Soprano Dame Eva Turner
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
A dramatic soprano with a voice of mammoth proportions, Eva Turner, though
scarcely neglected in her native country, enjoyed many of her greatest successes
abroad. Most closely identified with the title role in Turandot (which she first sang in Brescia
only a month after its premiere), she brought to all of her roles a voice
of both enormous size and great cutting power, topped with an unflagging ease
in the highest register. While not always an illuminating actress, she approached
all of her work with seriousness of purpose, thorough integrity and no small
measure of excitement.
Having studied with Dan Rootham (teacher of the legendary contralto Dame
Clara Butt) at London's Royal Academy of Music and, subsequently, with Albert
Richards Broad (under whose tutelage her voice grew considerably in size),
Turner made her debut in 1916 with the Carl Rosa Company as the Shepherd in
Tannhäuser. She remained
with the company until 1924, quickly graduating to the spinto and dramatic
soprano repertory, and winning positive reviews as Brünnhilde, Fidelio,
Aïda and Tosca. In 1924, her Butterfly and Leonore were heard by conductor
Ettore Panizza, who urged her to travel to Italy to audition for Toscanini
at La Scala.
Having sung only in English up to that point, Turner knew only one aria
in Italian. Nonetheless, she gave a strong audition. Given a contract for
the following season, Turner spent four months coaching the roles -- Freia
to be sung under Vittorio Gui (who soon became a close friend) and Sieglinde
with Panizza himself. The signal successes she enjoyed in both roles led almost
immediately to numerous offers from other Italian houses and many in Germany
(there, ironically, for roles in the Italian repertory). After her first
Turandot in 1926, Franco Alfano's comment that he considered her ideal for
the title role only accelerated the speed with which offers materialized.
Later, Turner sang both Sieglinde and Leonore at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
An engagement in Buenos Aires precluded Turner's accepting the London premiere
of Turandot in 1927, but the company
of singers with which she sailed to Argentina afforded her several long-lasting
friendships, Claudia Muzio becoming as especially close colleague. Minnie
in Fanciulla del west proved another
congenial part, added to Turner's repertory in Lisbon. When she was able to
offer London her Turandot in 1928, she also sang as Santuzza and Aïda.
Her June 5 Covent Garden debut as Turandot brought superlatives (as did Santuzza
in which she was deemed "equal to the best Italians"). In 1928, she recorded
her astonishing "In Questa Reggia," still the standard by which all other
Turandots are judged. Turner's Sieglinde in 1930 won high praise despite
a sound considered too grand for such a put-upon character.
Turner made an auspicious American debut as Aïda with the Chicago
Opera in 1928. Amelia and Sieglinde were other roles during that first Chicago
season, the latter part in a cast including Frida Leider, Maria Olszewska,
and Alexander Kipnis (as Wotan). The following year, she sang Elisabeth to
Leider's Venus. In 1938, she gave Chicago a triumphant Turandot.
The onset of WWII prevented Turner from singing more than a very few Isoldes,
a role she loved deeply. Upon retirement, she taught voice, first in America,
later in at the Royal Academy in London. She was made a Dame of the British
Empire in 1962.
-- Biogrphy (text only) by Erik
Those who know of my many interviews are sometimes aware that a few
of my guests were born in the Nineteenth Century! When I am asked who
was my oldest, I have to clarify the question. The person whose birthdate
is the earliest was not the oldest at the time of the conversation.
An American composer named John Donald Robb was the
oldest at the time I spoke to him — his age was 95
years, 10 months and 4 days. Though nearly two years younger at the
time of our appointment, however, Dame Eva Turner holds the distinction of
being born first on my list — March 10, 1892 to be
In April of 1986, about a month and a half after her 94th birthday, she
agreed to allow me to call her on the telephone. [Two of her wonderful letters are reproduced at
the bottom of this webpage.] I was in Chicago and she was at
home in London. I was never awe-struck by any of the musicians I met,
but Dame Eva immediately put me at my ease with her cheery demeanor.
Being of English, Irish and Scottish extraction myself, I reveled in her accent
and manner, especially the way she rolled the letter r.
Needless to say, it was a delight to speak with her, and my only regret
was that we had but twenty minutes together. It was a pleasure, and
provided extra joy when I presented a 95th birthday program on WNIB the following
Here is that lovely conversation . . . . . . .
Thank you so very much for allowing me to call you today. How should
I address you — Madam Turner or Dame Eva?
Dame Eva Turner:
Dame Eva. That is the mode of address, the form of address.
BD: Thank you.
I would like to start out by asking about singing here in Chicago. You
were her for three seasons...
Dame Eva: [Interrupting]
Yes, in 1928, '29, and '38.
BD: I was wondering
how our company stood up against the competition of all the rest of the world?
Dame Eva: As
a matter of fact, I think I'm right in saying that in 1928, Claudia Muzio
was not there, and Rosa Raisa came late in the season. [Muzio returned
to Chicago the following year.] I can't clearly remember, but I think
that was the state of affairs. It was said that the Chicago Civic Opera
superceded the Metropolitan at that time! We had the bass, Alexander
Kipnis, who was very fine, and also Mary Garden and the ones who did the French
opera with her. [See my article "Massenet, Mary Garden,
and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932".] Some very fine artists we had!
BD: So you were
proud to sing here in Chicago?
Dame Eva: Oh,
I was delighted! I loved it, and I had the honor of being included
at the special dinner that was given for the architect who did the new opera
house on North Wacker Drive. This was a party held at their home.
He was a relative of Anna Fitziu.
BD: The man behind
it all was Samuel Insull.
Dame Eva: Oh that I know.
I think I was invited because he was originally born in England and I was
English. I remember when we gave those performances on Sunday nights
that were closed to the general public, but were done for the utilities
workers. I did a performance of Aïda,
and after the Triumphant Scene, Samuel Insull himself came and took me onto
the stage to acknowledge the applause.
BD: You have
been involved in opera for seventy years. How has opera changed over
Dame Eva: It
has changed because in the course of time conductors have become very important,
and now productions.
BD: Have they
become too important?
Dame Eva: This
is difficult to say. I always go to opera because I love the Bel Canto.
BD: Do you feel
the singers today are better or worse or just different from thirty, forty,
fifty, sixty years ago?
Dame Eva: They're
certainly not quite as they were those many years ago. A very strange
thing... in last Saturday's Daily Telegraph,
our local critic, Alan Blyth, wrote an article on the voice, and about singers
of today. It is intensely interesting, and it's says, "Decline of the
BD: Do you feel
the article is accurate?
Dame Eva: I certainly
think he has a good point there. For instance, there were singers like
Frida Leider, with whom we did Die Walküre
when I was in Chicago. I was the Sieglinde, Leider was the Brünnhilde
and Maria Olczewska was the Fricka, and I think Kipnis was the Wotan.
I don't think we have voices a luscious as those. We also had Ebe
Stignani, with whom I sang Aïda so often.
BD: Well, if
we don't have voices which compare, are you optimistic about the future of
Dame Eva: I'm
not saying they don't compare. I don't think they bring about the coordination
of the quality and the brilliance for the projection; not in the same way.
I don't think the young singers spend enough time to bring about a basic vocal
technique. I must tell you, the singer, he or she, is in a different
category amongst applied music because their instrument is not visual.
They have to bring it from the subconscious forces and bring about what we
call l'impostazione d'avanti, which
is a forward placement of the voice. Then they have to match the tones
throughout the entire range. They need much ascendency of control
of their person to bring this about. I feel sometimes they sing far
too early, without having brought about the basic vocal foundation.
BD: Is this the
operatic tradition which you are trying to bring to the younger singers?
Dame Eva: It's
the school. Lamperti said you should study it for seven years.
Well, people often don't spend that amount of time to bring about the supremacy
of control. Those are my findings.
* * *
BD: Are you pleased
with the recordings of your voice?
Dame Eva: Oh no! One always feels one could
do better. [Laughs] One wishes to do it again. Actually,
I wish I had done many more, but I was always rather busy.
BD: Do you feel
the over-abundance of opera recordings is either helping or hurting the public
or the young artists?
Dame Eva: There
certainly are very many. I don't know how to answer that.
BD: Do you think
that opera works well on the television?
Dame Eva: I must
say they have improved along the way, somewhat. There still is the possibility
of better results.
BD: What is your
feeling about opera in translation?
Dame Eva: I will
give you a case in point. I was singing Der Freischütz with Sir Thomas Beecham
at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and he wanted to do it in English.
I asked him if I could make the translation of Agathe's aria Leise, leise. This was so I could
put the noun on the main accent of the bar as it was in German. But
it was really difficult because the grammar has the declension of the article
in German — der, des, dem, die, and so on. It indicates
number, case, and gender, whereas in English it is all the same
— the man, the woman, the child and so forth.
I found it a tremendous task, a tremendous amount of work. Alas, that
translation was lost in the Second World War when our house was destroyed
by a flying bomb. I stayed up many nights trying to bring about a translation,
and I don't think I would easily take it on again! It consumes an awful
time. [Both laugh]
BD: Tell me about
singing Wagner. How is it different from the heavy Italian roles?
Dame Eva: I don't
think it's that much different. Naturally, the recitatives need the
employment of the organs of speech very much to make them have sense and meaning,
and to bring them about to impinge on the ear of the public. I think
it is very good to do Wagner after one has done the Italian school.
In selecting Wagner roles, it depends on the voice and what the voice is suitable
BD: You did Sieglinde
quite often. What kind of a woman is she?
Dame Eva: She
was the most wonderful person. It's far too lengthy to go into on the
BD: Does the
same go for Isolde?
Dame Eva: Yes,
but she was also wonderful. I did that with Sir Thomas and also with
Sir John Barbirolli. My first performances of that opera were in Edinburgh.
BD: Did you feel
your voice was particularly well-suited for Wagner?
Dame Eva: I remember
in a Chicago paper they spelled my name ‘Thurner’
because they thought I was German! They asked where this young German
singer had come from!
BD: When you're
on stage, do you portray the character or do you become that character?
Dame Eva: One
must try to assume the character from the moment you step on the stage; to
become enveloped in that.
BD: Were any
of your operatic characters perilously close to the real Eva Turner?
Dame Eva: [Laughs] Oh, I don't know.
That would require really a lot of thought. But I always tried to do
them to the best of my ability.
BD: One of the
comments written about you was that you had ‘a fine
sense of singing style’. Was this something you worked on
and developed throughout your career?
Dame Eva: I don't
know because when I was very young, a teacher who taught Dame Clara Butt gave
me the aria Ocean, thou Mighty Monster.
He thought I should be singing that very soon. I joined the Royal Carl
Rosa Opera Company in 1915 as a member of the chorus for one year. Walter
van Noorden, the manager at that time said I hadn't walked the stage.
My first part was the First Lady in The
Magic Flute, for which I was paid five shillings! That was apart
from my chorus money, of course! Then I became the Prima Donna of the company, and was with
them until 1924.
BD: But then
you sang the heavy roles very, very early!
Dame Eva: Oh
yes. I sang Brünnhilde and Fidelio... many heavy roles, and also
the lirico-spinto of the Italian
BD: Did you get
enough rehearsal time back then in the '20s?
Dame Eva: Not
always, but one put in the work in one's digs, one's lodgings
— if they allowed you to practice, that was! [Both laugh]
Sometimes they wouldn't let you practice there. One had to go to the
* * *
BD: Let me ask
you about Pietro Mascagni.
Dame Eva: I sang
with him at the Royal Opera in Rome about 1932 or '33. It was Isabeau, which I had sung previously 
in the Arena di Verona with a famous Spanish tenor named Hipólito Lázaro.
He was a very fine tenor who was supposed to have a wonderful top
— which he much needed for that opera.
He died not too long ago. He sent a message with some people whom he
met, asking if I was still alive!
for all of us, you are!
Dame Eva: Oh,
thank you. By the Grace of God. I was 94 last month!
BD: How does
it feel to be 94?
Dame Eva: I thank
God for my Blessings. I'm managing.
BD: You sang
in a great many opera houses. Did you ever adjust your style or projection?
Dame Eva: Oh
no! To sing in the different opera houses, you don't change.
BD: For the last
few years you've done quite a bit of teaching of young singers. Are
you pleased with the students you have had?
Dame Eva: Oh
yes, yes. I've had some very good students. I taught for ten
years at the University of Oklahoma. I went for nine months and was
there for ten years, and I'm happy to tell you that we won in Texas for six
years running. Then I had a student who won the Metropolitan Opera
Auditions, and was in New York at the Met for training. And I'm happy
to tell you that quite a few of them are now heads of the music faculties
in other universities. I get lovely letters from them. They are
quite touching. They formed a scholarship in my name at the University
of Oklahoma. I was there at the same time as Carlos Moseley, before
he went to New York and became associated with the New York Philharmoic.
He was the Managing Director, and has recently retired. He is a very
From the New York Philharmonic comes word of the death of Carlos Moseley,
whose remarkable career with the orchestra lasted from 1955 to 1985.
He was 98 years old.
Carlos DuPré Moseley was born on Sept. 21, 1914, in Laurens, S.C.,
to Carlos Roland and Helen Allston DuPré Moseley. He majored in English
at Duke University, graduating with honors in 1935. An accomplished pianist,
he had been playing in jazz groups and giving recitals when, in 1941, he began
studying in New York and Philadelphia under Olga Samaroff, the ex-wife of
During World War II, Mr. Moseley worked for the Office of War Information
in New York, then promoted American music abroad for the State Department
from 1946 to 1948. He was arts administrator of the occupation government
in Bavaria in 1949. From 1950 to 1955 he directed the University of Oklahoma’s
"Beginning as Director of Press and Public Relations," the announcement
says, "he rose to become Managing Director (a post now referred to as Executive
Director), President, and Chairman of the Board." Moseley presided over the
Bernstein-Boulez era at the Philharmonic, during which the orchestra cut an
uncommonly bold and unpredictable profile. He was an elegant, courtly man,
whose South Carolina accent probably fooled more than a few Easterners into
underestimating his intelligence and savoir faire. He was, above all, deeply
musical, a pianist of considerable skill; while studying at the Berkshire
Music Center (now Tanglewood), he played Brahms's fiendishly difficult Second
Piano Concerto, under the direction of the young Bernstein.
-- Alex Ross (from his blog) and
Robert D. McFadden (in The New York Times)
BD: Let me ask
you about one last person — Sir Thomas
Dame Eva: Oh,
he was a wonderful man; wonderful to me. Absolutely wonderful.
I remember in 1935, when we were to do the performance of Freischütz, my father came, and as
the lights went down he died in the stalls. This was the first performance.
Another thing that happened, when I went to La Scala in 1924, after I got
there they had the news that my mother had died. These things happen.
BD: Despite these
sad events, did you like the life of a wandering minstrel?
Dame Eva: Oh
I had great joy in singing. I couldn't wait until the next performance
to try to sing it better. I loved it.
BD: Thank you
for being such a wonderful singer, and thank you for allowing me to spend
these few minutes with you today.
Dame Eva: Thank
you very much. In bocca a lupo,
which is All Blessings.
As noted at the top of this webpage,
here are two of the letters she sent me when arranging the interview.
The first is an "Aerogramme", a single page which folds up with the message
on the inside.
Having been chastised about the postage,
my reply included several British stamps!
Her next response was a letter in an envelope.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 30, 1986.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1990, 1992
and 1997. This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this
website, click here.
To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print,
as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical
97 in Chicago from 1975 until
its final moment as a classical station in
February of 2001. His interviews have also
appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as
well as on Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited
to visit his website
for more information about his work, including
selected transcripts of other interviews, plus
a full list
of his guests. He would also like to call your
attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with comments,
questions and suggestions.