The Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna is a biography by Jane Cooper of early 20th century Canadian coloratura soprano Bertha Crawford who became, rather improbably, an “A” list opera star in Poland before returning to Canada to die in relative obscurity. It’s the story of an unusual life but it’s also the story of how opera and vocal music was impacted by war, revolution, depression, jazz and the cinema. It offers interesting insights into the Toronto (and wider) Canadian musical scene in the first quarter of the 20th century which was curiously similar to today in some ways and very different in others. There was neither opera nor a symphony orchestra in Toronto in that period so professional opportunities were few and far between but then, as now, most aspiring singers first professional gig was a section lead in a church choir and a main route to fame and fortune was to head for Europe. At least steamers had bigger baggage allowances than Air Canada.
Sources on Bertha’s life are a bit sketchy so the bio is a mixture of what is known and imaginative reconstruction of what seems likely. There’s no attempt to disguise this and the result is actually very engaging and leaves one wishing that more of the gaps could be filled. I don’t want to write a precis of this intriguing and well written book. So here are just a few things that caught my attention. The sections on the Toronto music scene and Toronto society in the period are intriguing. It’s a world where “high society” was made up of department store owners and tractor manufacturers and the “solid middle class” were tradesmen and shopkeepers. It’s musical tastes were deeply conservative and looked to the the UK for leadership and then, as sometimes even now, people couldn’t imagine Toronto ever matching the sophistication of New York(1). Opera stars may have been the “A” list celebs of the age but there was no staged opera in staunchly wowzerish Toronto(2). It was immoral! Members of the Metropolitan Methodist Church Choir were expelled for appearing, horror of horrors, in a performance of The Pirates of Penzance.
Ms. Crawford’s career was most unfortunately timed. The outbreak of war in 1914 forced a move to Petrograd, where she was a great success, but she lost everything in the Russian Revolution and returned to newly independent Warsaw. She was at the height of her powers and fame but the zloty was in a tailspin so fortune, if not fame, was elusive. Returns to Toronto were successful but not quite breakthrough and she couldn’t crack the New York market. To cap it all, she may have been a prima donna but Mary Pickford was now a much bigger name than any opera singer. The days of Patti, Caruso and Melba were gone but the dream of the glamorous prima donna lived on. Unlike today’s more down to earth opera stars, one can’t quite imagine Bertha shovelling her own sidewalk or arriving at rehearsals on a bicycle.
One curious coincidence. Those of you who read my earlier piece I Call myself Princess may be intrigued to learn that Crawford frequently included the songs of Charles Wakefield Cadman in her recitals on both sides of the Atlantic.
So there it is; a life poised in a period between the era when opera stars were front page and one where the really good ones at least could earn a living in Toronto.
The Canadian Nightingale is published by FriesenPress.
(1)Not so very long ago, while exiting a MetHD broadcast I heard a male patron declare, pompously, to his female companion that “one doesn’t hear singing like that in Toronto”. Virtually every member of the cast we had just heard was scheduled to sing at the COC that season.
(2)There was, briefly, a professional opera company in Montreal in the 1920s. When it toured to Quebec City the bishop banned good Catholics from attending performances of Tosca and Manon. Unwilling to be outwowzered by Catholics, perish the thought, the good Protestant matrons of Toronto effectively sabotaged that leg of the tour.