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Alda, Frances

1879–1952

Opera singer

This biography, written by Adrienne Simpson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Fanny Jane Davis, who rose to international prominence under the stage name Frances Alda, was one of the first of a long line of New Zealand opera singers to achieve such fame. She came from a strong musical background: her maternal grandparents, Fanny and Martin Simonsen, were important opera impresarios in Australasia during the 1870s and 1880s. Five of their children, including Fanny's mother, Leonore, were professional singers, and one, Frances Saville, achieved European fame as a member of the Vienna Hofoper. Fanny's father, David Davis, a merchant, was a gifted amateur musician and some of her paternal relatives sang in J. C. Williamson's light opera companies. Such an inheritance almost predestined her for a career on the musical stage.

After Fanny Davis was born in Christchurch on 31 May 1879 David Davis objected to his wife resuming her professional career, and the couple divorced in September 1880. Thereafter, Fanny and her older brother alternately lived with relatives or accompanied their mother on tour. When Leonore Davis died in San Francisco on 29 December 1884, shortly after marrying Herman Adler, her two children finally found a stable home with their Simonsen grandparents in Melbourne.

Fanny Davis's musical gifts were apparent early. She studied both piano and violin, but her greatest enthusiasm was for singing. Although she later took lessons from the distinguished Australian tenor Armes Beaumont, much of her technical and interpretive knowledge came from listening to her beloved grandmother teach. She seems to have found her grandfather a forbidding figure. Her grandmother's untimely death in 1896 precipitated Fanny's decision to leave home and earn her own living. In March 1897 Melbourne periodicals reported her engagement by the J. C. Williamson organisation; she was billed as 'Francie Adler'.

Her professional début, in the Adelaide production of the musical extravaganza Matsa, was followed by a small role in the Australian première of the hit musical The gay Parisienne. Subsequently she appeared in pantomime, sang in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and other light operas, and performed with the Harry Rickards variety company at Sydney's Tivoli Theatre. In August 1901 she left Australia to pursue her vocal ambitions in Europe. At this time she amended her first names from Fanny Jane to the more elegant Frances Jeanne. She also began to falsify her age, shedding four years to create the persistent fiction that she had been born in 1883.

In Paris she became a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, who gave her the stage name 'Alda' and arranged her successful European début, at the Opéra-Comique on 15 April 1904, in the title role in Massenet's Manon. For the next three seasons she gained experience as a leading soprano at the Théâtre royale de la Monnaie, Brussels. Her career also gathered momentum elsewhere, with operatic débuts at London's Covent Garden (1906), Parma (1907), La Scala, Milan (1908), and Warsaw (1908), as well as numerous concert engagements.

On 7 December 1908 Alda made her début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, singing Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto. The 'Met' was home to the world's most star-studded opera company. Alda spent 22 seasons there from 1908 until her retirement from the operatic stage on 28 December 1929. During this period she gave 281 performances at the Met itself and a further 88 while touring with the company. Critics considered the finest of her 26 roles to be Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème. She sang it 80 times – a company record – partnering all the leading tenors of her era from Caruso to Gigli. Other successes included the title role in Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff and Desdemona in his Otello, Margherita in Boito's Mefistofele, Marguerite in Gounod's Faust and Lady Harriet in Flotow's Martha. She also participated in the premières of several short-lived American operas.

Between Met seasons, Alda undertook extensive recital tours throughout America, and performed several times at South American opera houses. She made her gramophone début in 1910, eventually recording more than 120 titles for the Victor Talking Machine Company. These included two New Zealand items, 'Waiata Maori' and 'Hine e hine'. After retiring from the stage she took part in a pioneering series of radio productions of Puccini operas and made three short musical films. Her autobiography, Men, women and tenors, was published in 1937. Notable for its candour and writing style, the book contains much good advice for young singers. It also makes clear Alda's allegiance to New Zealand.

Although she spent very little time in the country of her birth, Alda consistently described herself as a New Zealander. After revisiting the country during an Australasian recital tour in 1927, her adherence became wholehearted. She maintained contact with several paternal relatives, and despite the precautionary acquisition of American citizenship in 1939 continued to emphasise her New Zealand origins and identify strongly with the country and its people.

Alda's decorous stage presence contrasted with her tempestuous private life. Bluntly outspoken and acutely sensitive to slights, yet impulsively generous and with a robust sense of fun, she made enemies and friends in equal proportion. She was an advocate of women's rights in the music profession, and never hesitated to resort to law on her own behalf. For much of her career she was handicapped by her marriage, at New York, on 3 April 1910, to the Met's general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. His need to avoid any hint of favouritism restricted her opportunities, while she felt a continual need to prove her artistic worth – as much to herself as the public. She divorced him in 1928; they had no children. On 14 April 1941, at Charleston, South Carolina, she married New York advertising executive Ray Vir Den. Alda spent an affluent retirement, entertaining lavishly at her Long Island home and indulging in her passion for travel. She died of cerebral haemorrhage in Venice on 18 September 1952.

How to cite this page:

Adrienne Simpson. 'Alda, Frances', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3a9/alda-frances (accessed 17 November 2018)