Yaw, Ellen Beach (1868–1947)

views updated

Yaw, Ellen Beach (1868–1947)

American singer. Name variations: Lark Ellen. Born on September 14, 1868, in Boston, New York, 20 miles south of Buffalo; died of jaundice on September 9, 1947, in West Covina, California; daughter of Ambrose Spencer Yaw (a cowbell manufacturer) and Mary Jane (Beach) Yaw; educated at Hamburg Academy in Hamburg, New York; studied typing and shorthand at Griffith's Institute in Springville, New York; married Vere Goldthwaite (a lawyer), on March 21, 1907 (died 1912); married Franklin Cannon (a pianist and teacher), on August 22, 1920 (divorced 1935).

Made her first professional appearance at a concert in Brooklyn (1888); capitalized on her remarkable ability to sing the high note of E above high C to launch her first American tour (1894); made her first European tour (1895); appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York (1896); made her grand opera debut in Rome (1907); spent a season with the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908); established the Lark Ellen Bowl (1934).

Notable roles:

lead soprano in The Rose of Persia, London (1899–1900); title role in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Rome (1907), and Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908).

Born in 1868 in Boston, New York, 20 miles south of Buffalo, Ellen Beach Yaw was the youngest of five children of Mary Jane Yaw , an accomplished pianist, and Ambrose Yaw, a cowbell manufacturer who died when Ellen was nine. As a young girl, she frequently sang in local churches and concerts, and she could mimic the singing of birds and simulate melodies on the piano.

After attending Hamburg Academy and studying secretarial subjects at a business institute in Springville, New York, Yaw moved to Morris, Minnesota, at age 14, possibly with her mother. She worked as a secretary for a lawyer in Morris during the day and taught shorthand at night to earn money for singing lessons. Her first teacher was Charles Whitmore in Minneapolis. Later Yaw moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to New York City, where she studied voice under Theodore Bjorksten, her principal teacher. Before long, Yaw was performing professionally in public. In November 1888, she sang at a Brooklyn concert, and on April 15, 1891, she performed at Steinway Hall.

Yaw began singing in concerts across the country and in Europe during the mid-1890s, when she was in her late 20s. Although she gained early fame for her ability to reach an impressive E above high C, skeptics were said to consider Yaw's upper notes as nothing more than high-pitched squeaks. It was the depth and beauty of her singing voice in a normal range that won her serious fans and built her international career as a soprano.

Her first manager, however, promoted Yaw in a sensational manner, claiming her range was the highest in history to draw crowds to her first American tour in 1894. Yaw used her earnings from that tour to study in Europe. The following year, she performed in London, Switzerland, and Germany. By 1896, Yaw was back in the United States for her first appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Music critics showed up at her January 22 performance ready to dismiss her as a one-trick wonder but reportedly were surprised to discover a singer with a vibrant, professionally trained voice.

Yaw's popularity increased, leading to her sobriquet Lark Ellen, and in 1899 she sang lead soprano in the comic opera The Rose of Persia, a role written for her by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The November 29 opening at the Savoy Theater in London was a great success, and the opera ran for more than 200 nights. It was also in 1899 that Yaw met her first husband, Boston lawyer Vere Goldthwaite, on board a ship. They were married eight years later, on March 21, 1907.

Yaw's brilliant success in The Rose of Persia attracted a patron, Lady Valerie Meux of England, whose assistance allowed Yaw to spend three years of intense study under the lead voice teacher in Paris, Mathilde Marchesi . Afterward, she toured Europe and sang in a private concert for the shah of Persia. In 1907, she made her grand opera debut in Rome in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. In another career landmark, Yaw performed the same role at her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York the following year. She spent a single season with the Met, then toured Europe until 1912, the year her husband died.

Yaw met her second husband, pianist and teacher Franklin Cannon, the following year. Despite their age difference (Cannon was 15 years her junior), the couple married on August 22, 1920. Yaw began a series of American tours in the 1920s, working with Cannon on several songs he composed to highlight her vocal range. The partnership ended quietly in divorce in 1935, four years after Yaw had retired to West Covina, California, and Cannon had returned to New York to pursue his career.

Yaw's retirement was short-lived. Surrounded by music lovers, including her cousin, composer Mary Carr Moore , Yaw opened the Lark Ellen Bowl in West Covina. Five years later, she launched a studio offering open-air singing performances. She supported several charities through her singing until late in life, the most prominent of which was the Los Angeles Newsboys Home. The institution was renamed the Lark Ellen Home for Boys in her honor. She also continued to make recordings and perform recitals for her friends until the year before her death. Yaw died of jaundice in West Covina on September 9, 1947, less than a week before her 79th birthday, and was buried near Whittier, California, at the Rose Hills Memorial Park.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Cyndia Zwahlen , editor and writer, Phoenix, Arizona