B1349. Ira Glackens. Yankee Diva – Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera [with Lillian Nordica’s ‘Hints to Singers’]. New York, Coleridge Press, 1963. 366pp. Index; Bibliography; Moran Discography; Operatic repertoire; Photos; DJ.
“Lillian Nordica’s extraordinary life has been documented in one of the best researched and most thoroughly readable of operatic biographies: YANKEE DIVA, LILLIAN NORDICA AND THE GOLDEN DAYS OF OPERA, by Ira Glackens, Coleridge Press, New York, 1963. As the author says in Chapter Two, ‘The story of Lillian Bayard Norton is a study in determination.’ Nordica herself said, ‘God didn’t give me my chin for nothing’.”
- Zillah Dorset Akron
“As American as apple pie, this ‘Yankee Diva’ was born in Farmington, Maine, then went on to become the first American at Bayreuth (as Elsa in 1894) and had her image prominently featured in early Coca-Cola advertising campaigns. She began her vocal training in Boston at the New England Conservatory, then gave recitals throughout the United States and England (1875-78) while barely out of her teens.
Nordica (born with the surname of Norton) studied further in Milan with Sangiovanni, and made her operatic début there at the Teatro Manzoni in 1879 as Elvira in DON GIOVANNI. The next year she was engaged for St. Petersburg. The year 1882 marked Lillian Nordica’s Paris Opera début as Marguerite in FAUST, and it was there that she added Ophélie in Thomas’ HAMLET to her already impressive array of coloratura roles. And while she may have trained with that florid art form in mind, Nordica’s voice began to develop a breadth and grandeur which in those early years of her operatic career had already begun to hint of the dramatic (soprano) things to come.
In 1883, Nordica made her operatic début in America as Marguerite in FAUST at the New York Academy of Music, and spent the remainder of the decade touring the United States with ‘Colonel’ Mapleson’s troupe as well as making appearances at Covent Garden (where she débuted as Violetta in LA TRAVIATA ), Drury Lane and the Kroll in Berlin. She made her Metropolitan Opera début as Valentine in LES HUGUENOTS (one of her most enduring roles) on 18 December, 1891, and remained with the company for eleven seasons, sporadically spaced, through 1910.
Beginning in the early 1890s, her career as a Wagnerian dramatic soprano gained momentum, and she eventually won acclaim as all three Brünnhildes, Isolde, Elsa, Venus and Kundry, both at the Met and with the Damrosch-Ellis troupe. Frequently, her partner was none other than Jean de Reszké, who was also proving at the same time as Nordica and a couple of others that Wagner’s demanding music dramas could be sung, just as the composer had desired, with flowing legato and a more Italianate, bel canto style.
Late in her career, Lillian Nordica sang with the Manhattan Opera (1907–08) and opened the Boston Opera House in LA GIOCONDA (1909). Her final operatic appearances were to be in that city, as Isolde, in 1913. Late that year she embarked on a recital tour that took her as far as Australia. She nearly missed the ship leaving Sydney on her return, but wired the captain asking him to wait for her, which he unfortunately did. The Tasman wrecked into a coral reef, where it remained for three days, and Nordica suffered from exposure and never recovered. She died on 10 May, 1914, on the island of Java.
Of Nordica’s voice on records, we are left with few truly satisfying souvenirs. All of her commercial recordings were made for Columbia, and that company’s track record of not being able to cope with operatic voices was not broken in Nordica’s case. She, herself, would have been the first to admit it. Columbia’s ledgers show that nearly 40 discs were made by Nordica between 1906 and 1911, but barely a dozen survived long enough to be published in any form. With few exceptions, the voice on records sounds incredibly small, almost as if she were singing from another room; perhaps Columbia overestimated the balance between the power of her voice and the fragility of its recording equipment and placed her too far from the horn….It is true that her finest moment on record is a strangely haunting excerpt from Erkel’s opera HUNYADI LÁSZLÓ , sung in Hungarian with a piano accompaniment. The climax of the piece, featuring perfect staccato, a sensational shake on the high C-D flat of the cadenza, is positively spine tingling the better part of a century later.
We are very fortunate that Nordica was singing at the Met in the early 1900s, when Lionel Mapleson was experimenting with cylinder recordings during live performances. From these we are able to hear her in full flight, away from the confines of Columbia’s studio, and despite the roar of surface noise inherent to Mapleson’s perishable wax cylinders, some truly exciting moments can be enjoyed. Aside from three excerpts from LES HUGUENOTS (sung with Jean de Reszké in 1901!) all of Mapleson’s surviving cylinders are of her Wagnerian repertoire. Nordica rings out rather brilliantly in a number of excerpts from DIE WALKÜRE, SIEGFRIED, GÖTTERDAMMERUNG AND TRISTAN UND ISOLDE.”
- Andrea Shum-Binder, subito-cantabile
“Ira Glackens, a writer who was the son of the realist painter William Glackens, wrote several biographies and other books, and donated many paintings by his father to museums throughout the United States. He was born in New York City, studied painting with several of his father's contemporaries and began his career as a writer when he was discharged from the Coast Guard after World War II. In his 1957 book WILLIAM GLACKENS AND THE ASHCAN GROUP, he chronicled the lives of his father, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, George Luks, Robert Henri and other Ashcan School artists.”
- Andrew l. Yarrow, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26 Nov., 1990