Emma Eames, Emma Calvé, Emma Nevada. The given name they shared would fall out of fashion for two generations of 20th-century Americans before regaining popularity in more recent times; yet during the closing decade of the 19th century and for the first generation of the 20th, the name “Emma” was found throughout the operatic world. The three best-known singing Emmas had at one time all been students of Mathilde Marchesi, redoubtable queen of traditional voice training who was based in Paris for most of her long career. Marchesi’s students were noted for their virtuoso technique, focused sonorities and controlled transitions across the full range of vocal registration. During their professional years, however, these same singers could often be found performing in the heavier and more melodramatic manner of verismo. That new craze for musical “realism” exploded across operatic stages with the premiere of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana in the summer of 1890. Artists who began their careers in a very different tradition not only wanted to get into the new verismo act: they may also have sensed a need to get into it if they were to plan on long and profitable lives in the music business.
Emma Eames [1865-1952] was born in China to an American family – a business family, not missionaries, originally from Bath, Maine. Eames’s voice was noted for its pure lyricism and was thought by many critics to be superior even to that of Nellie Melba. Before she entered into middle age, though, Eames was already expanding into heavier roles, including – surprisingly – Santuzza in Cavalleria; Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin; and the lead in Puccini’s Tosca. Yet Eames remained most clearly identified with a lighter, more lyrical part from an earlier era, that of Juliette in Gounod’s version of the Shakespeare tragedy, Roméo et Juliette. Was it the sudden popularity of verismo style that led singers such as Eames to sing that sort of opera in spite of their training, and in spite of having voices suitable to different parts? Or could this have been an example of the oldest of operatic stereotypes, voices that were heard to grow ’heavier” with age?
For Emma Eames, the transition to verismo and similar dramatic roles may have had less to do with aging and more to do with a public that wanted to see a person such as herself in whatever operas were then current. Whether in lyric parts from the Bel canto era or in attempting to portray a Sicilian peasant, Eames always projected a kind of stolid if cold late-Victorian respectability. This may not seem ideal to a 21st-century eye and ear, yet it was a persona that was familiar to her contemporaries and came attached to a beautiful voice. Her coldness did not go unnoticed: one critic remarked about a performance by her in the lead of Aida, “There was skating on the Nile last night.” George Bernard Shaw said of Eames that she “cast her propriety like a Sunday frock over the whole stage.” Yet she agreed to – or was pushed into, or drawn into by box-office promise – verismo parts. Could this also have helped give her strength to survive the great earthquake in San Francisco during the spring of 1906, when she was on tour with Enrico Caruso and other Metropolitan Opera stars?
Eames’s peer and closest rival was Nellie Melba – later Dame Nellie – who would give the New York premiere of Nedda in Pagliacci. Her voice was also not exactly a heavy dramatic one: she was better known for coloratura roles like that of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto and the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Was it only to please the public that she sang Nedda not only in New York but at Covent Garden as early as 1893, merely a year after its world premiere in Milan and at the very time when verismo was first being performed to full houses in America?
Emma Calvé [1858-1942] had a voice that may have been more suited from the beginning to a career in dramatic parts. She sang the lead role of Santuzza in Cavalleria not long after it had been created in Rome by Gemma Bellincioni. The latter’s name would today be forgotten if not for landing that premiere part. Calvé, on the other hand, is still remembered as one of the greatest “singing actresses” in operatic history. A native of southern France, she studied with Marchesi early in her career. By 1891 she was well-enough regarded to be chosen to create the lead soprano role of Suzel in L’amico Fritz, the only one of Pietro Mascagni’s works aside from Cavalleria to enjoy continued popularity into the 21st century. After that success, Calvé was selected to play Santuzza at the Paris premiere of Cavalleria, and she was ever after associated with the role. It would even be the vehicle for her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1893.
Calvé had a range of almost three octaves, and she easily switched back and forth across the full spectrum of the female voice. In the now-rare Massenet opera Hérodiade, Calvé performed both as Hérodias, a mezzo or contralto part, and as Salomé, a soprano. She continued to sing from older works, including coloratura roles like the lead in Lucia di Lammermoor and Mozart’s Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Calvé also performed meaty parts from the generation just prior to verismo: her lead in Bizet’s Carmen became almost too well-known for its verismo features. She made a study of her characters’ dress, gestures and folkways, even if that led her to present a role that disturbed late-Victorian audiences. For Santuzza, she was quoted as saying that she intentionally wore a coarse shirt and shoes that were “ugly” and that the role demanded as much as naïveté as passion.
For her acting technique, Calvé overtly reflected the Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse. For the top of her vocal range and to gain eerie effects – she also enjoyed an interest in spiritualism - Calvé employed a refined falsetto she called her “fourth voice.” She claimed to have learnt the technique from one of the last remaining castrato singers employed at the Vatican during the closing years of the 19th century.
But what of that third Emma – Nevada - who took her stage name from the mining town where she was born in 1859? She enjoyed a great international career in lyric and coloratura parts, including Gilda, Mignon and Lucia. She sang at major houses and was close to the family of composer Ambroise Thomas. Her own daughter would be named Mignon after his celebrated character. Today, though, Nevada remains an historical sidebar, a “one of those greats” from the past that is barely known even to specialists. Could this have been because she was a coloratura too late – too late for the original era of Bel canto composers like Rossini and Donizetti – and also too soon for the revival of that style that began in the 1940s? Small consolation for her memory may be found in the fact she has her own eponymous Bed and Breakfast: the Emma Nevada House in Nevada City, California, which has now - as of June 26, 2014 - earned 215 (out of 231) “Excellent” ratings on the TripAdvisor website.