A Conversation With Signor Sbriglia by Perley Dunn Aldrich

Giovanni Sbriglia 

The Summer Home

The Chateau de St. Léger is delightfully situated on the edge of what in France must be considered an extensive forest in the department of Oise, about four miles from the quaint little city of Beauvais, noted for its tapestries and for its cathedral. It is well worth the two hours' journey from Paris to get a sigh of the magnificent choir which many consider the finest in Europe.

The reach S. Léger from Beauvais, we either take a voiture drawn by a horse whose most remarkable quality is his power of resisting the persuasions of the driver, who urges him on with stenos language, punctuated by a most active goad; or by a little railroad, which lands us within gunshot of the chateau at a lonely little station kept by a kindly old lady who cultivates beautiful rose and cheery smiles. Only the red roof of the chateau is visible above the tops of the trees, which surround it, sentineled by one splendid Lombardy poplar which towers majestically up into the rich, red gold of the dying day.

Here is this quiet and restful retreat Signor Giovanni Sbriglia, the eminent teacher of singing, passes his summers, taking a few pupils with him. Mme. Sbriglia, bringing her own servants from Paris, presides over the household with rare thoughtfulness and tact.

After the lessons of the day are over, never later than half past four, master and pupils stroll over across the fields, where the hilarious ones may play mumblety peg on the mossy ground under the fir trees, and the real giddy ones decorate themselves as brigands with stray burnt embers and improvise a comic opera with tragic effect.

During these walks the Maestro often became reminiscent and harked back to the days when he sang in the United States, both in the old opera companies and in concerts.

The Training of Great Singers

I shall not forget one day coming with him across the fields over the brow of the hill, and how beautiful the country looked in the approaching twilight. I asked him who were the well-known singers in Italy when he was preparing his career in opera.

"I was trained at Naples at the conservatory, under Emanuel Roxas and Busti—the latter of whom died only three years ago—in the strict old Italian school. When we went to the opera, we heard the most perfect models, such as Malibran, Alboni, Fessolini, Tardolini, Lablache, Cortesi, Mario, Rubini, etc. These great artists sang with natural emission of the voice, acquired after long study of the posing of the voice and a thorough course of solfeggi. Sometimes the masters kept their pupils for two years on exercises for the voice and solfeggi. Then they commenced the study of the simple arias from the repertoire.

"Did these old masters use the nasal exercises which are so popular at present?" I asked.

"No, they were never a part of the old school of singing. I have used them for certain special purpose with certain pupils, but they should be used with great care and caution, for they are often harmful and misleading. The object these old masters tried to attain was the natural flow of the voice sustained by the chest, the correct classification of the voice and then nothing artificial about its emission."

"And did these old singers have power of voice?" I asked. "Many people have the idea that their voices were beautiful but rather small."

"On the contrary," was the reply: "many of them gained great power, as, for example, Tamberlik, Mirati and Guilini. Of course, there were light tenors and the dramatic tenors also. But all the great masters trained the voice as a whole. Registers exist in nature, but the voices must be treated as a whole to obtain perfect equality throughout from top to bottom. It is the natural voice that is the beautiful voice."

By this time we had reached the big road and crossed the little stone bridge and were just entering the vine-covered stone gateway that led past the gardener's lodge. I turned to go over to the farm where I was stopping.

"You mustn't forgot to tell me about your experiences in America sometime," I said.

"Perhaps I will on Sunday; no lessons, you know, and the day will be long," was the reply.

Sbriglia's Trip to America

On Sunday morning the bell in the owed of the little church of St. Léger called the early worshippers at six o'clock and again at ten thirty. The little village is mostly street, but is rather picturesque, with its red tiled roofs behind the high stone walls. The peasants in their Sunday gowns make either way to church and gossip with each otters about the news of the day. In the little park bcd of the chateau I found the Maestro taking his morning smoke and reading the Figaro. I drew one of the big wicker chairs into the shade near him and reminded him of his promise to tell me some of his experiences in America.

"I was engaged in Florence," he began, "by Servadio, for an opera season in Mexico to sing the principal rôles. Both Nanmi and Madam D'Angri were to be in the company. I came up to Paris and then to Havre to set sail for New York. We were expected to sail on the steamer Austria, but by some mischance our berths were not engaged for us, and our place on the steamer had been taken. Fortunately, the North Star was to sail a few days later and we immediately engaged passage. We arrived safely in New York, and some of our friends embraced us with tears rolling down their cheeks. When we inquired the cause of this unusual demonstrating, we learned that the Austria had gone down with all on board, and as we were expected to sail on that boat it seems to our friends, who thought we were at the bottom of the sea, almost like spirits rising from the sea.

"Meanwhile, between the time of the collecting of the company in Italy and our arrival in New York, a revolution had broken out in Mexico and the theatre was closed. Max Maretzek told me about it and gave me an engagement with his company. I made my début on 14th St. in "Lucia," with Garzia as "Lucia." The same season I sang in New York at the operatic début of Patti.

"After that season I went to Havana for three or four consecutive seasons and then for one season I went to Mexico, the revolution having been settled. From Mexico I went to California, where we produced, among other things, Meyerbeer's 'prophète' with a ballet from Europe and with costume and scenery of unusual magnificence. We also sang the repertoire of the lighter works, "Sonnabula." "Traviata,' etc. I afterwards arranged a company for California myself, to open the Academy of Music in Montgomery St., San Francisco. The theatre was managed by a rich gambler named Maguire—a man of wealth and influence—although a gambler.

Adventures in Mexico

"You would find traveling in America very different now," I remarked. "I imagine it was none too comfortable then."

"Indeed, it was not, but nevertheless, we had happy times and many amusing episodes. When we went to Mexico we went to Vera Cruz by boat. From there to the City of Mexico we went by diligence, taking five days for the trip. During the third day's journey we were waylaid by brigands and robbed of every cent we possessed. When I reached the City of Mexico I owned just the clothes I had on and nothing more. I remember very distinctly the chief of the brigands. He was a tall, fine looking man, beautifully dressed and treated us in a most courtly manner, assuring us that he was not a thief, but a gentleman, who simply relieved people of unnecessary baggage—but he took the money all the same. In both of my trips to Mexico I was robbed by these gentlemanly brigands."

The Maestro resumed his cigarette and was silent for a long time. It was evident from his face that he was no longer living in the present, but lingering in the shadow of the past. One by one the great singers of that day flitted before his memory and he saw them and himself once move amid their triumphs hard won and well deserved, because of their great knowledge of the bel canto.

About Certain Singers 

The sun was beating down upon the chateau across the lawn and the trees seems to shrivel silently under its withering rays. The Maestro moved his chair further back into the shadow of the trees, lighted another cigarette and awoke form his reverie. "Ah! but there were some fine singers in those days," he mused. "There was Gazaniga, dramatic soprano; Gazia, lyric soprano; Adelaide Phillips, contralto; D'Angri, contralto; Berthoud, who was Maretzek's wife; Amodio, a baritone with a magnificent voice; Brignoli, tenor; Madam Parodi, dramatic soprano; Susini, bass; Madam La Borde, lyric soprano; Madam Colson, soprano; Steffani, tenor; Mazzoleni, tenor, and many others. Then was was Carlotta Patti, who had a most exquisite voice extending to A in alt. It was even a better voice than Adelina's. Unfortunately, Carlotta had one leg shorter than the others, and limped painfully when she walked. Of course, with this deformity it was impossible for her to sing on the operatic stage. This was such a great disappointment to her and her family that an Italian doctor in New York by the name of Cecherini arranged some kind of a contrivance that strapped to her knee and which enabled her to walk without limping. Carlotta tried it in private with success, and believed she could appear on the stage. It was arranged that she should appear in 'Sonnambula' and she got through two acts, but at the end of the second act she fainted in my arms. The strain had been too great for her nerves, and she had to give up her hope of singing in opera. It was a great pity, for her voice was beautiful.

"Another excellent singer was Errani, the tenor. His voice was not large, but very good and he afterward became a excellent singing teacher in New York.

"Still another that I remember was Stiegel, who sang the tenor rôle in the 'Jewess' splendidly. Ardavana, the baritone, had a very fine voice and the two Barillis were good singers."

Singers' Habits

"Tell me something about the personality and habits of some of the singers," I asked.

"That reminds me of Steffani," he laughed. "Steffani had a dramatic tenor voice of great power and beauty. Every night when he sang at the opera he drank two or three bottles of Bordeaux wine during the performance. Every time he came off the stage and between the acts he made straight for his bottle, so that frequently at the end of the opera he was quite drunk.

"Mario, the tenor, had a most charming voice, not large but of most beautiful quality and he sang with great style and finish. Such airs as 'Spirto Gentil' from 'Favorita' he sang exquisitely, and people often flocked to the theatre just in time to hear him sing this one song. He used to sing in 'piano' with an exquisite quality of voice. He was such an inveterate smoke that he had a cigar in his teeth the last moment before he went on the stage and every moment between the acts. As for me," he added, "I smoked very little, and on the days I sang I dined about three o'clock and need drank anything at the theatre expect occasionally some weak coffee, when my throat felt dry; but I always swallowed a couple of raw eggs between the acts and found them very beneficial."

A Unique Performance of "Martha" 

"Do you remember singing in Boston," I asked.

"Oh, yes, and I remember a very amusing performance of 'Martha' that we gave there once. Uhlman, the director, told us one day that we would sing Martha the next night. We all knew the opera, but I could only sing it in Italian, La Borde could only sing it in French, Philips sang her part in English, and Karl Formes sang in German. But, strange to say, it had a great success.

"That reminds me of Formes. He had an extraordinary voice of such enormous size that he never could control it properly and often sang flat. His voice was never properly schooled and he never sang his exercises to keep in good form, and when he sang he became so interested in his part that the emission of his voice never occurred to him. In the opera of 'Martha,' Formes, who had an extraordinary breath power, used to hold the low E at the end of the run in the 'Drinking Song,' it seems like five minutes, while he went around among the chorus clinking glasses with the men and chucking the ladies under the chin. The effect was irresistible.

Sbriglia to the Rescue

That afternoon I was sitting under the trees reading, when I saw Mons. Sbriglia approaching with a merry smile on his face. As he approached he began—"Did I ever tell you how I saved Maretzek one night? You see, I was a very useful tenor for a manager, for I knew nearly forty operas, and being possessed of an exceptionally retentive memory, I could sing nearly every one without a rehearsal. It was so easy for me to learn an opera that I could commit one to memory on a train.

"I arrived in New York for a season in Havana one afternoon, and as I went up to town to the house where I usually stayed, I saw by the bills that Medora and Mazzolini were to sing 'Il Trovatore' that evening.

"I was very anxious to hear this famous tenor in the part of Manrico, so after my dinner I went over to the theatre and took my place in a box. Mazzolini was in a very bad voice, and at the end of the first act his voice failed him and it was evident that he could not go on. Maretzek had seen me in the box and he came running in in great tribulation and begged me to come and finish the opera and save him from ruin. There was a theatre full of people and to turn them away and pay back the money meant financial ruin to him. "I will pay you a thousand dollars if you will come and sing the rest of the opera," he said. So I went to the dressing room and put on the costume and sang the rest of the opera. But, I have never received the thousand dollars. One time I saved Uhlman in the same way. Brignoli broke down in the opera and was unable to go on. Uhlman gave me six hunted dollars to finish the opera. That was a very large sum for those days, and I actually got the money.

The Old Style of Singing

"Ah! those were indeed great days, for the art of singing, for nearly all the artist were trained in the good old school. But it was a poor business, for we had to sing for months sometimes to make what can now be made in one night. In those days there were more good singers, and it was a lesson to students to attend the theatre and hear the artist sing, for they sang the legato style, which was the glory of the bel canto. This was true partly because the music they sang was of a kind that had to be sung and not declaimed, the music of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Cimarosa and Bellini. But with the advent of the music of Verdi and Wagner it was no longer necessary to sing, and the artists simply had to declaim over the accompaniment of a large orchestra, so that the beautiful effects,—the nuances of singing—which were its chief beauty, were impossible for the singer. The delicate action of the voice is just as necessary for its beauty as for its preservation. Whoever cannot sing piano is not an artist. I remember very well the great tenor Fraschini, one of the greatest artists of his time. He had a glorious natural voice, which he constantly forced. One night he went to the theatre and heard the tenor Basodonna sing 'Spirto Gentil' in 'La Favorita.' He was so captivated by the singer's beautiful quality of voice that he retired from the stage for six months and practiced daily on this one air, singing each phrase over and over again, the fior di labbri (the flower of the lips). He then returned to the stage and became one of the leading tenors in the world."

"Ah!" he said, "I sometimes think the days of the bel canto are over. People no longer have time to study long enough to master this great and beautiful art." And the Maestro sauntered away shaking his head.

The Etude, August, 1906: 488-489

Contributed to VoiceTalk by Vincent Pavesi.