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Willa and the Diva

This essay by Richard Maurer describes the friendship between Willa Cather and the famous opera singer Olive Fremstad, the "Maria Callas" of her day. For additional information about the popularity of opera, visit Opera in America.

In the fall of 1913, Willa Cather plunged into her third novel, inspired by three key life experiences: her upbringing among immigrant families in Red Cloud, Nebraska; her deep love for the American Southwest; and her newfound friendship with opera diva Olive Fremstad.

The new book, The Song of the Lark, would feature Red Cloud under the guise of mythical Moonstone, Colorado; an Arizona canyon would represent the novel's theme of spiritual rebirth; but it was Fremstad who would have by far the greatest impact on the story, for she would be the model for Thea Kronborg, the supremely gifted singer-heroine.

Olive Fremstad was the Maria Callas of her day. An opera singer of legendary talent, idolatrous fans, high fees, chronic cancellations, turbulent love affairs, and sullen moods, she was almost too hot for Cather to handle. So the Nebraska author burnished the diva's rough edges, deifying her in the process of fictionalizing her. ("Thea," after all, means goddess.) Thea and Fremstad would have similar childhoods and musical training, similar career struggles, similar artistic outlooks, and similar spectacular successes on the opera stage. But gone would be Fremstad's bizarre eccentricities, such as her visit to the morgue to test the heft of a severed head for her scene as Salomée carrying the head of John the Baptist.

Cather discovered opera in 1895, when as a senior at the University of Nebraska she traveled to Chicago to see the Metropolitan Opera on tour. She was smitten. A journalism job in Pittsburgh after graduation gave her access to more top-flight productions. She first saw Fremstad around 1905, when the diva was electrifying audiences at the Met in New York with her Wagnerian roles. By 1906 Cather was working for McClure's Magazine in New York and attending the Met regularly. "We heard [Fremstad] nearly every time she sang," reported Cather's lifelong friend Edith Lewis.

In March 1913, with the plot of The Song of the Lark starting to form in her mind, Cather went to interview Fremstad for a McClure's profile. It was their first meeting. Fremstad showed up late after a disagreeable drive. She was upset, exhausted, looked old beyond her 42 years, and could not talk above a whisper. Cather excused herself and arranged to come another time. An hour or two later, Cather was sitting in the audience at the Metropolitan Opera House telling her friends about the aborted encounter. At intermission, the manager came out and announced the scheduled soprano had been taken ill and that Fremstad herself, who had the night off, was rushing to the theater to fill in.

Cather was stunned, since she knew the diva was in no condition to perform. But when the curtain went up, there-instead of a middle-aged nervous wreck -- was a vision of youth, beauty, and vitality, singing like an angel.

"But it's impossible," Cather kept saying. "It's impossible..."

In the novel The Song of the Lark, Thea's big break comes under similar circumstances, when another singer is unable to perform and Thea is asked to take over for her at intermission. Cather was in awe of the confidence and artistry that allow a great singer to rise to such an occasion.

The author and the diva went on to become fast friends, perhaps aided by Cather's glowing profile of Fremstad in McClure's. The piece shows a depth of detail and insight more suitable to a serious opera journal than to a general interest magazine. Cather clearly wanted to get at her subject from the inside.

"She grew up in a new, crude country," Cather wrote of Fremstad, but it also applies to Thea, "where there was neither artistic stimulus nor discriminating tastes. . . She fought her own way toward the intellectual centers of the world. She wrung from fortune the one profit which adversity sometimes leaves with strong natures -- the power to conquer."

Fremstad loved the profile, but she had mixed feelings about The Song of the Lark. "My poor Willa," she once said, "it wasn't really much like that. But after all, what can you know about me? Nothing!"

Cather was not so sure, but she kept silent.


Teacher's Guide:
Teaching The Song of the Lark | Using This Web Site | Willa and the Diva



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