“HEAR Calvé in `Carmen’and die,” is the motto which heralded this singer’s first visit to America. Our curiosity was greatly aroused, for we thought we knew all about ” Carmen.” We clung to the traditions of our own Minnie Hauk who had created the rôle, and could imagine nothing better than a trim, dainty Carmen with high-heeled slippers, short skirts, and a Spanish mantilla.
Great was our amazement on that memorable night in 1894 when we beheld for the first time a real cigarette girl of modern Spain. Here was a daring innovation-that at once aroused attention and new interest in the opera. This Carmen wore high-heeled slippers, ’tis true, but somewhat worn down and scuffed, as they must be if she was in the habit of running over the cobble-stones of Seville as she ran to the footlights on her first entrance. And her skirts, far from being well-setting and so short as to reveal shapely ankles and a suspicion of lace petticoats, were of that sloppy, half-short length, which even the street girls of London wear to-day. But most astounding of all departures was the absence of any sign of a mantilla ! How could one be Spanish without a mantillaany more than one could be Russian without fur ! But this Car-men had an eye to colorshe could hardly otherwise be a coquetteand in her hair at the nape of her neck was deftly tucked a large crimson flower. Her hair, however, was carelessly pinned, and even tumbled quite down later ona stroke of realism which was added to by the way she coiled it up and jabbed it into place again. A strange performance to behold in a grand opera setting; and we might have resented such defiance of the code had we not been forced to admit that it was all absolutely correct, and this Carmen was more truly Spanish than any impersonation we had seen. Even her voice seemed tropical; such richness of tone, warmth, and color had never before been combined in the singing of Bizet’s opera. Had Bizet only lived to this day he might have died happily, for Carmen, the child of his brain, found no favor with the public when first introduced.
After the surprise of Madame Calvé’s costume and then of her voice, New Yorkers awoke to the fact that Carmen had never before been acted. This performance was a revelation, a character study of a creature who recklessly holds that it is right to get all the pleasure you can, and wrong not to have what you want.
It was the evening after one of these great Carmen performances when. a knock at the prima-donna’s door elicited the Parisian response” Entrez.” Mme. Calvé’s salon was brilliantly lighted and richly furnished, but it seemed only a sombre setting to the singer’s radiant self. Not that she was gaudily gowned; on the contrary, her dress was simple, but her personality, her smile, her animation, are a constant delight and surprise.
Mme. Calvé is thoroughly French, and thoroughly handsome, and appears even younger off the stage than on. She is tall and of splendid figure; her complexion is fresh and clear, with an interesting tinge of olive, and her eyes are black as her hair, which was arranged very pompadour.
Mme. Calvé seated herself with a half-serious, half-amused expression, as tho to recite a lesson, and announced that she was ready and willing to answer ” toutes les questions que vous voulez.” This seemed a golden opportunity to learn all there is to know about singing. It stands to reason that the most direct and easy method of acquiring this art is simply to ask one of the greatest singers of the day how she does it. Some one found out how to play the piano by asking Rubinstein, who said” All you have to do is to select the right keys and strike them at the right time.”
So, with this idea in view, Mme. Calvé was asked first what she thinks of when she steps before the publicher voice, her acting, or the music ?
” I think of Carmen,” she answered, “if that is the opera. I try to be Carmenthat is all.”
When asked if she practices her voice much during the day, Mme. Calve” shook her head.
Nonot now. You see, I must have mercy on my poor voice and save it for the evenings when I sing. Formerly, of course, I practiced every day, but never more than an hour with full voice. Yes, an hour at one time, once a day, that is all. But I studied much besides. At first I wanted to be an actress, and for this purpose gave much time to dramatic art. My mother was a fine musician; she is the one who urged me to sing.”
” What did you practice when you first began with the voice?–single tones?”
Mme. Calvé looked thoughtful she could hardly recall, until a friend who was present suggested ” it was rather intervals and arpeggios, n’est ce pas? ” then the great Carmen quickly nodded.
” Yesyou are right; intervals at first, and not until later on, sustained tones. I do not consider single sustained tones good for the beginner.”
In reply to a question about breathing, she answered :
” Oh, yes; all singers must practice special exercises for the breath. What else did I do? Well, I hardly remember. I never had any trouble with my throat or my tongue,no, I never thought much of these.”
She was then asked, by way of suggestion: ” Did you ever hum in your practice? ” Now her face lighted up.
Yes,” she replied, all animation, “and, do you know, that is splendid! I do it a great deal even yet, especially for the high tones like this “, and there and then, without moving a muscle, like a conjurer materializing a flock of birds, she showered upon us a bevy of humming-tones. They were soft, of course, but clear and perfect as tho made with full voice, and you wanted to wrap each one in cotton and take it home. Butthey were gone !and the singer went on speaking.
With Mme. Marchese I used to hum a great deal. Yes, it is an excellent practice, for it brings the tone forward right here,” and she touched the bridge of her nose.
Mme. Calvé is so genial and vivacious in conversation that you are led to forget her position and wonderful attainments. But now and then it flashes over you that this is the woman whose manifold art has astonished two continents; a singer who makes any rôle she undertakes so distinctly her own that other singers hardly dispute her right to monopolize it. Not only is her ” Carmen” a creation; Ophelia, too, she has imbued with new interest, introducing many startling voice and breath effects. Throughout all the mad scene she calls into use an ” eerie-tone ” that is fearful in its pathos and terror.
” I love that rôle ! ” she exclaimed, as the subject came up. ” The mad scene! Ah, it is superb.
Even in Faust, the very Ancient of Days among operas, Mme. Calve has surprised us with original touches, altho it is a work that every musician of any description has per-formed in some way or other. The pianist flourishes with the waltz, or a general fantasia of the opera on every and all occasions. The organist delights in the church-scene music, while the violinist rhapsodizes with the love duo or a potpourri of all the arias. Concert sopranos never cease to exploit the jewel-song, while the contralto’s audience never tires of the famous Flower-song. ” O Sancta Medaglia ” is dear to the heart of the barytone, and the tenor has a choice of beautiful solos from the first act to the last. Bass singers can find nothing better as a medium for gaining public favor than Mephisto’s song to the “God of Gold.” Even flutist and clarinetist resort to “Faust,” the Imperishable, when they want something sure to please. And last, but not least, the cornet :ask any soloist on this instrument what piece he has played most often, and, I warrant you, he will answer, ” My Faust fantaisie! ” The opera singer who does not have in her scrap-book some account of her performance as Marguerite can hardly count herself a prima-donna. No other opera is so essentially a piece of common property as is this Gounod’s “Faust.”
So much the more is Mme. Calvé’s achievement to be wondered at. A very stroke of genius is the dropping of Marguerite’s prayer-book in the excitement of her first meeting with Faust, so symbolical is it of his effect on her life. This is more than realismit is poetry. Again, in the spinning-song, she creates an exquisite effect by disentangling a knot in the thread on her wheel and at the same time slowing up with her song and diminishing it until the wheel turns again and she resumes the tempo.
When asked how she ever thinks of these innovations, especially the one of inserting ecstatic little laughs in the Jewel-song, she smiled prettily and shrugged her shoulders.
” It just comes to me in the actingI don’t know how. But I never change the music.”
She wished it impressed that, whatever her innovations, she maintains a reverence for all of the composer’s work.
There is something about Mme. Calvé that makes you feel in her presence the subtle influence of a large heart and a grand soul. In her own land she is famed not only for her singing, but also for her great generosity.