B1166. (FREMSTAD) MARY WATKINS CUSHING. The Rainbow Bridge. New York, Putnam’s, 1954. 319pp. Index; Photos on endpapers. (Also included is a copy of the definitive Moran Discography of Fremstad).
“By most accounts an actress and tragédienne of Shakespearean proportions, Olive Fremstad was also highly skilled in the art of intelligently and carefully using what was basically a mezzo-soprano voice to become one of the most critically and publicly acclaimed Wagnerian dramatic sopranos of her day. And her day, it must be remembered, included Ternina, Nordica, Brema, Bahr-Mildenburg and Lilli Lehmann, to name but a few. She was engaged for contralto parts in Bayreuth’s 1896 RING Cycles, but Fremstad continued her vocal training in Italy, gradually learning and performing rôles from the soprano repertoire, but when she was engaged for the Munich Court Opera (1900 – 1903), her most sensational rôle there was, without doubt, Bizet’s Carmen.
It was in New York, at the Metropolitan, however, that Fremstad joined the ranks of the truly legendary singers of the so-called ‘Golden Age’. She débuted with the company in November 1903 as Sieglinde in Wagner’s DIE WALKÜRE (a performance which included Johanna Gadski’s first Brünnhilde), and Fremstad was to be a mainstay at the Met for eleven seasons. Her prowess as a singing actress was apparently so awe-inspiring that we may, these many decades later, be considering an artist on a par with the likes of Maria Callas, based on critical and contemporary accounts of her performances. Fremstad appeared before the public 351 times as a member of the Met’s stellar roster, most frequently as Venus in TANNHÄUSER (63 performances), Kundry in PARSIFAL (50), Sieglinde (47), Isolde (28) and Elsa in LOHENGRIN (27), but her repertoire there also included Selika in L’AFRICAINE, Gluck’s Armide, Santuzza, Giulietta in LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN , all three incarnations of Brünnhilde, Tosca, Fricka in DAS RHEINGOLD, Elisabeth in TANNHÄUSER, Brangäne and a single performance of SALOME.
Her interpretation of Isolde seems to have been especially electrifying, and she made her Met début in the rôle New Year’s Day 1908 under the baton of Gustav Mahler. Critics frequently remarked, however, that some of the music lay just a bit too high for her comfort, but she always managed to distract attention from this small matter with extraordinary displays of histrionic skill.
Olive Fremstad was truly a prima donna – she lived for her art alone, sulked in a gloomy world occupied by herself only when not on stage, avoiding her public and compatriots, but rarely the press. ‘I spring into life when the curtain rises, and when it falls I might well die’,” was the lament she paraphrased for reporters on numerous occasions. ‘The world I exist in between performances is the strange one, alien, dark, confused!’
Unfortunately, with the close of the 1913 – 1914 season at the Met, Olive Fremstad found herself spending more and more time in her ‘strange’ world, as manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza unwisely allowed her contract to lapse at the height of her popularity. He had tired of her grandiose manner, frequent cancellations, high salary and, by that time, limited repertoire, and engaged the more versatile and less expensive Melanie Kurt to take Fremstad’s place. She then toured in recitals for a couple of years, and made appearances occasionally with the Chicago, Boston and Manhattan Opera companies. There was talk of her re-engagement at the Met when the United States entered World War I, but nothing came of it, and she made her final operatic appearance as Tosca with the Chicago company on tour in Minneapolis in 1918. She gave what proved to be her final professional appearance, a recital in New York, on 19 January, 1920, then asked Gatti-Casazza if he was still interested in her services. She had learned a new rôle, Leonora in LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, but that rôle at the Met now belonged to the youthful Rosa Ponselle. Gatti-Casazza made no response to her inquiry, and Olive Fremstad never sang in public again.
Married to her art, she professed to have no interest in romantic entanglements, although she did foray twice into marital bliss with short-lived results on both counts. Fascinated by men, Fremstad seemed more at ease moving about in the sapphic circles of her friend Willa Cather, or those of the Misses De Forest and Callendar, for many years New York society’s answer to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas while the latter couple held court in Paris.
Fremstad briefly attempted teaching, but had little patience with anything short of perfection, and one ‘lesson’ for her unfortunate students required the close examination of a dissected human head preserved in a jar. She was mystified when, now few and far between, her students fled in horror, unwilling to learn that much about the workings of the human larynx. For Fremstad herself this was but a small matter; when studying the rôle of Salome she had gone to the morgue in New York to find out just how much she should stagger under the weight of the head of John the Baptist. On stage, she then staggered a lot.”
- Andrea Shum-Binder, subito-cantabile