The enthusiasm for verismo that began in 1890 did not eradicate an older world of opera, a world of bel canto technique, of dramas by Mozart and Meyerbeer, or even of Verdi’s early hits such as Rigoletto and La traviata. Many performers, composers, and professors were still around from the old days, and perhaps none was more outspoken than Mathilde Graumann Marchesi - “Madame Marchesi” to generations of vocal music students. Born in 1821 or thereabouts – she seems to have fudged her birthdate, not uncommon for that era - Marchesi was a native of Frankfurt who would study in Vienna and London before settling in Paris. Her most famous teacher was Manuel Garcia, brother of both the great mezzo-soprano Maria Garcia Malibran and the singer/composer Pauline Viardot. Malibran created the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Their father was an elder Manuel Garcia, creator of the role of Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. The Garcia family was also responsible for bringing the first professional productions of Italian opera to New York, where Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, had gone to teach and produce. In this way, Marchesi seemed barely a generation removed from the glorious days when Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte were fresh from the pen of their composer.
Mathilde Marchesi’s studio in Paris attracted students from all over the singing world, including many from the Americas, Britain and Australia. She lived into her 90s and remained steadfast champion of an older, pre-Wagnerian style of singing. Marchesi put great emphasis on lyrical line and expression, clarity of tone and a smooth transition across vocal registers – the famous passaggio that is still often argued over today. She was frequently interviewed during her later years, and she was anything but reluctant to express her opinions on what was going on in the world of serious music. The coming of Wagner and the verismo school of Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini did not, in Marchesi’s view, change what really mattered with the voice. She decried those teachers who would pretend that a good singer could be trained in as little as one year, and she also disliked the growing habits of physical culture that she observed, particularly in her American and British students. In her volume, Ten Singing Lessons (New York, 1901), she insisted that singers should avoid:
"Bicycling, rowing, dancing, long walks, reading late at night, singing too soon after meals, too frequent theatre parties or social gatherings …. all these must be abandoned."
She also argued against Americans’ fondness for ice water and the British taste for overly sweetened foods. By implication Marchesi connected these with the temperament of both nations:
"Fettered in conventionalities and repressed in the free expression of the feelings … an icy coating has formed about the youthful heart [of British and American performers]."
In her view, students should not only avoid such contemporary indulgences: they should also proceed very slowly with their studies – in practice sessions as short as just five or ten minutes – and allow several years for the voice and the emotions to mature.
Mathilde Marchesi’s critique of the habits of English ethnics did not stop her from gaining many pupils from nations that were or had been part of the British Empire. Indeed, her most famous student of all was Nellie Melba, who first sang publicly at Marchesi’s own school in 1886. The two women exchanged many compliments over the coming years, as “Dame Nellie” became perhaps the most celebrated soprano in the world and Marchesi maintained, until her death in 1913, what felt like a direct connection to the era of the finest in Italian art and expression. As Marchesi asserted in an editorial given to the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 9, 1902, the best voice teacher was one who could show her students how to
"sing with well regulated breath, without effort, without ranting, without tremolo and with perfect registers … [students] should have good style and shouldn’t scream … [and] the girl who wants to be a prima donna should love her art better than anything else in the world. "