, France. She had great charm, amazing vocal security, and a high coloratura with an upper register to high A-flat. She appeared often on French television, recorded extensively, and sang both opera and operetta, especially by Offenbach, and premiered many 20th century works, some of which were written especially for her. She retired in 1985 to teach and conduct master classes. After contracting Parkinson’s disease, she wrote her memoirs, discussing both career in opera and her experiences in living with Parkinson’s.
Luisa Tetrazzini had a much larger voice than Amelita Galli-Curci and was an even bigger star, both physically and in box office draw. Her trademark sound was a series of quick, staccato notes combined with a remarkable purity of tone and volume.
She had an open and loveable personality and was a great favorite in America, adored by all – with the possible exception of Dame Nellie Melba, who saw Tetrazzini as her only serious rival, and of several producers who sued her. She loved to laugh and she could laugh at herself and, somehow, never lost her “little girl” voice. She lived flamboyantly and loved the same way, marrying three times to husbands who each managed to ruin her financially. She earned and lost fortunes which required her to sing until long past her prime, but though she died in near poverty, she never complained.
Tetrazzini also loved to eat and the chef at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where she lived for many years, created a dish in her honor made with parmesan cheese, butter, and sherry wine – Chicken Tetrazzini. Like all Songbirds, she specialized in those florid runs and trills that excite and amaze, but she was also capable infusing her songs with great simplicity and beauty.
The Australian soprano, Nellie Melba, was perhaps the ultimate Prima Donna of her time. She had a longer career than either Galli-Curci or Tetrazzini. She debuted in 1886 and didn’t retire until her last performance in 1930. She recorded this aria in 1904.
The great French chef Auguste Escoffier created Peach Melba (peaches with vanilla ice cream topped by raspberry puree) in her honor as well as a very thin, dry, toast which he called … Melba Toast. She traveled in private railroad cars, was as famous for her love affairs – one in particular with a French Duke – as for her imperious ways and her feuds with other performers, especially Tetrazzini. Her extraordinary beauty, charm and personal magnetism, and her delicately warm voice enchanted audiences.
The early acoustic recording process was unkind to many voices and Melba’s seems to have been one of those. She often seems harsh and occasionally off-key, although contemporary accounts of her singing would indicate otherwise. This recording, made in 1916 seems to catch her at her best.
Lily Pons was a phenomenon.She arrived in the United states from France in 1931 as an young unknown. She sang runs and trills with brilliance and precision, sometimes inserting them in songs and arias when the composer had neglected to do so and her debut at the Met was a sensation. She reigned there until 1960 limiting her repertoire to only those few roles that best suited her voice. Near the end of her career, she sang her last “Lucia di Lammermoor” in 1962 opposite a 21 year old Placido Domingo.
An absolute Prima Donna with an iron will and a sparkling voice, she starred in three movies, performed on innumerable radio shows, sang 300 performances at the Met, and marketed her image better than any singer before or since, with the possible exception of Luciano Pavarotti.
And Joan Sutherland was the ultimate Bel Canto Songbird. They called her “La Stupenda.” And she was that, indeed. She had almost no temperament, preferring to sit and do needlepoint while her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge resolved any difficulties. Born in Australia, she was tall and somewhat ungainly, not especially pretty, and had little interest in the dramatic possibilities of a role, but she could float effortlessly through the most fiendishly difficult arias and toss off high C’s, D’s, and E’s as if they were child’s play. As Maria Callas’ voice and career disintegrated, Sutherland assumed most of her signature roles, even including “Norma,” in which she had once appeared in a small role at Covent Garden opposite Callas.
Sutherland was often criticized for her mushy diction, which could be quite careless, even causing one critic to wonder what language she might be singing in. With Sutherland, what you got was voice, voice, and more voice. She arrived at the Metropolitan in the 1960’s, at almost the same time as a young Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti, who had an equally amazing vocal gift, and an equal carelessness about the niceties of acting.
She partnered with Pavarotti on stage and in recordings and reigned supreme in her field for almost forty years until she quietly retired in 1990 at the age of 64.
Joan Sutherland died in her bed at home in 2010 at the age of 83.