Monday, January 14, 2013

Lillian Nordica, 1: Downeast Diva


      As streets go in that part of Croton still called Harmon by some, Nordica Drive is unremarkable. Another quiet bucolic byway ending in a dead end--as many do in this former real estate development.
The name Nordica Drive is all that now recalls the area's association with the first and perhaps greatest American diva of the operatic stage.

The Making of a Prima Donna
      The Lillian Nordica story is a study in fortitude. It begins with her mother, Amanda Norton. “Give me a spoon,” she once said, “and I won’t hesitate to dig a tunnel through a mountain.” Amanda imparted this determination to her daughters.
Born Lillian Norton in 1857 in Farmington, a town in western Maine that prided itself as a center of learning with its Farmington Academy, she studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and began singing professionally in churches and concerts.
Chaperoned by her mother, Lillian joined Patrick Gilmore's American Band, performing ballads and arias on long whistle-stop tours of this popular and impressively uniformed organization. She reached London with the band in 1878, and later left for Paris and Milan for crash courses in opera.
Because of the prejudice of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic against American opera singers, she adopted the stage name of Giglia Nordica. Her first performance was in Italy as Donna Elvira in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni in 1879. The next year she took St. Petersburg by storm and was invited back for another season. By 1882, she was in Paris, this time to study Marguerite in Faust and Ophelia in Hamlet with their respective composers, Charles Gounod and Ambroise Thomas.

A Fool for Love 
      As lucky as Lillian Nordica was in her operatic career and choice of roles, she was unlucky in her choice of husbands. The first was Frederick Allen Gower, her second cousin. Formerly a reporter on a Providence newspaper, he had been the business manager for Alexander Graham Bell. He was now the millionaire owner of several European telephone companies. They were married in Paris early in 1883.
She soon discovered that she had made a horrible mistake. Her husband was a bully and abuser who insisted that she abandon her singing career. To reinforce his demand, Gower burned her music and her gowns. "I paid for them," he insisted. After two years of sheer marital hell, Lillian had enough. She filed for divorce in 1885.
In the meantime, Frederick Gower had become interested in balloon ascensions. After a successful balloon flight from England to France, he disappeared over the English Channel on the return leg. The balloon was found; the basket and the balloonist were not. Ropes attaching the basket to the balloon had been cut. No matter, Lillian Nordica was now officially Gower's widow. Peculiarly, there was no estate; his millions had mysteriously melted away.

A Return to Opera
      Lillian resumed her career with an American tour. In 1887, she was feted by London. She decided to break with the operatic tradition that called for opera stars to wear the latest Paris creations. For her appearance as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, she dressed in the costume of the period of the story.
In 1894, she studied Wagnerian roles in German, appearing as Elsa in the first Bayreuth presentation of Lohengrin. The following year she appeared at the Metropolitan as Isolde in a memorable performance that set new vocal standards for Wagnerian interpretation.
Despite her bitter first marital experience, in 1891 she again fell for a scoundrel. This time it was a handsome young Hungarian drawing-room tenor named Zoltan Döme. Love may be blind, as Shakespeare said, but in Lillian's case, it was also deaf. Döme’s singing voice was mediocre, but to an infatuated Lillian it sounded divine. Because their careers kept them apart, their long-distance romance continued for five years, until their marriage in 1896.
Dome turned out to be a hopeless gigolo and inveterate womanizer. She resignedly filed for divorce again after seven years.

Yankee Courage
      Nothing demonstrates Lillian Nordica's character and presence of mind better than an incident during a performance at the Met. The opera was Götterdämmerung, always a risky affair because of the flaming torches carried by the choristers. While she was singing Brünnhilde’s Immolation, a torch began to leak alcohol that fell in a blazing puddle on the stage. An audible gasp escaped the audience.
The conductor, Alfred Herz, was engrossed in the score and took no notice. Lillian, facing the funeral pyre, sensed something was wrong. She looked around. The male singers onstage were immobilized and doing nothing about the fire.
Still singing, the indomitable Lillian gathered up her robes with one hand, marched up to the fire and stamped out the flames without missing or misplacing a single note. When the curtain came down, the audience erupted in tumultuous applause, quite as much for her heroism as for her singing. Later, she noticed that her laced white boots had been scorched brown by the flames.
Lillian Nordica gave her first professional performance in 1879 and the last operatic performance of her career in 1913--a span of 34 years in which she mastered 42 different roles. She made millions and reigned as a queen at a time when grand opera was truly grand, traveling to engagements in her own private railroad car named “Isolde.”

An American Bayreuth
      Her association with Westchester County began when she rented the four-acre villa in Ardsley-on-Hudson, built for Mary Grace, his eldest daughter, by Cyrus W. Field, of transatlantic cable fame. Lillian called it "Villa Amanda" in memory of her mother and constant companion, Amanda Norton, who had died in London in 1891. The house still stands on Field Terrace in Irvington.
In June of 1907, before embarking for France on the French Line steamship Savoie, Lillian revealed a plan she had dreamed about for many years: She would build an opera house and create an American Bayreuth at her estate in Clifford B. Harmon's new community up the Hudson.
"Call my object philanthropic or what you may," she told a reporter, "but the idea of founding here in my own country an American Bayreuth has been my life's ambition. All the years I have been singing I have dreamed of such an institution. Now I am financially able to start this great project."
The "estate" she purchased in Harmon was huge, a large tract in the newly platted development that dwarfed all other lots. On early maps, the name Nordica Drive was also applied to what is now Old Post Road South and Cleveland Drive. The area opposite the Croton Free Library is still sometimes called Nordica Hill. The house she built is on Alexander Lane, a narrow dead-end street.
Her vision was for an Institution of Music with dormitory quarters for students that would cover four acres; she owned a  tract of 21 acres. The Festival House would be a replica of the 1,925-seat Richard Wagner Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in Germany. She explained that her chief reason for going to Europe was to consult architects in Munich and to obtain plans of the Festspielhaus.
An open-air theater was also planned. Here famous actors would perform Shakespeare during the summer months. Popular prices would prevail for Saturday performances. Oratorios and symphonies would fill the air with music on Sundays.
The management was to consist of a board of directors exclusively of women, with men constituting an "advisory board."  She hoped the members of New York's society would subscribe to the 25 "diamond horseshoe" boxes.
Laid out in the shape of a large oval, the buildings would consist of a Festival House auditorium with a  wing on each side. One would house a cafe and the other a club for the socialites on whom she counted for support.
"The theater may not be self-supporting during the first year, but that will not make the slightest difference. In years to come it will be, for the men interested in the project with me will endow it, aside from the financial aid I will give it."
She told interviewers, "Men are well taken care of in America. They have colleges without number, and the man who desires to perfect himself in any branch of human endeavor can easily find tuition. But such institutions for women are scarce in this country, and it is my purpose to furnish to the struggling girls a place where, if they have musical ability, they will have a chance to develop it."
Lillian Nordica’s ambitious plan for a Westchester version of Germany’s Wagnerian opera festival was widely publicized. It quickly ran into trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Well, I suppose she has a few acres of land somewhere or other," observed German-born operatic promoter Oscar Hammerstein, perhaps sensing a competitor. "But that is the only solid thing about the scheme. The rest is dream, pure dream, a sheer dream." 
Hammerstein was something of an expert on opera houses. In New York City, he had built the Harlem Opera House on 125th Street in 1889 and the Manhattan Opera House on 34th Street in 1906. These offered opera at popular prices far below those charged by the Metropolitan.
 “Anyhow, who wants a home for Wagnerian opera?" he questioned. "I can see New Yorkers trooping out to some God-forsaken place up the Hudson in search of a German opera house."  To soften the blow of his harsh judgment, he added, "I hope Madame Nordica will wake up from her dreams before they have cost her all her salary."
Her plan for a music school and opera house in Harmon was equally scorned in Germany, where it was pointed out that what made the German festival so successful was its atmosphere. Atmosphere could not be exported to the Hudson River, "which, as everyone knows, is a low, unhealthy river where only malaria and mosquitoes are bred." 
In April of 1909, Lillian announced her engagement to George Washington Young, a dapper, white-haired Wall Street financier on the board of several corporations. He wooed her with gifts of emeralds and pearls, and they were married in London in July of that year. Her newest husband soon reported doleful financial reverses, and Lillian began advancing money to him. Before long, he had run up his debt to her to more than $400,000. He also convinced her that the site of her German opera festival should be in Deal, N.J., an Atlantic beachfront community where he was building an opulent new home--with her money. Young turned out to be less a financier and more a smooth talker. A sadder but wiser Lillian soon realized that none of her three marriages had brought her happiness.  
      In England, Lillian had acquired a new mission: women’s right to vote. She was inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragette leader, who advocated militancy and violence to gain public recognition.
Responding to a group of reporters, Lillian said, "Smash windows? Yes!  When men take the view that to gain an end warlike methods are excusable, they are heroes. Many a man has fought and gone to prison for his principles, and I think no great reform has been brought about without there being those willing to cast themselves into the breach and fight. It is all very well for those in power to keep on their way, ignoring us. We have to draw attention to ourselves. If we are to be heard, we have to make ourselves obnoxious, perhaps, at times."
She sang in June 1910 in a concert for the suffrage cause at Irvington, her hometown in Westchester, and town fathers had the village clock's chimes stopped for two hours.
"I have," she declared, with a touch of wry wit, "sung perhaps at more dedications of church steeples, vestry carpets, orphan asylums and sewing circles than any other woman of my profession."
In 1912, she appeared in a giant suffrage pageant staged at the Metropolitan Opera House at which former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke. Lillian, regal-looking as Columbia in a crown of stars (one for each state in the union in which women had been emancipated), sang the national anthem "with great fervor." It was the last time her voice would be heard in that hall.
A lightning rod for controversy, in 1913 she submitted to an unusual public interview on the stage of the Hudson Theater on 44th Street. Her interrogator was Robert Erskine Ely of the League for Political Education, which eight years later would open the Town Hall on 43rd Street.
Lillian outlined her position, explaining that she was for equal pay for equal work. Asked whether she believed women would stand together, she responded  by asking if women did not already stand by their families, if women were not the trusted secretaries of businessmen, and if 30,000 working girls then on strike were not standing together.
Years ahead of her time, she said she believed in higher education for women and added that she would vote for a woman for president should one ever run. She reminded her listeners she had never lost money with a female impresario.

Last Act 
      Almost as though she had a premonition of her own death, she told William Armstrong, a former music reporter for the Chicago Tribune, "At my funeral I want a baritone to sing Wotan's Farewell, and an orchestra to play the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. For me that music has such dear memories."
She continued, "And then I want some great speaker to say . . ." She broke off, searching for the right words. Changing the mood and almost mocking her somber tone, she supplied the desired sentiment: "She did her damnedest." 
At the age of 56, Lillian Nordica embarked on an ill-advised concert tour that would take her around the world. Following successful concerts in Australia, she had a complete emotional and physical collapse.
After resting, she resumed her tour. Her next concert was to be in Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. Ironically, her train to Sydney was late and the Nordica party wired the captain to hold the ship, the Tasman, for their arrival.
In the Torres Strait, the Tasman ran aground on a reef and was damaged. Forced to stay on deck because of the danger of sinking, Lillian contracted pneumonia from exposure during a storm and was taken to a primitive hospital on Thursday Island. Here she made a new will leaving nothing to her avaricious husband.
Among the patients in the hospital was a small American boy who had been taken ill while on a world tour with a San Francisco boys' club, and had been set ashore from the steamship Moanu. Lillian sang softly to him and comforted him. The child seemed to be growing better, but had a relapse and died. Sick as she was, Lillian remembered this lonely little boy. In a cemetery on Thursday Island stands this gravestone:

At her request, she was taken to a hospital in Batavia in Java, where her heart began to fail. One of her last acts was to make still another will cutting off her husband. She died there on May 10, 1914.
Her body was placed in a teakwood coffin and brought to London. After a brief funeral service in the same church in which she had been married only five years before, she was cremated. It was the only one of her wishes that was fulfilled. Her husband returned to New Jersey with her ashes that she had wanted to be given to her sisters. 
Lillian Nordica’s estate was valued at more than a million dollars. George W. Young, who had never repaid his debt of $400,000, immediately sought to break the will that excluded him. Lillian’s jewelry and furs were auctioned off in New Jersey.
In the end, after witnesses to its signing were produced, the courts upheld the will Lillian had made on remote Thursday Island. By then, much of the fortune she had earned in a lifetime of rigorous opera and concert singing was eaten up by legal expenses. The residue was divided among her three surviving sisters. George W. Young died in 1926 in Atlantic City.
No operatic role sung by Lillian Nordica ever ended more tragically. No baritone sang Wotan's Farewell. No orchestra played the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. And no great speaker intoned the words she hoped would be said about her.

      After Lillian's death, a plan was announced to erect a statue of her as Isolde in New York's Central Park. The sculptor was to have been Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but the First World War intervened, and the idea was forgotten.
During World War II, a Liberty Ship named the S.S. Lillian Nordica was launched at the New England Shipbuilding Company's yard at South PortlandMaine. Her wartime crew dubbed the ship the "Lucky Lillian." On two occasions, ships in the convoy around her were torpedoed, but she came through unscathed. She also survived the German saturation bombing of the harbor of Antwerp.
Lillian's birthplace in FarmingtonMaine, is maintained as the Nordica Homestead Museum and displays her costumes, music, personal mementos and gifts she received. The 400-seat Lillian Nordica Auditorium in Merrill Hall of the University of Maine at Farmington commemorates her last concert in 1911 in the town of her birth. It is reputed to be haunted by Lillian’s ghost.

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