Monday, January 20, 2020

The Prima donna of San Francisco

FABBRI, Ines or Inez [aka FABBRI-MULDER and FABBRI-MüLLER] [SCHMID[T], Agnes] (b Vienna 26 January ?1831; d San Francisco 30 August 1909)

‘Madame Fabbri’ has been much reference-booked and writ-around. Often, more than a little incorrectly. The details of her early life and career have been comically telescoped, years have been subtracted, at various times, from her life and work, and several prestigious works of reference insist that she died in 1873, before, in fact, much of her career was done. Some – such as Kutsch and Riemens – have sorted the most of the nonsense from the truth but, thanks to various articles in the press, some of the nonsense still survives, enshrined mid the fictions of the world wide web.

Agnes Schimdt

So let’s start at the beginning. The most lavish 1860s article, full of real-sounding family detail about a father, a velvet-maker, a big family including a deaf-mute brother, lack of money and the consequent need for Agnes to leave school and go on the stage, sounds convincing, if conventional, enough. But it says she was born in 1845! That is, self-evidently, real nonsense, but her birth year is (as far as I know) documentarily unproven: we only know that she ‘celebrated’ her 72nd birthday in 1904, she died in 1909 at the given age of eighty, and, over the years, her birthdate was given at a whole range of dates, from which the wiser part of the world seems to have settled on 1831. Maybe. But round about then anyhow.

The article tells us she sang first in church choirs, from where she was talent-spotted by a theatre manager and, two weeks later, made her debut at Kassa/Kaschau/Kosice as Lucrezia Borgia in 1847. Aged 16? A quick learner! Yes, there she is – at least, I presume it is she -- at the Königlisches Städtischestheater, Kassa: ‘Agnes Schmid’, billed for ‘zweite Sopranoparthieen’, behind Dlle Passera and Madame Strampfer (‘first coloratura and high soprano parts’). Lucrezia is a ‘supporting’ part?

I notice a Dlle Rosa Schmidt listed as a chorus singer. Sister?

Well, I’m not entirely sure of the truth of the tale, all the same. Who, then, is the Fräulein Agnes Schmidt playing a Gastspiel in the comedy Ich bleibe ledig with the company at the Berlin Königstadt-Theater in 1846-7? The same Agnes of a different one. There are heaps of Demoiselle Schmidts around in the German theatre of those years, even if not many soprano Agneses. In Berlin. In 1846.  So… is she, then, the ‘Frln Schmidt, Schülerin der Frau von Hasselt-Barth’ singing at Pest in early 1847…? Presumably she’s not the young Anna Schmidt at the Hofburgtheater in 1847, or the fine contralto Frl Schmidt at Dresden, or the one who is prima donna at Graz … yes, the Pest trail looks good to me … so, before the alleged Lucrezia bit?

The i story, which, of course, just may be true (I guess, maybe, Mrs Strampfer could have had a sudden sickie?), but in which I, personally, have little faith , is muddied further by a whole series of biographical notes (including Wikipedia) which insist that, in that opera, on that occasion, she played the role of Abigail. In Lucrezia Borgia? Sorry, there is no such part. There is only one female (plus one travesty) part in the entire opera! Oh! copiers!

Agnes appears to have stayed in various parts of then-Hungary for some time – the Berliner Musikzeitung would insist, a decade on, that she had spent her first nine years at Olmütz -- but it is 1854 before I provenly pick up her traces. She is at the Pest Stadt-Theater in Ofen, playing Gabriele in Das Nachtlager in Granada (3 January) and taking a Benefit as Agathe in Der Freischütz (24 February), in parallel to an engagement at the local Deutsches-Theater (9 and 11 February) singing Adalgisa to the Norma of … Hasselt-Barth. Plus, at either or both venues, more Das Nachtlager, First Lady to the Queen of Agnes Büry in Der Zauberflöte, Zerlina to the Donna Anna of Hasselt-Barth (2, 5 March), Camilla in Zampa (21 March) ... However, when Lucrezia Borgia was played, she had a night off, while various other ladies, including no less a star than Rosza Csillag, took the role. Hmm.

In February 1855, when she appears in a concert given by pianist Herr Schulhoff, in Berlin, singing ‘O luce di quest’ anima’ she is tagged as ‘a member of the company at Kroll’s Theater’. Yes. She does did indeed sing there a few times (Sonnambula) before it burned down. In April, she gave a couple of performances at Glogau and in May, she turns up playing a Gastspiel at the Hoftheater in Dresden (La Fille du régiment, Martha) where she is billed, as we know to be true, as being ‘from the Deutsches Nationaltheater, Pesth’. In June, she can be spotted singing Mathilde in an act of William Tell, with Radwasser and Raberg, at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelmstädtisches Theater, in October she appeared at Kracow …

In March 1856, I see her being sadly farewelled from the theatre at Kassa (has she really been singing there for nine years?) and heading for Königsberg (‘dramatische Gesangsparthien’). In November, I spot her singing Kücken melodies in concert in Berlin, in April 1857, she is giving her Norma and her Lucia at Olmütz, to ‘übervolle Häuser’. After which we are told she continued to Potsdam, and then to Hamburg Stadttheater (Les Huguenots), and there Frln Agnes Schmidt would give her last performances before her transformation, after, apparently, a decade of career, into ‘Madame Fabbri’.

And here begins part two of the story. Enter Richard Mulder (b Amsterdam 31 December 1822; d 654 Folsom Street, San Francisco 21 December 1874), pianist, composer and striving impresario. Our article tells us that he was wandering South America, mourning his dead wife, when the Emperor asked him to put together a troupe for his new Opera House. Just like that. Well, apparently Emperors in South America did that sort of thing. So, Mulder went to Hamburg, saw Miss Schmidt, bought her out of her contract, turned her into Inez Fabbri (an Italian approximation of Aggie or Nellie Smith), brought her to South America, married her ….

Not. Well, at least one fact is a lie, which gives you shaky faith in the others. Mulder wasn’t mourning any dead wife. Madame Cécile Lia Pauline Mulder Duport of the Paris Opéra was well and truly alive, back in France, teaching singing at 29a rue de la Fontaine-Molière. She was alive when her husband ‘married’ (6 November 1858) Agnes-Inez, and she was still alive, at my last count, in 1866 when her father, the playwright Nicolas Paul Duport (1798-1866), died.

Anyway, Agnes-Inez and Mr Mulder and the rest of his company -- the experienced Anna Widemann (d Paris 24 February 1864) (ex-of the Paris Opéra, New Orleans and a sometime collaborator of Mme Mulder I), the tenor Sesto Benedetti, another experienced ‘American’ and husband of soprano Teresa Truffi, the bass Lorenzo Domenech and Mlle Léonie Bardon from the Paris Conservatoire (who became Mme Domenech in 1862), and the baritone Francolini – all arrived in Chile, on the clipper Eugénie, in May 1858.

The Chilean, Brazilian, Peruvian and Argentinian Archives will doubtless reveal what they played there (they were scheduled to open with Nabucco ... maybe this is where she played Abigail?) but, apparently, whatever the facts, the company won a fine success and in the South of America Agnes-Inez found her fortune  She was hugely admired, in the Latin lands, both as a dramatic vocalist and as a talented actress; there, she was compared, as a star, to Anna Lagrange and Emmy LaGrua, and thus, in 1860, Max Maretzek whisked her north, hired as a prima donna for a season in New York.


‘Madame Fabbri’ (billed thus) made her first appearance in New York at the Winter Gardens in April, as La Traviata with Achille Errani and Achille Ardavani in the other principal roles, and she scored a veritable hit -- ‘one of the most powerful voices we have recently heard from any soprano ... very expressive, and she understands what that stage requires better than most professional singers’, ‘immense sonority in the upper register’ -- and raves for her acting of the final act and its death scene. The New York Times labelled her ‘the best Violetta we have had in this city’. She followed up with Ernani, with the German tenor Stigelli, to even more remarkable notices: ‘better than it has been done in New York for years’, ‘Her full powerful passionate voice, her fine dramatic intensity of acting and singing found full scope’, ‘She electrified the audience repeatedly…’, although one writer commented, ungallantly, ‘she has a wonderful voice and is the greatest actress we have had in opera. The drawback on her is that she is ugly’.

Recha in La Juive

The season progressed with Fabbri in Stradella, La Juive opposite Stigelli, and Nabucco, varied by some Sonnambula from Madame Gassier or Trovatore from Frezzolini, before the company moved on to Philadelphia, to the strains of ‘The Fabbri Waltz’, composed by the utilitarian Charles Fradel.

Soon, however, she was back in New York, this time at the Academy of Music with Errani, Ferri, Susini, Pauline Colson and ‘la petite Patti’. A lot of silly operatic posturings were the order of the day, as singers flitted from one company to another, but Ines/Inez managed to get in some performances of Lucrezia Borgia, La Juive, Nabucco, Don Giovanni, Robert le diable (with Stigelli and Formes) etc. Part of the silliness of the situation was that the nominal managers were, very often, not the veritable owners of the company, and when a November season at the Academy of Music by the ‘Formes-Fabbri company’– in which she had played Martha, Agathe, Valentine, Marie, Elvira in Masaniello and Rachel to the Eudoxie of Anna Bishop -- collapsed, it was revealed that it was the prima donna who was paying the bills.

She set out West on a concert tour, then North into Canada, ‘billed as ‘the great lyric tragedienne’ and accompanied by tenor Charles Adams and a ‘Mlle An[i]na Rosetti’, with programmes including costumed operatic excerpts, and with Mulder supplying musical direction and piano solos. The tour continued on to Puerto Rico and Surinam before the Americas adventure came to an end, and the couple headed back to Europe.

Elvira in Ernani

Inez-Agnes’s first engagement seems to have been a series of concerts for the Felix Meritis Society in Amsterdam (28 November 1862), the Hague and Utrecht before – we are told -- she moved on to an array of other cities. I have confirmedly spotted her, at the end of 1862, singing Les Huguenots, Lucrezia Borgia and Don Giovanni (Donna Anna) in Berlin ‘als Gast’, then at Posen in February 1863, repeating her Lucrezia Borgia, Ernani, Trovatore and Norma. The American press reported that she was singing at Florence, but I can’t confirm that. At Easter 1863, she was engaged for a year, ‘als Gast’, at the Vienna Hofoper, at an advertised 12,000 florin fee. During her stay in Vienna she sang in Trovatore, La Juive, Les Huguenots, Don Giovanni, Robert le Diable, Le Prophète, Der Freischütz and, with particular éclat, Oberon, alongside such artists as Wachtel, Rokitansky and Peschka-Leutner.


During this time, she also made guest appearances at Frankfurt (Linda di Chamounix, Norma, Huguenots, Ernani, Don Giovanni), and at Prague, spent a month at Mainz, at Homburg and doubtless at other theatres which I have not unearthed. She’s supposed to have gone to Riga at some stage.

Selika in Frankfurt

From Vienna, she moved to Frankfurt and, in the years to come, I see her guesting at Darmstadt, Dessau, Cassel, Rotterdam et al, with roles such as Selika in L’Africaine, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and Frau Fluth in The Merry Wives of Windsor varying her standard repertoire.

In 1871, she was engaged for the Italian opera at London’s Covent Garden, and she made her first appearance there, 9 May, singing Donna Anna to the Don of Cotogni, the Elvira of Miolan-Carvalho and the Zerlina of Adelina Patti. The press cooed ‘Like other Donna Annas, Madame Fabbri has left the prime of her powers behind her, but she sings like an artist and with much dramatic vigour’ and ‘She has good stage presence, evident experience as an actress and declaims with considerable dramatic power. The best part of the voice is the middle … excessive tremolo …’. Some snooted ‘a not very impressive first performance’.

Her second role, was however, not at Covent Garden, but at the New Philharmonic concerts. The whole of Idomeneo was given, and Mme Fabbri sang the role of Elettra to the Ilia of Therese Titiens. But that was it.

At some stage, Mulder and Fabbri had become attached to a baritone named Jacob Müller, and to a childish mezzo-soprano by the name of Anna [Dorothea] Elzer, allegedly, at this stage, twelve years old. Was she a child of their dubious union? Professedly not. At some stage, she passed as a ‘niece’. I see that she was already singing in Frankfurt ‘aged 13’ in 1870, so probably not daughter. He was ‘a pupil of Mulder’. The little ?12-year-old girl appeared in private concert during the London stay, having apparently lost a year in age crossing the channel, singing the Freischütz duet with Inez.

In any case, both Jacob and Anna were part of the ‘Mulder-Fabbri German Opera Company’ which, in 1872, opened at the Stadt-Theater in New York, as was one Katie Mora, apparently the teenage daughter of one of Inez’s sisters. Karl Formes was with them again, as was the indecipherable Anna Rosetti of a decade ago, and the performances included The Merry Wives, Ivanhoe, L’Africaine, Der Freischütz, Don Giovanni, Moses in Egypt and Faust. Anna played a juvenile Zerlina as they moved on to the Grand Opera House, adding Trovatore, Das Nachtlager in Granada et al to their pieces, and then to the country. And they came to rest in California.

They began their San Francisco life giving concerts (6 September 1872) at the Pacific Hall on Bush Street – the foursome and a tenor named Eisenbach – to an enthusiastic response, before moving up to do operatic selections, and, finally, operas, at Maguire’s Opera House. Lucrezia Borgia came first, with a couple of locals recruited to make up the lower regions of the male cast, followed swiftly by Ernani, Norma and La Traviata, before they crossed to the California Theatre. Martha, Faust, Il Trovatore, Ernani and Lucia di Lammermoor were put on the stage, with more weighty support from such as Pietro Baccei and Mme Bianchi, and later from Fulvio Rigo and Carmini Morley.

The team rolled on merrily into 1873, as Don Giovanni, Belisario, La Juive, Masaniello, The Merry Wives, La Favorita and a performance of the Rossini Stabat Mater raced off the Fabbri production line, and they paid visits to San Jose, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Vallejo … The California Theatre became subtitled the German Stadttheater, then it was announced the Platt’s Hall would be turned into the Fabbri Opera House. That didn’t happen, but they played there anyhow. As the operas and the concerts followed one hard upon the other, the Fabbri-Mulders made themselves into the city’s own operatic company, and Madame Fabbri was metamorphosed into California’s prima donna.

But, then, the little group started to disintegrate. In July 1873, Müller left, and, in December 1874, Richard Mulder died. But Inez Fabbri steamed on, whether at the California Theatre, or Platt’s Hall, or Wade’s Opera House, opera followed opera – Die schöne Galathée, La Dame Blanche, Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucrezia Borgia, The Merry Wives, Il Trovatore, Martha, La Traviata, The Postillon de Lonjumeau. Rigoletto, Fra Diavolo, Der Freischütz, The Mason [and the Locksmith], La Sonnambula, Robert le diable, Fidelio, Faust, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Les Huguenots, Joseph in Egypt (with live camels), William Tell, L’Africaine, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Stradella, The Barber of Seville, La Juive and The Magic Flute all came to the stage in San Francisco under her management in 1875-6.


Madame no longer took all the star roles. Anna played Rosina in The Barber of Seville, local singers Ida Valerga, Helene Dingeon and Bertha Roemer all took a turn. In The Magic Flute, she played Papagena and 1st Lady, and when Carmen eventually came along, she tactufully forebore to play the title-role.

1876 marked the departure of Anna Elzer, but it also marked the return of Jacob Müller. Müller would stay, and sing, and he would also marry the ‘widow’ Mulder as the operas, oratorios (Esther the Beautiful Queen) and concerts carried on, with such outstanding guest stars as Wachtel and Ilma di Murska taking part, and, for a full season, Eugenie Pappenheim. On 29 October 1877, Inez announced a performance of Norma to celebrate her 25 years on the stage … in 1902, she would revise her counting, and feted her 55th year in the theatre.

By then, of course, she had been more than 20 years off the stage, but she continued as an operatic and concert manager to a great age. She also, as she long had, took in pupils for singing and for acting, at 1374 Hayes Street.

In spite of all her work, however, she did not prosper. When the diabetic Müller was in his last illness, in 1901, she was forced to go to the press, admit that they were destitute, and beg for aid. A Benefit concert was arranged for 3 March, and, on that same day, her husband died in San Francisco’s German Hospital.

‘Dear, loving and ever young’ Agnes Schmidt died in 1909, at the home of her niece, Kate Jacoby (née Mora), only months after the last of the many ‘birthday’ concerts (Emma Abbott sang) to celebrate her … 78th birthday. So I suppose it was 1831 after all.

Inez Fabbri’s papers and scrapbook are to be found in Berkeley Music Library. I imagine they will have been consulted by the several writers on San Francisco and opera who have penned larger and longer pieces on the lady and her local achievements, such as John Emerson on Madame Inez Fabbri: Prima Donna Assoluta, and the Performance of Opera in San Francisco in the 1870s...

Perhaps some of the missing bits (and I’m sure that amongst the torrent, I have missed some that are factual and not just anecdotal) are there. But be careful.

An 1883 History of San Mateo County, written when Agnes-Inez was very much alive, includes biographies of both her and of Müller. It cuts five years off her career, but has some jolly bits, including the following which partly fills in my South American gap:

‘At the close of the opera season, Madame Fabbri, in company with her husband, undertook a journey quite remarkable for an artiste. Having arrived in Chile, via Cape Horn, from Europe, and won laurels in Santiago and other cities, she went overland to the Argentine Republic. The crossing of the Cordilleras necessitated the service of twenty persons and forty mules and horses. The various adventures, the serious and often comic occurrences of the trip, the sublime scenery viewed during this wild pilgrimage, made lasting impressions upon the susceptible mind of the young artiste. In ten days they reached Mendoza, and after several day's rest they continued their journey through the Pampas to Buenos Ayres. Here traveling costumes were laid aside for theatrical robes, and for thirty nights the Teatro Colon had not space to admit the crowds who flocked to hear the new operatic star. This success was particularly flattering, as her arrival was shortly after that of De La Grange and Lagrua, who had the prestige of continental reputation. Montevideo, Rio Janeiro and Pernambuco vied with each other in ovations to Madame Fabbri, and, by express request of the royal family of Brazil, she sang at the royal gala at Pernambuco’.

The same piece also has her losing her all in the great fire at Mayagüez. But the great fire took place in 1841. A less great one in 1861. According to me, she didn't arrive there until 1862. Be careful.

Finally, it says that Jacob Müller was born in Frankfurt, 12 November 1845. Which is, very likely, true.

Anna Elzer went back to Europe, sang around here and there, ended up at Königsberg and married violinist Max Brode (1850-1917). There were seemingly other Mrs Max Brodes, so I don’t know if she died or just divorced.

Katie Mora married Conrad Jacoby, a successful newspaper editor in California, had five children, was widowed …

Lia Mulder Duport had a daughter, Adele Pauline Jeanne Boutin, who made a career as a high soprano vocalist (I see her concertising in 1873-4, 1875 at Amsterdam and Salle Herz, and in 1877 with Léonce Valdec) and singing teacher, under the name of Pauline Boutin. She became Mme Lenglé and her daughter, in turn, became a music teacher (violin) .. On her daughter’s marriage certificate, in 1890, Lia listed her (late) husband’s name as Jacques. More complications. Ah! what’s this? A Parisian records entry for Lia Adèle Cécile Mulder, 30 September 1867. Marriage to, ah, I see, Jacques Boutin. Oh well it takes two to bigamise…

It has been enjoyable following Agnes-Inez on her operatic voyages between the new world and the old. I'll keep my eyes open for her as I follow others on the same route, and maybe I can add some wee bits and pieces to her tale. I hope so.

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