Teyte, Maggie (1888–1976)

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Teyte, Maggie (1888–1976)

British operatic soprano. Name variations: Dame Maggie Teyte. Born Margaret Tate on April 17, 1888, in Wolverhampton, England; died on May 26, 1976, in England; daughter of Jacob James Tate (a hotel owner) and Maria (Doughty) Tate (a singer); attended Royal College of Music; studied with Jean de Reszke, Paris, 1904–06; married Eugène de Plùmon, on October 16, 1909 (divorced November 1915); married Walter Sherwin Cottingham, on March 12, 1921 (divorced May 1931); no children.

Debuted in Paris (1906); debuted in opera, Monte Carlo (1907); performed at the Opéra-Comique, Paris (1908–10); performed with Beecham Opera Company and British National Opera Company, London (1911–14, 1936–38); performed in the U.S. repeatedly (1911–19, 1940s); received the Croix de Lorraine (1943); retired after a farewell concert at Royal Festival Hall, London (1955); made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1957); made a Dame of the British Empire (1958); published autobiography, Star on the Door (1958).

Known in her day as the preeminent living interpreter of modern French songs, Maggie Teyte endeared herself to critics and connoisseurs on two continents during the Golden Age of Opera in the early 20th century. She came to prominence for her birdlike soprano and dramatic inflection, and her delicate physical beauty was said to enhance the romantic aura of her performances. Perhaps most beloved for her role in Claude Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, for which she trained personally with Debussy, she was hailed by critics as the virtual embodiment of Mélisande, a heroine whose part she would play in over 30 performances during a career that spanned half a century. Among the many other great opera roles Teyte mastered were Zerlina, Blonde, Marguerite, Mimi, and Butterfly. At just over five feet tall and at the peak of her career reportedly weighing no more than six stone (84 pounds), she was called the "pocket diva" and "dollsized magician."

She was born Margaret Tate in Wolverhampton, England, on April 17, 1888, the youngest of three daughters of Jacob James Tate and his second wife, Maria Doughty Tate . Jacob, a merchant and innkeeper, fathered ten children in all, of whom Maggie was the eighth. Although he was descended from Irish and Huguenot ancestors, he was a Scot by birth, and Maggie identified strongly with his Scottish origins. A strict Roman Catholic and stern father who ran his household with a firm hand, he was nonetheless considered extremely attentive to his children. Both Maggie's parents were musical. Her mother was a singer, and Jacob was an amateur pianist who once had studied under Theodor Leschetizky (a student of Austrian composer Karl Czerny) in Leipzig, Germany. Maggie attended St. Joseph's Convent School in Wolverhampton, and she was still of elementary school age when her father arranged for her to study at the Royal College of Music.

As she matured into her teens, she performed publicly on selected occasions and ultimately secured the backing of some wealthy patrons who sent her to Paris and sponsored her studies with Jean de Reszke. He became a mentor to Teyte, and she immersed herself in exhausting practice sessions. In 1906, she made a debut performance in Paris, and her operatic debut followed the next year at a Mozart Festival in Monte Carlo headed by Reynaldo Hahn. At some time during her early years of study in Paris, perhaps at de Reszke's suggestion, she changed the spelling of her last name from "Tate" to "Teyte," a traditional Scottish variation of the name, to assist French audiences with pronunciation.

Teyte sang successfully with the Opéra-Comique of Paris during the 1907–08 season, but then received the discouraging news from Albert Carré, the company's director, that she was to be released from employment at the end of the season. Shortly thereafter, however, Carré rescinded her release and offered her the

opportunity to sing the female lead in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande during the 1908–09 season. Exonerated, Teyte underwent a period of intensive study in preparation for the role of Mélisande. Still in her teens, she practiced for nine months under the direction of Debussy himself. Teyte debuted as Mélisande on June 13, 1908, to "rapturous" reviews. In all, she made 19 appearances in that role during the 1908–09 season alone. Over the years, Teyte would maintain contact with Debussy, whom she also came to regard as a mentor. During the following season, she performed with noted conductor Thomas Beecham in a Mozart series at His Majesty's Theater in London. Later in the same season, she appeared with Beecham at Covent Garden.

During the autumn in the 1910 season, Teyte and Beecham collaborated in the world premiere of the English adaptation of Eugen d'Albert's Tiefland. Teyte then signed with Andreas Dippell to perform in Chicago at the then-impressive price of $400 per performance for the 1911–12 season. She underwent preparations for an American debut with the Chicago-Philadelphia Opera Company and opened as Cherubino in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House on November 4, 1911. Campanini conducted the performance which also featured Gustave Huberdau and Alice Zeppilli . In November, Teyte performed a recital at Carnegie Hall, and in Chicago the same month created the role of Cinderella for the American premiere of Massenet's Cendrillon. Her performance met with such success that she received an invitation to reprise the role during the following season, and a painting of her as she appeared in Cendrillon was placed on permanent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. Teyte also performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on February 20, 1912. Her other American performances included Lygia in Quo Vadis, Antonia in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hofmann, and Mignon.

Teyte had married Eugène de Plumon, a Frenchman many years her senior, in 1909; by 1913, the marriage existed merely on paper. During the course of their relationship, Plùmon, who was adamantly opposed to fathering children, convinced Teyte to undergo the female sterilization surgery of tubal ligation. She naively believed that such an operation could be reversed if later she changed her mind. As it happened, she would regret the decision. According to her biographer and grandnephew Garry O'Connor, Teyte lost interest in Plùmon as her career soared, and the couple became completely estranged. Following a summer tour of England and the Riviera in 1913, she returned to the United States that October for her third season with the Chicago-Philadelphia Orchestra (both 1915 and 1917 would see her again in the States). In November 1915, she divorced Plùmon, after which she reinstated her British citizenship.

After her return to England in 1915, Teyte appeared as Lady Mary Carlisle in Monsieur Beaucaire at London's Princess Theater. She followed this run with a series of light operas and also appeared in the lead role in The Little Dutch Girl by Emmerich Kalman at the Lyric Theater. In 1921, she married Walter Sherwin "Sher" Cottingham, heir to the Sherwin-Williams paint fortune, whom she had met aboard ship en route to Europe following her American tour in 1915. In contrast to her feelings for Plùmon, Teyte professed a deep love for her second husband. After their marriage, she withdrew from the stage and lived in relative isolation at Woolley, the Cottingham family estate at Maidenhead in England's Thames Valley, where Cottingham's father provided them with a house named Woolley Grange. For Teyte, the retreat to Woolley—the rural setting of which was not unlike the environment of the Tate homestead in Wolverhampton—was a badly needed respite from a hectic public life and a schedule of constant travel. At Woolley, she confined her singing to the privacy of the estate, her melodies falling almost exclusively on the ears of the many servants.

Teyte developed a great fondness for her father-in-law, Walter Cottingham, Sr. When he fell into ill health and became an invalid, she made frequent trips from the Grange to Woolley Hall to attend to his needs. During these years, she underwent repeated surgeries to reverse the sterilization procedure she had undergone earlier, but all failed. Her inability to conceive a child with Sher Cottingham, perhaps the greatest disappointment of her life, was a significant factor in the breakup of her second marriage. Following the death of his father in 1928, Teyte's husband took to extended absences, while she in turn cultivated a close emotional relationship with a neighbor from Maidenhead, Gay Vernon . The Cottingham marriage was dissolved in 1931. Under the terms of the divorce settlement, Teyte retained her residence at Woolley Grange. She remained in frequent contact with her ex-husband before his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1936.

As the Second World War threatened Europe in 1940, Teyte, now over 50, went to work as a truck driver for the Civil Defense Authority. Despite the end of Opera's Golden Age, she also returned to performing. Her professional life during the 1930s had revolved largely around the recording studio, but in June 1940, shortly before the German blitzkrieg hammered Europe, she performed in concert with the London Philharmonic at the National Gallery. By 1942, her career was fully revived. With Vernon, she had established a music-teaching partnership, the Teyte-Vernon School of Singing, which she neglected while performing throughout England in the midst of the war. Teyte also maintained a romantic liaison with conductor Beecham.

In 1945, after the war ended, she received an offer to record Pelléas et Mélisande with the New York Philharmonic. Two major U.S. broadcasting networks (NBC and CBS) vied to contract a performance by Teyte as well. Of the two, she elected to perform for NBC in a series of concerts for the "Bell Telephone Hour." In the U.S., she gave two performances at Town Hall in New York City and went on to tour in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle. She also performed in Washington, D.C., for President Harry Truman, and in Toronto, Canada, for the opening of the War Loan drive. Teyte's presence in America followed an absence of more than 25 years, but critics declared that the passage of time had compromised neither the purity of her voice nor her youthful demeanor. Her American following was so awed by her energy and appearance that a rumor sprang up alleging that the real Maggie Teyte was dead and the woman on tour was in fact her daughter.

In 1948, at age 60, Teyte revived her role of the golden-haired Mélisande for the New York City Opera Company. The same year, she sang a Mozart concert at Carnegie Hall. She reached a financial settlement for a lump sum on her annuity from the Cottingham estate and used the money to relocate to New York City, where she rented a studio on East 55th Street. Her partner, Gay Vernon, also moved to New York City, and the pair continued to give music lessons under the auspices of the Teyte talent for the then-considerable sum of $50 per lesson. In 1951, Teyte made a trip to Vienna to study Schoenberg's twelve-tone method. During her absence, her confidante and business partner Gay Vernon remarried, which enraged Teyte. According to O'Connor, "Maggie never saw Gay again. Never forgot. Never forgave."

Teyte continued to perform in the United States until 1954, when she returned to England. There she culminated her 50-year career at a farewell concert on April 22, 1956, at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1957, she was named a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by the French cultural services, and in 1958 Queen Elizabeth II named her a Dame of the British Empire. "Don't call me Dame," Teyte told the press. "I'm not going to be known as Dame."

Teyte's legacy includes a vast and diverse discography, with recordings dating back to 1907. Her final vocal recording, the soundtrack from a never-aired BBC program dated November 25, 1958, was released on EJS records; it includes two works by Reynaldo Hahn, "En sourdine" and " Ciboulette: Ce n'était pas la même chose." Her recordings from the 1930s and 1940s are the most plentiful, including many Debussy selections that she recorded for the Gramophone Company in London, with Alfred Cortot on piano. In 1958, she published her autobiography, Star on the Door. She served as a teacher to many aspiring opera singers, and in 1968 she founded the Maggie Teyte Prize for young women vocalists.

Although Teyte severed virtually all ties with her family early in her career, she had been assigned guardianship of her sister Marie Odoli 's daughter, Rita Odoli-Tate (later O'Connor), after Marie's death during World War I. Teyte took financial responsibility for Rita, put her through school, and spent time with her on occasion. For the most part, the young Rita was left in the care of a family nurse. Teyte enrolled her niece at the Royal College of Music, where Rita met her future husband, Cavan O'Connor. In the final years after her retirement, Teyte lived a reclusive existence, taught sporadically, and detached herself from friends and family, except for her niece Rita. She died of complications of old age on May 26, 1976. A funeral service was held on June 1 at the Carmelite Church on Kensington High Street, after which a rose tree was planted over her grave.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

O'Connor, Garry. The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Maggie Teyte. NY: Atheneum, 1979.

Gloria Cooksey , freelance writer, Sacramento, California