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From Cather Studies Volume 12

The Singer as Artist: Willa Cather, Olive Fremstad, and the Artist’s Voice

Traditional criticism of The Song of the Lark has asserted that Thea Kronborg’s life is an emotional representation of Willa Cather’s experiences in the development of her own creative life, in which she “explicitly traces her own slow and gradual development from provincial midwesterner to cosmopolitan artist,” although she obviously uses as her model an artist in a different medium (Sharistanian ix).[1] Although the intangibility of music would seem to preclude a parallel, her lifelong observations about artists—including herself—suggest that she saw in the singer a manifestation of artistic personality that could be universally recognized. She spent much of her early career reviewing and commenting on performances and performers, declaring,“Only a living human being, in some sort of rapport with us, speaking the lines, can make us forget who we are and where we are, can make us . . . actually live in the story that is going on before us” (The Kingdom of Art 235).

Cather avowed that the creative artist is a being set apart from his or her society at large. In this respect, the performer is useful because she or he creates in a uniquely public existence but out of a deeply intimate and personal space. The actor, she said, is “an artist who every evening paints a picture in the gaslight. [A]n actor’s creation must be born again every night out of his own sweat” (Kingdom 215– 16). The singer, however, has an even greater obligation to her art:

[A]n opera singer must have voice and magnetism and a powerful dramatic instinct and must be altogether an artist. An opera singer must have more dramatic power than an actress. Singing is idealized speech, and, in order to preserve the proportion and harmony between words and action, the acting which accompanies it must be ideal. A singer might have as many tones as a piano, but lacking the power to make men have great experiences she would sing to an empty house. . . . The artist whom the people love must feel, interpret, create. (Kingdom 216–17)
“Voice” in the above passage correlates to both the physical instrument and the presence behind the utterances themselves, the presence which seeks communication of an idea. Time and again, Cather speaks of singers’ ability to combine physical talent in singing, dramatic connectivity with an audience, and the intellectual capacity to “interpret” and “create.”

Singers achieve that interpretation in a strange and intangible medium. Historically the performer’s work is the most ephemeral of all artistic creations. Unlike the traditional experience of the written art form, the totality of a musical performance for most people depends upon the performer. A play cannot be fully realized with the intervention of the actor; choreography cannot be fully realized without the dancer; and music cannot be realized without the musician. “We hear the drama termed a thing in three dimensions,” said Cather, “but it is really a thing in four dimensions, since it has two imaginative fires behind it, the playwright’s and actor’s” (Kingdom 235).

This curious and creative intervention of another human being between the composer or composition and the audience creates a certain degree of tension. While a historical evaluation of the quality of a composition may ignore individual performance, immediate evaluation is often significantly influenced by the choices made by the performer because the performer has power in the moment to influence, to inspire, to move the audience emotionally. Thus a poor performance can diminish even a brilliantly written text. The performer’s responsibility is not only to reveal her own voice but also to reveal the composer’s voice.

In early statements about contralto Helena von Doenhof, Cather dismisses petty criticisms of her vocal missteps, saying, “When a singer can feel strongly and make others feel, then her voice is merely an instrument upon which a higher thing than even melody does its will” (Kingdom 132). Nonetheless, perfection of the instrument, as she observes in soprano Nellie Melba, produces a voice that “is not like other voices, it is an individual living thing which can feel and exult and experience” (Kingdom 132). For most people, hearing the great singers, she says, is “half-art and half-natural phenomenon; it’s personal, concrete, a living woman, a living voice there before them. Anyhow, it’s the combination that ‘gets’ them” (Selected Letters 218). Her ruminations upon performers, singers, and actors alike culminate in Cather’s ecstatic observations of soprano Olive Fremstad. “Fremstad, wonderful Fremstad!” she says (Selected Letters 178). This woman’s intelligence combines with natural talent and disciplined study. She is “like the women on the Divide! The suspicious, defiant, far-seeing pioneer eyes” (Selected Letters 177) with a mind that has the capacity for “rapid crystallization of ideas” (“Three American Singers” 42). Fremstad’s work was attractive to Cather because, one might say, the soprano worked from the inside out: “Mme Fremstad’s impersonations are deeply conceived rather than highly infected” (“Three American Singers” 46). This method of work suited Cather’s perspectives and suggested the medium through which she could examine her always evolving theories of creativity.

Edith Lewis suggested that “it was [Fremstad’s] unresting, unappeasable aspiration that gave [her] genius its unique quality, and its power over her audiences” (90). Yet it was not just dogged determination to sing a role correctly or perfectly, but the power of her personal vision to infuse each role that made her performances genius. In her assessment of Fremstad’s performance in Lohengrin, Mary Watkins Cushing said that “through an alchemy of mind and imagination” her Elsa “became imbued with a kind of fiery tenderness and dignity which ennobled and made poignant the sufferings [Elsa] seemed to have brought upon herself” (Rainbow Bridge 127–28). Fremstad’s performance of the character elevated it beyond Wagner’s own composition, stamping it with her own interpretation.

That interpretation is the result of a powerful artistic “voice” acting upon the instrument of its expression: a singer’s vocal endowment. In his analysis of creativity,“A Dialectic of Aural and Objective Correlatives,” Walter Ong suggests that “all verbalization, including all literature, is radically a cry, a sound emitted from the interior of a person,” and he makes a case for the presence of authorial interiority in the art of literature. He defines interiority as something analogous to the spirit entailed in the act of breathing, which “retains the intimate connection to life” itself (1160). He particularly notes that one’s speech is actually only a modification of the exhalation of breath. Indeed, the word breath is etymologically connected to the word spirit, which refers to the interior condition of the individual: “that specific interior focus or pitch of being which we call life” (1160). Thus for the singer, the medium of creativity is literally that which sustains life.[2]

As any professional singer will attest, singing does not originate in the vocal cords; the voice and its power are born deep within the body and reside on the breath, guided by the respiration of the individual. The singer is literally the voice or instrument, for vocalization is the medium by which the singer creates, and that medium is a part of the human body. The classically trained voice is notable for its sheer physical power, its ability to permeate with both force and subtlety the farthest corners of a performance venue. It rises above an orchestra like a fountain suspended upon the column of breath born at the core of the singing body. Human vocalization is thus the medium of the artistic voice because it is the means by which the singer’s interiority reaches the world.

Ong argues that criticism tends to treat literature as a “monument” with “no discernable attention to vocalization” and “without explicit attention to the radically acoustic quality of the dialogue between man and man in which all verbal expression has its being” (1159). The dialogue of “interiorities” is at the heart of the performing artist’s work, so applying this concept to an observation of Cather’s artist in The Song of the Lark suggests a way to understand why she maintained a fascination with the performing artist throughout her life, choosing a singer as a representative of the artistic voice.

In a sense, the expansion of Thea’s literal voice—her vocality— parallels the growth of her much more elusive yet significant creative voice. Literally, the singer is the voice, for the human voice is the medium by which the singer creates, and that medium is part of the human body: one’s individual vocal apparatus. Metaphorically, the singer is the voice by means of which the individual singer’s interiority reaches the world. Thus one may conclude, as Cather seems to, that the singer can represent the artistic prototype, embodying artistic exceptionality in both body and spirit.


Classical singers, like writers, painters, or sculptors, undergo a lengthy and disciplined training process. They are well trained in the integration of natural ability and learned techniques in order to produce a certain vocal sound. The music they sing often requires the rigorous application of a trained voice in order to achieve success in performance. Therefore, the study of singing in the classical mode demands understanding and application of techniques designed to manipulate the physical forces involved in the singing process: the vocal cords, mouth, and lungs. Unlike a pianist or violinist, the singer carries his or her instrument in the body, and its functioning is largely invisible. Years of conscious and active examination of the ways of controlling these processes results in an automatic and seemingly “natural” response to a sung text.

Breathing is, of course, the singer’s primary activity and the bedrock of the voice, for without it, there is no sound. Fortunately for most of us, breathing is an entirely natural process. We do not have to think about how it is done or when to do it. Singers, on the other hand, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing, practicing, and changing the way they breathe. Ironically, all of this effort is an attempt to achieve a “natural” breathing technique, which one might have thought was there already. Each singer must come to understand his or her own mechanism in order to use it effectively.

Despite her lack of vocal training, Cather understood its basic goal: to achieve a powerful, natural method of breathing in order to produce the optimum singing mechanism. Thea Kronborg is sent down the road of success, in part, because she is already gifted with a naturally functioning breathing process:

Her breath came from down where her laugh came from, the deep laugh which Mrs. Harsanyi had once called “the laugh of the people.” A relaxed throat, a voice that lay on the breath, that had never been forced of the breath; it rose and fell in the air-column like the little balls which are put to shine in the jet of a fountain. (209)

Singing “on the breath” is an instinctive process that actually must be “relearned” and reinforced with constant practice by most singers. All of the physical and mental tics that we allow to invade our bodies thwart that natural breathing behavior. As Kristin Linklater points out, the voice can suffer from “psycho-physical” blocks. “Since the sound of the voice is generated by physical processes, the inner muscles of the body must be free to receive the sensitive impulses from the brain that create speech” (2). These blocks can be also emotional, intellectual, aural, or spiritual, and “once they are removed the voice is able to communicate the full range of human emotion and all the nuances of thought” (2). Even Thea succumbs to a deterioration of the instrument of her body when emotional depression and disappointment begin to make her “a moving figure of discouragement” after her long winter months in Chicago and the apparent failure of her training efforts (321).

In addition to understanding breathing techniques, the singer must come to grips with concepts of sound placement. Again, Cather makes a point of Thea Kronborg’s physique, particularly her head, which appears to be the natural one of a singer: “Everything about her indicated it,—the big mouth, the wide jaw and chin, the strong white teeth, the deep laugh” (209). Cather understood how the body functions in the production of a great singer, and she noted with pleasure in a letter to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant that a musical critic praised points about Thea’s lessons as “not only correct, but very telling ones to anyone who has worked with voices” (Selected Letters 204); however, Thea begins her instruction with Bowers already a “natural” singing technician. From Cather’s perspective, the ability to manipulate breath and sound go before the development of artistry in singing. What Cather, of course, could never experience is the arduous practice of recognizing when and how the breath is functioning appropriately and where and how sound resonates in the head.

Olive Fremstad’s teacher, the great soprano Lilli Lehmann, also acknowledged the supremacy of the physically and mentally “gifted” singer but emphasized the singer’s hard work: “The true art of song has always been possessed and will always be possessed by such individuals as are dowered by nature with all that is needful for it— that is, healthy vocal organs, uninjured by vicious habits of speech; a good ear, a talent for singing, intelligence, industry, and energy” (Lehmann 2). Controlling the balance of resonance and breathing frees the singer to make artistic choices. In effect, the opera singer is one whose training has equipped her with the ability to sound “natural.” The means to creation of art, of beauty in singing, lie directly in the power of the singer over his or her own instrument. Nonetheless, the intangible sense of beauty or quality of expression that creates original art as opposed to technically correct singing must come from the character of the individual artist. Thea understands this difference instinctively as she listens to Mrs. Priest in Bowers’ studio. Mrs. Priest ought to be “reproved and even punished for her shortcomings . . . and not be permitted to live and shine in happy ignorance of what a poor thing it was she brought across so radiantly” (283). Mrs. Priest’s expression fails in “correctness” because she makes mistakes and disregards attempts to correct them; she fails in efforts at “beauty” because she fails to understand and make artistic choices.

While many singers’ individual native voices may be called “beautiful,” this physically innate quality has very little to do with artistic expression. Thea remarks to Mrs. Harsanyi that she thinks singing “doesn’t seem to be a very brainy profession” (285), but her conclusion is based only on her observation of these inadequate performers who rely solely on their innately pleasant vocality. She tells Dr. Archie that “voices are accidental things. You find plenty of good voices in common women, with common minds and common hearts” (505). However, there is a very narrow, very difficult place that defines where the voice of a singer becomes distinct from his or her particular vocality. That line is characterized in part by the choices a singer makes in response to the text and the integrity of the character and the music, and those choices are not made by “common women with common minds and common hearts.”

A Romantic sensibility about the character of the artist permeates the novel from its opening pages because Cather uses Thea’s first music teacher to represent it. He is a product of nineteenth-century German romanticism, exuding confidence in the superiority of artistic genius. Long before Thea has a clear idea of herself as an artist, Professor Wunsch tries to explain to her what makes the musician great:

Some things cannot be taught. If you not know in the beginning, you not know in the end. For a singer there must be something in the inside from the beginning. But the secret—what make the rose to red, the sky to blue, the man to love—in der Brust, in der Brust it is, und ohne dieses giebt es keine Kunst, giebt es keine Kunst! (86–87)[3]
For Wunsch, the “Americanischen Fräulein” represented by Mrs. Priest, Jessie Darcy, and others “have nothing inside them.” They are not artists (87).

There is method in Cather’s choice of the broken-down old German musician as her mouthpiece of Romantic philosophy. His attempts to explain “the secret” are inarticulate because of his limited English, but he lacks the words in his own language as well. He must return to an imprecise metaphor, which implies that the source of the artist’s power is largely incomprehensible. Thus Cather’s novel examines the manifestation of this incomprehensible power and the possibilities and limitations afforded the person who taps into it successfully. Although Thea Kronborg does not completely understand what Professor Wunsch is trying to say, she realizes that the “something” needed for her to create is within her and that she must seek it out and cultivate it. Indeed the novel’s exploration of her life focuses on Thea’s attempts to find that “something” within herself and come to terms both with what it gives to her and with what it demands from her.


Those demands often take the form of the singer’s audience. The singer’s art depends upon the audience, the recipient of the creative process. The singer performs for the audience, and performance is a profound and elevated act of willing collaboration in which the singer is charged with communicating for herself as well as for the composer and poet. Audiences demand communion with a singer; they participate to varied degrees in a performance, and their response to it is immediate. In addition, singers fear the audience’s disapproval even as they court its adoration. The great soprano Maria Callas, though she always suffered under the disapproval of her audience, was known to take her revenge on stage: “Hissed during Medea at La Scala in 1961, she aimed her lashing ‘O Crudel!’ at the hostile audience. In Anna Bolena she upbraided the public as her persecutor, scorning its right to judge her: ‘O Giudici? Ad Anna? Giudici?’” (Conrad 321).[4]

Although great opera, like any great theater, relies on the communication of emotions, ideas, and characters with which the audience can empathize, the reality of operatic performance is that it is larger, grander, more passionate than any reality that surrounds it. Operatic performance captures, engages, and possesses the senses of the audience and makes each one a participant in the passion flooding out from the orchestra pit, from the stage, and from the singers. In his book Opera in the Flesh, Sam Abel describes his experience of the opera house as a seduction beyond rational consideration: “Opera, by throwing at its audience a constant barrage of visual and auditory stimuli, overwhelms the senses and leaves little room for objective contemplation” (28). For Abel, opera seduces primarily because its singers become the objects of desire. The singer, by virtue of the requirements of vocal projection, must sing toward the audience. Connection, communication, engagement, seduction—all happen not only between characters on the stage but also between the singer and the silent, voyeuristic audience. The singers “send their emotional energy out to the audience” (28). The singer is gazed upon, worshiped, hated, loved, desired. The power of music and voice seduces the audience into an absorption and desire even for the most undesirable persons and personalities on the stage: “Opera does not seduce me into identifying with its characters; it seduces me into desiring them. The thrill of the voice, its ability to capture my attention and throw me into raptures: This is what I feel, much more consistently than I feel sympathy or identification,” says Abel (34).

We see these kinds of reactions to Thea’s performance throughout the novel. When Thea sings for the Mexicans, “[t]hey turned themselves and all they had over to her.” When she finishes, Johnny Tellamantez wipes his brow and breathlessly tells her: “Señorita . . . if you sing like that once in the City of Mexico, they just-a go crazy. In the City of Mexico they ain’t-a sit like stumps when they hear that, not-a much! When they like, they just-a give you the town” (258). In Andor Harsanyi’s studio she “tires [him] to death” (210). “From the first she had stimulated him; something in her personality invariably affected him” (211). She has his studio so “reeking of a song” that he cannot stay there (214). When Thea finishes her performance as Sieglinde, the “house met her with a roar, a greeting that was almost savage in its fierceness” (424). Cather’s language here hints at the often erotic desire with which the audience engages and even supplants the singer with her voice.

Indeed, an audience almost wishes for the singer’s submission to the art itself. Catherine Clément suggests that opera, by its very nature and design, is engaged in the worship of as well as the destruction of the female voice. The prima donna is the object of male desire,“a living doll to be carried of and taken around for one’s personal pleasure” (26). For Clément, the voice of the feminine is always at the mercy of masculine desire, as it is in The Phantom of the Opera. Christine Daaé’s voice comes to her at the command of the faceless man who desires her above all else. She is his living music box: “The phantom, to protect her singing, carries her away a prima donna, a divine voice, an inhuman love linked to pure song” (27).

Although opera listeners will go to great lengths to hear a particular performer, in the actual performance the performer must submit, must approach self-effacement. The fans’ interest is with the voice. It is the most illusory, the most intangible element of the performance, yet also the most pleasurable. In The Angel’s Cry: Beyond the Pleasure Principle in Opera, Michel Poizat writes: T

he mission of the artist on the stage is, in a sense, to approach self-annihilation as a subject in order to offer himself or herself as pure voice. The success of this process is the condition for the dissolution of incongruity between singer and role. But when the singer fails in her mission, when she somehow reaffirms her existence not merely as a subject but as a failing subject, the spectator has to face that incongruity once again. (35)
In essence, the voice has the power to elide the incongruities of operatic performance; however, singers become consumed by their own voices, and if they fail, if the high C cracks or is not held long enough, the spell is broken, for the audience becomes aware of its disappointment.

Cather observed Fremstad’s “self-annihilation” following a performance of Parsifal: “Fremstad’s eyes were empty glass. She had spent her charge” (Selected Letters 175). The submission to the power of the human voice also besets Thea Kronborg in her performance of Elsa in Lohengrin. While listening to her, Doctor Archie feels that “[t]his woman he had never known; she had somehow devoured his little friend, as the wolf ate up Red Ridinghood” (453). Thea succeeds in that self-annihilation that produces transcendent art. Even in the afterglow of the performance, Doctor Archie observes that he does not even know her; she has been devoured by the entity known only as “Kronborg,” and the giving up of herself is what makes her successful.

Nonetheless, Cather celebrates the singer’s power that is enabled by her voice. Certainly, Thea is spent, wearied, and overwhelmed by the effort of the evening, but the significance of the evening both for Doctor Archie and for the other members of the audience is that they themselves have been drawn in by the supremacy of her performance. Doctor Archie feels himself “dreaming upon a river of silver sound. He felt apart from the others, drifting alone on the melody, as if he had been alone with it for a long while and had known it all before” (452). Even as the female singer succumbs to the death required of the libretto, the music itself offers her moments of profound power and voice:

Perhaps the single most important musical fact about opera’s female victims is that they sing with an authority equal to that of their male oppressors. Opera is built on one of the great natural equalities, namely, the equality of men’s and women’s voices. Women can sing as loudly as men, their voices embrace as large a range as those of men and they have the advantage of commanding the heights where they can emit sounds of unparalleled incisiveness. They also enjoy greater vocal facility [i.e., flexibility] than men, thus allowing them to convey a sense of tremendous energy. In no other purely physical respect are women so clearly on a par with men. (Robinson, par. 8)
Thea, like many female singers, enjoys authority of expression even in the situations that appear to be contributing to her annihilation.

Her authority reflects the kind of equality of power in the opera house that women enjoyed that they did not enjoy in the private sphere. Sopranos could wield power over the audience’s experience in the theater. And Wagnerian sopranos who dominated the operatic stage epitomized that power. In fact, the dominance of Wagnerian opera at this time was due to the availability and ability of women who could sing this repertoire. The great female stars of the Metropolitan stage were the Wagnerians: Lilli Lehmann, Lillian Nordica, Ernestine Schumann-Heinke, Louise Homer, Johanna Gadski, and Olive Fremstad. These women were large of stature, imposing of presence, and strong of voice. These were the women whose power of artistic voice Cather was anxious to understand, celebrate, and emulate.


The dominance of Wagnerian theater in America was well established by the time Olive Fremstad came to the Metropolitan because German immigrants helped build American musical life. “Between 1830 and 1920 six million Germans, 50 percent of all German emigrants, came to the United States” (Dizikes 231). Settling in the cities of the East Coast and the Midwest, these largely middle-class, well-educated people dominated musical America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through them, the philosophy, music, and controversy represented by Richard Wagner slowly filtered into the American musical consciousness.

Wagner’s vision for the operatic stage would alter the concepts of the form, trying to achieve the concept of Gesamtkünstwerk—the total art work or music drama. Wagner’s “music drama would explore the minds and psyches of people.” For his operas, drama was the primary force, “with unbroken exposition, unbroken melody, not contemptible mere tunes. Singers, scenery, direction—all a seamless fabric, with the orchestra woven into the center” (Dizikes 237). In her preface to Gertrude Hall’s Wagnerian Romances, Willa Cather noted that in “Wagnerian music-drama the literary part of the work is not trivial, as it is so often in operas, but truly the mate of the music, done by the same hand” (viii).

Wagner’s influence filtered into America through the musicianship of German immigrants who wanted performances of German music. Versions of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser as well as other German operas were performed for mostly German immigrant audiences by 1864. It was Leopold Damrosch who brought full-length Wagner operas to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. In 1884 he proposed a season of German-language opera with himself as musical director. German singers would fill the bill, and the house would lower box-office prices to accommodate the less fashionable audience (Dizikes 240–41). The season was a great success and succeeded in drawing popular support to the Metropolitan Opera.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, even though Wagner himself had been dead for a generation, the sensibilities of the growing modernist century were looking to Wagner’s Gesamtkünstwerk as an example of the highest art. In his book Aspects of Modern Opera (1908), Lawrence Gilman asserted that “no composer who ever lived influences so deeply the music that came after him, and . . . the period from Wagner’s death, in 1883, ought to be characterized as ‘the Wagnerian Aftermath’” (qtd. in Dizikes 311).

Onto this stage came American-raised soprano Olive Fremstad. If there were ever a case of being in the right place at the right time, this was it. The great operas needed a great singer, a singer who, like her fictional counterpart, Thea Kronborg, was “somebody with enough! Enough voice and talent and beauty, enough physical power. And such a noble, noble style!” (523). Everything about Fremstad and her method of artistry ft spectacularly with the Wagnerian and modernist roles in which she became a favorite:

By the turn of the century the American musical scene was at last ready to produce . . . a home-grown singer of true incandescence. She . . . did not necessarily need to possess a glorious natural voice or be a paragon of dazzling technical virtuosity, but she would have to be a vocal and physical presence of such charismatic witchery as to drive audiences wild. Sure enough, that singer soon materialized in the person of Olive Fremstad, whose performances . . . were rapturously hailed by her admirers as incomparable for their emotional intensity, expressive detail, and ferocious commitment to what was then considered the operatic ultimate: the Wagnerian ideal of Gesamtkünstwerk— the total artwork. (Davis 165)
Fremstad debuted at the Metropolitan Opera House on November 25, 1903, as Sieglinde in Die Walküre, poised to make her own the roles that were then associated with the great Lillian Nordica and Lilli Lehmann, Fremstad’s own teacher and mentor. Of her debut, Richard Aldrich of the New York Times said:
Mme. Fremstad’s performance was a delight with small alloy. . . . Her voice is of extraordinarily beautiful quality and large range, in the lower notes, particularly, of the richest contralto coloring, and its freedom and flexibility, the volume with which she poured it out, the nobility and broad sweep of her phrasing, showed in her the true artist—the artist who comprehends the essence and significance of Wagner’s musical style. (qtd. in Eisler 256–57)

During her study in Europe under Lehmann’s tutelage, Fremstad’s voice, which was first considered to be contralto, was developed into the soprano repertoire. Her career in Europe consisted mostly of the basic mezzo-soprano roles, including Carmen, for which she was particularly praised. Despite her success in these mezzo roles, including those in Wagner operas, her debut at the Metropolitan and most of her subsequent roles were in the soprano repertoire. Reviewers often pointed to this change in fach or vocal category as the reason for perceived difficulties with her upper vocal register. Cather quotes the New York Sun’s review of Fremstad’s debut as Brünnhilde in Siegfried on December 13, 1905:

About 11:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Olive Fremstad awoke from the dream that she was a dramatic soprano. The high notes which do not belong to her scale, for which she had made such elaborate preparation, refused to come. They were pitiful little head tones; . . . the meaning of Wagner was lost; the final duet was a saddening exhibition. This experiment should be a warning to ambitious contraltos, etc. (46)
Perhaps the most important point in this review is not the resistance to accepting a perceived contralto voice in a soprano role but the apparent failure of that voice to convey “the meaning of Wagner.” Passion, artistry, communication: this was the goal, and apparently at that time, for this critic, Fremstad failed to achieve that goal. However, Cather goes on to note that in a review of Fremstad’s performance of Isolde six years later, this same critic said:
She has never before sung with such freedom, such assurance, such boldness of attack, such a marvelous variety of color, and such perfectly carrying tone.

Having this splendid vocal equipment at her command, she threw herself into the rôle with such an outpouring of dramatic eloquence that she fairly lifted her associates above themselves. (46)

The language used here is entirely indicative of a response to a singer’s control of her instrument and her use of that instrument to convey meaning. “Beauty” as a critical concept is not applied to the natural endowment but rather to the use of the voice in ways that indicate thought, consideration, and choice on the part of the singer. “Mme. Fremstad says: ‘I do not claim this or that for my voice. I do not sing contralto or soprano. I sing Isolde. What voice is necessary for the part I undertake, I will produce’” (46). This is the statement of a thinking singer and is what caused Willa Cather to admire Fremstad’s artistry.

Olive Fremstad thought constantly about her performances. She practiced until she could control almost every aspect of the live event. Control, indeed, seems to have been part of the secret of her power over the roles she undertook to sing and over the audiences that clamored to hear those performances again and again. In an article about Fremstad’s preparations for Tristan und Isolde, Mary Watkins Cushing, Fremstad’s personal secretary, notes that although Fremstad was praised for her seemingly natural, spontaneous, and instinctive performances, in reality each step, each turn of the head, each interpretation of the music, was meticulously worked through. Cushing’s article offers an analysis of Fremstad’s working score of Tristan und Isolde:

During her whole professional life her working scores were her most carefully guarded possessions, for on their margins and between their lines were written the meticulous record of her studies, the profundity of her thoughts and feelings concerning her roles. Her Tristan score is rich in intimate comments and confidences, many of them revelatory of the workings of the artist’s mind and heart. (Cushing “Isolde between the Lines,” 8–9)

Fremstad’s Tristan score reveals commentary from the profound to the mundane running the gamut of physical instruction—“Lif head and upper body only”—to catty comments about her Tristan— “He always sings too loud!” (Cushing “Isolde between the Lines,” 10). Over and over she writes “Head Up!” Her commentary is interspersed with instruction and comment from none other than Gustave Mahler, who directed her debut performance in the role at the Metropolitan:

[Mahler] writes, four measures before Brangäne’s speech ends with vertraue nun Brangäne (O trust your own Brangäne),“Isolde seizes throat with both hands.” Fremstad has written instead, “Here begin to think about air,” which thought, a moment later, she will express in her cry of Luf, Luf! This is a beautiful example of the way the artist crept into the mood of her roles or, to use her own words, “the way they creep into me,” namely through the mind toward the emotion. (Cushing “Isolde between the Lines” 10)

Fremstad’s notes show her understanding of the link between the singing act and the interpretive act, a link the successful singer must understand before the voice can be released. Cather articulated this concept in “Three American Singers”: “Artistic experiences are always mental experiences and the instrument of one’s art never forgets a great moment—can always reproduce it” (46).

The final chapters of The Song of the Lark focus on the revelation of Thea’s understanding of that link as well. In her performance as Sieglinde, Thea reaps the benefits of her years of training, coming “into full possession of things she had been refining and perfecting for so long. [S]he entered into the inheritance that she herself had laid up, into the fullness of the faith she had kept before she knew its name or its meaning” (525). Musical performance depends upon the moment, upon the skill of the performer to function smoothly in re-creating the process he or she has practiced. However, artistry is not found merely in the re-creation of what has been practiced; artistry is found in the freedom gained by practice to take risks in performance and to set free an intangible element that cannot be learned. Performing is an act of honesty and of vulnerability. As Fred Ottenburg tells Dr. Archie,“The voice simply is the mind and is the heart. It can’t go wrong in interpretation, because it has in it the thing that makes all interpretation” (462). The ability to take risks enables momentary and transitory sparks of true artistic originality.

In her relatively short career at the Metropolitan (1903–1914), Fremstad left her indelible originality on most of the great Wagner roles; however, it was for her single performance of Strauss’s Salomé that she achieved a kind of personal infamy. Richard Strauss’s scandalous opera, based on Oscar Wilde’s play, came to the Metropolitan in 1907. Fremstad was cast as Salomé, and she went to considerable lengths to achieve the appropriate effect on the audience:

A fanatic for realistic detail, Fremstad must surely have been the first and last interpreter of Salomé who took the trouble to visit a morgue and rehearse with the real thing. Only by lifting an actual human head, Fremstad reasoned, could anyone tell exactly how much it weighed—twelve pounds, she noted—and how much exertion a singer must show when triumphantly holding the grisly object aloft. (Davis 166–67)
The Salomé performance scandalized the Met patrons from its suggestive Dance of the Seven Veils (performed by Bianca Froelich and not Fremstad herself) to the horrific scene between Salomé and “the head”:
[W]hen Mme. Fremstad began to sing to the head before her, the horror of the thing started a party of men and women from the front row, and from the Boxes 27 and 29 . . . two parties tumbled precipitately [sic] into the corridors and called . . . to get their carriages.

But in the galleries men and women left their seats to stand so that they might look down upon the prima donna as she kissed the dead lips of the head of John, the Baptist. Then they sank back in their chairs and shuddered. (New York Times, 23 Jan. 1907, qtd. in Eisler 279)

Henry Krehbiel called Fremstad a “sleek tigress, with seduction speaking in every pose, gesture, look and utterance.” The scandalous performance left the audience “staring at each other with starting eyeballs and wrecked nerves” as the “orchestra shrieked its final horror” (qtd. in Seltsam 173).

Madame Fremstad gave only one official performance of Salomé in addition to the open dress rehearsal. After the January 22 premiere, the reaction of the Metropolitan Board of Directors was swift. They declared “the performance of Salomé is objectionable and detrimental to the best interests of the Metropolitan Opera House” (qtd. in Eisler 280). The performances were canceled, and Salomé was not seen again at the Metropolitan Opera House until January, 1934.

Although Willa Cather must surely have known about the furor created by Salomé, she does not mention it in “Three American Singers.” This admission is not terribly surprising given the climate of the times. Thea Kronborg does not sing the Strauss role, but Cather’s description of Thea’s “constituents” in the “upper circles of the house” is reminiscent of the audience that greeted Fremstad’s performance. The upper audience is “young and hungry,” says Fred Ottenburg (483). Audience response to Thea’s performance is an important motif of the novel, and her New York performances with all of her faithful supporters in attendance are the culmination of that motif. These performances signify her success, and artistic success must remain the focus of the final sections of the novel. Therefore, although Cather hints at a certain resistance to “Kronborg” by the management of the house, Thea’s power over the audience overwhelms the political opposition. A performance by Thea representing Fremstad’s artistic but political failure on stage would draw attention away from the triumphant figure Cather celebrates.

However, Cather’s fictional singer does exhibit some of the real singer’s personality quirks, including a temper apt to alienate those in authority. When Fremstad’s temperamental personality fell afoul of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Metropolitan, her contract was not renewed for the 1914–15 season. A singer at the height of her power and influence, Fremstad was not even accorded the honor of her best role, Isolde, in her final performance. Instead she was offered Elsa in Lohengrin, not one of her most impressive roles. However, the management of the Met had not counted on the intensity of the final-night audience, which recalled Fremstad over forty times to the stage for bows:

From all parts of the building they streamed toward the stage, cheered and applauded with hands and feet, and threw kisses at their favorite. It was a farewell worthy of the place Mme. Fremstad has attained in the hearts of the music lovers of America; a superb tribute to the woman who has been one of the chief glories of the Metropolitan. With her passing, that house of song loses what it will find hard to replace. (Henry Krehbiel, New York Tribune, 24 April 1914 qtd. in Seltsam 269)
Thea’s model, Olive Fremstad, was forced out of the Metropolitan at the height of her career, after she, like Thea, had sacrificed personal relationships and connections to the art she pursued. In fact, Fremstad was moving out of the professional limelight even when the novel appeared. With the exception of a few tours, she ceased to perform professionally and lived the rest of her life largely without purpose. Mary Watkins Cushing said she “long outlived herself” (Rainbow Bridge 313). According to Edith Lewis, Fremstad “recognized herself in Thea” and told Cather that “she could not tell where Thea left of and she began” (93). On the other hand, Cushing also reported that Fremstad once said,“‘My poor Willa, . . . it wasn’t really much like that. But after all, what can you know about me? Nothing!’” (Rainbow Bridge 244).

Fremstad’s cry reflects the loneliness of the artist, the isolation and alienation that separated her even from the woman who may have understood her better than most. One only needs to observe the ambivalence with which Cather presents her great singer “Kronborg” and the sacrifices of personality and connections forced on Thea at the end of the novel to realize that Cather understood this disaffection. She saw it in herself, in her career and aspiration to create great beauty, and her sincere belief that this “voyage perilous” is limited to a very few:

It is an awful and a fearsome thing, that short voyage from the brain to the hand. Art is not thought or emotion, but expression, expression, always expression. To keep an idea living, intact, tinged with all its original feeling preserving in it all the ecstasy which attended its birth, to keep it so all the way from the brain to the hand and transfer it on paper a living thing that is what art means, that is the greatest of all the gifts of the gods. And that is the voyage perilous. (Kingdom 417)

Cather’s admiration for Fremstad was born out of an understanding of this woman’s great personal achievement. She celebrated Fremstad’s ability to rise above straitened circumstances and often inadequate backing to achieve a level of artistry instantly recognized and appreciated. “She wrung from fortune the one profit which adversity sometimes leaves with strong natures—the power to conquer” (“Three American Singers” 48). But not only her determination and drive and aspiration toward success appealed to Cather: embodied in the figure of Olive Fremstad, Cather found a woman whose artistic voice had found an ample and rewarding home in her own vocal attainments. At the end of her article on Fremstad, Louise Homer, and Geraldine Farrar, Cather quotes Goethe: “‘There are many kinds of garlands; some of them may be easily gathered on a morning’s walk.’” “There are others,” Cather writes, “that are unattainable—that no one has ever gathered, and no one ever will. But the pursuit of them is one of the most glorious forms of human activity” (48). There is no doubt that Willa Cather saw in the singer the same desire for the pursuit of that glorious activity that she sensed in herself. In order to confirm that desire in herself, she found she needed to study it in someone else. Fremstad became the inspiration for Thea Kronborg because, in her, Cather saw a cultivation of voice that paralleled her own, always seeking Professor Wunsch’s “secret,” the “somethings,” for “ohne dieses giebt es keine Kunst, giebt es keine Kunst!


 1. Edith Lewis noted that Thea’s story incorporates much of Cather’s “own childhood and youth” (92–93). In discussing the creation of the novel, Hermione Lee asserts that in The Song of the Lark “everything Cather had been accumulating in the forty years of her life—her history, her apprenticeship, her idea of the artist, her feeling of having arrived—was acted out” (118). (Go back.)
 2. Anima is the Latin for “spirit,”“breath,” and “life” in the feminine form. Spiritus is “spirit” and “breath” in the masculine form.“To inspire” or inspirare is a transitive verb related to spirare,“to breathe.”“Breathing” as a noun is spiritus. (Go back.)
 3. “It is in the breast (heart) and without this, there is no art, there is no art!” (Go back.)
 4. “Cruel!”“You judge? You judge Anna?” (Go back.)


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