The Great Frieda Hempel
Frieda Hempel, (1885-1955) was born in Leipzig and began her studies as a very young woman, first at the Conservatory in Leipzig, and then, shortly thereafter, at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin. Her young voice was rather extraordinary because of its great range. The sharp differences between coloratura and regular soprano repertoire were not so much observed in her day, when she was viewed simply as a soprano with an unusually high top register. Her earliest roles were fairly standard coloratura repertoire, such as Rosina, Gilda, and Queen of the Night. However, even at the very tender age of 20, she sang, during her debut years around 1905, roles such as Violetta, Leonora and Woglinde. It was this ability to sing high coloratura roles along with what today are considered heavier soprano roles that characterized her career path from the very beginning. She sang at the Royal Court Opera in Berlin between 1907 and 1912, where she added the roles of Lucia and Marguerite de Valois to her repertoire.
Her international career began during that same approximate period. In Covent Garden, (amazingly by today's standards) she sang both Eva and Elsa. By 1912 she had sung at the Metropolitan Opera, where she stayed for a good while, basically making the Met her artistic home during the peak of her career. Again, her repertoire was very wide, extending from the great coloratura roles of the day all the way down to Rosenkavalier and Ballo in Maschera! Such a thing would be unheard of today, but her era was a different story altogether. There were operas to be sung and singers to sing them, and that pretty much described the situation. Beginning around 1920, when she would only have been 35, she left the Met and started to concertize in earnest, essentially developing a second career, in which she was also very successful.
I think it makes most sense to first hear Frieda Hempel in an extremely demanding coloratura aria, because it was her astonishing upper register that perhaps dominated the largest part of her early repertoire. I would simply ask you to remember that this great artist also sang Wagner! Here is the famous Queen of the Night aria. This particular recording, from 1911, is fairly rare, and you will smile, I think, at two things—the first is the cute illustration on the video, and the second is the gratuitous F above high C that she tosses in at 1:03, as though the aria were not high enough already! This recording is positively delightful:
Now how about that! I find myself smiling from ear to ear. A first-rate coloratura, endowed with what, to my way of thinking, is a real coloratura sound, in the class of Galli-Curci and Lily Pons. There have been much heftier soprano sounds, driven to great heights by superb technique, but at that point aesthetic problems arise, I think. This I would characterize as Golden Age bel canto. Now here is something that is just plain fun!
Irresistible! Everybody was doing the same thing back then. The economic potential of making records had become apparent to all, and opera singers were the most popular and respected singers, generally speaking, of that period. The temptation was enormous. With all the American homes with pianos in the parlors, all the sheet music sales, and all the people buying Victrolas; well, it was inevitable. Louise Homer, Amelia Galli-Curci, Alma Gluck, Enrico Caruso, John McCormack—they were all making "popular" recordings, usually abounding in covered vowels and nearly incomprehensible foreign accents, but never mind....it was a particular time and a particular moment in American cultural history. Frankly, I love it!