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Emma Calve - Practical Aspects of the Art of Studying Singing

From an interview with
Secured expressly for THE ETUDE
[Biographical Note.—The career of Emma Calve stands alone in the history of vocal art. Her work has been distinctive from her early childhood; and, like Mario, Lablache, Jenny Lind, Clara Louise Kellogg, Patti, Tamagno and Caruso, her voice and her individuality have been so unusual that she will not pass into the realm of those who sang and were forgotten. Her real name is Emma Roquer. She was born at Décazville, near Aveyron in southern France. As a child, she was educated at a convent. Later she studied voice in Paris, with Puget, Rosa Laborde and with Mme. Marchesi. She gives the credit for her greatest musical advance to Laborde. She made her debut in Brussels as Marguerite in Gounod’s “Faust.” In 1884 she entered the Opera Comique in Paris, remaining for three years, when she went to Milan for her debut at La Scala. Her opening performance there was a complete fiasco. The audience even hissed her off the stage. Notwithstanding this she worked over the same rôle she had chosen for her debut, with Mme. Laborde, and appeared eighteen months later with enormous applause. She created the rô1e of Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The next year she was re-engaged for the Opera Comique, followed by engagements at Covent Garden and New York. In New York her performance of Carmen made an immediate sensation, quite as much for her astonishing acting as for her singing. She created several other notable rôles including La Navarraise, and Sapho, and Luzel in “L’amico Fritz.” In recent years she has devoted her time to concert singing and to teaching. In 1922 she published a highly interesting autobiography. ]
The art of singing is a precious possession which comparatively few people can claim, despite the fact that there are thousands who are certain in their own minds that they alone are the sole possessors of the jewel— the talisman which they can pass on to others. It is something which is far more than the mere knowledge of the voice or of the organs of the throat. It is a great art which must be transmitted rather than taught.
emma-calve.jpgWatch the nightingale, the thrush, the lark, learn their songs from vocal teachers in their nests. The songs of their parents are their only models; and they just sing as they heard their parents do it. It must be obvious, therefore, that one of the first principles in studying singing is to imitate. Not to mock as a parrot imitates, but to listen to great singers understandingly and analytically. Hear how they produce their tones. Feel the character, the quality, of their voices. Often this quality is a matter of years of careful development. Very few singers of consequence sing with the same voice they employed when they commenced their careers. Why? For the reason that we all imitate when we are children. We imitate the voices that are around us. Often these voices are very bad ones indeed; but we instinctively imitate them. Then we have to rebuild our voices after we have destroyed the bad habits we have unconsciously imitated.
The education of the voice is in a large measure the education of the ear combined with the individual voice ideal of the student. Voice ideal? What do I mean by that? I mean that every singer should cherish in her soul a voice ideal so rare and so beautiful that it transcends everything she has ever heard or will hear. This is the great inspiration which, like a guiding star, leads on the artist to higher and higher accomplishments.
Hear Great Voices
Of course, the singing pupil should have a teacher who really knows, preferably one who can really sing and illustrate the principles propounded. Above and beyond this, however, the singer must hear as many of the great voices as possible, must hear them with the greatest attainable analytical sense, with a view to discovering those artistic, vocal and human qualities which have led the public to identify them as great.
In this, the student has opportunities which were altogether absent in a previous generation, thanks to the talking-machine, which enables him to have the records of scores of great artists where his predecessors might hear only a few in a lifetime. Because of this, fine voices in the future will probably be more frequently encountered. Think of being able to hear over and over again the greatest masterpieces sung by the greatest artists. In a previous generation the vocal student had only a few such opportunities in a lifetime.
Marchesi never really sang at all at lessons. It was impossible. Her voice, never a notable one, naturally deteriorated with age; and she probably wisely realized that she could not add to her stature in the eyes of the pupil by singing. I told Lilli Lehmann once that Marchesi did not illustrate by herself singing at the lessons, and she was amazed. Laborde, on the other hand, was a very able singer and sang constantly, illustrating phrases, style and various points in technic and interpretation. I was with Marchesi six months and with Laborde some six years. The modern teacher who does not sing can at least have in the studio a large library of records to which he may constantly refer for examples of style, phrasing and technic.
Possibly one of the most practical experiences the young singer can have is that of flat failure. I shall never forget the night at La Scala, when I made my début in Italy. I had been in the company of the Opéra Comique for two years; but I realized down in my innermost soul that the audiences had been more indulgent than appreciative. My success was anything but striking. I resolved to better myself by a change of environment. After some time I was delighted to have an appointment to sing at La Scala. Here at last was my great opportunity. The night came; I was simply scared to death. I knew that I had dramatic ability; but that was not enough for the true Italian audience. They want voice. I sang miserably off key, with execrable quality. I lost my head completely. The footlights commenced to dance. Horrors! the audience was hissing me. I was a failure. I left the stage in disgrace.
Of all the artistic experiences I have ever had, this was the most fortunate. The Italians were frank enough to tell me the truth; and the truth was what I needed most. I did not sing well and there was still a great deal for me to learn. Until a student realizes that intelligent criticism of his work is worthless unless it is brutally frank, he has not made the first real step in his vocal progress. The revelation caused me a great deal of suffering at first, but even that was beneficial. I went back to Paris in despair, expecting to spend the rest of my days as a corsetiere or something of the sort.
Fortunately, an artistic friend took me to Laborde and I started to climb anew. In my biography I have told of the time when Malibran heard someone accuse her contemporary, Sontag, of being cold and unresponsive. “Wait until she has suffered,” replied Malibran. Sontag did suffer; and later she came back to the stage a wholly different, a far more human artist. Great suffering came to me; and when I went back to the stage it was a different Calve than the one that ignominiously retreated before the hisses of the crowd at Milan.
Humanity and Singing
Perhaps Etude readers by this time will wonder what was meant by the word “practical” at the head of this article. Are not most vocal students inclined to think that practical means only the routine and conventional things that have to do with technic ? Alas! such things, indispensable as they are, mean nothing unless the singer realizes the great human side of her art. People do not go to the opera or the concert hall merely to hear solfeggios, trills and runs. They want to hear a human message from a human being who has experienced great things and trained the mind and soul in finer discipline than mere exercises. The singer must be a personality, must understand the bond of sympathy with mankind which, more, even, than a beautiful voice, commands the attention and interest of the audience.
I dwell upon this strongly because in my experience in America I have found that the great fault with American girls is that they are too impatient. They want to get results at once. They expect to jump from the high school platform to the Metropolitan Opera House. That is a leap in which there is a vast cavern intervening; and I am certain numbers of students have gone down into that cavern merely because they have not been content to take a decent amount of time for study. It takes three years, at the very least, to get a voice in fine shape for operatic roles. It is wicked to attempt it in less. I tried to do it and I failed miserably. Just why the general public expects the violinist and the pianist to spend years in the development of technic, and at the same time has an idea that the vocal student is possessed with some god-given talisman whereby the singer may go from the home or from the dry-goods counter to grand opera in a few months, is hard to tell.
How Patti Saved Her Voice
The voice demands care and sensible protection. Some singers seem to carry this too far. Patti, for instance, did not even read on the days when she was to sing. Her husband, Nicolini, had a theory that the voice was so delicate that even the act of reading caused a strain upon the eye muscles that was in turn communicated to the throat. Patti also did not attend rehearsals, in order that her voice might be spared. We may laugh at these precautions; but we must remember the very great length of time that the great singer preserved her voice. She sang her first opera, Lucia, in New York, at the age of sixteen, when she was known as “the little Florinda,” and continued to sing in public for upward of half a century, preserving her voice into comparative old age in a very remarkable manner.
Climate has a great effect upon the voice. It was for that reason that I secured the castle at Cabrieres, for my pupils as well as myself. High, bracing air has a very salubrious effect upon the vocal cords. This may account in some way for the wonderful voices that one hears in the Western States in America, where humidity is low and the air is stimulating.
Why discuss technical proficiency? Every teacher has his own way of securing that. It must be secured, and as little time as is necessary spent upon it; but this time must be sufficient. Half enough skill to do a given piece of work is next to worthless. The skill must be adequate. But technical skill in singing is not the only thing. I have been amazed at the lack of general information and cultural knowledge that some students display. Let me tell you most emphatically, the grand opera stage is no place for an ignoramus. Languages, history, literature, science—all these things must be a part of the singer’s background. These are the things which make the difference between a real artist, in the modern sense, and the novice. See to it that your general education is as broad as you can possibly make it.
One of the fascinating things about vocal art, particularly in reference to the stage, is that one is always learning. Mastery does not mean that the book is closed forever and that one sits upon a pinnacle of accomplishments. New ideas come every day. Keep your mind and your voice plastic. Try every day of your life to find out things that will advance you in your vocal career. America, above all countries, is continually seeking to improve itself in every conceivable manner; and it is for that reason that we may have immense hope for the future of American singers. Everywhere, America is seeking new beauty in the home; and this new beauty is bound to reflect itself in the voice.

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