One of New Zealand’s Favourite Opera Singers

Frances Alda

The flame-haired beauty and opera singer, Frances Alda, is not as well-known as Nellie Melba now. Arguably, she was just as successful.

An Edwardian opera singer, Alda, became the leading opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. She also toured the world and sang with other great singers such as Chaliapin. She did all of this in spite of a great rivalry with the indomitable Melba! Alda certainly managed to go a long way from her beginnings in New Zealand and Australia.

Born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1879, Alda had a sad childhood in some ways. Her mother, the famous singer, Leonora Simonsen, died when Alda was only five. The young girl was brought up by her European grandparents, the opera singers Fannie and Martin Simonsen, in Melbourne. Her father, an amateur musician and merchant, David Davis, had divorced her mother long before this. Alda always wrote of her childhood in Melbourne with fond memories.

Frances Alda’s Early Career

Like the rest of her family, Alda’s eyes were set on the stage from an early age. She left home after her grandmother’s death in 1896. She performed with the Royal Comic Opera Company and she became the sole soprano at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre. Alda also sang in the musical, The Gay Parisienne, in Adelaide. Her good looks and lovely singing voice were widely praised.

In 1901 Alda went to Paris to study opera at Madame Marchesi’s studio. Marchesi also taught the great Melba and many other famous opera singers. Marchesi was so pleased with the young singer that she actually called her ‘the new Melba’. She also gave her her new stage name, ‘Frances Alda’. (Alda was born ‘Fanny Jane Davis’). Marchesi obtained a position for Alda with the Paris Opera Comique – her contract was for three years. Alda sang in Milan as well as France.

Melba tried to block her new rival after Alda stood in for her in Rigoletto at Covent Garden at very short notice and received rave reviews, having nine of Alda’s performances cancelled. When Alda was asked to sing in the New Manhattan Opera Company, Melba sent a famous telegram saying ‘Either Alda or myself!’, according to the writer and musical historian, Roger Neill.

Alda was apparently talented at golf as well as singing. In 1906 she won the Lady’s Amateur Golf Championship in London.

Frances Alda’s Later Career

Alda obtained her revenge when she was asked to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, after which Melba never sang there again. Alda sang there for many years and married the director, Gatti-Casazza in 1910. She often sang with Caruso and her principal conductor was Toscanini. She sang in La Boheme, Otello, Faust, and Martha. She also took many tours through America.

The opera singer also made several recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company and three short musical films. She also wrote an autobiography, Two Women and Tenors. Her first marriage was tempestuous and the stress affected her singing career. She divorced her husband in 1929 and married again in 1941 to the New York advertising executive, Ray Vir Den, who was ten years younger.

Alda toured Australia in 1927 and complained bitterly about her experiences there. She found that the theatres were like ‘ice boxes’, the hotels unendurable, and the railways ‘insufferable’. She preferred New Zealand, apparently, although according to Roger Neill she ‘always spoke lovingly of her childhood in Melbourne.’

Alda died in 1952 in Venice.