The Great Eva Turner
America has the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building and Lady Gaga. The British have the Queen, bangers and mash, and Dame Eva Turner.
Eva Turner (1892-1990) was the first British born artist to have an international career in opera. She spent years running around the U.K. with the Royal Carl Rosa Opera Company which was a fancy name for a bus and truck operation producing everything from La boheme to Tannhauser and Hot-cha! Cold bathrooms, no bathrooms, bad food, bedbugs, nothing fazed Eva Turner. If she could sing, off she went.
The Brits were slow to notice, not to the Italians. Toscanini called her to La Scala, Milan. Eva Turner was lionized in Milan, Rome, Naples, Brescia, Lugano-you name it, she sang it: Aida, Trovatore, Verdi, Wagner, music hall ballads and Mozart concert arias. They loved her in South America too-and in the States she was a star of the Chicago Civic Opera.
And then there was Turandot. Puccini’s last opera-left incomplete at his death in 1924-the fantasy tale of a Chinese princess who beheads her suitors (sounds good to many of you, I know). With her huge gleaming voice, the Ice Princess became Eva’s calling card. There was no question that she owned this role.
Here she is live from the stage of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London, with tenor Giovanni Martinelli, in 1937:
When was the last time one soprano wrote about another? I’d love to read a book on Melba by Mary Garden (“I never saw such a fat Mimi in my life”). Or Lili Lehmann on Emma Calve (“Tell her I am taking no pupils this season”)
Soprano Linda Esther Gray was a shining star in opera-and was one of Dame Eva’s many pupils. Now Linda has written her teacher’s biography-long overdue. This is a lavish book with many great photographs, and its text “catches” the voice of Dame Eva Turner. (So does the CD accompanying the book). She spoke in beautiful tones with crisp consonants and rolled rrrrrrrrs. She could sound for all the world like Jean Hagen’s diction coach in Singing in the Rain: “Round tones, dearrrrr, RRRRRRound tones…!”
Although Dame Eva’s singing career ended over sixty years ago, she lived to be 98 and would tell you she never retired.
And what a life! The iconic and then downright elderly soprano became a favorite on TV and radio. She was a beloved raconteur and voice teacher. Potential Turandots and Aidas flocked to her for advice.
Eva Turner never married and never spoke of her personal life. We learn she had a traveling companion early in her career called Albert Richards Broad. He was a singing teacher and an organizer whose sexual tastes did not run to women. At his death in 1940, Eva hired a woman called Anne Ridyard as “secretary/companion”. The two lived together and remained devoted to one and other for the rest of their long lives. Linda Esther Gray speculates on Dame Eva’s private life with class and dignity. As behaved the lady herself for nearly one hundred years.
Here’s a favorite scene. Linda has just had a voice lesson. Coffee and cookies follow, with Dame Eva and Miss Ridyard, both now in their eighties:
“Didn’t you sing in Rio, Eva?”
“Yes, dearrrrr, I had a grrreart success there in Fidelio.”
Dame Eva Turner: A Lfie on the High Cs presents a wonderful career-some think not wonderful enough-in context of the times. This is not only moving, and dearrrrrr biography but an absorbing look at opera and at life in the 20th century. Don’t miss this. Dame Eva Turner was a formidable talent, and her pupil Linda Esther Gray as artist and writer, is pretty good herself.
From Green Oak Publishing. www.singbelcanto.com/greenoak