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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Louise Homer: A Great Met Favorite for 30 Years



The contralto Louise Homer was one of the most popular of the Met regulars in the earliest years of the twentieth century. She was born Louise Dilworth Beatty in Pittsburg in 1871, and in 1895 married the composer Sidney Homer. Her 1898 European debut was in Vichy, in La Favorita, and in 1900 she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Amneris in Aida. She was an immediate favorite, and would go on to sing 42 roles in over 700 performances at the Met, which became her artistic home. Her voice was noteworthy for its power and beauty. She was a genuine contralto, and sang very convincingly in that range. Here is a recording I posted on Youtube a few days ago, which lets us hear her in the lovely and poignant "Voce di Donna," from Ponchielli's La Gioconda. You may have to turn up the sound a bit. This is a vinyl transfer of a 1912 recording, and I did not sufficiently power up the audio input. I will correct it shortly:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R42Ax63JGc4


As you can see, hers was a very lovely, dark voice. She sang quite well technically, largely avoiding the annoying scoops and plunges into different vocal registers that were all too common, especially among sopranos, at that time. There is a charming and attractive Italian legato to her singing that made her a very credible fit with great Italian singers of the day, especially Enrico Caruso, who was a friend and colleague, and often paired with her. Here is a gem from Aida. You can gauge the power of her voice by noticing how well she holds up her end of the duet against the great tenor, whose voice was renowned for its power. The Bb's in the duet ask a lot of a contralto, but Homer handles them quite well. And this is without any electrical tricks, because they were both standing side by side, sharing a large recording horn:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBsx5mlWzg8


She was quite something! Although she got rather heavy in later life (now there's a novelty for an opera singer!), it did not diminish her popularity one bit. There was something very personable about her, and she was a real American singer, grounded in American life and music. (She even recorded the National Anthem) Not only was she the wife of composer Sidney Homer, but she was the aunt of Samuel Barber, as well as a good friend of Alma Gluck, wife of Efrem Zimbalist. She was everywhere surrounded by the music and musicians of her day. She recorded many sentimental Victorian favorites and a fair amount of popular American church music, which spread her fame greatly. This is the era of the parlor piano, whose music rack contained anthology after anthology of songs known and loved by almost all Americans. Here is a wonderful duet, very evocative of that time. She teams with Alma Gluck in "Rock of Ages," one of the best known hymns of the day. They alternate the verses and join on refrains:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmX7-oamAcY



Ice cream socials, Sunday strolls in the park, with parasols, barbershop quartets, Easter Day parades down Fifth Avenue, and an innocent America—it all comes back, listening to this simple hymn sung by two great Metropolitan Opera voices. This has to be one of the most charming and instantly identifiable periods of American history, and Louise Homer was solidly within it.

14 comments:

corax said...

another wonderful tribute, to another of my all-time favorites. spot-on as usual in your assessment. i had not heard this 'voce di donna' recording before, btw. thanks for including that.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your comment. I'm so glad to know of your fondness for her. I agree. I love her. Yes, the Voce di Donna seems to be the only one on Youtube, which is unusual, as so much is now up. I have an old collection of RCA tributes to great Met singers over the period of 100 years, and my eye immediately fell on this, not only because of its antiquity, but rarity. She was a lovely lady. Her recording of the Star Spangled Banner is an absolute joy, but she sings more than one verse, which makes it little long:) I'm a patriot, mind, but the full version of the National Anthem can be a bit, uh, shall we say trying:)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article, Sir Edmund. I didn’t know about her. I understand why she was so popular - her timbre and passionate manner of singing are very impressive. She was a great partner for Caruso, and it was not easy, as I imagine. He was a very emotional singer with the powerful voice, and she could be on the same level. It seems to me that her high notes are extraordinarily high for a contralto. Caruso often sounds like a baritone , though his high notes are ringing, so their voices match perfectly.

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Absolutely correct, my friend. She and Caruso worked beautifully together. She was American, but she sang as the Italians sing, because New York, from that day to almost the present, was Little Italy as far as opera is concerned. She adapted very well. And you are right about the range in the piece. It takes an alto with a good top to really do justice to Amneris, which is a brutal role if there ever was one. The first high note that Homer sings in this duet is a G natural, and that for her is getting close to her natural top. To try to sing two full tones above G is very hard, and she doesn't really quite make it. Even for Caruso, a high voce singer, B natural is a stretch. For a contralto, it's too much to hope for, at least for one who carries up as much weight in the voice as Louise Homer did. That was a BIG voice.

Edmund St. Austell said...

And one other thing, n.a., you are right about the baritonal quality of his voice. That is one of the criticisms commonly leveled at Caruso, and that is that he is basically a baritone with a high top. As you can imagine, that is a good way to start a screaming argument among opera lovers:)

Anonymous said...

"As you can imagine, that is a good way to start a screaming argument among opera lovers:)"

I noticed that the reason of many quarrels among opera fans is not a singer's voice, but the competition "whose taste is more refined":)
Personally, I don't think that his baritonal quality is bad.In contrary, it's exciting to hear that a low voice turns into high one, like it is with Giacomini, and Homer(among contraltos)

n.a.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make a good point, of course. The refined taste argument is at the base of many such distinctions. Given the fact that Caruso was known for his big, heroic roles, especially late in his career, the big baritonal middle voice served him well. The comparison to Giacomini in that regard is an apt one. Caruso was a verismo tenor to the very core. I suppose that for those who prefered more traditional, bel canto types (Bonci, Schipa) it might seem that Caruso did a lot of screaming, but all that is, as you correctly say, a matter of taste.

Ernzo said...

I wandered into this page, Louise Homer was my paternal great grandmother, her daughter Louise Stires my grandmother, and we are always amazed at how much is available online. Searching for any movie clips, but no luck! Maybe a lost cause, oh well, we have the recordings!

E. Stires

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much for your comment. Your great gradmother was a very beloved figure in the history of music in this country. You must still to this day be very proud of her! I'll keep my eyes open for any hints of an old film, and will be sure to pass the word along if I find anything. I assume your name as listed above will connect us. Thanks again for the comment. (I heard two weeks ago from Galli Curci's great-niece! ) Edmund

Lisa Beekley Brown said...

Louise Homer was my great grandmother as well; her daughter Hester was my grandmother. My maiden name was Louise Homer Beekley, although I went by the nickname of Lisa. As a child, Homer was a difficult middle name for a girl to have but when I got to college the music professors made quite a fuss and it made me very proud. It is exciting to read so many glowing comments about her still today, especially since she died 13 years before my birth.

L. Beekley Brown

Edmund St. Austell said...

It's nice to know there are so many great grandchildren around! You are all fortunate to be able to count as a relative one of the most beloved singers this country ever produced. People still speak of her fondly today. She was a lovely person and a great artist! I appreciate your comment!

Gerhard Santos said...

MOLTO BELLO!!! Thank you so much for this Valuable biographical information. Thank you for posting this great operatic soprano and I enjoyed it so much! again Thank you my friend! More Blessing and Good Luck!* GOD BLESS *

Edmund St. Austell said...

You are most welcome.

L Kidwell said...

This is a thrilling note to read, as I sm a great-granddaughter! E must stand for Ernie. I am Happy' granddaughter. I'm wondering if she ever sang a role in Oedipus, Enescu's only opera. I visited his home in Romania today.