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Frances Alda
, 1918

by Herman Mishkin

gelatin silver photograph (sheet: 20.2 cm x 15.2 cm, image: 19.2 cm x 14.0 cm)

Frances Alda (1879-1952), soprano, was born Fanny Jane Davis in New Zealand, which claims her as a prominent expatriate. She was raised in Melbourne, where she began singing operetta in 1897. In 1902 she left Australia to study with Mathilde Marchesi, Melba’s teacher, in Paris. Marchesi identified her as ‘la nouvelle Melba’ and gave her the name Alda. She made her European debut in 1904, and by 1908, when she described herself as Australian, she had appeared at the Monnaie, Brussels, Covent Garden and La Scala. In that year she became a member of New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was to stay with the company for 21 years. Noted especially for lyrical roles such as Manon Lescaut, Mimí and Desdemona, she enjoyed a successful recording career, making her debut with Caruso, who claimed that his voice and hers blended perfectly: ‘I have never found that with any other woman singer’, he said. Alda toured Australia and New Zealand in 1927, by which time she had reportedly come to ‘disdain’ Australia. Her colourful memoirs, Men, Women and Tenors, which include a description of her marriage to Guilio Gatti Casazza, general manager of La Scala and then the Met (‘the two most grievous errors I made were when I married him, and when I divorced him’) were published in 1937.

Herman Mishkin was the pre- eminent photographer of opera stars of the ‘Golden Age’. Born in Minsk, Russia, Mishkin moved to the USA in 1885. While working as a store clerk in the lower east side of New York City, he became caught up in the amateur photography boom of the 1880s. After working with the Manhattan Opera Company as a photographer-publicist, and building up a specialisation in portraiture, he first supplied the Metropolitan Opera with photographs in 1905. From 1910 to 1932 he was the Met’s photographer of choice for lobby shots and portraits, in the early years persuading operatic set painters to supply him with artful studio backdrops. By the end of his career he was shooting stars in modern dress in contemporary settings.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of Roger Neill 2006
Accession number: 2006.21