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Iron Willed Ladies – Geraldine Farrar & Emmy Destinn

They called them “GerryFlappers.” Young women newly enfranchised with the vote and freed from many of the restraints of the Victorian Era, they idolized Geraldine Farrar (1882 – 1937) and followed her every exploit. And she gave them many exploits to follow. Calling herself “an actress who happens to be appearing in opera” she brought realism to her acting on stage, bringing her characters alive while, at the same time guaranteeing maximum notoriety and press coverage by raising her skirts as the café singer Zaza to spray perfume on her undergarments or, in another opera, wearing a minimal costume described as “two small groups of jewels, inconspicuous but essentially located.”

She starred in 14 highly successful silent films, including “Joan (Joan of Arc) at the Stake” and “Carmen,” both directed by Cecil B. De Mille. She had romances, including a six year affair as the mistress of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini that ended when she reportedly demanded marriage and Toscanini returned to his wife in Italy.

She was a master of public relations, exuding glamour, creating scandals and making headlines wherever she went, writing not one but two autobiographies. She could sing very well, too. Hers was not a great voice – flawless vocal production was never her strong point – but she used it with great expressivity. Pushing that voice for dramatic effect did eventually led to ill health and vocal difficulties requiring an operation to remove a polyp on her vocal cord but she recovered and continued singing..

She was strong willed and demanding, but generous towards colleagues. When she retired from the Met in 1922 at age 40 her “GerryFlappers” cheered, cried, tossed banners and flowers, gave her a crown and scepter, and followed her in her limousine down Broadway.

Born in Melrose Massachussetts, she made her recital debut in Boston at the age of 14. At 16 she auditioned for the Metropolitan but on her mother’s advice turned down the title role in Mignon, instead travelling to France to study and was soon starring at the Royal Opera in Berlin. Her youth, charm, fresh voice and insistence on realism instead of stylized gestures and poses made her a sensation. While in Berlin she became a pupil of famed singer Lilli Lehmann who called her “an obstinate and willful little wretch,” but taught her “repose, economy of gesture, eloquence of attitude, and clean singing.”

Having made her reputation in Europe, Farrar returned in triumph to the United States and made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1906, singing with every major Met artist from Caruso on. In her 16 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera she sang more performances in more operas than any soprano before or since and commanded higher fees than any other soprano, including Rosa Ponselle. It was Farrar by the way who, when asked how one gets a voice like Rosa Ponselle’s, said “By special appointment with God. And then you must work very hard.” Of course, she didn’t say that until after she had retired.

She continued singing in concerts and recitals for ten years after her retirement from the Met, giving as many as 200 concerts in a season. Then in 1931 she sang a final Carnegie Hall recital and quit public life. She traveled widely, hosted intermissions of broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, did charitable work, and retired to Ridgefield, Connecticut where she died at the age of 85.

Emmy Destinn (1878 – 1930) Led a life as unconventional as Geraldine Farrar’s. Perhaps more so given that she came from a time and place that was more constrained. And she had a voice that was far superior to Farrar’s. It was a large, spinto voice, rich and powerful with a ringing top that was ideally suited to Verdi but could also handle lighter Wagnerian roles.

She sang in all the world’s great opera houses. They called her the “Divine Emmy.” She sang over eighty roles and her Aida, Tosca and Salome were considered unparalleled by those who heard her. In the 1900s she was the highest paid female singer at the Metropolitan Opera. Her love affairs were legendary. The phrase femme fatale could have been coined for her. She had a long, passionate, affair with the French baritone, who left his wife for her and even learned Czech simply to be able to sing with her in Prague.

She was born Emilie Pavlína Kittlová in Prague, Czechloslovakia. Her father and her mother (who was a singer) encouraged her to study music. As a violinist she was considered a child prodigy. When her voice developed she studied singing and acting, making her debut at the age of 20. She was invited by Cosima Wagner to come to Bayreuth where she starred in the very first production of the Flying Dutchman at that theater. She was soon singing at major opera houses throughout Europe and England and, in 1908 appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Aida opposite Enrico Caruso with Arturo Toscanini conducting. She sang for ten seasons there and created the role of Minnie in the world premiere of La Fanciulla del West, again with Caruso and she somehow persuaded the Met to produce Smetana’s The Bartered Bride for her with Gustav Mahler conducting.

Destinn was an accomplished writer, painter, and composer and a fierce Czech nationalist. During World War I she returned to war torn Europe and carried with her messages for the Czech resistance. In Prague, she refused to sing for the Austro-Hungarian troops and was placed under a house arrest for two years. After the armistice she sang many benefit concerts for Czech soldiers and became a deeply revered figure in Czech history.

Her two year absence from the world stage had a devastating effect on her career. She returned to the United States in 1919 but found the Met had had no place for her, having assigned her signature roles to a new generation of young singers. She returned to Czechoslovakia, had a brief and unhappy marriage to a young air force pilot , and spent her final days writing, fishing, and occasionally singing. After several concerts in Yugoslavia and Germany; her last performance was in London in 1928. Two years later she died from a stroke at the age of 51 and is buried in Prague.

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