Emma Calvé, a Belle Époque Aveyron Soprano

Emma Calvé

Emma Calvé, born Rosa Emma Calvet (August 15, 1858 – January 6, 1942), was a French operatic soprano. Calvé was probably the most famous French female opera singer of the Belle Époque. She had an international career, singing regularly at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and the Royal Opera House, London.

Calvé's life

Poster of Emma Calvé's show

Calvé was born on August 15, 1858, in Decazeville, Aveyron. Her father, Justin Calvet, was a civil engineer. Spending at first her childhood in Spain with ther parents, then was sent to several convent schools at Roquefort and Tournemire, both in Aveyron. After her parents' divorce, she moved with her mother to Paris. She attempted to enter the Paris Conservatory, while studying singing with Jules Puget. She learnt music in Paris with Mathilde Marchesi, a retired German mezzo-soprano and Manuel García. She made a tour of Italy, where she saw the then-famous actress Eleonora Duse, whose impersonations deeply impressed the young singer. She trained herself in stage craft as well as gesture, closely observing Duse's performances.

Emma Calvé

Calvé died on January 6, 1942, at Montpellier, Hérault. She had a tragic end of life, very lonely, forgotten and ruined. She is buried in Millau. Her voice is preserved in a number of recordings made between 1902 and 1920.

Calvé's Career

Emma Calvé

Her operatic debut occurred on September 23, 1881, in Gounod's Faust at Brussels' La Monnaie. Later she sang at La Scala in Milan, and also at the principal theatres of Naples, Rome, and Florence.

Returning to Paris in 1891, she created the part of Suzel in L'amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, playing and singing the role later at Rome. Because of her great success in it, she was chosen to appear as Santuzza in the French premiere of Cavalleria rusticana, which was viewed as one of her greatest parts. She repeated her success in it in London. Her next triumph was Bizet's Carmen. Before beginning the study of this part, she went to Spain, learned the Spanish dances, mingled with the people and patterned her characterization after the cigarette girls whom she watched at their work and at play. In 1894, she made her appearance in the role at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. The city's opera-goers immediately hailed her as the greatest Carmen that had ever appeared, a verdict other cities would later echo. She had had many famous predecessors in the role, including Adelina Patti, Minnie Hauk and Célestine Galli-Marié, but critics and musicians agreed that in Calvé they had found their ideal of Bizet's cigarette girl of Seville.

Emma Calvé

Calvé first appeared in America in the season of 1893–1894 as Mignon. She would make regular visits to the country, both in grand opera and in concert tours. After making her Metropolitan Opera debut as Santuzza, she went on to appear a total of 261 times with the company between 1893 and 1904. She created the part of Anita, which was written for her, in Massenet's La Navarraise in London in 1894 and sang Sapho in an opera written by the same composer.

She sang Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet in Paris in 1899, but the part was not suited to her and she dropped it. She appeared with success in many roles, among them, as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, the title role in Félicien David's Lalla-Rookh, as Pamina in The Magic Flute, and as Camille in Hérold's Zampa, but she is best known as Carmen.

Calvé developed an interest in the paranormal and was once engaged to the occult author Jules Bois.

In the winter of 1893/1894 the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) executed a life-size portrait of her standing full-length in a green-blue dress, wearing an opera cloak of white and gold with a sable edge, clutching American Beauty roses. It is now lost, but a pastel he made of her in March 1894 has been discovered in a London private collection.

The following story on Emma Calvé was written by Willa Cather and
published on June 6, 1897, in The Home Monthly.

Emma Calvé

Note: The Home Monthly was a monthly women's magazine published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the late 19th century. When The Home Monthly was established in 1896, it hired Willa Cather as the managing editor of the magazine. Cather oversaw the publication of 12 issues of the magazine between June 1896 and July 1897. A number of Cather's short stories were published in the magazine during her tenure. The Home Monthly ceased publication in 1900.

Of Calvé’s art it is quite impossible to speak briefly. The combination of a magnificent vocalist and an interpretative actress is so rare that it cannot be treated lightly or in a paragraph. But half of Emma Calvé’s astonishing popularity is due neither to her voice nor to her art, wonderful as they are, but to a third element which, for lack of a better term, one must call her individuality — her personality. You see her as Carmen in her night-black hair; as Ophelia in ample golden locks; you see her as Santuzza in the head-dress of an Italian peasant, as Marguerite in the bodice of a German maiden. In every particular these creations differ absolutely, as only a great artist can differentiate; but the charm, the delight is always the same, for that quality is the personal quality — Calvé herself.
Public curiosity is continually fixed upon ‘home life’ of artists. Now, Calvé’s home is her dressing-room. She has a castle in the Cévennes, a house in Paris, an estate in Italy, but her dressing-room is her home. Or, to put it the other way, all her homes to her are dressing-rooms, and all the world’s a stage and it is nothing else. She is always and every moment an actress and Calvé is the most wonderful role she plays. All her parts are tinctured with that one role “as the wine must taste of its own grapes”.

If you have seen Calvé in concert, then you have seen her as she is. Were you to meet her in her own drawing-room once a week you would know her no better; you would find her quite as impetuous, as naively vain, as inexplicable and as much a creature of another world. She is by turns the most energetic and the most indolent of women. She never hurries; it is a physical impossibility with her. She is always late and is the despair of managers and rehearsals. She insists upon having two hours to dress before every performance, whereas other singers need only an hour at most. When she has a matinée performance, she goes to the theatre as soon as she gets up. She will never dress without two maids to assist her, and her companion, who reads aloud to her from the latest novel of Paul Bourget or M. Anatole France while she is being ‘made up’. Occasionally Mademoiselle, la prima donna, breaks forth with a few bars from one of her arias and drowns not only the dainty phrases of M. France, but the noise of the scene shifting as well. Calvé has theories about heat drying up the lungs and ruining the voice, and she abominates American methods of heating. She is utterly impervious to cold, and in the dead of winter has the heat turned off in her dressing-room and keeps all the doors and windows wide open. Her maids, poor things, who have neither the Calvé temperament nor the fire of genius burning within them, are always wretchedly cold. She is genuinely sorry for them and kisses them quite affectionately, but they have tonsilitis just the same.

By her fellow artists Calvé is sincerely admired and feared, but few of them lead a placid existence near her. At the time of her notorious quarrel with Eames several seasons since, when the two singers were called before the curtain she simply would not take Eames’ hand in the customary manner, but would toss her head and pout like a naughty child. Last winter in New York she sang at a benefit for the French Children’s Hospital with M. Plançon, who had always been one of her most devoted admirers. As they strolled upon the stage a few moments before the performance began, Plançon noticed that the stage was quite filled with flowers that had been sent Calvé, and innocently remarked that their odor overpowered him and that he could not sing with so many flowers on the stage. The fair prima donna turning in fury upon the astonished basso informed him that if the flowers had been for him they would not trouble him, that she could endure his petty jealousy no longer and that she would not sing. Five minutes later she was discovered in the street, hatless and cloakless, in her low cut gown, shouting for a cab.

In spite of her little tempers, Mademoiselle is really one of the best hearted women in the world. She is always helping a young singer or two somewhere in her own country and she is passionately fond of children. In her case that much misused adverb is used advisedly, for it is quite impossible for her to be moderately fond. It seems that while she was at school at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, she promised some saint or other that if she ever became a singer she would do great things for God’s poor. She believes implictly that her success came directly through divine agency and she has never forgotten her promise. On her great estate up in the Cévennes she has built an orphanage where she supports and educates forty little girls picked up from the slums of Paris. She has a warm feeling, too, for the ruddy-cheeked lads of her country and employs on her farm almost a hundred of them who find her a most delightful mistress. In the summer-time she always manages to get away to her mountain estate and become a farmer. She feeds her chickens, and rides a donkey, and milks her cows and entirely doffs the grand duchesse and becomes openly for the moment the sturdy peasant which she always will be at heart. She declares that when her voice fails her she will set up a chicken farm: that is really one of her cherished dreams. She loves to hunt eggs and save them, just as the old women of her mountains do. So much for the instincts of blood. “Ah,” she once wrote to a friend, “Ah my sweet chickens! Surely their’s is a disinterested affection. Were I old and ugly and without a note in my throat they would still love me.” Alas, Mademoiselle! but cease to feed your feathered devotees for awhile, and you will soon cry out that there is no faith left in chickens.

Calvé remembers old friends, even the little song, “The Star that I Love” in which she made her first success. She has scores of friends and manages to find time for them all. Whatever may be said of her, she is not a snob. She is often at home to a child when she is not to a duchess, and she visits the Children’s Hospital in Paris more regularly than she does any of the drawing-rooms that are always open to her. Ellen Terry is one of her warmest friends, and the walls of Mademoiselle’s house in Paris are quite covered with photographs of the English tragedienne. One of them bears this neat inscription, “One lesson in English I will give you — ‘I love you’ —that is all. Ellen Terry.” Most of Calvé’s lessons in English have been to that effect.