Willa Cather's Opera Prototypes Who Were Recording Artists

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FARRAR FREMSTAD NORDICA GARDEN SCHUMANN-HEINK BORI

 

By Doug Boilesen, 2020

Willa Cather loved opera and was a devoted patron of opera wherever she lived or travelled. She had friendships with opera stars, understood the world of opera, knew the challenges of being an artist in a consumer world and of being a woman artist in male dominated domains, and wrote multiple stories where a prima donna or an aspirational artist was the central character.

Six of the prima donnas identified by scholars as likely prototypes (1) for Cather opera related characters made phonograph records and appeared in phonograph ads.

By appearing in popular culture magazine ads these prototypes added their celebrity status, artistic reputations, and the prestige of opera to promote key phonograph industry themes; namely, that the world of entertainment, highlighted by opera, was available to anyone, anytime and anyplace. The stage of the world, it was advertised, could now be in your own home where you would be more comfortable than in a theatre; it was more convenient than going to a theatre, no expensive tickets to buy, unlimited reperotoires, and always the best seat in the house.

The new reality according to the phonograph industry was also that recorded sound should be considered an equivalent of live music and not a sound-reproducing novelty. "The Victor Record of Farrar's voice is just as truly Farrar as Farrar herself."

An overview of the six Cather prototype artists and some phonograph advertising themes they were associated with are on this page.

Each of these artists also has their own page in the following galleries with more examples of their presence in popular culture as prima donnas and promoters of the phonograph and recorded sound.

Geraldine Farrar (one of the prototypes for Kitty Ayrshire in Scandal and A Gold Slipper and interviewed by Cather for her article Three American Singers).

Lillian Nordica (prototype for Cressida Garnet in The Diamond Mine)

Mary Garden (prototype for Eden Bower in Coming, Aphrodite! and one of the prototypes for Kitty Ayrshire in Scandal)

Olive Fremstad (prototype for Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark and interviewed by Cather for her article Three American Singers).

Ernestine Schumann-Heink (prototype for "soprano soloist" in Paulís Case).

Lucrezia Bori (prototype for "Spanish woman" in Scandal).

 

Cather's first collection of short stories (The Troll Garden, 1905) were written in the early years of the phonograph entering the home.

In the following decade, when Cather was writing many of her opera and aspirational artist stories e.g., The Song of the Lark (1915) and the publication of her collection of short stories Youth and Bright Medusa (1920), the phonograph became the definitive home entertainer. Electrical recordings were introduced in 1925 and the prevalence of radio in the 1930's would further alter how the public experienced sound.

The evolution of the phonograph from 1900 to 1920 included advertisements made by six of Cather's opera prototypes which reveal aspects of the new century's consumerism and themes of "live" versus recorded music, the "Stage of the World' entering homes and the advertising power of prima donnas.

 

E.T. Paull - Sheet music published by E.T. Paull Music Co., New York, 1900. - Sheet Music from University of Indiana

 


In promoting opera The Victor Talking Machine Company led the way with its advertising campaigns featuring opera, Caruso and "the greatest artists of the world." Farrar, Schumann-Heink and Bori would all record for Victor. Schumann-Heink also did five records for Columbia.

Columbia was a strong competitor and promoted the exclusivity of their 'greatest artists of the world" whenever they could. Nordica, Garden and Fremstad would be featured Columbia artists. (3)

Edison didn't have as many of the first-tier opera stars and seems to have been more interested in advertising the technical accuracy of his phonograph than promoting world-renowned artists. Nevertheless, Edison's phonograph ads were prevalent in popular culture for almost four decades and some of those ads were for his 'grand opera' records since Edison did recruit some 'famous artists' and like all phonograph companies opera recordings were one of those entertainment choices offered in his record catalogues. In respect to the Cather prototypes Mary Garden recorded three records for Edison in 1905 and Lucrezia Bori made thirty recordings for Edison between 1910 and 1913. (3)

 

 

GERALDINE FARRAR

 

In 1908 Victor ran an ad campaign questioning if you could tell the difference between a live performer and a record. "You think you can...But can you?" Victor then suggested there was a way to find out: "Why not hear the Victor for yourself?". Geraldine Farrar was one of the opera stars featured in these "Which is which" ads.

 

October 1908

 

Victor's 1908 "Which is which?" ad campaign was their first series of advertisements asking the pivotal question about a record's realism and featuring different grand-opera artists as evidence.

The next similiar theme by Victor was the Victrola's "Both are" advertising campaign of 1914-15, in which Farrar was again one of the featured artists. In this advertising campaign Victor seemed even more confident with a declarative statement instead of asking a question.

It was now "Both are Farrar." "Both are Caruso." "Both are Schumann-Heink." "Both are Mischa Elman." "Both are Kreisler." "Both are McCormack." "Both are Alma-Gluck."

There was now no difference between a recorded voice and the voice of an artist on stage. With a record and an artist positioned side by side, the artist and the record were said to be equals -- a record had "the same singularly beautiful voice, with all the personal charm and individuality of the artist." In listening to Farrar's record you will "be stirred with enthusiasm, just as were the vast audiences" that heard in in the Metropolitan Opera House. "The proof," said the Victor ad, "is in the hearing."

 

Everybody's Magazine, 1915

 

 

Farrar as Madame Butterfly, 1921

 

Between 1907 and 1927 the Discography of American Historical Records has 179 records listed for Geraldine Farrar made for the Victor Company. See DAHR for listing of Farrar's recordings which includes multiple records for some of the songs and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master. In 1905-1906 Farrar has three records listed as having been recorded for Gramophone. (3)

For additional examples of Geraldine Farrar, visit Geraldine Farrar - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

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MME. SCHUMANN-HEINK

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Schumann-Heink Postcard, 1907

 

Between 1906 and 1931 the Discography of American Historical Records has 135 records listed for Ernestine Schumann-Heink made for the Victor Company. See DAHR for listing of Schumann-Heink's recordings which includes multiple records for some of the songs and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master. In 1903 Schumann-Heink has five records listed as having been recorded for Columbia. (3)

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Everybody's Magazine, 1910

 

The Victrola's "Both are" advertising campaign of 1914-15, included Madame Schumann-Heinkin as one of Victor's featured artists. Repeating the same truth as their "Both are Farrar" ad, Victor again defined their new reality of recorded sound: "The Victor Record of Schumann-Heink's voice is just as truly Schumann-Heink as Schumann-Heink herself."

 

Life, September 9, 1915

 

For additional examples of Mme. Schumann-Heink, visit Schumann-Heink - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

 

 

MARY GARDEN

Mary Garden as Thais, photograph by Reutingler, Paris, postcard c. 1901

 

 

Mary Gardenís Scottish Records, Pathe Record Catalog, 1904 (Courtesy British Library)

 

 

1911

 

Mary Garden recorded 3 cylinder records for Edison in 1905. Between 1911 and 1912 the Discography of American Historical Records has 12 records listed for Mary Garden made for Columbia. Between 1926 and 1929 there are 16 records listed for Mary Garden made for Victor. See DAHR for listing of Garden's recordings which includes multiple records for some of the songs and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master.(3)

For additional examples of Mary Garden, visit Mary Garden - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

 

 

LILLIAN NORDICA

Lillian Nordica as Brunnhilde, 1898 (Courtesy of Nordica Memorial Association)

 

 

Columbia advertisement courtesy of The Nordica Memorial Association

 

 

Nordica was featured on Coca-Cola calendars, trays and advertising posters in 1904 and 1905

 

 

Between 1906 and 1911 the Discography of American Historical Records has 33 records listed for Lillian Nordica made for Columbia. See DAHR for listing of Nordica recordings which includes multiple records for some of the songs and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master.(3)

For additional examples of Lillian Nordica, visit Lillian Nordica - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

 

 

 

OLIVE FREMSTAD

First records of Fremstad's voice ever made exclusively for Columbia, 1911

 

 

Nordica, Fremstad and Mary Garden, Columbia Graphophones and Grafonolas postcard 1911

 


Nordica, Fremstad and Mary Garden, 1911

 

Between 1911 and 1915 the Discography of American Historical Records has 23 records listed for Olive Fremstad made for Columbia. See DAHR for listing of Fremstad's recordings and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master.(3)

For additional examples of Olive Fremstad, visit Olive Fremstad - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

 

 

 

LUCREZIA BORI

In the September 1910 Edison Phonograph Monthly in an article titled New Grand Opera Talent one of the featured artists discussed was Mlle. Bori who "has been engaged to sing exclusively for the National Phonograph Company."

 

The Edison Phonograph Monthly, September 1910

 

Listen to one of her earliest recordings, the 1910 four-minute celluloid cylinder record, Mi chiamano mimì from La Bohème (Puccini), Edison Concert Series Record No. 28122 (courtesy of i78s.org).

Advance List for Edison Grand Opera Amberol Records, October 1910

The Edison Phonograph Monthly

 

Between 1910 and 1913 the Discography of American Historical Records has 31 records listed for Lucrezia Bori made for Edison with one additional Edison record made in 1924.

Between 1914 and 1937 there are 95 records listed for Lucrezia Bori made for Victor. See DAHR for listing of Bori's recordings and the identification of which recordings were issued from which master.(3)

 

Farrar, Schumann-Heink and Bori, The Ladies' Home Journal, September 1919

 

For additional examples of Lucrezia Bori, visit Lucrezia Bori - Recording Artist and Willa Cather Opera Prototype

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phonographia