Eames, Emma (1865–1952)

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Eames, Emma (1865–1952)

Shanghai-born American lyric soprano. Born Emma Hayden Eames on August 13, 1865, in Shanghai, China; died on June 13, 1952, in New York, New York; daughter of Emma (Hayden) Eames and Ithama Bellows Eames (a lawyer); aunt of Clare Eames (1896–1930); studied with Clara Munger and Annie Payson Call in Boston and with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris; married Julian Story (an American painter), in August 1891 (divorced 1907); briefly married to Emilio de Gogorza (an American opera singer), in 1911 (separated).

Debuted at Covent Garden (1891); debuted at Metropolitan Opera (1891) where she would sing over 250 performances (until 1909); taught singing in New York City (1936–52); owned two houses in Europe, a townhouse in Paris, and a castle in Tuscany.

On August 13, 1865, Emma Eames was born in Shanghai to Emma Hayden Eames and Ithama Bellows Eames, a lawyer who worked in the international courts of China. When Emma was five, because of her mother's ill health, the Eames family moved back to Bath, Maine, in 1870, and Emma was raised primarily by her Puritanical maternal grandparents. As a teenager, she began her musical training under the tutelage of her mother in Portland. She was singing for hire in Boston churches by age 17, and by age 20 she was in Paris with her mother, studying under Mathilde Marchesi with the help of loans.

Fellow student Nellie Melba managed to block Eames' debut at the Théâtre Royale la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium. Instead, Eames made her debut starring in Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette opposite Jean de Reszke at the Paris Opéra in March 1889, the year Melba took on the same role at Covent Garden. The critic for Paris' Figaro lavishly praised Eames: "Twenty years old, tall, svelte, the figure and the profile of Diana, the nose fine and the nostrils quivering, the carmine mouth exhaling the breath of life, the face a pure oval lit by big eyes full of impudence and candor at the same time, the expression astonishingly mobile, the forehead high and crowned by a mass of blond fleece, the arms superb attached to the charming shoulders—such is Mlle Emma Hayden Eames… such is the new Juliette." When Melba joined the Paris Opéra company a year later and caused further havoc for Eames, Eames branded the experience a "nightmare" and left.

Despite her continued rivalry with Melba, Eames sang more than a dozen leading roles in eight seasons at Covent Garden. She also sang 21 roles in more than 250 performances during 16 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera. She performed the first Met productions of Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Iris, and made her way with great assurance into the Wagnerian repertory as early as 1891. She is remembered as a singer whose style was characterized by the Marchesi method, despite the fact that Eames broke publicly with Mathilde Marchesi, calling her a "Prussian drill-master."

Considered something of a prima donna for her regal bearing, Eames was admired for her singing but resented offstage. Some, like George Bernard Shaw, found her acting cold and colorless. "I never saw such a well-conducted person as Miss Eames," he wrote of her. "She casts her propriety like a Sunday frock over the whole stage." An extremely disciplined worker, Eames was never able to fully overcome a lack of ease in the upper register. She made over 50 recordings between 1905 and 1911 that document her ability, but acoustical recording did not well serve her vocal talents. Dedicated and determined, Eames made a great impact on American opera in the early 20th century. She retired in 1916, age 51. From 1936 until her death in 1952, she taught in New York City.

suggested reading:

Eames, Emma Hayden. Memories and Reflections. NY: D. Appleton, 1927.

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