Thursday, September 9, 2010


Dear Lillian Nordica: As celebrated as your life was acclaimed on the international opera stages you never lost sight of your modest Maine roots. Nordica’s fabulous life from her frugal upbringing to her career as an opera star is a significant portrayal of a woman determined to succeed. Demonstrating courage, independence of spirit and compassion, Nordica’s valuable contribution to the world of music is an inspiring story. Even opera aficionados today never cease to marvel at her accomplishment as America’s first international diva.

As American as Apple pie, Nordica was born Lillian “Lillie,” Norton in Farmington, Maine on December 12, 1857 in a small farmhouse built by her grandfather. She was the sixth daughter of Amanda Allen and Edwin Norton. Lillian’s mother was the family’s motivator who was full of ambition for her family. At home the entire family sang but Lillian was not the favored daughter. The family pinned its hopes on Wilhelmina, her older sister, who had studied at the New England Conservatory. However, fate would play its hand in Lillian’s life. When Wilhelmina caught typhoid fever on a visit to cousins in Farmington and died the family’s hopes of fame and fortune were dashed.
Stunned by the death of her daughter, Amanda went into two years of mourning but Lillian’s lilting voice caught her ear and Amanda seemingly revived spontaneously to focus on Lillian as the family’s rising star. Lillian began her vigorous vocal training in Boston at the New England Conservatory, and then she gave recitals throughout the United States and England, while barely in her teens. Accompanied by her devoted mother, Lillian studied further in Milan. Her obsession for patient study of languages and opera scores sets an example for aspiring students today. The Nordica stage name was bestowed by San Giovanni, an Italian maestro, convincing her that a plain sounding name would not appeal to European opera-goers. The adopted name was Giglia Nordica, (Lily of the North) but she soon became known as “Madame Nordica” or simply as “Nordica”.
As Madame Nordica Lillian made her debut at Brescia in 1879 where she sang Violetta in La Traviata and went on to high honors showered with bouquets by adoring fans. Later engagements included ten secondary roles at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg, Russia. Nordica’s magnificent voice of liquid purity carried her triumphantly throughout Europe. The year 1882 marked her Paris opera debut as Marguerite in Faust. Nordica became the leading prima donna of the Paris season and couturiers named a new color and a new cloak, “la Nordica.” And at last she was treated like royalty and coming from frugal stock she fully appreciated the elaborate concert gowns fashioned by Worth of Paris, the fine jewelry and accolades. It is suggested that her costumes, stage jewelry and opera scores will be of great value to future singers as models for the many operatic roles for which they were designed and worn.
Nordica’s impressive voice which gave a hint of her dramatic soprano. She was the first American woman asked to sing at the Beyreuth Festival in Germany in 1894 and would create of the role of Elsa for Cosima Wagner’s production of Lohengrin. German opera houses were then open to her and there was a great surprise that an American soprano could sing Wagnerian roles. With her big, agile, soprano voice her repertoire included Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde. In New York her Bel Canto style rivaled that of Melba, Patti and Caruso, and her frequent stage partner at the Metropolitan Opera House was the cultured Polish tenor Jean de Reszke. Nordica’s rare dramatic gift combined with an exceptional range and magnificent power and with a charming persona represented everything fine in vocal art.
Nordica’s private life had a hint of the dramatic but with mostly disappointing consequences. Nordica married three times. Her first husband, Frederick Allen Gower, a second cousin, didn’t even like opera and almost jeopardized her career. This disastrous liaison ended when she became a widow under mysterious circumstances. For all her discipline when it came to singing, by her design when it came to romance she was less fortunate. She married for a second time, divorced and married again to a man who wooed her with emeralds.
In 1913, Nordica embarked on a recital tour to Australia. She nearly missed the ship leaving Sydney on her return, and that proved to be fatal mistake. Her untimely death came as a result of a shipwreck in the South Seas. Nordica became seriously ill with pneumonia and her sweet voice was hushed at Batavia, Java on May 10, 1914.
Great details about her operatic life and sad personal life are chronicled in the “Yankee Diva, Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera” written by Ira Glackens, (1963). Lillian Norton was never forgotten by Farmington, Maine. The townspeople bought the farmhouse where she was born and opened the Nordica Homestead Museum where many artifacts from her extraordinary career are displayed. Location: 116 Nordica Lane, Farmington, Maine 04938-5664. Telephone: 207.778.2042.

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