BEWITCHING: Frances Alda, the once forgotten rival of Nellie Melba
Alda made her European debut at the Opéra-Comique in Paris and was then signed up for three seasons at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, where she sang leading roles in 15 different operas – a wonderful foundation for the great career that was to follow.
In 1906, she gave her debut at Covent Garden (replacing an indisposed Melba at very short notice in Rigoletto) but the evidence suggests that Melba interposed herself and Alda had several performances cancelled, never to appear there again – although her reviews were excellent and the audience very appreciative. In the same year, she was approached to join Oscar Hammerstein’s new Manhattan Opera Company in New York, but again Melba blocked her, sending a terse telegram which stated: ‘Either Alda or myself.’
The following year she made her debut at La Scala, Milan, meeting there her future husband Giulio Gatti-Casazza. She was hired to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Gatti was engaged to become its new general manager, along with his Musical Director, the legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini. There she became a star, making 367 appearances at the Met over the next 22 seasons. One of her main singing partners was the great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso and Toscanini coached her in many of her roles. The Met in New York was arguably the finest opera house in the world at that time, with a galaxy of star performers. Melba, one of the jewels in its crown, ceased to appear there after Alda became established ― so she certainly had her revenge.
In 1909 she made her first recording with Caruso, going on to make over 150 records, many of them top sellers. She pioneered opera on radio with a regular weekly show and she broadcast whole operas, including six by Puccini.
In 1927, she toured Australia and New Zealand, the first time she had returned since leaving for Europe. In Australia, it is evident that, although the concerts were very successful, she felt that she was not getting the credit due to a world-class artist. Put simply, to Australians she was not Melba. But in New Zealand she was treated like royalty. Up to that time she had always described herself as an Australian, but following the tour she decided that she was a New Zealander!
She remarried, living the rest of her life at her estate on Long Island, New York, taking vacations in Venice, where she died in 1952.
In a 1951 article surveying her stage and recording career, Aida Favia-Artsay wrote: ‘Alda’s voice can be described in one word – bewitching. It is a pure lyric soprano of enchanting loveliness, flawlessly clear, yet full like an open bloom and deliciously vibrant… All the intensity of her ebullient nature, her boundless joie de vivre seems to be reflected in her voice. And impeccably correct as is Alda’s tone, it is devoid, thank heaven, of any cold, mechanical perfection. It is warm and human, young and fresh, and it tugs at your heart strings.’
This article first appeared in PORTRAIT Magazine, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Winter 2006