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Lillian Nordica: Lily of the North - A Biography February 11 2022

Aged just two, Lillie Norton's mother took her to see "Aunt Eunice", a neighbor who had a local reputation as a witch. Looking at the child's palm, she made the following prediction - "you shall sail the seven seas, and the crowned heads of Europe will bow before you". Whatever Aunt Eunice's abilities may or may not have been, little Lillie was destined to become one of the most acclaimed dramatic sopranos of her age, the diva, Lillian Nordica.

Lillian Nordica as a teenager

Born in Western Maine on December 12 1857, the family home in Farmington was to be her home until she was seven, and the family moved to Boston. Her great-grandparents had been some of the earliest settlers in the town, but the hardscrabble farm didn't offer Edwin and Amanda Allen Norton, Lillie's parents, an easy living.

[Image] Lillian Nordica as a teenager

Her father set up a photography studio in their new home town, and her mother worked at Jordan Marsh, the department store chain founded in Boston in 1841 (and eventually largely taken over by Macy's in 1996). The family enjoyed the cultural life Boston offered, including taking Lillie to see her first opera in 1867, Il Trovatore, with the cast including Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa and Pasquale Brignoli.

Tragedy struck when Lillian was not quite eleven. Her beloved older sister Willie (Wilhemina) was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, and had a beautiful singing voice. When she practiced at home, little Lillie had to be bribed financially to be quiet and stop trying to imitate her - something which irritated and distracted the student singer. 

The family had visited Farmington in October, and, as is common in Maine, there had been a spell of heavy rain followed by flooding. In this, known as the "Punkin Freshet", the Sandy River bridges and the entire pumpkin harvest were taken out by the floodwater. Any rescued pumpkins were divided equally between the affected farmers. Unfortunately, floodwater and typhoid are a common mix, and Wilhemina died of the disease in November, aged just 18.

 

"JUST LIKE WILLIE!"

Lillian didn't forget her sister's voice or her music, and continued to sing around the house. One day, her mother was struck by just how much the girl sounded like her older sister, and persuaded Willie's old singing teacher to take her on. She was 14.

Lillian Nordica at a young age

She worked hard at the New England Conservatory, graduating when she was only 18 years old. Her teacher, John O'Neill, demanded diligent study, and she later credited him with the high standards which enabled her to have a career as an international singer.

[Image] Lillian Nordica in her youth

While at the New England Conservatory, the great soprano Therese Tietjens visited and heard Lillian sing the Lucia di Lammermoor Mad Scene. Her verdict was "work ahead and you will be great". Another attendee at that performance was Bertucca Maretzek, a contemporary of Patti in her career heyday. Nordica was to study with Maretzek in New York, learning a total of 12 Italian roles with her (including Leonora in Il Trovatore), and the embellishments and cadenzas that were common at that time with the early interpreters (and which can sound somewhat bizarre to our ears!).

 

EARLY CAREER

Her public debut came when she was still at the Conservatory, with the Handel and Haydn Society, an organization founded in Boston in 1815, and credited with giving the American premieres of both Handel's Messiah, Haydn's Creation, and the Verdi Requiem. Much as Nordica was convinced she could make it as a professional singer, she knew that she required European polish to have a successful international career.

Nordica in La Traviata

Shortly after graduation, however, she was hired by the great Irish-American bandleader (and also lyricist for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home"), Patrick Gilmore, to tour Europe. Her mother joined her on this tour; it took them both away from home for a little over four years.

[Image] Lillian Nordica as Violetta Valèry in Verdi's "La Traviata"

One of the tour venues was Crystal Palace in London, home of the 1851 Great Exhibition, which raised the equivalent of over £20,000,000 in today's terms, and helped to found several London Museums, not least the Victoria & Albert and Science Museum. The flushing toilets, accessible for a small fee, are also thought to be the origin of the term "spending a penny"!

When the tour reached Paris, Lillian and her mother Amanda left the tour in order for Lillie to continue her studies in French opera, French language, and acting. Her studies then continued in Milan, where her vocal coach - the celebrated Antonio Sangiovanni - gave her the stage name she would become known by: Giglio Nordica - Lily of the North. Giglio soon reverted to her birth name of Lillian, but the Nordica stuck.

 

STARDOM

Italian audiences adored the young soprano, and her early appearances as Violetta in La Traviata not only brought attention from all over Western Europe, but from Russia too.

Nordica as Elsa

Her Italian debut came at the Teatro Manzoni as Elvira in Don Giovanni, and the following year, 1880, she made the trip to St. Petersburg for engagements that included a prodigiously wide variety of repertoire that spanned several different voice types - Filina Mignon, Marguerite de Valois Les Huguenots, Inez L'Africaine, Amelia Un Ballo in Maschera, The Queen of the Night, and oddly, the mezzo soprano roles of Cherubino Le Nozze di Figaro, and Simone Jean de Neville, amongst many others.

[Image] Lillian Nordica shown as Elsa in Wagner's "Lohengrin", 1894

She was, effectively at this point, presenting as a dramatic coloratura soprano - unsurprising given her solid bel canto training. 1882 saw her debut at the Paris Opera as Marguerite Faust, and also as Ophélie in Hamlet. However, her voice was already gaining breadth and the early hint of the gleaming dramatic soprano amplitude that was to come.

In 1883, she returned home to the USA, repeating the role of Marguerite at the New York Academy of Music. Nordica spent most of the rest of the 1880s touring the country with Colonel Mapleson's company, and also made her Royal Opera House Covent Garden debut at this time, as Violetta in La Traviata.

Her Metropolitan Opera debut came in December 1891, with Valentine Les Huguenots - she was to remain with the company intermittently for eleven seasons, with her last appearance in 1910.

 

WAGNERIAN HEROINES

Nordica as Brunnhilde

Nordica came to the attention of Richard Wagner's widow, Cosima, who was looking for an Elsa in Lohengrin. Wagner hadn't lived to see his operas performed as he wished at Bayreuth, the opera house he had designed with the perfect balance of orchestra, voices and staging in mind.

[Image] Mrs. Nordica as Brünnhilde in Wagner's "Der Ring des Nibelungen"

Cosima undertook Lillian's coaching herself, well aware that critics were of the opinion an American couldn't excel in a Germanic role.

However, they were wrong, and she was an unqualified success at Bayreuth in 1894, going on to add the three Brünnhildes, Kundry, Venus, and Isolde to her repertoire.

A fraction of her Isolde can be heard, captured on a Mapleson cylinder, at the Metropolitan Opera New York on Monday 9th February 1903. The Tristan is Georg Anthes, and Brangaene is Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Recorded almost 120 years ago, the cylinder is obviously far from a perfect "as live" document of Nordica's singing. What is apparent is the amplitude and generosity of phrasing; a tantalizing glimpse of what this great singer must have sounded like in the theatre.

 A fragment from the love duet from Act II of Tristan und Isolde recorded live at The Metropolitan Opera on February 9th, 1903, with Lillian Nordica as Isolde and Georg Anthes as Tristan.

 

THE HUSBANDS

Lillian Nordica married a total of three times. Sadly, none of her marriages were happy. Her first was to her cousin, Frederick Gower, who she married in Paris in January 1883. He was handsome and extremely wealthy - he was the "Gower" of the "Gower-Bell Telephone Company", and also arguably the inventor of the wall-mounted telephone - but so envious and controlling of his wife's career that he burned her music and destroyed her gowns to stop her performing in public. The union came to a rather final end after he vanished, crossing the English Channel in a hot air balloon, and there was some speculation at the time that he had committed suicide due to the incipient end of his marriage.

Lillian Nordica Coca-Cola Advertising

Husband number two was Zoltan Döme, a tenor who was "handsome, bold, and conceited, and thinks he can sing Parsifal" as described by a contemporary. Married in 1896, they divorced in 1903 - Döme had been chronically unfaithful, and had spent a good deal of her earnings.

 

[Image] A Coca-Cola advertising with Mrs. Nordica

 

Nordica's final husband was George Washington Young, a financier - supposedly wealthy - in 1907. Young frequently used Lillian's money to bail himself out when business deals went wrong, and by 1905 she had turned to endorsing various products in commercial advertising material; Coca-Cola, Columbia Records, Steinway, Fowler bicycles, and, of course, 'Madame Nordica's Bath Powder'.

 

THE RECORDINGS

[Her huge voice] "scared the hell out of everyone and the recording apparatus as well" - A Columbia Records sound engineer

Lillian Nordica started recording comparatively late in her career, even though the lure of the new technology must have been great for an international artist of her stature. Columbia, sadly, already had something of a reputation of being unable to cope with operatic instruments, and as Nordica wrote to a friend about her recordings “At present, I am terribly discouraged about them…there is not one which I or my family think fit to put before the public…Ah! Well, I’ll try again; perhaps I’ll be more successful.”

Nordica signed photograph

Columbia’s archives suggest that Lillian Nordica recorded nearly 40 discs between 1906 and 1911, although only a dozen or so made it as far as release.

[Image] Nordica during the best years of her career

The equipment just cannot capture her voice adequately - her instrument sounds small, possibly due to Columbia engineers being so terrified of the size of her voice they placed her too far from the horn. It has also been suggested that the smallness of her voice can be attributed to her having already had - in her late 40s - a very long and hard career. However, the recordings from both Gioconda and Trovatore suggest a voice in good shape.

The recordings that exist, unfortunately, are of a poor technical standard, and if the listener is curious to get an idea of her instrument “in the flesh”, then it’s well worth seeking out the Mapleson Cylinder mentioned above on YouTube. This extract from Tristan und Isolde is not the only Mapleson Cylinder providing a live example of Nordica’s voice; the wax cylinders are of variable quality, and 120 years old, but there is the occasional thrill of what must have been quite the live experience. There are three extracts from Les Huguenots (with the legendary Polish tenor Jean de Reszke), and also samples of her Brünnhilde from Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. De Reszke was a frequent stage partner, and together with the cultured tenor, she demonstrated that Wagner’s music could - and should - be sung with a bel canto style.

The recordings do, however, give an indication of the extraordinary breadth and depth of her repertoire; spanning several fachs, and incorporating lyric coloratura showpieces such as “Io son Titania” from Mignon, and dramatic soprano repertoire such as “Mild and leise” from Tristan und Isolde. The most impressive, both sound-wise and in terms of quality to the modern ear is an aria from Erkel’s Hunyadi Laszlo, recorded in 1907.

Lillian Nordica as Isolde

Lillian Nordica as Isolde -one of her most important roles in her career

 

In addition to operatic extracts, she recorded popular tracks which would sell well, including Annie Laurie.

 

FINAL YEARS

Nordica singing the national anthem in front of president Taft - San Francisco 1911

Nordica singing the national anthem in front of president Taft - San Francisco 1911

Nordica’s final years on the operatic stage were with the Manhattan Opera (the season from 1907 to 1908), and opening the Boston Opera House in 1909 with the demanding title role in La Gioconda. Her final operatic role was also in Boston, perhaps fittingly as Isolde, in 1913.

Nordica undertook frequent tours throughout her career - she was as popular on the concert stage as she was in the opera house, and audiences came to see her gowns and jewelry perhaps as much as they came to hear her sing - many of her jewels were gifts from fans and admirers. But by 1913 her health, and arguably her voice, were in decline.

Nordica arriving in Sydney in 1913

Lillian Nordica arriving in Sydney in 1913

 

Her final tour to Australia was hard going; after a concert in Melbourne, she almost missed the return ship from Sydney but wired ahead, asking the captain to wait. Unfortunately, the ship hit a coral reef and was stranded for three days, finally being rescued by a Japanese coal boat. Nordica developed hypothermia, and never fully recovered - she was hospitalized in Queensland for some time. However, she had the strength to write a new will and disinherit her third husband.

She lived for some months after being transferred to Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia; in fact, she would seem to partially recover, then relapse. Lillian Nordica died of pneumonia on 10th May 1914.

 

OUTSIDE MUSIC AND LEGACY

Lillian Nordica Autograph Note

Lillian Nordica had a significant profile as an activist outside her musical life. She used her celebrity to endorse the suffragette movement, posing as Columbia in a suffragette pageant, and was angry to learn that male singers were paid far more than their female counterparts.

[Image] Nordica's note written on a sheet from Waldorf Astoria Hotel's Stationery, N.Y.

She influenced fashion from a conservation point of view, protecting the endangered egret by refusing clothing using its feathers - something which prompted the style to go out of fashion, and went a long way towards the ongoing conservation of the bird. From 1907 onwards, she would only wear gowns made in America - given that she had favoured Parisian gowns prior to this, it was a move that probably did more for the American fashion industry than she realised.

In terms of her enduring legacy, as with many stars of the past, there is a scholarship in her name - the Nordica scholarship is awarded annually to aspiring professional classical singers in Maine, with winners performing a concert at the Nordica Auditorium in Farmington (a building she may or may not haunt, depending on who you speak to); a fitting continuation for little Lillie’s worldwide fame in her home town.

The Nordica Auditorium (where two large portraits of her are displayed) isn’t her only “name” memorial - there is the Nordica Homestead Museum, and the Nordica Theatre in Freeport, Maine. Originally a silent film cinema, this was built in 1911, and changed its name in the 1920s.

Reunion at her house in Farmington - now a museum - in 1911

Reunion at her house in Farmington - now a museum - in 1911

Perhaps ironically, given the journey that caused the end of her life, she also had the only US seagoing vessel named for an opera singer dedicated to her. The S.S. Lillian Nordica was a ‘Liberty Ship’, used for shipping supplies to troops during the Second World War, and famed as “The Lucky Lil” for dodging U-boat surveillance and attack.

Her biography, A Yankee Diva, is usually accompanied by her own book Hints to Singers. Her How to Sing a Ballad was published in the Musical Digest in March 1931.

Lillian Nordica’s life story would make a breathtakingly theatrical opera in its own right.

 

SEE ALSO:

- Lillian Nordica Signed Photo Postcard

- Lillian Nordica Signed Photograph as Brunnhilde

- Lillian Nordica Cabinet Photo Shown Young

- Lillian Nordica Cabinet Photo as Elsa in Lohengrin

- Lillian Nordica Autograph Note Signed

- Kathleen Ferrier: Klever Kaff (Blog Article)

- Maria Malibran: Fame and Tragedy (Blog Article)

Grace Moore: The Tennessee Nightingale (Blog Article)

- Farinelli in Madrid (Blog Article)

 

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