Alice Nielsen

Alice Nielsen

Alice Nielsen (1872-1943) was a Broadway performer and operatic soprano who had her own opera company and starred in several Victor Herbert operettas.

Early life and career

Alice Nielsen in 1900, age about 25, was America's biggest box-office draw. "We love our Nielsen, and proud she is an American," said the press. Touring 40,000 miles a year in North America between 1896 and 1901, her shows were Standing Room Only.

Her father, Ramsus was a Danish troubadour from Aarhus. Her mother Sara Kilroy, was an Irish musician from Donegal. Rasmus and Sara met in South Bend, Indiana where Sara studied music at St. Mary's, now part of Notre Dame. After Rasmus was injured in the Civil War, the couple moved to Nashville, Tennessee where Alice was born about 1874. The Nielsens moved to Warrensburg, Mo. when Alice was two. Rasmus died a few years later. Sara moved to Kansas City with four surviving children.

Alice Nielsen roamed downtown Kansas City as a child singing to human face. Outside Kansas City Club she was heard by a wealthy meat packer Jakob Dold and invited to sing at his daughter's birthday party. Alice was a hit. Dold sent her to represent Missouri at a musicale at the Grover Cleveland White House. On her return, she was cast in a regional tour with Jules Grau's opera company for a season. When it ended, Nielsen joined St. Patrick's choir. She married the church organist and had a boy. When the marriage turned violent she left for San Francisco on the vaudeville circuit, joined by Arthur Pryor, perfomring with Burton Stanley and Pyke Opera. In San Francisco she became a soloist at the St. Patrick's, singing at The Wig-Wam and becoming a star in Balfe's "Satanella." Joining the Tivoli Opera Company, trained by Ida Valegra, Nielsen played 150 roles in two years. In 1895, Nielsen was hired by The Bostonians, America's greatest musical group of that era, who took her to New York and national fame in 1896.

Broadway and later career

In New York City, Nielsen became a Broadway star in Victor Herbert's "The Serenade". Forming her own production company, Nielsen toured North America for three years before reaching London in 1901 in "The Fortune Teller". Pushed by business conflicts, Nielsen abandoned her Company and left to study grand opera, coached in the Italian repertoire by Enrico Bevignani, who had coached Christine Nilsson, the reputed inspiration for "Phantom Of The Opera."

Two years later in 1905, Nielsen returned to London's Covent Garden where she sang Mozart operas that Spring then joined the Covent Fall season of Naples' San Carlo Opera with Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti. Their "La Bohème" was regarded as a masterpiece of ensemble performance.

In summer 1906, Nielsen joined Eleonora Duse and Emma Calvé in a joint program of related operas and dramas to open the Shuberts' Waldorf Theatre. One night Duse would act "Camille", the next night Nielsen woud sing "Traviata". That fall, Nielsen returned to America, touring in opera concerts featuring a cut-rate version of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale". After a difficult debut in New York City, she became a strong hit by spring in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas and Columbia.

In winter 1907, Nielsen returned to America with Lillian Nordica, Constantino and a full company for a season at New Orleans' French Opera House. During their subsequent North American tour, the group was considered by critics as superior to the touring Met Company, which had preceded Nielsen in LA, Chicago and Boston. Their Chicago season was sponsored by the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association.

At the end of the tour, in Boston's Park Theatre during March 1908, a week of nightly grand opera performances featuring Nielsen and Constantino "La Boheme" and "Faust" at Park Theatre created such a sensation that Boston's music patron Eben Jordan offered to build the Boston Opera House for Alice Nielsen and her Company. The plan was quickly realized. In 1909 Nielsen opened the 2,750-seat Boston Opera and debuted at The Met and Montreal Opera. Her artist allies for the project included Loie Fuller, Josef Urban and Pavlova. Within six years, however, Boston Opera folded amid the turmoil of World War One. The magnificent building, designed by the team which created Symphony Hall, was located across from New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall and has since been demolished.

After Boston, Nielsen began a series of popular Chautauqua tours. These outdoor concert took place under a big tent, moving from town-to-town by rail. The circuit ranged from Florida to Chicago. Nielsen was the highest-paid performer on the circuit. The week-long Redpath Chautauqua series closed in each town with "Alice Nielsen Day."

During the 1910s, Nielsen sang in joint concerts with John McCormack and other artists at Carnegie Hall and in national tours. Her concerts consisted of art songs and arias, followed by dozens of encores of popular Celtic and parlor songs. A typical program was, "Two Japanese Songs," Cadman; "Lullaby," Cyril Scott; "Will o’ the Wisp," Spross; aria, "Salvator Rosa," Gomez; "Pouquoi," Saint-Saens; "Mandoline," Debussy; "Tu Nous Souriais," Andre Caplet; "A Toi," Bamberg; "Down In The Forest," Ronald; "But Lately In Dance," Arensky; "Oh! Haunting Memory," Bond; "Love Has Wings," Rogers; "Botschaft" and "Vergehliches Standchen," Brahms; "Solvejgs Leid" and "Ein Traum," Grieg; aria, "La Tosca," Puccini.

Nielsen was a popular recording artist in sessions conducted by Arthur Pryor. She recorded seventy tracks between 1898-1928, most of the recordings made about 1910. Her big hit record was "Home, Sweet, Home," followed by "Un bel di," "Killarney" and "Last Rose of Summer."

"I only sang the songs I wanted to sing," she stated in her 1932 Collier's autobiography "Born To Sing."

After a brief return to Broadway in 1917's short-lived Belasco musical "Kitty Darlin'," with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse, who was fired three weeks before the NY opening, Nielsen married surgeon Le Roy Stoddard and moved to Bedford, NY. By 1920, Nielsen's touring schedule was light. She last appeared with Boston Symphony in 1922. She sang with a reunited Alice Nielsen Company at the Victor Herbert memorial concert staged by ASCAP in 1925. In 1929 she divorced Stoddard. Nielsen continued singing occasional concerts until shortly before her death in 1943.

Critical response

Eleonora Duse— "Her voice makes one dream and forget the realities of life."
"San Francisco Chronicle"— She is chic and vivacious and filled with indefinable magnetism.
"NY World"— At the present moment she has no rival in her field.
"NY Evening World"— America's greatest lyrical soprano.
"Chicago Post"— Miss Nielsen is thoroughly a great singer, and showed clearly that she has attained the high place she holds in the musical world through sheer merit.
"Musical Courier"— It is difficult to imagine a more perfect Mimi than Miss Nielsen, who sings with a lovely lyric beauty of a voice that has not its counterpart anywhere.

[Wilson, Dall. "Alice Nielsen and the Gaiety Of Nations," published in "Mu Phi Epsilon", Spring 2006] [Wilson, Dall. "Alice Nielsen and the Gayety Of Nations" (2008).] [Aquado, Julio Goyén. "Florencio Constantino, 1869-1919, el hombre y el tenor" (1993)] [Nielsen, Alice. "Born To Sing," Columbia SC State (1908)] [Strang, Lewis. "American Prima Donnas" (1901)] [Eaton, Quaintance. "Boston Opera" (1974)]


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