Sunday, February 11, 2024

'The female tenor': you gotta have a gimmick!


MELA, Eugenia (b Palermo c 1846; d Isola della Scala February 1879)


Gimmicks rarely work in the world of serious music. Signorina Mela was (or was made) a gimmick.


Eugenia Mela was born in Palermo. But she was not ‘Sicilian’ as one Italian book insists, she was born there while her father was fulfilling an engagement at the local Teatro Carolino, over the 1846-7 season. Her father was named Vincenzo Mela, he came from Isola della Scala and, according to local records, was born 27 October 1821, and he first attempted a career as a bass singer. He turns up at the San Carlo (Mose in Egitto), Cuneo, Pavia and Modena in 1844 and 1845, before moving on to Palermo (I Puritani, Le due foscari, Leonora, Chiara di Rosembergh) as third bass. Then he decided to go in for conducting and composing instead, although he occasionally got up to air his voice in concert or even a show.

He rolled out a number of stage works, from 1853, during his years as a provincial musician (Il Feudatario, L’Alloggio militare, Il Convento di San NicolaLa Testa di Bronzo, Cristoforo Colombo) and in July 1865 a little piece (prologue and one act) called La Casino di campagna, was given at Milan’s Teatro Re by the local Società Musicale. The tenor role of Balden was played by his teenaged (?) daughter Eugenia.

Eugenia had a contralto range. So what was unusual about a contralto playing a pants part? And playing it, apparently, with more success than the Mela had had to date. The ‘gimmick’ was that Eugenia – making, it was said, her first stage appearance -- was billed by her father as ‘the female tenor’.


Soon after, the Melas left Italy. It is said that Vincenzo was something of a political activist and departure was necessary. It also seemed to fit with his plans. They turned up in Paris, and Eugenia, with her ambisextrous air and her seemingly ambisextrous voice became a fashionable item in certain private (not to mention wealthy and social) circles. She was to be heard in the salons of such as the Duke Pozzo di Borgo, the railway magnate Emile Pereire, and the musical meetings of Rossini and Naudin, ‘dressed in slashed velvet pourpoint with a rapier at her side’. The fashionable world buzzed. And where fashion buzzed, Bagier of the Théâtre des Italiens had an ear. He hired Mlle Mela. And publicity flew. ‘She has astonished her own natives at Milan, and is now about to do the same for the natives at Paris. Her voice is a pure tenor …’.


Of course, it was nothing of the sort. It was a plain ordinary lowish contralto. The ‘female tenor’s’ trick was that she took her chest tones up, like the 20th century’s ‘bash’ singer, to an extreme height. Once the Parisian musical critics began to hear her, the word was out: ‘je me demande si cet organe durera longtemps ou du moins si la poitrine resistera’.


The engagement of Mlle Mela didn’t make for unanimity. Mme Grossi, engaged to sing Isabella in L’Italiana in Algieri, refused to play opposite the ‘female tenor’, and the young Carolina Zeiss took the role with fellow Belgian, Agnesi, in support. 


‘Mlle Eugénie Mêla ne serait rien moins qu'un phénomène, ni 'homme, ni femme, ni soprano …’


‘Commençons par une certaine affiche monstre, annonçant la grande exhibition, au Théâtre-Italien, de la chanteuse-ténor, Mlle Mêla  … femme à la barbe  ... Mme de Girardin ayant écrit spirituellement que l'Alboni avait avalé un rossignol, ma première pensée, en entendant Mlle Mêla, a été que cette jeune personne ténorisante avait mangé Nicolini’


The publicity and the gimmick rebounded. The Belgians got fine notices. Eugenia did not: ‘Mlle Mela a débuté l'autre jour aux Italiens, dans l'Italiana in Algeri, et y a subi un échec très complet. Sommes-nous débarrassés des phénomènes? J'ai bien peur que non. Voici qu'il nous arrive une Miss Minken, surnommée la femme Mazeppa’. 


‘L'apparition de Mlle Mêla à titre de ténor, dans l'Italiana in Algerie, n'a été, il faut bien en convenir, qu'une plaisanterie vocale’.


Bagier must have made some major concessions to get the chouchou of the camp salons to play (albeit disastrously) at his house. When the season was over, he staged a single performance of Il Casino di Campagna with Eugenia in her original role. ‘A very poor opera’ concluded the press.


But fashion is fashion, and there are always a few who love a gimmick. In May Julius Benedict announced her (‘first in England’) for his grandiose concert, a Mrs Monk hired her to sing with Titiens and Deméric-Lablache at a posh party at her Eaton Square home, Mme Gayrard Pacini, who had appeared with Eugenia in Paris concert, displayed her to London at her June concert. She was still plugging the ‘female tenor’ angle, and sang ‘M’appari’. She appeared at the Signori Pezze and Traventi’s do chez the Marchioness of Downshire (9 July 1866), at Signor Franceschi’s matinee at a private home, duetting as a tenor. She was no more a top-liner and a billable artist, just a novelty item, like a comic song in a classic concert.

Eugenia Mela

She was back in Paris for more concerts in 1867, and its seems the Faubourg had not deserted her. Nor had her filial duty. ‘La fashion du noble faubourg et des diverses aristocraties nobiliaires et financières des autres quartiers de la capitale, avait tenu à honorer de sa présence le concert donné par Mlle Mêla, jeune et jolie cantatrice italienne … Comme à son habitude, Mlle Mela a chanté avec beaucoup de goût l'ariette Casino di Campagna. Mlle Mela a clôturé cette charmante et agréable soirée par une mazurka de la Farfalla, de la composition de son père, qui a été bissée …’ She also sang his ‘Salve Regina’, and the Traviata duet … as a man. (16 March 1867). At her own concert, she joined Tagliafico and her father in the famous ‘Pappatacci’. And the Parisian press dared to wonder ‘why was she so suddenly ejected from the Italiens?’. Two-faced lot.


She returned to Britain in 1868. I see her singing at Brentwood with ‘Florence de Courcey’, at one of Madame Puzzi’s concerts, at the West London Rifles concert with Fanny Holland and Bessie Palmer and, for goodness sake, at the Philharmonic Society singing alongside Edith Wynne (Gazzaniga’s ‘La morte de giusto’), at George Tedder’s cheerful do, for pianist Marian Buels, for Ganz singing his ‘Te cerco in ogni fior’, at Ernest Mottes’s …


And that is the end. I suppose that with Italy having been satisfactory revolutionised, it was safe to go home. Vincenzo to his career as minor musician, and Eugenia … well, I don’t see the ‘female tenor’ in the sheets any more. Until a wee notice of her death, in 1879.


Vincenzo Mela died 1 November 1897. Someone must have thought highly of him, for he has a street named after him in his home town. And someone has deemed it worthy to do a scholarly bibliography and worklist on his behalf on the web. Not so his daughter. By whom, I suspect, he didn’t do so well. A gimmick can be dangerous to the health. She might have made a nice wee local career as a contralto.


The publicity around the ‘tenoressa’ has got her into modern reference works as a freak. Just for the advertising. She was undoubtedly way below Mrs Howard Paul and her imitation of Sims Reeves in posing as a ‘female tenor’, but the gimmick advertising stuck. For a couple of years. And then it was over. And then the ‘voix rauque’ of Mlle Mela was heard no more.


k dee said...

She has quite a masculine face, Kurt. Was she a he? 🙂


Apparently she was female.