Have you heard of Emma Calvé? I hadn’t, until I read about her in a French novel. However, she was one of the brightest stars of her time in the singing world and had a highly-acclaimed international career. Hers is a fascinating rags-to-riches-to-rags story, which has inspired my latest novel, Overture.
Rosa Emma Calvet (Emma Calvé was her stage name) was born in 1858 in the coal-mining town of Décazeville in Southwest France. Early on, she showed great vocal promise. On hearing her sing, the Bishop of Rodez said, “The Lord is in this child’s voice. She should devote her life to singing.”
Many obstacles stood in Emma’s way. Her parents separated and, at the age of 16, she moved to Paris with her mother and two brothers. Money was short, but the actor and singer Jules Puget consented to give her lessons.
Anxious to help support her family, she secretly took an audition at l’Eldorado café-concert. Not understanding what sort of entertainment they provided, Emma started to sing an air from a Donizetti opera. She was jeeringly halted after the first few bars and fled in embarrassment.
Career takes off
Emma’s tutor, Puget, managed to secure more serious singing engagements for her. Finally, in 1881, she made her stage debut in Brussels in the role of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, and then sang in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. On her return to Paris, she took singing lessons with a celebrated soprano. Eventually, she was engaged by the Opéra-Comique and her career took off. She travelled throughout the world and sang La Marseillaise to an audience of 30,000 people in New York in 1916.
The role of Emma’s life was Bizet’s Carmen, which she sang for the first time at l’Opéra-Comique in 1892 at the age of 34. To prepare for the role, she visited Spain and studied the cigarette-selling gypsy women. She also engaged a dancer to teach her correct flamenco moves. Method acting before its time. Emma sang Carmen more than 1,000 times.
Success brought wealth, and Emma led an extravagant lifestyle, buying a château near Millau in her native Aveyron. She was so famous in France that her photo even appeared on Poulain chocolate bars.
In 1911, Emma married an Italian tenor, Eugène Galileo Gaspari. He was 36 and she was 53, an unusual age difference for the time. The marriage ended in 1921, since Gaspari was a serial adulterer and amassed huge gambling debts, which Emma had to pay off. She never married again, but had a long relationship with the writer Jules-Bois. Some sources speculate that she also had various lesbian affairs.
Emma Calvé gave up singing opera in 1904, but continued to give recitals until 1926, after which she focused on teaching. She became increasingly fascinated by the occult and the paranormal. Despite her successful international career, she died in relative poverty in 1942, having sold the château some years previously.
Emma Calvé is almost unknown today and few recordings of her voice exist.
Inspiration for a novel series
My novel, Overture, is Book 1 of a trilogy centred on Marie-Thérèse Vernhes, who has a remarkable singing voice and wants to become a professional singer, despite the many obstacles ranged against her. Overture covers the period 1897 to 1914, the outbreak of World War I. The trilogy will end in 1945.
Marie-Thérèse is also born in Aveyron, Southwest France, although 20 years later than Emma Calvé. I have borrowed certain other elements from Emma’s life: the Bishop’s praise of her singing; the move to Paris and the constant lack of money; the many setbacks to her ambitions. But Marie-Thérèse is very much her own person: she’s not a clone of Emma Calvé.
Overture is available in paperback and ebook formats. The sequel, Intermezzo, is forthcoming in 2022 and Book 3, Finale, in 2023. A prequel to the series, Augustine, about Marie-Thérèse’s parents, set in rural France in the 1880s, is also available.
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