Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Diva's beginnings

While researching the remains of the Krotona Theosophical colony that once thrived in the Hollywood Hills, the aspect that interested me the most was that of the human characters involved, both in the larger world of the Society, and in the small world of the neighborhood.

The colony itself lasted only ten years before it moved to Ojai, in Ventura County, where it still resides today. But Theosophy's mark on this little neighborhood is still visible. And that's largely due to the efforts of one extraordinary character, a woman named Marie Russak Hotchener.

But who was she? Where did she come from?

“Scorns Riches and Power All for Theosophy” says the headline on a March 4, 1911 profile of Marie Russak in the San Francisco Call.

Returning to the Bay area in her U.S. lecture tour with Krotona founder A.P. Warrington, Marie is not quoted directly in the story, but it reads with a romantic spin that clearly came from Marie herself.

The world offered her all [it] had to offer. She accepted the gifts, weighed them, tested them, found them wanting, and dropped them. Beauty, wealth, fame, social glitter, to her all have proven baubles. Now she prepares to seek the things which are not of this world. So little is her fame to her, so little her wealth and position that she speaks not of them. Her pride is not that she once rivaled [a famous singer], but that she is now a theosophist; not that she once wore the robes of splendor, but that now she is garbed in a gown of humility and wisdom.

The story exaggerates both the low and high points of Marie’s trajectory. She was “born in the mountains of a poor family, her early days were a round of struggles.” Her career as an opera singer is it touted as worldwide, as “the doors of fame were opened to her. The world bowed before her.”

It’s all about the story, they say in Hollywood, and hers is as dramatic and self-serving as any star's.

Marie Russak Hotchener was born in 1867 near Chico, California. Her family name was Barnard. In one contemporary record, her father is said to work as a stable hand. Another record notes that Marie’s grandfather owned the stable.

Marie could sing, and went to Mills College to study while still a young girl. She graduated in 1885, and went on to San Francisco, where she sang for the famed Adelina Patti, who described her as a child with "a voice of gold." On these references, she was hired by the Mendelssohn Quintette Club as a singer.

The Quintette, from Boston, were a respected classical music troupe, performing mixed programs of classical works. After touring the South Pacific, and a San Francisco engagement, they embarked on a North American tour. Marie joined them for two seasons.

Looking at the route, I can see she gained a swift education in the life of a professional musician. In October the Quintette hit the road, playing Grand Forks, North Dakota, where a new opera house was under construction, opening in November.

The Princess Opera House, in Winnipeg

They played Winnipeg, Manitoba, in November at the 1347 seat Princess Opera House, and Marie’s notices were great:
No musical organization has so firm a popularity with the Winnipeg public as the Mendelssohn Quintette Club. ….The singer of the company is Miss Marie Barnard; and there is simply no comparison between her and her predecessor. She has a remarkably mezzo-soprano voice of wide range and wonderful sweetness alike on high and low notes. A young woman yet, she is certain to become a famous singer. She took the audience in the Princess last night by storm, as the enthusiastic encore showed. In the first part of the programme she sang Mozart’s aria “Cosi fan Tutti” and as an encore gave “the Stars of the Night” certainly the gem of the evening. The accompaniment of the Quintette on this piece was superb. In the second part she sang an air “Profume Orientali” by Bellinghi; to an enthusiastic encore she sang “Comin’ through the rye.” The delighted audience were not satisfied and again called out the fair singer who gave them ‘the Mocking Bird” with flute accompaniment by Mr. Henneberg
Even with great notices it must have been rough to play Winnipeg in November.The Princess Opera House, built in 1883, was cold, its furnace so inadequate they augmented it by woodstoves for heat. If you think this sounds risky, you're right. The theatre burned down in 1892.

The Quintette played not only theatres, but also churches and meeting halls. They played San Antonio, Texas on March 27, 1891, then East Las Vegas, New Mexico on April 10. On April 29th they played Bakersfield, where the reviews said “Miss Marie Barnard has a voice of great sweetness and compass, and a mobile face joined to a winning way that gave the audience great delight.” May 8 – 11 they performed at the First Congregational Church, where Marie sang Bishop’s “Sing Lo! Hear the Gentle Lark!” with accompanying flute obbligato. In Ogden, Utah’s Grand Opera House on May 13, she sang “Annie Laurie.”

The Opera House in San Antonio, Texas

“Julius Cann’s Official Theatrical Guide of 1897” lists US and Canadian theatres on the touring circuit, with information like seating capacity, technical details, and local contacts for printing, shipping, lodging and medical doctors. Some towns had wonderful facilities, like the Ogden Opera House, whose Romanesque exterior was crowned by a Turkish-style minaret. The lobby was tiled with mosaics, and the fire curtain on the stage was painted with a scene of the Orient.

Ogden, Utah. The Opera House is the building with the hat-like dome. The Reed Hotel, where performers stayed, is to the right.

Hotels varied from town to town. Some were sophisticated, but others were grim, infested with bedbugs. Even the good hotels with restaurants might not accommodate an intricate train and theatre schedule, so often travelling performers subsisted on apples, cereal, milk and stale bread. Sometimes railroad time-tables were so tight conductors sped up the tempo onstage just to make sure the troupe caught the train to the next stop.

Marie spent two seasons with the Quintette, and while in Boston, she met Justin H. Smith, a Dartmouth graduate who worked for the book publishing firm of Ginn & Co. They married on June 4, 1892.

Boston must have seemed far more civilized and refined. But after a rough-and-tumble life on tour, it might also have felt a little dull. Instead of gaining multiple encores, Mrs. Smith sang with church choirs and musical clubs, and sometimes as a soloist with the Boston Symphony.

It's unclear what happened to the Smiths' marriage, but by April of 1895, Marie was once more on the road singing - this time with the band of John Phillip Sousa, under her maiden name again. In Fort Wayne; in Hamilton, Ohio; in Vicksburg, Mississippi; Atlanta; Hutchison, Kansas, and San Antonio, Texas, she sang. The programme included operatic fare like the aria from "Cosi fan Tutti" or an excerpt from "Tannhauser," and also popular numbers and marches.

In September of 1895, a notice in the New England papers stated Marie Barnard would travel to Paris to study opera, and so she did.

Marie Barna, in Paris, as Salome

She sang wherever she could - for a musicale afternoon at the home of rich American patrons, or at a Fourth of July event for American expatriots in Paris. Her teacher got her an engagement at the opera in Bologna, where she made her debut as Marguerite in "Faust" in January of 1896 - under her new professional name, Marie Barna. Other roles came her way, in Rome and finally at Covent Garden, London, where she was offered a three-year contract by impresario Sir Augustus Harris.

Unfortunately Sir Harris died suddenly, voiding the contract. Marie took a job with the American Damrosch-Ellis Opera Company, and returned to the states. Back on the road.

Marie Barna as Brunhilde with the Damrosch-Ellis Opera

It was a step up from the old days, however. The Damrosch company was instrumental in bringing Wagnerian opera to America. Competing with New York's Metropolitan Opera, its '97-'98 season played six weeks in Philadelphia, five in New York, and two weeks in Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago. Marie played principal roles, like Isolde in "Tristan und Isolde," and Brunhilde in "Siegfried."

In June of 1898, the Boston papers noted that Marie was back in Paris, and Mr. and Mrs. Justin Smith would divorce.

The Opera House at Bayreuth

In January '99, Marie was invited by Madame Cosima Wagner, the composer's widow, to participate in the annual Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany.

It was perhaps the crowning note of her musical career.

Though not a star, Marie's New York performances at the Metropolitan Opera House must have been memorable enough to attract the attentions of Frank Russak. 41 years old and single, Frank and his brother owned a Wall Street brokerage. Frank was an amateur musician, and loved the opera so much he had produced several charity productions that had been reviewed in the New York Times. Wealthy, he owned a townhouse at East 65th Street. He summered both in New Jersey seaside resorts and in Newport, Rhode Island among New York's wealthiest.

Frank Russak, 1894

In June '99, an announcement appeared in the Newport, Rhode Island papers that Frank Russak and singer Marie Barna would marry.

In the East Coast papers at the time, Marie's pedigree was presented as far more lofty that she claimed in 1911. Her father’s family was linked to the founders of Barnard College, and his profession was described as a Judge -not a stable hand. Perhaps he was, by that time.

On September 20, 1899, Marie and Frank were married at a private home in Newport. She wore a "gown of white satin faille, covered with mousseline de soie and pointe d'Aiguilles lace, richly embroidered in pearls," and she carried a bouquet of forget-me-nots. The only jewelry she wore was a diamond collar, a gift from the groom.

So here she was. Married to a wealthy man who adored her. Happily ever after - right? What more could a woman want of her life?

As it turned out, Marie wanted much much more. And she would do what she could to get it.

Come back again to read more.


Anonymous said...

Wealth and fame is never enough.

I love the research you put into these tales from the past!

Anonymous said...

Loved to read your excellent blog. Pleased to see Marie visited my home town twice as a performer. This is the first time I learn about it.

JCK said...

Great research, Glennis!

Such fun pictures and adventures of a true Diva!


A niece of Marie Hotchener, I am entranced by your blog of Feb. 2011. A friend has just brought it to my attention and I'm eager to see the promised follow-up piece, but we've failed to find it. Aunt Marie and Uncle Henry were magic, and any visit to our home on the east coast was a gala event. In her role as psychic she predicted I would be a writer. Voila! (As Felice Holman) 4/15/13