Giglio Nordica (1857-1914), born Lillian Norton in Farmington, was the most glamorous American opera singer in history, and the first to attain true international prominence.
Her voice and excellent vocal training fit into the upsurge of popularity of the Wagnerian music dramas.
Nordica's career paralleled the rise of the United States' prestige and power throughout the world.
Her creation of the role of Elsa for Cosima Wagner's first production of Lohengrin at Bayreuth in 1894 was perhaps the high-water mark in the three decades known as the Golden Age of Opera.
At the "Met" in New York, she was a towering figure among such giants as Melba, Patti, Lehmann, Caruso, and the de Reszke brothers.
No less exciting than her operatic career is the story of Nordica's private life.
In 1883, she married her cousin, Frederick A. Gower, an ambitious entrepreneur who made a fortune in telephone companies in Europe. Lillian had sued him for support at the time of his mysterious disappearance in a hot air balloon accident in 1885.
Her second husband was Hungarian baritone Zoltan Dome, whom she married in 1896 and divorced in 1903 because of his infidelity.
In 1908, Nordica married wealthy businessman George Washington Young, who had wooed her with an emerald necklace. They were still married at the time of her death, but the marriage was not a happy one and she was rarely at home with him.
Nordica's tragic and untimely death on the eve of World War I came as the result of a shipwreck in the South Seas.
Lillian was born in Farmington in 1857, the sixth child of Edwin and Amanda Elizabeth Allen Norton. At age 18, she graduated from the New England Conservatory, then gave recitals and appeared with the Gilmore Band in America and Europe.
She studied further with Sangiovanni of the Conservatory of Milan. He suggested her stage name, Giglio Nordica, Lily of the North.
In 1879, she made her Milan debut as Elvira in Don Giovanni, then performed Violetta in Traviata in Brescia. She received nine curtain calls to wild applause, and with a stage manner later to become famous, she bowed to all, from the proscenium boxes to the gallery.
Lillian's success was the talk of Milan and opera aficionados traveled from other cities to hear the new soprano. Every box and seat in the house was sold out, and on her first appearance, Lillian was greeted with storms of applause. The enthusiasm continued throughout the evening.
At the final curtain, she was called out thirteen times, while the whole audience rose and cheered at the tops of their voices.
A Professor Robinson of New York sent a letter to the American papers in which he said:
"Miss Norton's voice is a soprano of great range, power, volubility, and of a richness of quality probably not surpassed and scarcely equaled by that of any voice in Europe. It is simply indescribably magnificent. Her acting is good, graceful and natural, and she throws her soul into her singing and acting so thoroughly as at once to captivate every listener. She also dresses richly and in great taste."
After Milan, Lillian went to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1880. By then, she spoke, read and wrote French and Italian fluently. Nordica and her mother, with whom she traveled, began to learn German and Russian as well.
The Augusta Journal, referring to Nordica and Frederick Gower, reported: "Two natives of Maine are just now creating quite a sensation in Europe. Miss Norton was engaged by the St. Petersburg Opera for $1,000. The next season her salary was doubled. She created a furor in St. Petersburg and Moscow....She dined with the Czar and the Imperial Family."
Lillian performed in St. Petersburg from 1880 to 1882, pleasing audiences known as the most critical in the world.
Newspapers noted that her success exceeded their expectations.
Lillian was popular at opera venues worldwide, and drew acclaim as one of the best dressed women in public life, known for her magnificent gowns and lavish jewels.
In London in 1890, she was honored when the Duke of Teck (father of the late Queen Mary) rose and spoke to her as she stood waiting to sing. She was a friend of the Duchess of Manchester and the Duchess of Marlborough.
The Duke of Edinburgh and his brother the Prince of Wales also were among Lillian's admirers. She sang at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, after which the Princess of Wales personally complimented her.
It was not only her voice that drew audiences to her. She also was a master of exciting entrances onto the stage.
About that technique, she wrote, "Inspire confidence in your audience on your entrance upon the stage. You want them to be comfortable, and to convey the impression that you are equally so."
She added, "I always feel trepidation in appearing before the public, but I have learned to disguise it that it may not be observed. In a moment like that there is no such thing as being natural; to be so would mean to turn and flee."
Shortly after Lillian arrived in Bayreuth in 1894 to perform in Lohengrin, Cosima Wagner, widow of the opera's composer, Richard Wagner, said of Nordica, "Her voice, intelligence, capacity for expression are extraordinary, and I hope for the very best."
Seigfried Wagner, son of Richard and Cosima, wrote: "About Madame Nordica I can tell you the most pleasing things. ... With an artist of her talent and of her reputation it is really touching to watch with what indefatigable zeal she dedicates herself to the perfection of her role."
Of her debut in Lohengrin, Lillian wrote to her Aunt Lina, "Well, when the day arrived, the opera fitted like an old glove and I was not at all nervous, but I kept my mind on my business. ... I felt that the eye of the musical world was upon me and that the stars and stripes were in my keeping and must be brought forth in victory."
Her performance was a critical success as well.
Lillian Nordica made her American opera debut in 1883 and her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1891. At the Metropolitan in New York, on February 4th, 1898, Nordica added another to her list of great roles: she sang the Brunnhilde of Die Walkure for the first time on any stage.
She told the New York Herald: "Brunnhilde in this music is a most trying role. Most of it ranges so low that it is best suited to a mezzo soprano; yet the Walkure Shout requires a high soprano. Yes, you must be so note perfect in that role that nothing can disconcert you."
She added, "And let me tell you that the nervousness a singer experiences in Wagner opera is wholly different from that which one feels in Italian opera. In the latter the public makes you nervous, but in a Wagner opera, the work is so enormous that the public is crowded out of the singer's thoughts and he or she is nervous about keeping time and pitch."
On November 28, 1904, Nordica sang a new role. She appeared in a revival of La Gioconda with Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan in New York.
Nordica opened the Metropolitan season of 1905-1906 in another Gioconda. This performance marked the debut of the famous gold curtain, and to show off its splendors, the great chandelier was kept lighted during the first act.
Nordica opened the new Boston Opera House on November 8, 1909 in La Gioconda.
Lillian Nordica also used her position as a well-loved opera diva to comment on a contentious public issue: woman suffrage.
She was indignant on learning of a woman in Texas who left her drunken husband and earned by hard work $1,500 which he then claimed and was awarded according to the law of the time.
In 1911, she gave two concerts in San Francisco. While there, she spoke from an open street car in support of an upcoming vote on the women's suffrage amendment to the state constitution.
Among other things, she said suffrage would not bring prohibition, as many feared (and she was right, prohibition became law before women got the vote), and that she would resent a law that forbade her "a glass of wine and a piece of pie."
When she landed in Sydney on July 21, 1913, newspaper reporters wanted to know about her suffrage views and her friendship with the British Royal family.
In the fall of 1913, Nordica began a concert tour that extended to the Pacific coast to Honolulu and Australia.
In the Gulf of Papua, in December, she was aboard the steamer Tasman when it went aground in Bramble Bay for three days.
Madame Nordica was taken seriously ill with pneumonia. Against the advice of her physicians, she sailed for Batavia, Java, where she again became seriously ill and passed away May 10, 1914.
Ira Glackens, Yankee Diva: Lillian Nordica and the Golden Days of Opera (Farmington: Nordica Memorial Association, 1995)
This slideshow contains 12 items