Title: London Conquered | Grace Greenwood's Description of the Contest

Periodical: The Washington Post

Date: October 16, 1887

Author: Lippincott, Sara Jane, 1823-1904

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The Warriors a Bevy of American Singing Girls—Some Yankee Theatrical Successes—Buffalo Bill—The Wild West and Indians.

When we were in Paris last June the musical sensation in the American colony was the debut in concert of a young ("only fifteen") American girl, a protege of Mr. Strakosch, [2] and heralded by him as that star, long anxiously looked for, through managerial telescopes, yet ever proving distant and nebulous—"Patti's successor." [3] This charming girl, and, considering her age, wonderfully brilliant and artistic singer, was then known to us as Miss Nickerson. [4] But, for the sake of euphony, brevity, or novelty, her respectable patronymic was made to suffer a slight change into Nikita, which nom de theatre was found to have not only an original but an aboriginal character. And thereby was made to hang a tale. When the young lady came to sing in London, the Wild West show still held its own, and the Murat of showmen, the dashing and debonair "Buffalo Bill," was but a little over the top wave of popularity, while the handsome chief "Red Shirt," was still lionized, like a second Garibaldi, [5] and there was a strong flavor of barbarism in the air.

The irrepressible impresario, Mr. Mapleson, [6] having Miss Nickerson in charge, saw his opportunity and set afloat certain romantic stories concerning her,—how in her infancy she was captured by a noble red man, who christened (if I may use the word) the little captive "Nikita"—at a no less grand and solemn font than the cataract of Niagara—he being a chief of the wild and ferocious tribe who, as is well known, have their haunts and hunting grounds in the "forest primeval" about the Falls. Here she dwelt for several years, sheltered in the cave of the winds, or left to run like a wild kid on Goat Island. At the age of six she is said to have been a singer, able to draw from her barbarous and sanguinolent audiences, abundant tears and prophecies of a brilliant operatic career; and when hardly twelve, two Indian admirers (rival impresari, probably) fought a duel on her account, in which they killed and scalped each other.

I have not heard the whole of "this strange, eventful history," so do not know how poor little Nikita got out of the woods. But she is quite civilized now, with no smell of wigwam smoke on her garments, and no gloss of bear's grease on her hair; and when you see the nice young lady on the stage, daintily costumed and singing some elaborate cavatina, her joyous high notes circling and frolicking in the air, like so many larks tipsy with delight, you find it difficult and disagreeable to believe that she was so little while ago, semi-savage—clad in deerskin and wampum, and living on dried fish, possum meat and succotash. Happily, you needn't believe it.

I remember a similar "cram" about Van Zandt. [7] It was said that, once on a time, she a mere chit of a girl, while galloping about the wilds of Texas on her pony, was enticed into an Indian encampment, and would have been detained there, had she not used the magic of her voice, and sung herself out of captivity. No great marvel. I have known more than one prima donna quite lacking in Marie Van Zandt's rare vocal gifts and personal graces, able to do as much for herself, and that speedily.

Surely, no good can result from the retailing of sensational stories, veracious or false, of American singers or any other artists. If the subjects of these romances have genuine merit, they do not need them,—if lacking talent and charm, no amount of humbug can bolster them up.

I think the time is past for Americans to find the fields of dramatic enterprise and artistic effort, over here, hedged about by the thorns and brambles of petty national jealousy. They are now freely admitted, and find the competition tolerably fair, if success and honors are not always cheerfully accorded. After the gigantic success of the "Wild West," came two fine dramatic hits, followed by splendid runs—Mr. Gillett's [8] clever play—"Held by the Enemy," and the stirring and most interesting melo-drama, announced as by Joseph Jefferson [9] et. al., "The Shadows of a Great City,"—brought out at the Princess's by a spirited little American woman, Mrs. Grace Hawthorne, [10] who is reaping a rich reward for courage and sagacity. Throughout the season of Italian Opera, at Covent Garden, the most applauded, as well as the youngest and fairest of the prime donne, was an American—Miss Ella Russell, [11] of Cleveland—a singularly sympathetic, natural, unassuming, good girl—with a voice as fresh and pure as the air of a June morning in the mountains—and as sweet and liquid as the singing of its birds and the gurgle of its brooks. Another prima donna at that theatre was Albani, [12] counted as an American, in spite of the burning "Fishery question." Then there were Valda the brave [13] and Nordica the fair, [14] and that Carmen of Carmens, Minnie Hauk. [15] On the concert stage, our noble Antoinette Stirling [16] holds her place still—the queen of ballad-singers—while Hope Glenn, [17] another American contralto, continues to win her way bravely, though she may well look to her laurels when Emily Winant [18] is about. From the deep contralto of this singer to the high, light soprano of Marie Decca, [19] is a "far cry." The latter, "which her name is" Mary Johnston, is much admired for the exceptionally high notes of her voice and her facility in executing way up there. Nevada [20] and Van Zandt were also in London during the season, but neither was before the public. The one was engaged in singing lullabies to "a small but appreciative audience"—the other slowly recovering from a cruel illness, which nearly made shipwreck of a young life richly freighted by nature and art.

I heard a good deal said of yet another American singer, as one destined to come in for very high honors. This was Mme. Kate Thayer, [21] daughter of Judge Thayer, of New York. She is, I am told, an artist not only of genius, but of rare intelligence and refinement, and severe, conscientious study. In Australia, she had great success, and on each occasion of her singing in London has created a most flattering sensation. She has an immense repertoire, is personally attractive—is, in short, fully equipped for the hard hand-to-hand struggle which the over-crowded profession has now become.

The baritone hero of the charming new comic opera, "Dorothy," is an American, Mr. Hayden Coffin [22] —justly a great favorite, for he is, in the first place, a good artistic singer; then a handsome young fellow, who certainly looks modest, refined and quite unspoiled.

Another young American heartily liked by the English music-lovers for his fresh, unaffected style of singing and manly bearing before an audience, is Orlando Harley. He sings now mostly in concerts, and has been engaged to accompany Patti on her provincial tour.

But I find it impossible to recall even the names of many of the American artists we met or heard during the season just past. They settled on London like an immense swarm of bees; but I fear that few took away any honey. In fact, the splendid series of royal shows, the host of out-door attractions, the multitude of charity entertainments, caused the artistic to be the poorest harvest of the season. It was not a good time for any but sensational ventures to bid for the favor of a much jaded and jubileed public.

Mrs. Jaques Brown Potter [23] might have done better had she waited till the "hurly-burly" was done. I did not see her, but her friends tell me she was treated with scant courtesy and less justice, by play-goers and critics, who were more than courteous and just toward Mary Anderson. [24] But "our Mary," backed by legitimate home-successes, appealed to their judgment on her own merits and graces, and charmed from the first,—while the lady of society and fashion enjoyed "the chivalrous patronage or championship of royalty." A very comfortable thing, but it has its drawbacks. Art is a republic, and gives its suffrages to the artist, not to the amateur—insisting that the candidate, however pretty or plucky, shall toil up to its high places by the regular common stairway, not arrive by a lift.

With the eighty thousand visitors from the other side, what wonder that the astounded English cried, "The Yankees have taken London!" Jubilee "high jinks," however, must have made them especially good-humored, for they certainly took the tidal wave of our visitation kindly enough. Most things American have been condescendingly smiled on, even to the Exhibition—though they irreverently called that "The side-show of the Wild West." By the way, it seems to me that a grand opportunity was lost in our not making this Exposition more worthy, in variety and extent, the great Republic, over whose magnificent "Centennial" "all the world wondered." But whoever lost the Hon. W. F. Cody certainly won. When the Queen honored the "Buffalo Billeries" with her august presence, and laughed her rare laugh over the bucking bronchos, and when the Princess of Wales [25] was gracious and jolly enough to indulge in a slide down the toboggon, an up and down or two on the "Switchback Railway," and a drive toward the arena, accompanied by a lot of kings and queens, in the ramshackle old Deadwood coach—(just the vehicle, by the way, for royalty in these times)—they set the fashion, for the season at least, in favor of America and the Americans, and we became as though we had never, never fallen from the grace of loyalty into the recusancy of republicanism. Even footmen and lodging-house keepers forgave us.

But the great test of British good-feeling came when the Americans residing in London, jubilated on their own account, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the United States. The transatlantic detachment of the New World's political Salvation Army chose the Crystal Palace for its grand "Glory Hole"—therein to hold its "Love-Feast," which was, I hear, an exclusively national affair,—no one allowed to actively participate who could not accurately whistle "Yankee Doodle," though a few of the descendants of the men worsted and ousted by our rebel ancestors, were allowed to look on and listen—admire and applaud. It struck me as rather a ticklish undertaking—certainly seemed a little like ramming rebellion down the throat of the British lion. But, perhaps, he wagged his tail. I cannot say. The Yankee Doodle clause let me out.—that being the air which I cannot whistle.

Note 1: Grace Greenwood, the pseudonym used by Sara Jane Lippincott (1823-1904), an American journalist, author, poet, editor, and lecturer; Greenwood was one of the first women to earn a place in the Congressional press galleries. [back]

Note 2: Maurice Strakosch (1825-1887), an American of Czech origin, was a musician and impresario who helped start the career of "Nikita," American soprano Louisa Margaret Nicholson. Upon his sudden death in 1887, his son Robert (b. 1854-) acquired Maurice's clients. [back]

Note 3: Adela Juana Maria Patti (1843-1919), acclaimed operatic soprano of the 19th-century hailed from Craig-y-Nos Castle, Brecon, Wales. [back]

Note 4: Miss Nickerson is actually Louisa Margaret Nicholson (b.1872-), an American soprano singer with the stage name Nikita, who became a sensation in Europe until a bicycle accident in 1897 crushed her throat ending her singing career. [back]

Note 5: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), an Italian general and politician, was a major influence in the history of Italy and considered one of Italy's "fathers of the fatherland." [back]

Note 6: James Henry Mapleson (1830-1901), an English operatic impresario with an international reputation as a successful manager. [back]

Note 7: Marie van Zandt (1858-1919), an American soprano opera singer. [back]

Note 8: William Hooker Gillette (1853-1937), an American actor, playwright, and stage-manager. [back]

Note 9: Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905), an American actor. [back]

Note 10: Grace Hawthorne (1847-1922), an American actress, became actress/manager/producer at the Princess Theatre and the Olympian Theatre in London, England, during the 1890s. [back]

Note 11: Ella Dora Russell (1864-1936), an American soprano opera singer. [back]

Note 12: Dame Emma Albani (1847-1930), the first Canadian operatic soprano of the 19th and early 20th century to attain international stardom. [back]

Note 13: Giulia Valda (1855-1925), the stage name of American born Julia Wheelock, was an international prima donna operatic soprano before giving her first performance in the United States. [back]

Note 14: Lillian (Lillian Allen Norton) Nordica (1857-1914), an American dramatic operatic soprano with a major international stage career. [back]

Note 15: Amalia Mignon "Minnie" Hauk (1851-1929), an American operatic soprano of international fame for her role of Carmen which she performed in multiple languages. [back]

Note 16: American by birth, Antoinette Sterling (1850-1904) was considered a famous English ballad singer of the late 19th century. [back]

Note 17: Hope Glenn (1860-1927), an American contralto singer who chose to remain in England after her debut there in 1882. [back]

Note 18: Emily Winant, an American contralto of the St. Thomas Church choir as well as a renowned concert contralto in New York, Boston, London, and Dresden, Germany. [back]

Note 19: Marie Decca (b. 1862-), an American singer who toured with John Philip Sousa and the United States Marine band. [back]

Note 20: Emma (Wixom) Nevada (1859-1940), an American operatic soprano. [back]

Note 21: Kate Thayer, an American soprano. [back]

Note 22: Hayden Coffin (1862-1935), an English actor and singer. [back]

Note 23: Mrs. Jaques Brown Potter is likely Mrs. James Brown-Potter who was Cora Urquhart Potter (1857-1936), an American society woman who became a stage actress. [back]

Note 24: Mary Antoinette Anderson (1859-1940), an American stage and silent film actress who was also billed as Mary Navarro and Mary de Navarro. [back]

Note 25: The Princess of Wales was Princess Alexandra of Denmark (Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia) and later Queen Alexandra, consort to Edward VII, King of Great Britain (1844-1925). [back]