Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 2

Part 1 covers Geraldine Farrar’s background, childhood, and European training. This second part looks at her American career in opera and film.

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During the Gilded Age, in contrast to their European counterparts, American musicians were often viewed as fundamentally incompetent and incapable of great artistry. This anti-American prejudice was so strong that in 1905 an agent forced Texan pianist Lucy Hickenlooper to adopt a foreign pseudonym before her debut; for the rest of her career, she was known as Olga Samaroff.

But Massachussetts-born soprano Geraldine Farrar never used a pseudonym or shied away from her American roots. Instead she embraced them and even used them to fuel her ascent. She presented herself professionally as a kind of real-life embodiment of the American Gibson Girl ideal: independent, self-assured, often self-absorbed, magnetically charismatic, stunningly beautiful, and inarguably talented.

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Red Flags and Audience Advocacy at the Baltimore Symphony

Lots of inane things have been uttered in 2018. More than once I’ve rolled my eyes so hard it’s a miracle my retinas haven’t detached.

And alas, the music world was not exempt from problematic statements. There were many potential nominees, but I think the award for Cringiest Orchestral Hot Take of 2018 has to go to Baltimore Symphony board chair Barbara Bozzuto, who, in an editorial that attempted to justify large-scale organizational cuts, blundered her way into writing this:

Orchestras of our budget size have been facing financial issues for some time. Certain challenges pervade our entire industry: changing demographics, varying media available to listen to music, local economics, time constraints of our audiences, aging subscribers and, in our city’s case, a stubborn and persistent crime wave.

BSO board chair: We need change to secure the orchestra’s future, by Barbara Bozzuto; 21 November 2018
Shut it down

That strategically placed “stubborn and persistent crime wave” reference isn’t improvised or an afterthought; it appears at the very beginning of her piece. It’s clearly a preordained talking point.

A local can describe better why exactly this is so bad, and luckily a local did. Earlier this month Baltimore-based violinist Samuel Thompson wrote a blog entry devoted to the issue. The whole thing is worth pondering, but here’s his concluding paragraph:

This tactic has been studied and is referred to as the use of “coded language”, which is defined as “a subtle way members of the public, media, and politicians talk about race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion” in the United States. As no data has been shared to support the claim that a “crime wave” has had a negative effect on the Baltimore Symphony’s bottom line, one has to question the inclusion of coded language in a statement written to support a structural proposal that will wreak havoc both on the institution and the city’s musical community.

“If language were liquid”: Thoughts for a Board Chair by Samuel Thompson; 19 December 2018

And this comes in an era when the League of American Orchestras has an entire section of their website labeled The Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Center, suggesting that this might be a time for orchestras and their leaders to be especially sensitive to the use of coded and loaded language.

In any case, Baltimore is obviously a potential mess that orchestra lovers should monitor in 2019. (What a fun New Year’s resolution to have to keep!)

There’s not enough alcohol in the world.

Personally, given my own life experiences, I find that one of the more interesting aspects of the Baltimore negotiation is the fact that an audience advocacy group is already up and running. It has taken on the “Save Our Symphony” (“SOS”) nomenclature that a variety of other patron advocacy groups have adopted, especially in the wake of the 2010 Detroit Symphony strike. Unlike, say, the League of American Orchestras, there is no central national hub to these SOS organizations. Instead, these groups arise organically and independently, although communication may occur between veteran volunteers and newcomers to the movement.

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Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 1

In 1898 a sixteen-year-old soprano named Geraldine Farrar auditioned for Maurice Grau, manager at the Metropolitan Opera. Dissatisfied with the provided pianist, she fired him on the spot and took to the bench to accompany herself. “What my emotions were when I passed in through the stage door I cannot describe,” she later wrote. “I sang as I believe I had never sung before.”

Although Grau was duly impressed, he also thought that Farrar would benefit from European training before making her debut. But as a consolation prize, he offered her a slot singing at one of the Met’s Sunday night concerts.

“No, thank you, Mr. Grau,” I replied. (No tame concert appearances after my imagination had been dazzled by a possible début in opera!)

“But it might be valuable to you to have your name on the billboards of the Metropolitan Opera House,” he urged good-naturedly.

“You will see it there some day,” I replied with firm conviction.

Farrar’s unflappable (some would say unfeminine) self-confidence must have been a sight to behold, even in an art form famous for its egos. But her confidence wasn’t misplaced. Geraldine Farrar was exactly right: not only would she soon see her name on the Met’s billboards, she would eventually become one of the greatest operatic performers of her age.

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Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on 28 February 1882, a year after her parents’ wedding. Her father Sidney was a haberdashery store-owner and later the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, and her eighteen-year-old mother Henrietta was the musically inclined daughter of a violin teacher. Both Farrars sang in the choir of the First Universalist Church of Melrose. So it was only natural that their only child would develop an interest in music. As a toddler, little Geraldine banged on piano keys and sang barrel organ airs. At three she sang at her first concert at church. When she finished, she walked to the edge of the platform and asked, “Did I do it well, mamma?” Her audience was entranced by her moxie.

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2018 Song of the Lark Advent Calendar

In the Christian tradition, the Advent season is a time of introspection and preparation. An outlook of radical, celebratory inclusivity is at hand, and Advent is our way of readying ourselves to embrace (or re-embrace) this thrilling new way of looking at the world.

In the SOTL tradition, the Advent season is a time to assemble Advent calendars, because that’s fun. I’ve prepared Advent calendars in some form since 2012. But in 2017 my Advent observations included creating a playlist of music by women composers. I did this mainly for myself, but the project proved to be really popular, so I’m doing it again this year. God only knows there’s no shortage of works to feature!

The more I think about it, the more fitting this focus on women composers at this time of year feels. So many of us are looking forward to welcoming a new way of looking at the musical world: one, in short, that values the previously shushed. That birth of perspective won’t magically happen on December 24. But maybe there are things that we can do in 2019 to push that birth along. Awareness and celebration are key.

So. You can go to songofthelarkadventcalendar.tumblr.com to see the calendar and enjoy all the works spotlit therein. A new entry and a new work will be posted every day from now until December 24. I hope you enjoy and find new beauty to dearly love!

I haven’t finalized the playlist yet, so if you want to suggest a work you love, Tweet at me!

I wish all music-lovers peace, magic, and beauty this holiday season. May 2019 bring you whatever encouragement and enlightenment you wish or want.

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Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield: Pioneering Singer and “Black Swan”

The year was 1851, and new voices were ascendant in America. The first edition of the New York Times was printed that September. In November, Melville published Moby-Dick. Stephen Foster wrote the minstrel song “Old Folks at Home,” in which a fictional black narrator longs for a mythical “old plantation.” Actual former slave Sojourner Truth delivered a brilliant extemporaneous speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio; it entered history as “Ain’t I A Woman?”

Into this swirl of change stepped a singer named Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. In October 1851 she gave a performance in Buffalo, New York, and it caused a massive stir: she was the first black woman to ever appear there in concert. In a twist on Jenny Lind’s nickname the Swedish Nightingale, a reporter from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser dubbed Greenfield the “Black Swan.” Greenfield carried that epithet to her grave. Then as now, her musical and professional identity would be irrevocably, indelibly linked with the color of her skin.

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The Classical Canon and Russian Roulette

Nowadays classical music lovers are grappling with questions of sexism, racism, classism, privilege, accessibility, diversity, canon, and the like.

So I think we can all agree that the best way forward is to emphasize the music of celebrated dead white men.

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Or so went the New York Times‘s recent train of thought, as they’ve just published Anthony Tommasini’s essay “The Case for Greatness in Classical Music.”

Tommasini (and by extension the Times) articulate perspectives on the classical music canon that I find thought-provoking, troubling, and ultimately detrimental to the art.

So I invite you to pour out your beverage of choice and follow along as I (try to) verbalize why.

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Frances Boardman: Music Critic, Lecturer, Promoter

Nowadays in America, if you are a professional classical music critic who is also a woman, your name is probably Anne Midgette. Despite the important work done by women like Midgette, Claudia Cassidy, Nora Douglas Holt, Olga Samaroff, and others, classical music criticism in this country has traditionally been dominated by the voices of men.

St. Paul journalist Frances Corning Boardman was one of the exceptions. She stumbled into criticism – indeed, journalism itself – by accident, and relatively late in her life. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any kind of systematic assessment of her thirty years’ worth of contributions to the St. Paul Dispatch, much less a full biography. But the relatively little we do know about her paints a striking portrait.

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Olga Samaroff: Pianist, Educator, Advocate

In the spring of 1905, pianist Olga Samaroff was set to make her long-awaited European debut in London. The morning of the concert, she received a terrifying warning by telephone: her abusive ex-husband was in town, and he was threatening to kill her. “I had two Scotland Yard men stationed in the audience,” she wrote later, “and they watched my husband during the recital and were prepared to interpose in case he should try to do anything.” At the concert, he sat in the front row. Nevertheless she took to the stage and triumphed. From that moment, her European success was ensured.

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The pianist who became international sensation and pedagogical force-of-nature Olga Samaroff was actually born Lucy Jane Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, on 8 August 1880.

Olga’s family life was dominated by strong women. Her maternal grandmother and namesake Lucy Palmer Loening Grunewald (affectionately known as Mawmaw) was born in 1841 and raised on a Louisiana plantation. Lucy Palmer was a fabulously talented young musician, and when she was fifteen, she performed a Beethoven piano concerto with the French Opera orchestra in New Orleans. However, any professional ambitions she held were suppressed, and the following year, she married a wealthy German immigrant twice her age. Within the span of a few years, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter. That daughter was named Jane, and she became a talented pianist herself.

When Jane also married young and gave birth to Olga, and Olga began showing musical promise, Mawmaw was immediately at hand to teach her granddaughter everything she knew. Perhaps she sensed the newfound opportunities opening up for women musicians. In the late 1880s Mawmaw actually brought Olga to New York so that she might play for William Steinway himself. Steinway was so impressed with Olga that he offered to pay for her European training, but the Hickenlooper family was hesitant to upend Olga’s life at such a young age, and so grandmother and granddaughter returned to Texas. In 1890 Mawmaw brought Olga on yet another networking trip, this time to meet composer Edward MacDowell in Detroit at the Music Teacher’s National Association convention. He too recommended a European course of study.

By the time she was fifteen, Olga’s grandmother and mother were pushing hard for Olga to go to Europe. “I was brought up with the idea that I should fit myself for a public career,” Olga later wrote, “but only undertake it ‘if I had to.’ This meant in plain English that if no stalwart male were at hand to relieve me of the necessity to making my living I might play in concerts and should be thoroughly prepared to do so, but there would be no question if I had the choice between matrimony and a career – I should marry!”

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Teresina Tua: Violinist, Muse, Philanthropist

Violinist Teresina Tua was a paradox. She bowled over some critics while boring the others. Some audiences loved her; others were indifferent. Most reviews take note of her smiling onstage presence, but the New York Times labeled her “manifestly depressed.” Newspapers described her as both young and old while simultaneously sexualizing and infantalizing her. Rachmaninoff wrote that she was “very stingy”, but by the end of her life she had given away her life’s earnings to charity.

Not much English language research is available on Teresina Tua, so it is difficult to judge for sure what is fact and what is fiction. But even though a veil is drawn over certain aspects of her story, the parts that have emerged are fascinating enough to make learning about her life and times worthwhile.

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Chiquinha Gonzaga: Composer, Pianist, Conductor

The history of music is filled with the stories of women who fought tooth and nail to be there. Many musical women struggled with economic insecurity, the disapproval and dismissal of their society and families, and worse. But despite the difficulties, many still stubbornly found a way to make a life practicing the art they loved.

Composer, pianist, and conductor Chiquinha Gonzaga was one such woman. She overcame all the typical obstacles and more. Sadly, she paid a steep price for doing so: her pursuit of a career cost her not only her reputation, but her family. And yet despite her losses, she was convinced that a life in music would ultimately prove worthwhile. Music could be a tool to lead her – and others – to a kind of freedom and even (eventually) legitimacy.

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Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga was born in Rio de Janeiro on 17 October 1847. Her nineteen-year-old mother, Maria Rosa de Lima, was the unmarried daughter of a slave. (Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888.) Gonzaga’s father was José Neves Gonzaga Basileu, a military officer from a wealthy noble family. Said family was horrified by his relationship and new daughter, but over their objections, he married Maria Rosa de Lima and acknowledged Francisca as his own.

Chiquinha, as the little girl became known, received a good education for a woman of the era; it was hoped this would attract a suitable husband and prepare her to serve the imperial family. A priest taught her the basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages – while an uncle and a local conductor were in charge of her musical education. She had a great affinity for music; she composed her first piece at eleven.

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