The Lamperti Lineage: Emma Howson

Emma Howson (1844-1928)
Born in Tasmania, Emma Howson had quite a bit of performance experience before studying with Francesco Lamperti in Milan for two years. She then made quite a splash on the London stage in the first performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's H. M S. Pinafore. Singing the role of Josephine, the Daily News (1878) reported on her "clear and pure soprano, and refined and unaffected style, rendering full effect to the music of her part." Oh, that could hear what her voice sounded like! But of course, Howson was well into her 60's when the gramophone made its debut. So we are denied that. The best we can do is 'hear' her in an article that appeared in Musical America in 1910. Howson was 66. It's fascinating to read that the recently deceased Giovanni Battista Lamperti, like the great Manuel García (see my previous post), had a habit of throwing things at his students. The sons of great voice teachers exhibiting violence? I believe one explanation may lie in accounts of the elder García's harsh treatment of his two older children (he had three), as well as accounts of the elder Lamperti smacking his student's hands with a dreaded baton.


SOME REMINISCENCES OF LAMPERTI - One of His Pupils Recalls His Methods of Getting Results- Would Throw Books at Those Who Failed to Follow His Instructions

Vocal students of this blessed age, when in a period of six months or a year serves to let loose upon the world a host of stars glistening apparently with the concentrated radiance of the first magnitude, my well read with internal shudderings of the mediaeval ordeals imposed by those worthy professors of the olden days, who felt no scruple in keeping their disciples chained to the most elementary exercises for four or five years before deeming their vocal capacities worthy of interpreting real music. 

It now appears, however, that the late Giovanni Lamperti was not too thoroughly imbued with the spirit of modernism to distain the practices of his forefathers as regards arduous labor, or even physical violence as punitive measures whenever his temper got the upper hand. In regard to these matters some interesting details were recently furnished MUSICAL AMERICA by Emma Howson, one of Lamperti's most esteemed pupils, whose impersonations of the coloratura heroines of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti and Meyerbeer once delighted Italy and England,and whose Josephine in "Pinafore" won her the friendship of the late King Edward and the present King George. 

"Was Lamperti exacting? Well, exacting is not the word for it," declared Miss Howson. "You may get some idea of his methods when I tell you that, although I had been singing for a number of years, and with the greatest success in several countries before I came to him, and, although he expressed himself at the outset as thoroughly delighted with my voice, he insisted on holding me down to scales, solfeggi and vocalizzi exclusively for more than entire year, just to satisfy his craving for thoroughness. 'We shall do nothing but this the first year,' he told me, 'and next year we shall take up opera.' And practice I did, not once or twice a week, as most young folks do now, but every single solitary day. To be sure, he did not insist upon too much work. Some twenty-five or thirty minutes sufficed. But for nothing under the sun was I allowed to forego that practice. 

"Gradually, as time progressed, he seemed to become more and more pleased at what I had accomplished. He finally prevailed upon me to take the beginners in hand, as it relieved him or drudgery, and as I understood his methods completely to his satisfaction. At first this made me dreadfully nervous. There I was obliging to sit at the piano illustrating every little point to the pupil, while he sat by, listening, taking keen note of my abilities, but saying nothing. The only way I was able to learn that he was satisfied was by his leaving the room for a smoke. These 'smokes' began to last longer and longer, and after a time the pupil and I occupied the room alone. 

"But woe to any one with whose work he was displeased. At such times he thought nothing of catching up a heavy book or any other object and hurling it at the unfortunate offender. More than once I narrowly prevented him from seriously hurting some one. It was quite immaterial whether or not visitors were present. His art was the only matter under consideration and none might slight that with impunity. 

I myself often had occasion to weep under such treatment. To give only one instance: He was in the habit of making me sing for eminent artists and professors who visited the studio. On this particular day, I was feeling ill, and I knew that I could never do as well as I had done at my rehearsal with the master on the previous day. I had sung but a few bars when, with a savage growl, he banged the top of the piano down on my fingers. I burst into tears, and our visitors, in great indignation, rushed up to Lamperti, exclaiming angrily at such an indignity, and when the enraged Lamperti told him that my singing was bad he insisted that he had seldom heard better. He might as well have sat quiet and kept still. My teacher knew that I was capable of better things, and nothing but the best was good enough for him. In this, as well as in every other respect, I maintain that there exists to-day no other like him." 

Previous to her work with Lamperti Miss Howson had scored one success after another in the United States, where she appeared in a number of English operas, such as "Martitana" and the "Bohemian Girl." Perhaps the scene of her greatest triumphs at that time was the Grand Opera House, in this city, one of the managers being of which was George Gould. After leaving Lamperti's studio she filled and engagement in Malta, where her singing of such works as "Sonnambula" and "Dinorah" provoked scenes of enthusiasm fully comparable to those attendant upon the début of Tetrazinni in this city a few years ago.

Musical America, June 1910