Frances Alda: A Journey from Antipodean Beginnings to Metropolitan Opera Stardom

Frances Alda was born as Fanny Jane Davis on 31st May 1879 in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was her famous teacher Mathilde Marchesi who evolved “Alda” as the soprano’s last name. Her mother, Leonora Simonsen, was a professional singer.

As a child, Alda was taken to Australia to live with her maternal grandparents in a suburb of Melbourne. “I cannot remember a time when I couldn’t beat my boy-playmates at tennis, or swim as fast and as far as they could. All through the long Australian summers we ran on the beach,” recalls the prima donna in her memoir Men, Women and Tenors.

In 1901, a young Alda went to London where she was turned down when she applied for work at the Gaiety Theatre. She then decided to go to Paris, where she met the great teacher Marchesi and studied with her for almost a year. Marchesi arranged for Alda to debut in Jules Massenet’s Manon at the Opéra-Comique in 1904, which was highly successful. That very night Marchesi had one of her very successful pupils, Nellie Melba, sharing her box.

Over the next two seasons, Alda gained experience as a leading soprano at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Her career took off with operatic debuts at London’s Covent Garden in 1906; Parma in 1907; La Scala, Milan and Warsaw in1908. Alda’s London debut was as an unexpected replacement for Melba in Faust; next was Rigoletto with Enrico Caruso. The remaining performances were then suddenly cancelled. Perhaps Alda’s presence in London was too much for Melba, who reigned supreme at Covent Garden.

Later that year, Alda went to Parma for the Verdi Festival singing in Rigoletto with Alessandro Bonci and Mattia Battistini. Giulio Gatti-Casazza, General Manager of La Scala, was present, and the historic opera house became the next venue in her rising career. It was at La Scala that Alda met Arturo Toscanini who became a staunch friend for the rest of her life. At La Scala, she created the heroine of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise and essayed the role of Margherita with Feodor Chaliapin in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele.

The following autumn, Alda began her long career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her debut, on 7th December 1908, was as Gilda in Rigoletto, with Caruso, Amato and Homer. She sang the roles of Mimi, Manon, Desdemona, Nanetta, Martha, Margherita, Violetta, Juliette and the Queen in Les Huguenots. Later she sang the purely lyric roles for 21 more seasons at the Met.

At the Met, she sang more than 20 roles in over 250 performances. Mimi in La bohème was her favourite role, and she sang it on 57 occasions—some featuring Caruso, Bonci, Giovanni Martinelli and Beniamino Gigli. Her closest competitor at the time was soprano Lucrezia Bori.

Alda created quite a few roles at the Met, including Francesca in Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Édouard Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys, Ginevra in Umberto Giordano’s La Cena delle Beffe, Anna in Giacomo Puccini’s Le Villiand Yaroslavna in Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor.

In 1910, she married Gatti Casazza, the then manager of the Met. By 1929, she retired from the operatic stage and, on the personal front, ended her marriage. When she announced her retirement, those who originally accorded Alda a lukewarm reception, were now reluctant to bid farewell, especially after a performance of Manon Lescaut in December 1929. Gigli and Giuseppe De Luca were her partners for her farewell. Fifteen curtain calls, lots of flowers and an illuminated scroll presented by Antonio Scotti. It was rather an evening of regret that she had made the decision to retire at the age of 45. Several broadcasts from The Waldorf-Astoria hotel, a concert tour of the United States and a visit to New Zealand and Australia brought her career to a close.

On 14th April 1941, she married a New York advertising executive, Ray Vir Den, at Charleston, South Carolina. She spent an affluent retirement, entertaining lavishly at her Long Island home and she showed a lot of passion for travel. Frances Alda died while on vacation in Venice on 18th September 1952. She was 73 years old.

Alda’s voice is beautiful, pure and clear. She had complete technical command over her vocal resources. Of the great women singers at the Met in 1926, the eminent critic W. J. Henderson wrote: “Frances Alda has a lyric soprano of excellent quality with especially pleasing head tones. She has a fairly even scale and a placement generally admirable. Her singing is often delightful in tone and is marked by great self-possession.”

Alda’s operatic arias from Manon Lescaut, Loreley, Gianni Schicchi among others, under the labels Court Opera and Club 99, are part of the Stuart-Liff Collection.

By Jimmy Bilimoria. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the March 2024 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.