When I was younger and relatives might mention for a moment to friends or strangers, “Oh my grandmother was an Opera singer for the Met.” It almost always beget a deeply intoned questioned “Really?” and in turn someone else would chirp back in true Yankee style, “Yup.” And there it was. A completed life presented in two responses and a slang yup. Always in these thin conversations the sum achievement was presented simply as a done fact, as if Edith had been born to the stage or had an automatic pass into the complicated and competitive world of Opera. With the loss of family letters, music and diaries Edith’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren had no way to know how she had ever achieved an Opera stage career. Unknown to everyone were the details of how she had navigated in New York City in the years of 1902 and 1903 far from her family home in Vermont. The generations that followed had no way to fathom that Edith had a journey of ups and downs through lessons, concerts, Sunday social events, networking that led to nowhere on false promise and networking that brought only small gains.
Edith’s eventual success came from a long dedication to the study of music, the unwavering love and financial support of her family, the dedication of Mrs. Schirmer to Edith’s career start and Edith’s own firm sense of life purpose. I think many people in her descendant family could have guessed at most of those elements had they had a moment to reflect on her life, but the one that would have eluded us all is the role that Mrs. Schirmer played. Edith boarded with Mrs. Schirmer, but that was only the small beginning of the relationship. She had taken Edith on as a project and she meant for her to succeed. She networked on Edith’s behalf, she wrote to her parents securing the additional dramatic lessons, she accompanied Edith on auditions and spoke discreetly to the accompanists, sometimes in her native German, to find out what was really going on at different auditions. In the previous post Mrs. Schirmer announced in the letter to Edith’s mother Helen Beals Ross that she had some big things in store for Edith that week and she wasn’t kidding! The following letter from June 1903 and in Edith’s own words tells the story well.
My Precious Ones:
I have some great news for you. Yesterday afternoon I sang for Mr. Conried’s man and you should have heard the things he told me. He is a vocal teacher himself and you know how hard it is for them to praise other teacher’s pupils. He said I had an unusual and exceptional voice. That he thought too big and heavy for coloratura work and it would be twice as big as it was. He said I have too much of the voice all though twice that there was no need, it or it was only a waste of fine material particularly for the high tones. He said I had such grand big high tones that I just couldn’t resist taking the roof off but that I mustn’t do it as I must have my voice. He said it was wonderful how even and full it was from high C down to the lowest tone. Great big tones and singing the high tones all with perfect ease.
When I sang the Romeo and Juliet Waltz he kept hushing me all the time. I sang the Strauss Waltz Elsa’s Dream and the Romeo & Juliet. He said all I needed was someone to hold me in a little. Said I had a great future, talent, etc. It was honestly almost more than I could bear. He was critical too, L[handwriting difficult] would not and did not say a thing that he did not mean. He said that I had a beautiful sympathetic quality.
You see I didn’t know I was to sing for him. I went to take my lesson of Miss Collins and in the meantime Mrs. Schirmer started out determined to find out who was trying voices for Conried so she went down to the Opera House and inquired if there was anyone there trying voices and they said yes and so she sent her card in to Mr. Heinrich’s and he came out and she found that he had been very fond of her mother and they immediately became friends (he is German). She told him about me and he said he would do anything he could for me, that he was only there Thursdays and for her to go and get me right off and bring me there to sing for him. There were others singing in the mean time, he said he would wait til she got back with me. So she came down to Miss Collins and yanked me away from my lesson. We came home and got music and hurried over. I sang in a huge room with a stage in it which is called the “Opera Club”. He played my accompaniment and he spent so much time with us that the people were standing around waiting to close up the Opera House and still he talked and had me sing three things, think of it. Of course if he hadn’t taken an extraordinary interest he would have heard me sing, say my voice and let me go but he gave me a great deal of advice and information and just showed in every way that he was awlfully interested. He stopped me when I was singing and had me sing some things a different way according to some transitions etc. Which of course is very unusual and which he needn’t have done if he hadn’t cared to. He just took a great interest. At first of course on Mrs. Schirmer’s account and then on account of my voice and talent.
He is going to hear me again before Mr Conried comes back and then is going to have Mr. C hear me. He says the things, the best thing for me is to go into the school which Mr. Conried is establishing for training people for the Operatic Stage. Of course they don’t take anyone without talent and prospects and then I will be given small parts during the Opera Season as I am prepared to do it. He said he thought possibly he could get even me in for nothing, so you see what he thought of me. He wants me to come and sing Elsa’s Dream for him again. Wants to tone me down, says I sing it with too big tones and then he wants me to bring him some Schubert and Schumann songs. Isn’t it lovely of him and he says he will do all he can for me. You see Mr. Conried has left him to try the voices for him. Miss Collins knows or knows all about him and she says he is a man of great experience and all right. He was pleased to hear I was doing this work with Miss Collins.
Miss Schirmer went over to the studio with me this AM and told Mr. Desci. You can imagine that he was excited and delighted. He is crazy to have yet in with Conried. My work with Miss Collins is coming on nicely I shouldn’t wonder if I could earn some money this summer, which I would like very much…Oceans and Oceans of love to you all, Edith.
Listen to the audition songs in modern clips – Kathleen Battle sings the Romeo & Juliet Waltz here
and Elsa’s Dream sung here by Karita Mattila in a snippet of the 1996 performance of Lohengrin by the Opera Paris.