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The Pantheon of Musical Theater Sopranos 1900-1920
by David for group historicalziegfeld Jan 20, 2012

Musical Theater during the early decades of the twentieth century favored classically trained voices, particularly in the operetta. Producers and composers were perpetually on the look out for sopranos who combined melting tones, a thrilling top, and a handsome face. From 1900 to 1920 a dozen divas monopolized the most expertly crafted women’s roles. Their talents and capacities differed, particularly in regards to the ability to pull off a comic aria. All, however, could stop the show by the beauty of their vocal performance. I’ve supplied a gallery of the major talents below, and some remarks on each of the important songstresses.

FRITZI SCHEFF was born in Vienna in 1879 and was a classically schooled opera singer capable of playing roles from Mozart to Wagner. During her 1901 sojourn at the Metropolitan Opera Victor Herbert realized that she would be the ideal lead for “Babette,” because of her seductive style. His instinct proved correct, and he followed the show up with an operetta on feminist themes, Mlle. Modiste. This sensational hit would become Scheff’s bread and butter for twenty years. Herbert’s “Prima Donna” did not fare so well in 1908. Scheff enjoyed a long career in vaudeville when not performing revivals of Mlle Modiste.

ALICE NIELSEN traversed the path from vaudeville to grand opera in the course of her life, beginning as a street singing girl in Kansas City, touring the western vaudeville circuits as a teenage warbler, until adopted and trained by the Tivoli Opera Company in San Francisco. She achieved national popularity as a lyric soprano in The Bostonians, a beloved light opera company. Shortly before the turn of the century she formed her own troupe, commissioned Victor Herbert for scores, and became a Broadway Star with “The Serenade” and “The Fortune Teller.” (Herbert’s third confection, “The Singing Girl” 1899 proved less popular.) A star, she plunged fully into the world of grand opera, signing with the San Carlo Opera Company for whom she became a fixture, first in Mozartian roles, then in the 19th-century Italian repertory. She sang with most of the greats of the Golden Age—Caruso, Calve, Antonio Scotti, Nordica. She enjoyed immense popularity as a recording artist, performing sentimental songs as well as arias. Her final appearance on Broadway would be in the role of Killy Bellairs in Rudolf Friml’s 1917 musical “Killy Darlin’”. An ugly mixture of personalities doomed the produced after two weeks. At the dawn of the twentieth century there was no bigger vocal talent on Broadway. But it would be the Met that would enjoy her best work.

MARIE CAHILL triumphed more on vocal personality than technique, A chesty Brooklynite who learned her craft in the vaudeville house, she was a singularly personable performer with a special talent for novelty songs and flag wavers. In 1902 her rendition of “Under the Bamboo Tree” in Sally in Our Alley became a national sensation, driving enormous sheet music sales and moving multitudes of recordings. Her follow-up, the title song to the 1903 Henry K. Hadley musical “Nancy Brown” proved equally popular. Victor Herbert then cast her in his 1904 hit “It Happened in Nordland.” After 1914 when a sea-change occurred concerning female body types, Cahill had to limit herself to comic roles exclusively. Jerome Kern admired her style and cast her in “90 Degrees in the Shade” but the World War brought a hiatus in her career that would last for a decade when she enjoyed a second inning as a singing matron in 1920s revues such as Cole Porter’s “The New Yorkers.”

Though her career lasted a scant 15 years, LULU GLASER etched herself into American consciousness as a galvanic stage presence. She entered the entertainment business as a chorine in the Francis Wilson Opera Company, was elevated to prima donna when the female lead fell ill, and became a star in the comic opera “Dolly Vardon” (1902). Victor Herbert crafted “The Madcap Princess” and “Miss Dolly Dollars” for her. Glaser excelled when a strong directed specified how to do a role, and of her later performances, her turn in “Mlle Mischief” proved most effective, since it was designed and coached by Ned Wayburn a genius of stage business. When left to her own devices, as in “The Girl and the Kaiser” she was at a loss how to assay her part. Her failure in that 1911 musical made her abandon Broadway. The clarity of Lulu’s diction, and her talent in passages demanding rapid delivery, were distinctive during her heyday.

EMMA TRENTINI starred in two landmarks of American Musical theater, Victor Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” (1910) and Rudolf Friml’s “The Firefly” (1912). Italian born, and trained at LaScala as a teenager, she was hired by Oscar Hammerstein for her New York Opera Company shortly after the turn of the century. Attractive, and possessed of a stage charisma, Trentini’s voice lacked the dramatic heft and burnish to be a leading lady. She sang secondary parts during her New York career—sometimes winning notice because of her scintillating presence—until Hammerstein recommended she go into comic opera. When she did ‘cross over’ she became an immediate sensation, but her temperament rubbed Victor Herbert the wrong way. Her refusal to sing an encore when Herbert was conducting led to a split that enable Friml to secure her for the lead in “The Firefly.” Caruso courted her, intending marriage, in 1911, but her temperament again proved too dangerous. Her 1915 work in the operetta adaptation “The Peasant Girl” though well reviewed and supported by the audience, never approached the importance of her two earlier hits.

KITTY GORDON owed her stage renown equally to her statuesque beauty and her silvery voice. Born in Kent, England, and ‘Constance Blades’ and trained as a singer in provincial theater companies, she became leading lady in 1901. Broadway would not see Kitty until 1905 when she brought a touring company of Veronique to New York. She won approval for her fashion sense as well as her blithe stage manner. She did not become a regular performer in the United States until 1909 when she and husband Harry Beresford (who would eventually win fame for “The Old Soak”) became residents. From 1909 to 1915 she would appear in five musicals, all successes, including Herbert’s “The Enchantress” and Romberg’s “A World of Pleasure.” Less vocally adroit than her rivals, her dramatic range was limited yet effective. When motion pictures called, she realized that greater assurance of fortunate lay in appearing beautiful and remaining silent, than vocalizing in the theater.

CHRISTIE MACDONALD etched her name in the annals of operetta by introducing “Sweethearts” into the canon of American song. The lovely Canadian first appeared as an actress on the New York Stage, before 1906’s musical “The Belle of Mayfair” elevated her to the first ranks of singing leads. She premiered two Victor Herbert productions, “The Spring Maid” (1910) and “Sweethearts” (1913). Her illicit child with politician and theatrical promoter Timothy Sullivan kept her off the boards in the years between the two productions. Her marriage to building heir Henry L. Gillespie occasioned her withdrawal from the stage for a life of domestic comfort.

BETH LYDY [Lyda Betti] had a billiant, but brief, career of three seasons during the outbreak of World War 1. Possessed of an operatic voice and an arresting, but not particularly beautiful appearance, she experienced stardom with her first role, Dolly Cloverdale, in Franz Lehar’s “Alone at Last.” She performed in two solid Romberg musicals, “The Girl from Brazil” and “Her Soldier Boy,” before leaving Broadway in Jerome Kern’s hit, “The Rainbow Girl” (1918). Her temperament made he challenging to work with, and her command of vocal technique made her critical of those on the stage who lacked proper support for their voices. In the 1920s she kept to the opera stage. She married Eddy Brown and with him began one of the important opera training studios in the United States during the mid-20th century.

PEGGY WOOD may have been the most versatile of the first rank singers who graced the early-20th-century American stage. She began as a chorus girl in Victor Herbert musicals, advanced to supporting parts, and finally in Kern’s “Love o’Mike” advanced to a singing lead in the character of ‘Peggy.’ She starred in “Maytime” and Marjolaine” before commencing a transformation that turned her into a serious actress capable of handling Shakespeare and contemporary tragedy. She would enjoy a 50 year show-business career on the stage and in motion pictures, and even penned a best-selling novel, “The Star-Wagon.”

OLGA COOK, a saucy blonde who radiated authenticity in her characterization, was a discovery of the Shubert Brothers who made her a fixture in their revues. But her claim to vocal immortality lay in her characterization of ‘Mitzi’ in the smash hit “Blossom Time,” the Romberg operetta based on the life of composer Franz Schubert. Cook played the composer’s love interest for over 500 performances, one of the longest runs of the 1920s. Every song she sang in the production was a duet or ensemble number. No other major singer won fame with the benefit of a solo song/aria.

LINA ABARBANELL was, before he move to America in 1905, the leading exponent of Viennese operetta. This Jewish-German soubrette was the first call talent for Oscar Straus and Edmund Eysler when they launched new productions. She sang Adele in “Die Fledermaus” at the Berlin Court Opera well over 100 times. In 1905 the Metropolitan Opera secure her services for “Hansel and Gretel,” and upon arriving in Manhattan, Abarbanell fell in love with the city. Her first American triumph was “The Merry Widow,” and she would enjoy periodic successes thereafter in “Madame Sherry,” “Flora Bella,” and “The Grand Duke.” In her later years she was one of the significant casting directors for Broadway musicals.

JULIA SANDERSON grew up in the theater, since her father, Albert Sackett, was a leading man. Comedian DeWolf Hopper made her a lead in his company in 1904. She toured for six years before winning fame in 1910’s “The Acadians.” As a performer she was winsome rather than brash, cute rather than vivacious. She was the ideal romantic foil for Donald Brian, and the couple starred in many of the important Kern musicals of the 1910s. Her final success, 1921’s “Tangerine” left her without a hit tune, and she spent the remainder of the decade heading touring companies of other singers’ vehicles.

ILSE MERVENGA turned one role, Kathie, in Romberg’s “The Student Prince,” into a career. She played it contuously on Broadway and on the road for five years, then reprised it when not serving as the lead in revivals of other Romberg musicals during the 1930s. German born and trained, she was the echt mittel-European girl lead in the operettas composed between the two wars.

Other singers because famous during the era-Nora Bayes and Sophie Tucker come immediately to mind. But none of the other successes came about because of the virtuosity and schooled quality of the voices. In 1920 Grace Moore would spearhead a new wave of less-European sounding classically trained singers who would bring operetta to sound movies. They will be the subject of a future posing. David S. Shields


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