Yankee Diva

Lillian Nordica (born Norton, in Farmington, Maine, 1857) was a superstar, and by all rights we should have a long and satisfying series of records to show why. But instead of joining the crowd at Victor (where just such a series was being made by her colleagues like Sembrich, Caruso, Gadski, Scotti, Melba, Tetrazzini, Plançon, Calvé) she chose to be the big fish in a smaller pond over at Columbia Records, whose American technicians and equipment were simply not at the same level. They caught up, but too late; Nordica’s disks were cut between 1906 and 1911, and their dim, fuzzy, distant sound compares very poorly to what other companies were already achieving with big-voiced Wagnerians like her.

Nordica - Dupont publicity portrait

Nordica as celebrity endorser

Not that there was anybody quite like her; every singer who wants a glimpse of opera in its late heyday should read Yankee Diva and get to know this hard-working, plain-speaking, clear-thinking (except about men), long-lasting, high-earning prima donna. She seems to have been the first non-German soprano to sing all three Brünnhildes plus Isolde. She added Kundry as soon as Parsifal escaped from Bayreuth’s exclusivity clause; her repertory also included Gilda, Philine in Mignon, La Gioconda, Lucia, Aida, Violetta, Carmen, and dozens more. Isolde was her biggest success; London, Berlin, Munich, Paris, and New York all heard it. She was still singing it at fifty-five and might have gone on, but a year later she died in harness - rescued from a shipwreck in the course of a Far East concert tour, but unable to fight off the pneumonia she contracted while the vessel was stranded for days on a coral reef. 

Nordica’s concert repertory too was wide and varied, and this item from it is probably a better introduction to her than the grand arias she tried to record (score here - it’s a little-known setting of a well-known Goethe lyric that soprano recitalists would do well to revive). 

Nothing here particularly alerts us that we are hearing one of the world’s favorite Wagnerians, unless just the steady flow of ringing tone. Nordica at 52 had no hint of a “wobble,” and neither did any other middle-aged-plus soprano we can hear on early records. That’s a pretty long list (Calvé, Melba, Albani, Patti, Lilli Lehmann, Brambilla, De Frate….) and they all serve to remind us that the wide, slow vibrato we call “wobble” is not a result of the aging process, but of bad technique compounded over time. Meanwhile: clarity in the etching of “little notes,” smooth connection up and down the range, expert trills. Classic virtues, in other words. And interpretation? Well, there is basic shapeliness of phrase, but I wouldn’t argue if someone said the overall effect is rather generic. 

The problems with Nordica’s records, beyond their sound quality, are three. First, a big soprano voice with narrow vibrato suffers more than most from the loss of overtones in primitive recordings. Second, something the aging process does eventually bring to almost all sopranos is a diminution of freedom or power, or both, in the highest notes. Nordica still had power and steadiness up top, but the sound is effortful and not exactly pretty. Her most famous record is an astonishing showpiece from Erkel’s Hunyadi László, constantly and virtuosically active over a range from low A to high C, and many moments in it are fantastic - but even allowing for the overtone cut, few people can find the highest notes enjoyable. I wish she had decided to transpose it a semitone lower as she did with “Je suis Titania.”  

The third problem is more limiting in the end: she often comes across as preoccupied, inhibited, hesitant (even to the point of seeming as though she wants to start over and then realizes she can’t). It’s a valuable lesson about the sheer novelty of the experience for first-generation recording artists. Some took to it; others found it intolerably unnatural to sing for a machine in expectation of playback and judgment. “At present,” she wrote to Hermann Klein (the critic and García pupil who had recruited her for Columbia), “I am terribly discouraged about them. There is not one which I or my family think fit to put before the public.” 

Nordica eventually approved publication of 11 out of the 36 records she made. Three more survived as test pressings, plus a few “alternate takes” and an intriguing trial record in which she sings Grieg’s “Jeg elsker dig” at different distances from the recording horn. (Unfortunately most of the records seem to have been made from the greater distance, if not farther.) Lost forever are items we would love to have heard, “Dich teure Halle,” “Erlkönig,” “Waldesgespräch,” “Ich grolle nicht,” “Un bel dì” among them. 

Nordica with President Taft, Groundbreaking ceremony for Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco 1911

But Nordica’s voice had been recorded before, though she may not have known at the time. She can be heard - barely - on 19 live-from-the-Met cylinders recorded by the house librarian Lionel Mapleson in 1901-03. Their sound quality ranges from “very dim” to what one would normally call “unlistenable.” If one listens nevertheless, these fragments catch her in action as Valentine (Les Huguenots), Isolde, and the three Brünnhildes, and eventually reveal a very different profile: a bold, generous, impulsive singer who seems to delight in flooding the house with her big, solid tones - just what you’d think from the photo of her singing the Star-Spangled Banner in the open air to an audience of 200,000. She revels in the leaps and long high notes of the Walküre battle-cry (adding an extra one after the second verse). Valentine’s two-octave chromatic scale from high C holds no terrors for her. She finishes Götterdämmerung with plenty of juice for the top A, Bb, B, easy lyric purity for the address to the Rhinemaidens, no hint of fatigue, and a jubilant rhythmic verve from “Grane, mein Ross” to the end.  

Unfortunately, you have to listen many, many times to piece together this picture; nobody has time for that unless motivated by a strong interest in knowing as much as possible about the singer. This is one I find worth knowing. If you imagine the sound of her Columbias together with the energy (and maybe the high notes) of her Maplesons - that’s quite a singer. For all who want to try their own patience, here is a sample. To help a little (help is needed!) I’ve spliced together a continuous stretch of music from what Mapleson captured in bits on two different evenings. The score is here (recording starts during second system of the first page). 

If you’re still with us after that, click here for some Verdi and a performance-style mystery for which Nordica provides a clue.

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.