An American in Paris Meets Marchesi

Mathilde Marchesi (1821-1913)
Daughter of Secretary of Agriculture Tells of Musical Conditions in French Capital - Her Record So Far a Worthy One - Her Hopes and Ambitions

From the magic circle of the Presidential Cabinet come a well endowed daughter of music, en route on that artistic voyage that leads to the classical land of Grand Opera, Flora Wilson, daughter of the veteran Secretary of Agriculture, James Wilson is the recruit. 

Miss Wilson has but recently returned from Europe, where for four years she has been preparing her voice for the "test of fire" of American operatic audiences. Attesting to the value of her gifts is the fact that her candidacy for the Metropolitan Opera Company is under consideration, Administrative Director Andreas Dippel having heard her voice in a private audience a short time ago, is reported to have been very favorably impressed. 

"I have a natural voice," said Miss Wilson to a Musical America interviewer, when asked when her talent was discovered and when its cultivation was begun. "Constant usage of it in song was sufficient for development up to the time I began studying at the Chicago Conservatory. Although of Iowan birth, my father's many years in Cabinet and Congressional life caused most of my time to be spent in Washington. While here I was accustomed to come to New York weekly in order to enjoy the privileges of training under Isadore Luckstone."

Her progress was of such rapidity that she was selected as soprano soloist at the Church of the Covenant at the capital. Her years abroad have been spent under the instruction of some of its best teachers, including Juliani, Jean de Reszke and the late Gabrielle Kraus. 

She also made successful appearances in recital in Paris, London and Lucerne. With that good record behind her she has no fear of failure of the result of her American début, which will be made in concert with two assistants at the Plaza Hotel, April 14. Following this she will sing in Washington, and both Mrs. Taft and Mrs. Sherman have written her that they will be present. 

Miss Wilson is a statuesque young woman with simple, cordial manners.

The conversation drifted back to Jean de Reszke. "I considered him the greatest of teachers. But you have to study grand opera under him. He won't teach you to sing ballads.

"There used to be the idea that women could not go about unaccompanied in Paris," said the singer, apropos of her experiences there. "The American girl has broadened Paris. This task is not insurmountable. However that may have been once, an American girl is as safe in Paris to-day as in her home city. There are so many thousands of American girls studying there that the Parisians have become broader minded in that respect. 

"Of course, they continue to look upon America as a gold mine. There are about three thousand singing teachers in Paris, and practically all of them live on the American dollar. And so many of these dollars are spent in vain! For possibly one girl in a hundred of all the thousands who are studying will succeed. 

"No American girl should go to Paris to study who has less than $2,000 a year to live on," continued Miss Wilson. "I've hear people say she can get long on $100 month, but she cannot get the lessons she requires and the right food.

"In New York and Washington, my home, a girl can get board for $7 a week and have a chance of getting enough to eat, but not in Paris. There the minimum charge in a pension where there is any sort of nourishing food is $9 or $10. And even then they are very likely to fee you on horse meat.

"Board, of course, is the student's simplest item of expense. She must have her lessons in singing, in acting, in French, and she must have her accompanist.

"The best and cheapest way is for two or three girls to take a little apartment together and have a maid to do their marketing and cook and launder for them. That is what I did.

"The great pity is that the teachers won't tell a girl with no voice to go back home. They'll keep on taking their money as long as there is any. You know Mme. Marchesi charges 60 frances ($12) just to try your voice for half an hour.

"I went to her the first few days I was in Paris for a trial. She was eighty-three then, and the kind of old lady that wants to take your down if you know anything at all.

"She asked me what I could do, and I told her frankly. She smiled drily and said: 'Then you'll have no difficulty in singing B flat. Sing it.' She didn't offer to give me the tone of the piano, and of course thought I couldn't do it. I made up my mind I'd show her.

"Luckily, I recalled a song in which there was a B flat, and I sang a bar or it for her, taking the high note successfully. She was so surprised she offered to give back my sixty francs. 'I know you'll come back to me,' she said.

"And did you?" was interpolated.

"Indeed I did not," Miss Wilson replied. "I went to Paris to study singing, not to learn how to get along with a very old lady."

"And you don't intend giving up society for a career?" was asked.

"But I haven't given up society," she protested. I will always have time for my friends, and I hope they will always have time for me. In Washington they are all very much interested in my success. And my father says he is very proud of having a daughter who is able to do anything. We were speaking a while ago," she continued, "of the American girl in Paris. My father has always been so sympathetic with my plans and ambitions. But I know of other parents who expect too much of their daughters in Paris. I mean they expect them to learn everything in a short time. Some one said that it took six years of hard study to make an opera singer. I believe that's a conservative estimate."

Sis years at $2,000 a year makes $12,000. Then, according to Miss Wilson, that is what your voice will cost if you take it to Paris for cultivation. And perhaps you had better keep the $12,000.

Musical America, April 10, 1909


Accounting for inflation, Mathilde Marchesi's $12 dollar 1909 half-hour consultation fee would be $300 in 2012.

The $12,000 that Flora Wilson spent in Paris for a four year course of study in 1909 would be $300,000 in 2012.

Room and board for the four-year undergraduate program at Manhattan School of Music is $223,400.


Photograph of Mathilde Marchesi courtesy of Harmonie Autographs and Music, Inc