In 2006 I did a series of talks in Australia entitled ‘Melba vs Alda’. In each talk I played recordings by the two great divas, Nellie Melba and Frances Alda, and at the end I ran a straw poll: ‘From what you have heard, which of them do you prefer?’ Extraordinarily, given Melba’s pre-eminence as The Australian Immortal, Alda won resoundingly in every venue, including at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melba’s hometown, Lilydale, which was filled with Melba faithful (including Melba’s granddaughter, Lady Vestey, in the front row). I’m not sure who was more shocked by the result—me or the audience.
Frances Alda was part of an astonishing musical family. The founding parents of the dynasty were French soprano Fanny Simonsen and Danish husband, violinist-conductor Martin Simonsen, who together toured the world performing, before settling at St Kilda, Melbourne, in the 1870s.
There they raised ten children, no less than six of them becoming professional singers. And there they formed a pioneering opera company (including several of their young offspring), which toured Australia and New Zealand over the coming decades. A speciality of the Simonsens was to entertain gold rush mining communities—in California, in Victoria and New South Wales, and in New Zealand.
One of their daughters, Frances Saville, having established a successful career in Australia, then studied with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris, going on to be an international prima donna, who crowned her career by becoming a leading member of Gustav Mahler’s famous company in Vienna.
Saville’s niece Frances Alda, granddaughter of Fanny and Martin Simonsen, followed her aunt as a pupil of Marchesi in Paris, making her European debut with the Opéra-Comique in that city before becoming a diva at the Metropolitan Opera in New York over twenty-one seasons. There she established a celebrated partnership with the finest tenors of the era, including Caruso and Gigli, and with the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Alda became a major star of the gramophone, then of the burgeoning new medium of radio in the USA. In her memoirs she wrote of her childhood home in Melbourne:
Certainly a great deal of the secret of Frances Alda was to be found in the impulsive, fiery-tempered, ardent little girl playing prima donna in the lath and burlap theatre in the garden at St Kilda.
Not all the Simonsens’ children were so successful: one, soprano Martina, decided that domesticity was preferable to a life of constant touring, while another, tenor Jules, went off to ply his trade in San Francisco, but, turning to robbery to make ends meet, was sent to Folsom Prison for twelve years, accompanied by much shock-horror reporting.
In total, between Fanny Simonsen, her children and grandchildren, I have been able to identify twelve who became professional singers, some a great deal more successful than others. Of these, ten were women, two men. And another three were professional violinists, including father of the dynasty, Martin Simonsen.
Although there have been other families of singers, none have been so extensive, nor so long-lasting, nor to have travelled the world so comprehensively as the Simonsens of St Kilda, performing as they did across five continents for almost a hundred years.
This is a book that should have been (and almost was) written decades ago. I remember being ‘in’ on an early tryout ... some twenty-plus years ago ... when the late and sadly-missed New Zealand music and theatre scholar, Adrienne Simpson, first began to tie together the pieces of the puzzle. I was working on my Emily Soldene biography at the time, and we helped each other with little discoveries and bits of research, from our respective sides of the world. So much did I admire Adrienne’s work, that I commissioned her to write a biography of Alice May, for my series ‘Forgotten Stars of the Musical Theatre’ (Routledge, NYC).
Alas, soon after that, cancer claimed Adrienne, my Soldene mega-two-volumes were published, and I moved definitively into the 19th century and, largely, out of the world of the Simonsen family. Particularly generations two and three.
But, little did I know that the project had not died. Now, two decades later, this fine multiple biography, from the pen of Roger Neill, has finally appeared. I have just read it, greedily, in one long sitting, with only a wee break for a nice Thai lunch (no booze). Splendid. Both book and lunch.
OK, my Soldene opus may be 1,500pp plus in length, but it is the life story of just one subject. This opus may be rather less exhaustingly vast in size (372pp), but it is a triple header. A Cerberus biography of the prime donne known to me as Fanny I (Fanny Simonsen), Fanny II (Frances Saville) and Fanny III (Frances Alda): mother, daughter and grand-daughter. Something like a century’s worth of celebrated soprano Simonsens, taking in the operatic world of the 19th-20th century from Australia to Austria to America, from Belgium to Britain; bristling with lashings of famous and less famous names and events ... no wonder it has taken a time to come to fruition. The work involved! Three generations of knowledge and background with which an author has had to imbue himself. But now, in 2023, it is here for us, and for this we must all be extremely grateful.
The book falls naturally into three parts. One for each lady. Life is not long enough, as I have myself discovered, to study in huge depth the whole history of the world and all who sang in it, so one segment is always going to be more convincing than another. It is not difficult to guess which third appealed to me the most. And I have a feeling that it appealed most to the author as well. Of course, it is the tranche—the third—Fanny III—about whom I know (or, now, I should say ‘knew’) the least. Alda wrote her own memoirs (as did Soldene) but I can assure you, that doesn’t make her any the easier to research and write about. Weeding out the disingenuous, the ‘improved’ and the just plain mendacious from a memoir can be harder than starting from scratch. But I felt, when I had finished reading the Alda story, here, that I now ‘knew’ her. The author has done a first-class job.
By far the most difficult tranche to write was, surely, the first. Fanny I. Françoise Dehaes (?). And our author hasn’t pretended otherwise. Instead of bluntly ‘stating’ ‘information’ from dubious or unknown sources, he has clearly said when a ‘fact’, hitherto accepted or hinted at, is possibly not factual at all. And there are, inevitably, a fair number of these. Including such basics as birth- and marriage-dates. But how does one find such things, in Denmark, for example, especially when the lady’s birth name is not confirmedly known? Yes, it’s a whole lot easier now than it was 20 years ago, but ... folk told and tell such lies. Fanny’s education? Allegedly at the Paris Conservatoire. When? Under an improbable mixture of buzzword professors? How come, then, that she is not listed in the minutious Conservatoire records? There is no Françoise anybody, born Feb 1835, in the registers. Next, so it is claimed, she sang the Opéra-Comique. When? Again, performances are carefully recorded. And the author has (as I have) obviously checked. Very peculiar. Very suspect. Fanny I’s early life is difficult to decipher.
We can see that husband Martin Simonsen was ‘the Sacramento violinist’ in the early 50s, in Hong Kong in 1858, and I see them both sailing from St. Lucia, in 1861, with a valet and Willem Coenen ... but otherwise ... Well, I think there is a fair bit of mythology floating about in those waters. How to filter it out?
Anyway, here, in this delightful tripartite volume, we have pretty well all the so-far known Fanny-the-First facts gathered together. There are still many, many more to find! But, until and unless we have yet more documentation, there are still as many questions to be elucidated as there are proven facts. Fannies II & III are much more straightforward. But no less interesting.
The tale of the Simonsens of St Kilda (and a lot of other places!) make up into an extremely worthwhile book. And an enjoyable book, too. With invaluable appendices of performances and recordings. All I can say is: Opera fans, Australian theatre fans, devotees of biography the way it should be writ: Buy it.
Grumbles? Picky as I am, I really can find nothing to get querulous over. I, personally, have grown to loathe footnotes and don’t read them. I feel they reek of an undergraduate’s homework. But they seem to have become a sine qua non in certain circles. There is the usual ration of typos and misspellings, but given the breadth and width of the subject, surprisingly few. So, ‘nothing whatever to grumble at!’.
Here we have another mighty step in the chronicling of Australia’s musical history. The bared bones of this fascinating family history have been definitively assembled for you here. So, who will pick up an ancient review of a concert in Brussels featuring Mdlle Dehaes? Or Mme Dehaes ... or a wed cert, or a birth cert ...from ... where? Roll on the next generation of Roger Neills and Adrienne Simpsons.
But the Simonsens, who they were and what they achieved, are now much better known than they have ever been, thanks to Mr. Neill ... and it’s a big YES from me!