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The Phonograph's First Prima Donna

Who was the first famous opera soprano to record? In terms of surviving commercial recordings, the honour would seem to go to Marcella Sembrich (1858 to 1935) whose 5" Bettini cylinder of ca 1900 is the only first rate example of legendary make yet discovered. The St Petersburg red G&Ts of Medea Mei-Figner (1859 to 1952) date, according to Bauer, from 1900 to 1901.

But what about Jenny Lind you say? The simple fact is that the Swedish Nightingale died in the year 1887 at the age of 67 and unless she felt moved in her last months to leave the comfort of her English home and visit the workshops of Edison, Bell & Tainter or Berliner, the only recording she could have made would be a sheet of tinfoil. Such relics may exist, but they do not explain the claims often heard. For instance, a local Lind collector recently encountered a lady who declared that she had discs of Galli-Curci, Melba and Lind - all those sop- ranos! The only answer I can suggest is that these people have been confused, despite themselves, by memories of Frieda Hempel (1884 to 1956) who had great success with her 'Jenny Lind' concerts for which she appeared in period costume.

If we forget about recordings known, commercial and in some form currently available, the prize goes to that elaborately attired lady pictured singing gaily into a Tinfoil phonograph. She was Marie Roze and she was one of the greatest of nineteenth century singers. Born Marie Pousin (or Poussin) at Hippolyte near Paris on March 2nd, 1846, she consolidated natural talent with a thorough training, winning first prize for singing at the Paris Conservatoire in 1885. That year saw her debut in Opera Comique as Marie in Herald's opera of that name. The Paris opera first heard her on the second of January 1870 as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust. Many great opera singers have been content to confine their careers to France whereas Marie Roze soon captured Brussels and on 30th of April 1872 made her triumphant English debut at Drury Lane again as Marguerite. Rather than bring forward the usual cliches, I prefer her achievements speak for themselves. It can be noted though that she augmented beauty of voice and appearance with acting ability, this latter by no means universal among nineteenth century singers.

In 1874, during her stay in England, Marie Roze married an American bass or baritone, Julius Edson Perkins. Widowed only a year later, she married the famous impressario, Col. Henry Mapleson, whose management further helped her blossoming career. Her first tour of the United States in 1877-9 coincided with the invention and demonstration of the wonder of the age, the Phonograph. The drawing of her, singing into the Tinfoil machine, was used for the cover of the piece "Phonograph. March Brillante" by Charles D. Blake published in 1881.

She sang the role of Helen in the first American performance of Boito's Mefistofele. But it was her first appearance as Carmen in America in 1879 that established her in the role subsequently identified with her. For Marie Roze was one of the Victorian Period's three greatest interpreters of Bizet's tempestuous gypsy, the other two being Emma Calve (1858 to 1942) and Selie de Lussan (1863 to 1949) both of whom made commercial recordings.

Although her audience demanded Carmen wherever she sang, Roze by no means spurned challenges. As the official leading soprano of Carl Ross Opera Company in England (1883-9) she conquered the dramatic peak of Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin and Leonora in Beethoven's Fidelio, as well as creating Massanet's Manon in its first English performance in Liverpool on 17 January 1885. Throughout the 1880s she visited the U.S.A., sang with the Italian opera company in London and undertook a certain amount of festival and concert work.