Nordica, Lillian (1857–1914)

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Nordica, Lillian (1857–1914)

American mezzo-soprano. Born Lillian Norton in Farmington, Maine, on December 12, 1857; died after a shipwreck in Batavia, Java, on May 10, 1914; youngest of six children of Edwin Norton (a photographer) and Amanda Elizabeth (Allen) Norton; graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, 1876; married her second cousin Frederick A. Gower, in 1882 (disappeared after a balloon ascension, presumably drowned in English Channel, 1885); married Zoltan Döme (a tenor), on May 28, 1896 (divorced 1904); married George Washington Young (a New Jersey banker), on July 29, 1909.

Debuted at the Teatro Manzoni in Milan (1879); debuted at the Paris Opéra (1882), Covent Garden (1887), Metropolitan Opera (1891).

Born Lillian Norton in Farmington, Maine, in 1857, into an established and talented New England family, Lillian Nordica studied with James O'Neill at the New England Conservatory for four years before debuting at Madison Square Garden. Deciding she needed further training, she attended the Milan Conservatory where Antonio Sangiovanni trained her and also persuaded her to use the name "Nordica," since "Norton" was difficult to articulate in Italian.

Lacking great beauty and vocal gifts, Nordica had determination and pluck as well as common sense. Her temperament was moderate and conciliatory, a quality greatly appreciated in the world of prima donnas. After debuting as Donna Elvira at the Teatro Manzoni in Milan, Nordica performed throughout Europe, where she became known as "the Lily of the North." She was coached extensively by Cosima Wagner for the role of Elsa in Lohengrin given at Bayreuth in 1892. During her years at the Metropolitan from 1893 to 1909, she became best known for her Wagnerian roles and hoped to establish an "American Bayreuth." (She was known for her insistence on singing opera in English.) Lillian Nordica had less success in her private life. Married three times, she was quoted as saying that she was "just a poor picker of husbands."

On November 25, 1913, following a performance in Melbourne, Australia, Nordica was returning home from Sydney by boat when the ship struck a coral reef in the Torres Strait. After several days, it was finally able to reach land, but the singer had developed pneumonia from exposure. She died a few months later in Java.

In an article for a magazine, Nordica once cautioned budding singers: "I remember hearing a woman say she could sing right through and not move her face at all. Not at all! Rather, you must give the meaning of the song in the expression of your face. … If you are singing about the 'joyous, joyous spring,' you do not want to look as if you were going to a funeral in autumn."


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, comp. and ed. Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women's Words. Tilbury House, 1990.

Glackens, I. Yankee Diva: Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera. New York, 1963.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia