A Bravura Life


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Nathan M. Green­field

Eva Gau­thier pushed bound­aries in both mu­sic and early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury com­port­ment dur­ing her re­mark­able in­ter­na­tional mu­si­cal ca­reer.


on July 1, 1927, Cana­di­ans all over the coun­try sat around their bulky wooden box ra­dios lis­ten­ing to the CBC’s firstever na­tion­wide broad­cast. Across the crack­ling air­waves came the voice of a mezzo so­prano who was a veteran of New York’s most fa­mous stages, a woman raised in Vic­to­rian Canada who had not only sung for Asian kings and Parisian cognoscenti but had also lived an ou

tré life that matched the ex­otic Ja­vanese mu­sic she sang across North Amer­ica.

Eva Gau­thier’s pro­gram for this six­ti­eth Do­min­ion Day did not fea­ture such sig­na­ture pieces as the Ja­vanese “Anak Udang” (The Child of a Shrimp). Nor did she sing the jazz num­bers or songs based on Stéphane Mal­larmé’s sym­bol­ist po­etry for which she was renowned. In­stead, the in­ter­na­tional con­cert star cel­e­brated for her mas­tery of com­plex mu­sic re­turned to her roots; she sang “À la claire fon­taine,” a tra­di­tional French folk song that her first bene­fac­tors, Prime Min­is­ter Sir Wilfrid Lau­rier and his wife, Zoé, would have known.

Gau­thier’s fa­ther, Louis, had been one of the first French-Cana­dian en­gi­neers in the sur­veys branch of the fed­eral min­istry of the interior. He had been close to the prime min­is­ter’s fam­ily since his fa­ther, Séraphin, had cared for Lau­rier’s mother; the fam­i­lies were so close, in fact, that Lau­rier and Zoé (née La­fontaine) were mar­ried in a joint cer­e­mony with Eva Gau­thier’s aunt Emma and François-Aris­tide Coutu. (Some sources de­scribe the Lau­ri­ers as Eva Gau­thier’s aunt and un­cle, but those were purely hon­orary ap­pel­la­tions.)

Gau­thier made her pro­fes­sional de­but in 1901 when, at age seventeen, she sang at the fu­neral mass for Queen Vic­to­ria at Ot­tawa’s Notre Dame Basil­ica. With the Lau­ri­ers’ fi­nan­cial help, in late 1902 Gau­thier went to study in Paris, where she stayed at the home of JosephIs­raël Tarte, Lau­rier’s min­is­ter of pub­lic works, and then in a pen­sion (guest house) cho­sen by Lady Lau­rier.

As part of the French-Cana­dian di­as­pora, which roughly par­al­leled the English-Cana­dian one in Lon­don, Gau­thier’s life in Paris re­sem­bled the chap­er­oned lives of heiresses in a Henry James novel, al­beit with­out the

money. Her let­ters, writ­ten in a spi­dery hand, more of­ten than not on post­cards, tell of visit­ing the Lou­vre and at­tend­ing clas­si­cal plays; they also de­scribe the strengths, weak­nesses, and odd habits of some of her vo­cal teach­ers.

The Lau­ri­ers re­mained close to Gau­thier for the rest of their lives. In 1905, how­ever, after Gau­thier moved to Lon­don, they turned their pa­tron­age to­ward Eva’s sis­ter, Juli­ette, writ­ing cheques to sup­port the as­pir­ing vi­o­lin­ist’s stud­ies in Paris. Since Eva could not af­ford to stay in Europe on her own, Lady Lau­rier sug­gested that she write to Lord Strath­cona, then Canada’s High Com­mis­sioner to the United King­dom, ask­ing for his sup­port, which was forth­com­ing.

A few years later, Lady Lau­rier, who had al­ready ad­mon­ished Eva about pur­chas­ing an ex­pen­sive Parisian wardrobe for her first Cana­dian con­cert tour, wrote an even stronger let­ter. “You have lived like the daugh­ter of a mil­lion­aire,” the let­ter reads. “It’s high time you think of liv­ing on your own means.”

Over the next five years, Gau­thier con­tin­ued her stud­ies, first in Lon­don and then else­where, in­clud­ing New York and Mi­lan. In 1905 she be­gan per­form­ing with Emma Al­bani, the first in­ter­na­tion­ally known Cana­dian opera singer, and two years later she sang in Car­men in Pavia, Italy. In 1910, after they had per­formed to­gether in Lon­don, Al­bani said, “As an artis­tic legacy to my coun­try, I leave you Eva Gau­thier.” A com­mand per­for­mance in Copen­hagen led to Gau­thier be­com­ing the first for­eign woman to be awarded the Or­der of the Queen. Gau­thier turned down an Aus­tralian im­pre­sario’s of­fer of a three-year con­tract at $300 a week (more than $6,500 to­day) and in­stead reached for the brass ring: a role at Covent Gar­den in Lon­don.

What hap­pened next could eas­ily have been staged as a per­for­mance by the fa­mous opera com­pany. Just be­fore the cur­tain was to go up on her pre­miere per­for­mance, Gau­thier was dis­missed. The dev­as­tated Gau­thier be­lieved that prima donna Luisa Te­trazz­ini, fear­ing Gau­thier’s voice would up­stage her own, had ar­ranged the fir­ing. The re­sult­ing fi­nan­cial dis­ap­point­ment can be felt even through the Vic­to­rian prose of Lord Strath­cona, who in a let­ter to Lady Lau­rier wrote that Gau­thier had told him, “hav­ing care­fully thought over the [pro­fes­sional] po­si­tion, she has def­i­nitely de­cided to go out to Java to marry a Mr. Knoote.”

The man in ques­tion was Franz Knoote, whom Gau­thier met while study­ing in Mi­lan. Knoote man­aged a tea plan­ta­tion in Java, and, while he re­port­edly loved Gau­thier for the rest of his life, she soon re­gret­ted her de­ci­sion to marry him. Once in Java, how­ever, Gau­thier quickly re­turned to per­form­ing con­certs, and within a year she had added Malay to the lan­guages she spoke.

At a time when most of the few Cana­di­ans who ven­tured to the Far East wore ei­ther the uni­forms of the Royal Navy or Bri­tish Army or worked for com­pa­nies like the Royal Bank of Canada, Gau­thier was tak­ing bold steps into an un­fa­mil­iar cul­ture. A Western woman per­form­ing in the Far East was al­most un­heard of, but that didn’t stop her from gar­ner­ing rave re­views on a tour of China. In 1911, the Hong Kong-based South

China Morn­ing Post called her “Canada’s Fairest Daugh­ter” for a con­cert in which she sang a se­lec­tion of arias and sen­ti­men­tal bal­lads, while ac­cord­ing to the North China Daily News a “more beau­ti­ful voice or artis­tic singer has sel­dom, if ever, been heard in Shanghai.” More im­por­tantly for her ca­reer, Gau­thier’s years in Java in­tro­duced her to tra­di­tional game­lan mu­sic.

To learn more about the dis­tinc­tive Ja­vanese mu­si­cal style, Gau­thier spent a month in the court of the king of Siam, where she met Anna Leonowens, who be­came the model for Anna and

the King of Siam and The King and I. (Leonowens even­tu­ally moved to Hal­i­fax, where she founded the Vic­to­ria Col­lege of Art and De­sign, now NSCAD Univer­sity.) Conscious of the

value of no­to­ri­ety, Gau­thier ti­tled an ar­ti­cle for the Baltimore

Amer­i­can about her time at court “Ex­pe­ri­ences in a Harem.” Game­lan mu­sic is pro­duced by up to sev­enty-five in­stru­ments play­ing two dif­fer­ent tun­ing sys­tems, one ex­press­ing ei­ther the drama of sad­ness or hap­pi­ness while the other, in the words of mu­si­col­o­gist Jen­nifer Lindsey, por­trays some­thing more “ma­jes­tic ... noble and calm.” This mu­sic, un­usual to Gau­thier’s Western ears, pro­vided her with a unique oeu­vre and her au­di­ence with a fris­son of erotic exoticism, be­cause of its for­eign­ness and the all­but-di­aphanous cos­tumes Gau­thier wore while per­form­ing

The out­break of the First World War put an end to Gau­thier’s plans to tour Europe and redi­rected her to New York, where she gave her first recital in De­cem­ber 1914 at the home of Frank Dam­rosch, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s cho­rus master.

Ex­actly where in the Amer­i­can mu­si­cal fir­ma­ment Gau­thier’s per­for­mances fit was and re­mains prob­lem­atic. Nei­ther the pub­lic nor the crit­ics quite knew — or, in­deed, know now — what to do with some­one who sang opera, Ja­vanese folk mu­sic, and avant-garde jazz. To con­fuse things even more, Gau­thier’s shows soon in­cluded sug­ges­tive dances by a per­former named Nila Devi (San­skrit for “Blue God­dess,” but ac­tu­ally an Amer­i­can ex­otic dancer named Regina Llewellyn Jones). The show, which Gau­thier called Song­mo­tion, was largely con­signed to vaude­ville, where sex­u­al­ity could be dis­played with a know­ing wink.

Re­ac­tion var­ied widely and was not al­ways pos­i­tive. A full decade after the raw sex­u­al­ity on dis­play in the pre­miere of Stravin­sky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris in 1913,

Va­ri­ety com­mented sniffily on Gau­thier’s singing “in a for­eign tongue” and Devi’s “snake like move­ments.” In re­sponse to “The Ado­ra­tion of the Ele­phant,” the re­viewer for the Los

An­ge­les Times har­rumphed, “if you are wise you will ap­plaud and look learned.” He may not have liked the per­for­mance, but his re­sponse sug­gested that he rec­og­nized that Gau­thier was pre­sent­ing some­thing new and chal­leng­ing, per­haps even some­thing im­por­tant. A Win­nipeg writer gave Gau­thier a back­handed com­pli­ment by prais­ing her for play­ing down the ex­otic and singing from The Bar­ber of Seville.

Devi’s re­place­ment, an English dancer who went by the name of Rosha­nara, in­tro­duced Gau­thier to New York’s avant-garde mu­sic scene. By late 1917 Gau­thier was per­form­ing works by Ravel, Stravin­sky, and Rim­sky-Kor­sakov at New York’s Ae­o­lian Hall, which was sec­ond in pres­tige only to Carnegie Hall. Her sis­ter Juli­ette had turned to the an­thro­po­log­i­cal work of sav­ing French-Cana­dian folk songs. Likely in­flu­enced by Juli­ette’s ef­forts, Gau­thier in­cluded sev­eral of th­ese pieces along­side the newer works and the Ja­vanese songs in her con­certs.

Im­mor­tal­ized by, among oth­ers, Ernest Hem­ing­way and Cana­dian writ­ers like Mor­ley Cal­laghan and John Glas­gow, the Paris that Gau­thier re­turned to in 1920 bore lit­tle re­la­tion to the one the French-Cana­dian in­genue had ex­pe­ri­enced ear­lier. She was no longer the pro­vin­cial girl who on her first so­journ to Paris had looked for­ward to pack­ages of maple taffy and read­ing Ladies’ Home

Jour­nal, and who found the Moulin Rouge, in her words, “very odd.” Now, in­stead of chaste trips to the Lou­vre and the the­atre, Gau­thier be­came part of the group around com­posers Erik Satie and Mau­rice Ravel, the lat­ter best known for the sen­su­ous Boléro.

Her per­sonal life re­flected her con­ven­tion-flout­ing pro­fes­sional ac­tiv­i­ties. Not only was Gau­thier mar­ried and di­vorced but she had also se­cretly borne a child out of wed­lock at around this time. The boy was sent to the United States to live, al­though it’s not clear with whom. After Gau­thier died, an Amer­i­can court rec­og­nized him as her heir.

Gau­thier’s close­ness to Lau­rier and, later, to Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Lyon Mackenzie King — who fustily re­fused both Eva’s and Juli­ette’s en­treaties for fi­nan­cial aid, claim­ing it would be im­proper for a bach­e­lor to write ei­ther of them a cheque — in­di­cates the fam­ily’s Lib­eral loy­al­ties. So, too, does the way her “her fa­ther al­ways rec­og­nized and re­spected his

daugh­ter’s com­mit­ment to her ca­reer” and, de­spite the fam­ily’s Catholi­cism, ac­cepted Gau­thier’s di­vorce, notes Que­bec mu­si­col­o­gist Na­dia Tur­bide, who wrote her doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion on the singer.

Of course, one limit was not tested; Gau­thier’s fam­ily did not know of her son be­ing se­cretly raised in Chicago. Had the Lord Cham­ber­lain in Lon­don been aware of the boy’s ex­is­tence, it is all but cer­tain that Gau­thier would never have re­ceived the large, heavy gilt-en­graved card sum­mon­ing “Eva Gau­thier to Court at Buck­ing­ham Palace on Tues­day the 12th of June, 1928 at 9:30 o’clock p.m.”

The singer held an­other se­cret be­hind her French-Cana­dian Ro­man Catholic iden­tity, one she hinted at in a 1923 con­cert. She in­cluded the Kad­dish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, the words and mu­sic of which were sa­cred to the Jewish part of her fam­ily on her fa­ther’s side.

Gau­thier was also com­fort­able chal­leng­ing pre­vail­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal opin­ion. In the mid­dle of Amer­ica’s first “red scare” in 1923, she sang the “Hymn of Free Rus­sia,” the na­tional an­them of Soviet Rus­sia, in pub­lic. In 1925, a year when seventeen African-Amer­i­can men were lynched, Gau­thier wrote a let­ter to the New York Times prais­ing the African-Amer­i­can Fisk Ju­bilee Singers for the “perfection of their ren­di­tion of songs with the art of true mu­sic as well as their spon­tane­ity that gives life to any art.”

Thirteen years later, with her ca­reer in de­cline and war clouds again gath­er­ing over Europe, Gau­thier used a ra­dio ad­dress to crit­i­cize the Daugh­ters of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion for pre­vent­ing the great African-Amer­i­can con­tralto Mar­ian An­der­son from singing in Washington’s Con­sti­tu­tion Hall. In a let­ter to the or­ga­ni­za­tion she un­der­scored the con­tri­bu­tions of “great Ne­gro artists.” Gau­thier’s opin­ion was sup­ported by Eleanor Roo­sevelt, at whose urg­ing her hus­band, Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, al­lowed An­der­son to sing from the steps of the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, Gau­thier con­tin­ued to sing and loaned her tal­ents to war bond drives in both Canada and the United States. After the war, her per­form­ing ca­reer over, Gau­thier taught master classes in New York. De­spite her glit­ter­ing ca­reer, she had never been wealthy, and now her fi­nances were stretched. In those pre-Canada Coun­cil days, there was lit­tle govern­ment sup­port avail­able. Gau­thier failed to se­cure a grant from the Cana­dian govern­ment or from sev­eral Amer­i­can foun­da­tions; a grant from the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion in early 1958 al­lowed her to pay five hun­dred dol­lars to two writ­ers work­ing on her mem­oirs, which were never fin­ished.

Still, though liv­ing in the same sort of gen­teel poverty she had ex­pe­ri­enced as a stu­dent in Paris, and all but for­got­ten by the gen­eral pub­lic, Gau­thier re­tained a com­mand­ing pres­ence. One de­voted New York con­cert­goer re­called that it was “a well­known fact that many con­certs are in­com­plete un­til she ar­rives with her dis­tinc­tive dress and queenly de­meanour.”

Eva Gau­thier died on Box­ing Day in 1958 in New York. Though re­mem­bered by the New York Times, she was for­got­ten across Canada and even in her home city. There was no obit­u­ary in the Ot­tawa news­pa­pers for the woman who, two gen­er­a­tions ear­lier, was called “The High Priestess of Mod­ern Song.”

Sir Wilfrid and Lady Zoé Lau­rier, 1907.

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