Emma Calvé

Rosa-Noémie Emma Calvé (actually Calvet) de Roquer was a flamboyant soprano and mezzo-soprano with a rich, powerful, well-equalized and superbly trained voice. Furthermore, she was a slim, attractive woman and a powerful actress. Her family moved from the village of her birth to northern Spain three months after she was born; she grew up speaking a mixture of French, Spanish, and Basque. Self-dramatizing in her biographies, she said she learned to sing and dance from watching the local gypsies and that later she learned the secret of pure high notes from Domenico Mustafà, one of the last of the castrati, who was director of the Sistine Chapel Choir. Wherever she got it, she had a solid extension to F above high C, a remarkable range for a lyric-dramatic soprano, particularly one with her repertory. She studied with Jules Puget and Mathilde Marchesi and had only indifferent success until she scored at La Scala with what would be one of her signature roles, Ophelia in Hamlet by Thomas. Even then she thought intelligently about the reasons for the prior failures and sought out two more teachers who would shape her career: Rosine Laborde (one of the greatest of voice teachers), and Eleonore Duse, the great actress. She had another success in the role of Suzel at the world premiere of L'Amico Fritz by Mascagni, and then gained another in what would become one of her signature roles, Santuzza in the same composer's Cavalleria rusticana. In 1892 she first sang Carmen. She ended up virtually owning the role. As long as memories of her live performances of the roles of Carmen and Santuzza remained in memory, it would be insisted she was incomparable in both parts. She sang Carmen over 3,000 times. In 1904 she announced her retirement from the operatic stage, but was persuaded to return to sing at Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House in 1907 and 1908. She continued to give concerts and recitals until well into World War I. Her farewell appearance in North America was an emotional occasion for French war relief. She retired to a chateau in Millau where she was known as an excellent and tireless teacher, until she was stricken with a long declining illness. She left a small but important legacy of recordings, most made after she had passed her peak. Among them are some 1902 Mapleson cylinders made from the stage of the Met.

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