Alda, Frances (1879–1952)

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Alda, Frances (1879–1952)

New Zealand soprano. Born Frances Jeanne Davis on May 31, 1879, in Christchurch, New Zealand; died on September 18, 1952, in Venice, Italy; studied with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris; married Giulio Gatti-Casazza (director of Metropolitan Opera House), on April 3, 1910 (divorced 1928).

Made debut as Manon at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1904); appeared in Brussels (1905–08), Covent Garden (1906), and Teatro alla Scala (1908); debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in Rigoletto (1908) where she performed 250 times until 1930; premiered Damrosch's Cyrano as Roxanne (1913), Herbert's Madeleine (1914), and Hadley's Cleopatra's Night (1920).

Frances Jean Davis, who would be known on international opera stages as Frances Alda, was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, on May 31, 1879, into one of Australia's most notable operatic families. Alda, whose beautiful head tones were acquired when she studied with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris, learned piano and violin thoroughly before studying voice. She debuted at the Opéra-Comique in 1904. An early recording star, Alda made 130 gramophone recordings for the Victor Company between 1909 and 1923. Although she performed throughout Europe and America, she was best known on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera where she appeared 250 times from 1908 until 1930. When she married the Metropolitan's general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, she worked much harder to maintain her position so as not to cause any hint of favoritism.

During the Metropolitan's golden age of sopranos, Alda was one of the leading lyric sopranos of her day, though she did not attain the status of superstar Geraldine Farrar . Known as outspoken and acerbic, Alda did not always win the hearts of colleagues and critics, despite the fact that she was better schooled in musicianship than many of them. Her technical security, in addition to forward voice production and clean style, made her performances memorable. Avoiding musical tricks, her technique was marked by subtle musical feeling rather than passion. With foresight, Alda recognized the role recordings would play in the musical world. She also believed that only films would ultimately be able to present the perfect opera presentation. Her roles were many, including Desdemona in Verdi's Otello; Manon in Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Manon Lescaut; Marguerite in Gounod's Faust; and Mimi in La Bohème, which was her favorite. In 1937, Alda wrote her biography, Men, Women, and Tenors, which employs a lively style to express contemporary views on singers and singing; it continues to be a worthwhile read for its observations on the world of opera.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia