Cimetière de Millau, Rue de l'Égalité, 12100 Millau, France
Emma Calvé, born Rosa Emma Calvet (15 August 1858 – 6 January 1942), was a French operatic soprano. She was possibly the lover of Eva Palmer-Sikelianos and part of Natalie Cliford Barney's Paris circle. She has been romantically linked to Renée Vivien. With Sarah Bernhardt she was a frequent guest of Elisabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe.
Calvé was probably the most famous French female opera singer of the Belle Époque. Hers was an international career, and she sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, and the Royal Opera House, London.
Calvé was born on 15 August 1858 in Decazeville, Aveyron. Her birth name was Rosa Emma Calvet. Her father, Justin Calvet, was a civil engineer. She spent her childhood at first in Spain with her parents, then in different convent schools in Roquefort and Tournemire (Aveyron). After her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Paris. There she attempted to enter the Paris Conservatory, while she studied singing under Jules Puget.
She started learning music in Paris from Mathilde Marchesi, a retired German mezzo-soprano and Manuel García. She made a tour of Italy, where she saw the famous actress Eleonora Duse, whose impersonations made a deep impression on the young singer. She trained herself in stage craft and gesture by closely observing Duse's performances.
She made her operatic debut on 23 September 1881 in Gounod's Faust at Brussels' La Monnaie. Later she sang at La Scala in Milan, and also at the principal theatres of Naples, Rome, and Florence.
Returning to Paris in 1891, she created the part of Suzel in L'amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, playing and singing the role later at Rome. Because of her great success in it, she was chosen to appear as Santuzza in the French premiere of Cavalleria rusticana, which was viewed as one of her greatest parts. She repeated her success in it in London.
In 1892, she spent 6 months in Rome, studying under Mustafa, the last castrato Head of the Sistine Chapel Choir, adding half an octave to the top of her range.
Her next triumph was Bizet's Carmen. Before beginning the study of this part, she went to Spain, learned the Spanish dances, mingled with the people and patterned her characterization after the cigarette girls whom she watched at their work and at play. In 1894, she made her appearance in the role at the Opéra-Comique, Paris. The city's opera-goers immediately hailed her as the greatest Carmen that had ever appeared, a verdict other cities would later echo. She had had many famous predecessors in the role, including Adelina Patti, Minnie Hauk and Célestine Galli-Marié, but critics and musicians agreed that in Calvé they had found their ideal of Bizet's cigarette girl of Seville.
Calvé first appeared in America in the season of 1893–1894 as Mignon. She would make regular visits to the country, both in grand opera and in concert tours. After making her Metropolitan Opera debut as Santuzza, she went on to appear a total of 261 times with the company between 1893 and 1904. She created the part of Anita, which was written for her, in Massenet's La Navarraise in London in 1894 and sang Sapho in an opera written by the same composer.
She sang Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet in Paris in 1899, but the part was not suited to her and she dropped it. She appeared with success in many roles, among them, as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, the title role in Félicien David's Lalla-Roukh, as Pamina in The Magic Flute, and as Camille in Hérold's Zampa, but she is best known as Carmen.
Natalie Clifford Barney tried to get Renée Vivien back for years, at one point persuading her friend, Calvé, to sing under Vivien's window so she could throw a poem (wrapped around a bouquet of flowers) up to Vivien on her balcony. Both flowers and poem were intercepted and returned by a governess.
Calvé's Metropolitan Opera career ended abruptly in 1904, as Irving Kolodin described in his book The Metropolitan Opera. She was to sing a group of Provençal songs at the Met's Sunday evening concert. Music director Felix Mottl was to accompany her at the piano. "As they were about to begin, she turned and asked him to transpose the music a tone lower. When he refused, she walked off the stage and out of the Metropolitan's history. When she reappeared in New York, it was with Hammerstein's company (1907)."
Calvé developed an interest in the paranormal and was once engaged to the occult author Jules Bois.
In the winter of 1893/1894 the Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947) executed a life-size portrait of her standing full-length in a green-blue dress, wearing an opera cloak of white and gold with a sable edge, clutching American Beauty roses. It is now lost, but a pastel he made of her in March 1894 has been discovered in a London private collection.
Calvé died on 6 January 1942 at Montpellier, Hérault, and is buried in Millau. Her voice is preserved in a number of recordings made between 1902 and 1920.
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