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FRANCES ALDA

Frances Alda was born Frances Davis in New Zealand. Her mother, already separated from her English father, died when she was five, and Frances was educated by her maternal grandparents in St Kilda’s, Australia. Her French grandmother had been an opera singer and her Austrian grandfather a violinist: one of their daughters was the famous coloratura soprano Frances Saville, a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi. Following the death of her grandparents, Alda moved to Melbourne, where she secured an engagement with the Williamson and Musgrove Light Opera Company, singing leading parts in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas; then, using money from her mother’s estate, she sailed for Europe. After an unsuccessful audition for the Gaiety Theatre in London, on the advice of Messager she studied voice for ten months in Paris with Marchesi (who hailed her as the new Melba) as well as stage-craft and languages. Marchesi arranged her début in 1904 as Massenet’s Manon at the Opéra-Comique, for which she was coached by the composer himself, and also suggested she should change her name to Alda. She went on to sing at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels for the next two seasons, appearing successfully also at Warsaw and at Covent Garden (1906). In 1907–1908 Alda made her début at La Scala, Milan, singing in Boris Godunov opposite Chaliapin, as well as the title rôle in Charpentier’s Louise, and coming into contact with Toscanini and Giulio Gatti-Casazza.

In 1908 Alda first appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, New York as Gilda/Rigoletto. Disappointing reviews ensured that she adopted a more rigorous approach to her performances, and success ensued; she was to remain a leading star of the company until her retirement from opera in 1929. She married Gatti-Casazza, now the intendant of the Metropolitan, in 1910, but the couple divorced in 1929. Her repertoire consisted primarily of lyric parts, and included many now forgotten operas, including Le Villi (Puccini), Francesca da Rimini (Zandonai), Mârouf (Rabaud), Le Roi d’Ys (Lalo), and La cena delle beffe (Giordano), as well as the first performances of Madeleine (Herbert), Cleopatra’s Night (Hadley) and Cyrano de Bergerac (Damrosch). In total she sang twenty-three parts in 266 performances. Alda also appeared in the 1914–1915 season in Chicago, and in London, Milan, Rome and Buenos Aires. After 1929 she remained active as a concert singer, and established herself as a significant broadcasting personality. Between 1910 and 1915 she made records for the Victor Company, many with Caruso. These clearly display the warmth, richness and expressiveness of her singing, as well as her passionate involvement with the music she is performing. Her memoirs, Men, Women and Tenors (1937), illustrate her forthright temperament.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers).


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