The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs: James Henry Mapleson – Opera Impresario and Zookeeper

By Diana Burgwyn
(Credit: historicaltenors.)

OperaWire is proud to present “The Wonderful World of Opera Dogs,” a series by Diana Burgwyn, which will focus on the relationship between opera’s most iconic stars and their beloved canines. The creation of this series and all research necessary for each individual piece were conducted solely by Diana. To learn more about the origins of the project, click here

It was the winter of 1882, and the doors to the New York Academy of Music were due to open in 45 minutes. Huge crowds waited outside in the cold, eager to hear Bizet’s opera “Carmen” in a production by a British touring company. But the company’s impresario, James Henry Mapleson, had just gotten bad news: the evening’s leading tenor, Luigi Ravelli, was not going to sing the role of Don José. Ravelli was ill and his voice was in bad shape.

Mapleson was accustomed to crises – some real, others invented by lazy singers. Not trusting Ravelli’s veracity, he rushed to the tenor’s hotel and found him in bed. Refusing to talk, Ravelli hid under the covers. When Mapleson reached for the covers to expose him, Ravelli’s dog, Niagara, suddenly sprang out. With the help of the tenor’s wife, Mapleson managed to get his recalcitrant singer up, dressed, and to the piano. Ordering him to sing, the impresario found nothing the matter with Ravelli’s vocal equipment and told him so.

Ravelli was not convinced. He decided to consult Niagara regarding his vocal health.

“Should your master sing?” he asked in French. Niagara growled, which Ravelli interpreted as the dictum that he did not appear. So he tore off his clothes and rushed back to bed. Disgusted, Mapleson left.

Finding no substitute, the impresario had to cancel the performance and send away what he called “one of the most brilliant audiences New York had ever seen.” The scalpers, who had been selling tickets outside the theater for ridiculously high prices, absconded with the money.

Spoiled, Demanding, Cocky Stars

Ravelli was hardly the only one to play this trick.  The contralto Sofia Scalchi, who was to star in Aida,” decided that she’d rather entertain than sing, so she called in sick. Suspicious, Mapleson went to her apartment with a physician. As he entered he saw a waiter carrying a tray loaded with lobsters, salad, and roast duck. Sure enough, he found Scalchi in fine fettle, hosting a group of admirers. This time the gig was up – she sang.

Ravelli was so obsessed with his own importance that he complained when he learned in a new opera by Count Orczy the tenor lead was to be killed in a duel by the baritone. Ravelli said, “the insignificant baritone should be the one to exit this world.” Denied this request, he claimed that if he had to die, six pallbearers should carry him offstage in style. Mapleson agreed.  But when the opera premiered, the original plot was maintained. The tenor was slain by the baritone, which left Ravelli no choice but to fall on stage—ignored, embarrassed, and bereft of pallbearers.

The behavior of these stars was not that unusual, for opera in the 19th century was a spectacle both on and offstage. Managers had to deal with cancellations, debts, bankruptcies, fires, broken contracts, threats, court cases, and with the complaints of orchestra musicians, conductors, and trustees.

Typically, the singers were the most difficult. They would demand their own luxurious parlor cars on trains, squabble over dressing rooms, upstage each other, insist on top billing, consume huge amounts of food in the hotels where they stayed, and refuse to rehearse with the rest of the cast.  Divas owned jewelry collections so valuable that they had to be placed in vaults. Less concerned with the integrity of a production than their role in it, singers toured with their own costumes, whether or not these were appropriate to the operas. They inserted their own favorite arias and songs and even tampered with plots, caring little for the original libretto.

Although, Henry James Mapleson was a handful in his own right. Mapleson who was born in 1830 and graduated from London’s Royal Academy of Music, was one of the most important impresarios of his time. Imposing in appearance, he was tall and broad-shouldered with a military bearing and impressive whiskers. He was, in the view of his contemporary, the critic and memoirist George Henry Upton, pompous, haughty, and patronizing, with so many prefixes and suffixes attached to his name that the newly introduced were duly intimidated.

As manager of London’s Covent Garden and, later, the Theatre Royal, Mapleson hired some of the finest singers of the time and did a great service in introducing Italian, French, and German operas by such major composers as Gluck, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner to London, as well as to several cities in the United States.

During the final years of his life, Mapleson wrote a memoir in two volumes, covering his half-century of life in opera and including hundreds of anecdotes. While he admitted that he might have succumbed to a bit of exaggeration here and there, the books made for delightful reading by the opera-going public. Less pleased were certain British critics, who simply looked down on Italian opera, as well as those singers who saw themselves depicted unflatteringly by their manager.

Love me, Love my Dog (Cat, Monkey, Cow)

Reports from the time by Mapleson and others reveal a common trait of 19th century singers: their passion for animals, as exhibited by Ravelli. That passion was not only for dogs. During the Victorian era, the wealthy in both Europe and America collected all kinds of animals, including monkeys and parrots. Parrots were a preferred amusement, especially if they learned to mimic human speech. Monkeys were seen as naughty youngsters and, in some homes, served as substitute children. Far from acknowledging the unsuitability of such species as pets, owners, willfully or not, remained ignorant of the normal behavior and needs of their animals. Though a British organization for animal welfare was founded in the early part of the 19th century and the Society to Protect Animals From Cruelty in 1866, change came slowly.

Dog shows were also very popular at the time in the U.S.  They were held annually at-of all places- New York’s Metropolitan Opera House where the greats like Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba, and Emma Calvé sang. Long rows of kennels holding the more delicate breeds looked down from the balconies, and in the center of the hall were the big breeds. Most of the dog owners were subscribers to the opera seasons.

Traveling with pets seemed the special privilege of renowned opera singers. Whether they did so mostly because they were lonely, wanted publicity, or genuinely loved their non-human charges, is difficult to fathom. But while some of the pets were treated with special care, others suffered the indignities of being caged, pushed into stuffy railroad cars, or confined to the bottom deck of ships, ignored while their human parents stood onstage gathering plaudits.

Among Mapleson’s animal fanciers was Anna de La Grange, a French coloratura who was a protégée of Rossini and Meyerbeer and a composer herself.  She reportedly traveled with three dogs, a parrot, a mocking bird, and a husband, “all docile and well trained.” Because she was a good colleague who showed no displays of temper, managers overlooked the difficulties of transporting her menagerie.

The spectacular Ilma de Murska, born in present-day Croatia was far less appealing to the workers. She was particularly known for her interpretation of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte.” De Murska’s personal zoo, maintained Upton, included a trained cow. Although not mentioning the cow in his list of de Murska’s animals, Colonel Mapleson specified two parrots, an Angora cat, and a monkey (he called it an ape), which tried its best to kill the cat. The parrots flew freely around de Murska’s hotel room, perching on and tearing up a valuable set of chairs. When one of the birds died, de Murska insisted on a post-mortem; the finding was that said bird had ingested the green, arsenic-containing wallpaper of her sitting room. She paid for the damage.

But it was de Murska’s immense Newfoundland, Pluto, who was the soprano’s regular dinner companion, having “learned to eat a fowl from a plate without dropping any of the meat or bones on the floor or even on the table cloth.” Pluto hated riding in the dog truck, claimed Mapleson. Far more comfortable was de Murska’s first-class carriage, where he would somehow squeeze his immense bulk beneath the seat. Once, having tried to break through the closed window of her carriage, he severely cut his nose.

Mapleson rounded up a few American opera singers and their animals during his travels. One who became famous around the world was Minnie Hauck (later spelled Hauk). She grew up in a frontier town of Kansas, a free spirit who as a child strolled across the prairies and became friendly with the local Native Americans.

A woman of prodigious gifts, Hauk became known not only throughout Europe but in Russia, where she had great success. She spoke excellent French and German (Richard Wagner was an admirer); she even sang in Magyar. But she was a fiery lady, unwilling to cede the stage to any other singer.  On one occasion, when the aforementioned Ravell decided to interpolate an unwritten high note in an aria, Hauk was so incensed that she rushed at him in a pretended embrace; he, in response, tried to throw her into the orchestra pit. A wrestling match ensued and the audience lapped it up, thinking it was part of the staging.

Hauk’s attire was described as “slovenly,” and while traveling she generally shut herself up in the drawing-room of the train sleeper, emerging only to growl at others. Hauk’s mother, who accompanied her, was the object of criticism as well because she hung their wet laundry out the window to dry. “It looked like a public wash house,” wrote one journalist.

Nor was their dog, Fifine, very appealing. One newspaperman who came to interview Hauk was greeted with ominous growling that the singer described as “harmless pleasantry.” Another wrote, “One of the sickest poodles on top of sod accompanies her [Hauk’s] travel, is reserved a special compartment in the sleeper, is fed at the same table and is watched with more solicitude by Minnie’s mother than is the singer.”

(Credit: Nordica Memorial Association)

A Poodle with Dreadlocks

Of a totally different disposition was Maine-born Lillian Nordica, a down-to-earth soprano with a New England sense of practicality and an almost compulsive appetite for practice and study. Born to a poor farming family in Farmington, Maine, in 1857, she was not expected to be a singer.  Rather, her sister, Wilhelmina, was being trained for that career but died young of typhoid, after which Lillian took up serious study. Quickly revealing her great promise, she developed a full voice with an agile, soaring coloratura. Yet she also mastered the Verdian repertoire, including the role of Leonora in “Il Trovatore” which she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera.  She also won over audiences in Italy, France, and Russia. Among Nordica’s greatest achievements was her immersion in the heavy Wagnerian literature. Coached by Cosima Wagner, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and second wife of Richard Wagner, Nordica made her debut as Else in “Lohengrin” in 1894 at Bayreuth, a holy place for Wagnerites. Local audiences at first were aghast at the casting of a non-German in a major role, but she speedily won them over.

Nordica had a full if not unconventional, life. She married unwisely three times, divorcing each of her husbands. She became involved in the suffrage movement, furious that male singers were paid more than females. And she was an early advocate of endangered species, refusing to wear the feathers of snowy egrets as fashion accessories. Nordica endorsed weight-reducing bath salts, was a model for Coca-Cola, survived German U-Boat surveillance and attack, and had a ship named after her. Her last big adventure was a strenuous tour of Australia and New Zealand, after which she sailed on a Dutch Royal ship that hit a coral reef during a storm. Exposed to the storm for hours, she suffered from hypothermia and developed pneumonia. After being hospitalized for some time during which she seemed to improve, she relapsed in Batavia, Java, and died May 10, 1914.

Nordica had five dogs, her favorite being a poodle named Turk, whose hairstyle was described as a “moderate continental clip.” (Some who were acquainted with the dog with dreadlocks.)  He was not a miniature or toy size but a standard poodle, a breed that is generally as heavy as 70 pounds and stands 15 inches or higher. One would not expect so large a canine to be traveling around the U.S. and Europe with an opera singer, but Turk did precisely that.

Oddly, despite the importance of Turk in Nordica’s life, little is known about their relationship.   The standard biography of the singer, Ira Glackens’ “Yankee Diva,” published in 1963 by Coleridge Press, mentions Turk only when, in 1892, Nordica was at the Gloucester Festival. Alone there and without friends and family, she had only the aging dog who “put his old black muzzle into my lap with a bunch of keys to be thrown for him.” Even the biographer/impresario Mapleson, who loved telling stories about his singers’ eccentricities, never mentioned Turk. Possibly the dog traveled separately with his mistress. In any event, proof that Turk existed can be seen in an 1894 photograph taken by a German photographer in Berlin. The photo shows Turk on a table or perhaps a suitcase next to the singer, who has one hand behind him and the other holding his paw. It is in the possession of a museum maintained in Nordica’s family home in Farmington.

Copyright Diana Burgwyn 2021



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