Friday, May 16, 2008

Hi Diddle Dee Dee and then a high C

Like Wendy Lane, I have been a lifelong nose-in-a-book girl, with a special affection for autobiographies and biographies of adventurous women. I read about Isabella Bird, who travelled. About St. Teresa of Avila, who levitated. About Virginia Woolf and Colette, who wrote. And, to be perfectly honest, I was never convinced that Scarlett O'Hara wasn't real. For that matter, I knew Jo March was real, because she was me.

Several years ago, I was again ensorcelled by the artistry of Maria Callas, and read every biography of that great singer that I could find in print. She never wrote her own book, though, and I wished she had. Callas was a very controversial singer; some hated her voice, others worshiped her. I wish I knew what she thought, rather than what others think she thought.

RIght around that time I found The Diva's Mouth, subtitled Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics, by Susan J. Leonardi and Rebecca A. Pope in a used-book store. The book itself was interesting; the bibliography was a treasure trove, and for about a year I went on a tear of reading books about and by the great prima donnas of opera. As I look back at the list of my favorite volumes, I realize that the subjects are all unusual even for their field and time. Rosa Ponselle began her meteoric career in vaudeville, Renée Fleming started in jazz. Gerry Farrar's path took her to Hollywood, where she starred in over a dozen silent films. Mary Garden presaged Madonna in her relentless self-promotion. Emma Calvé, considered one of the greatest of Carmens, prepared for the role by going to Spain to hang out at a cigarette factory like the one in the opera, to get a sense of the lives of the women who made the cigarettes, and to learn traditional Spanish dances. Lotte Lehmann was a prolific writer (eight books published in her lifetime) and recording artist (more than 500 recordings) who has a star on Hollywood Boulevard. And finally, Marian Anderson, one of the most beautiful singers we have ever known, the first African-American singer to be a regular company member at the Metropolitan Opera. It is wonderful to learn more about these inspiring women, and most particularly wonderful to read their own words. Here is a list of the autobiographies I love:

My Lord, What a Morning, by Marian Anderson

My Life, by Emma Calvé

Such Sweet Compulsion, by Geraldine Farrar

The Inner Voice, by Renée Fleming

Mary Garden's Story, by Mary Garden and Louis Biancolli

Midway in My Song, by Lotte Lehmann

Ponselle, A Singer's Life, by Rosa Ponselle and James A. Drake

I want to add one more book, though it is not technically an autobiography, and it is not written about or by a singer. For not very much money one can buy The Diary of Frida Kahlo, An Intimate Self-Portrait. It is diary and sketchbook, and one of the most fascinating books I have ever held in my hands.

Now that you have heard from Wendy Lane and from me, let us hear from you!

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