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An Arkansas aria

Opera star Mary Lewis sings again -- on CD.

by and

Seventy-nine years have passed since a high moment in Arkansas’s cultural history. Jan. 26, 1926, in New York, hundreds of ticket-hungry fans stood in line for hours outside the Metropolitan Opera to purchase tickets to that evening’s performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The long lines were not for the Rodolfo of the evening, Canadian-born tenor Edward Johnson (years later the Met’s general manager), or the veteran baritone Antonio Scotti. Instead, ticket-buyers were filing into the house to hear a new soprano, a success story whose own life was as improbable as an opera plot. Mary Lewis, born in poverty in Hot Springs in 1897, had reached the Met! Lewis’ childhood had been spent largely in foster homes. Never had she attended a conservatory or a college. Just seven years earlier, in 1919, she had been an unhappy housewife in Little Rock’s Pulaski Heights. Now she walked onto the darkened stage towards the end of the first act. All the Bohemians except the poet Rodolfo had departed. After knocking on the door, Mimi made her entrance by saying “Scusi” (excuse me). The house, filled with friends rather than music lovers, erupted in applause before she sang her first line, “Di grazia, ni se e pento il lume (I’m sorry, my light has gone out).” It was a light that would be extinguished on New Year’s Eve a mere 15 years later. Lewis’ whirlwind life was more than sufficient to fill a book. Developing technology in the 20th century also means her voice lives on. Although her silent films are thought lost, Mary Lewis’ recordings can still be heard. A new album with two CDs, more than two hours long and containing most of her extensive recorded legacy, this month joins an already published biography. Lewis was a footnote to history until two people, working from different directions, brought her back into the light. I first encountered Lewis almost a half-century ago when her recording of the Meditation from Jules Massenet’s “Thais” turned up in a box of 78 rpm records I bought at an auction. I began researching. On an April evening in 1975, just before I was to give a paper on Lewis to the Jonesboro meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association, veteran newspaper woman Margaret Ross asked me if I knew Mary Lewis’ husband would be present the next day. That she had an Arkansas husband was news to me. J. Keene Lewis indeed existed, and from him I learned that the stories put forward by Mary Lewis’ publicists were often just that, stories. Armed with deeper research, I wrote articles on Mary’s career for the Arkansas Historical Quarterly; the English journal for operatic connoisseurs, The Record Collector, and finally the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s own publication, Opera News. Then, for the time being, I stopped. The torch passed to Alice Fitch Zeman, whose biography of the singer, “Mary Lewis: The Golden Haired Beauty with the Golden Voice,” was published by Little Rock’s Rose Publishing in 2001. Zeman’s grandparents, Rev. and Mrs. William Fitch, had served as Mary Lewis’ foster parents. Alice Zeman inherited the blue-gray dress the child had been wearing when she moved in with the Fitches and an extensive correspondence. Mrs. Fitch was Mary’s first vocal coach, and Mary credited her with instilling perfect enunciation. Congregations in Eureka Springs and Judsonia heard the child often. But Mary rebelled against their strict Methodist upbringing and during her high school years she lived with Little Rock promoter and Republican politician H.F. Auten, who furthered Mary’s musical education. However, Mary still kept close ties with the widowed Mrs. Fitch. Though plans for a recording to accompany the book were delayed, Zeman’s book finally told Mary’s story. After attending high school in Little Rock she married J. Keene Lewis and Mary Maynard became Mary Lewis. She left her husband in hopes of finding a career on stage. She got work in California singing jazz songs. She also appeared in a number of short comedy films. Saving her money, she went to New York where she eventually attracted the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld, Broadway’s leading producer. She appeared in two of his spectacular Follies. Her “Lace Land” costume consisted of a radium-lined dress that glowed in the darkened theater as she sang “Weaving.” Two months later she began having periods of sickness, and medical evidence suggests radiation poisoning might eventually have caused her death. Mary left Broadway to build a career in opera. She took vocal lessons from New York’s leading teacher and then headed off to Europe. Her operatic career began at the top, at Vienna’s Volksoper, in Gounod’s “Faust,” surrounded by an international cast and with the famous conductor Felix Weingartner in the pit. But most of her work came in England at the British National Opera Company, and part of her niche in musical history lies in that she sang the female lead in the premiere of English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams’ folk opera, “Hugh the Drover.” From there it was back to America for her Metropolitan debut. The high hopes Mary Lewis generated and the great publicity she achieved were a product of the Roaring Twenties. Indeed, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, the poster boy for a decade of decadent excess, performed her second marriage to German baritone Michael Bohnen. But the Bohnen marriage went sour. Hopes of a second career in motion pictures collapsed along with the stock market. A third marriage gave her a brief period of stability in the mid-1930s, but her physical problems, which included what at the time was considered alcoholism, culminated in a rapid decline and death. She was, to her contemporary Jessica Dragonette, “a touching enigma, evidently bent on destroying herself, in spite of excelling gifts.” Afterward, as long-playing records succeeded the shellac 78s, Mary and her music sunk into oblivion. Buried away, forgotten and nearly lost was a rich legacy. First, in 1924 in England, she recorded using the acoustic process. The performer sang into a large horn that passed the vibrations to a needle and onto a wax record. All records were made this way until 1925. Although she recorded many acoustic numbers, they were not long in the catalogue. Her return to the United States coincided with electrification. The microphone replaced the horn. Under contract to RCA Victor, Mary recorded arias and songs. There was no way to fix mistakes except by starting over. Up to 11 takes were made for some pieces, but her famous recording of “Dixie” was ruled ready for production after just two. By 1928 her career with Victor was over. However, Lewis had a second recording career, making filler for the radio networks that gained ascendancy in the 1930s. The National Broadcasting Company supplied its stations with transcriptions on 16-inch disks called the NBC Thesaurus Series. In 1997, 14 of these records were found in Australia. The double-sided disks featured songs and arias by Lewis on one side, accompanied by a small salon orchestra drawn from the New York Philharmonic. The network was not interested in making perfect recordings. Although produced by RCA, which then owned NBC, some of the cuts displayed minor defects. At times the orchestra and soloist are not quite together; at other times there are small slips in enunciation, rhythm, or pitch. Nevertheless, these defects pale before the chance to hear Lewis just a few years prior to her death. Vocally, Mary Lewis began her recording career with a clearly focused light soprano topping out at a high D. Critics noted, though, a weak lower register. However, the lower range displayed on the Thesaurus series is remarkable. The repertory, probably often dictated by NBC, leaned toward old sentimental favorites. “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Danny Boy,” “Annie Laurie,” and “My Lovely Celia” were once known in every parlor in America. If the songs were hackneyed, Lewis’ performances were not. A second group of songs included German lieder, predominantly songs by Richard Strauss and Franz Liszt. French songs by Reynaldo Hayn and Josef Szulc are among the series highlights. Lewis was most at home vocally and verbally in French music, and it is a shame that omitted from these sessions were the more complex works by Claude Debussy and Henri Duparc that she often sang in concerts. The operatic selections included arias by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Massenet. There were also popular songs in Spanish and Italian. Finally, the soprano who once performed in the Second Baptist Church choir in Little Rock recorded one song in Yiddish. The traditional Yiddish song “Eili, Eili” was popular in Jewish enclaves in America’s large cities. This lament, probably a Yiddish folksong, was first published early in the 20th century. Perhaps its universal message (God, why hast thou forsaken me?) touched something deep within Lewis’ heart. When and where she picked it up is not known, but she sang it in 1935 at the annual dinner and ball of the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities. The power and authenticity of her singing matched that of such storied names as Josef Rosenblatt, Jan Peerce or Rosa Raisa. That NBC permitted it to be recorded in a decade of rising anti-Semitism was also remarkable. Two years after her Thesaurus work, Mary Lewis became ill during a concert tour and four months later was dead. An anonymous Arkansas poet, commenting on her burial in Little Rock, wrote: “She has come home like a bird to its nest/ Home, at last, for a long, long rest.” The saga now becomes the Arkansas cultural event of 2005, the combination of Alice Fitch Zeman’s book and Ward Marston’s new album. With grants from the Arkansas Arts Council, the Arkansas Humanities Council and the Arkansas Studies Institute, they will bring Mary Lewis home to the state’s libraries. When Lewis visited Little Rock in March 1926, the Arkansas Democrat proclaimed “Mary Lewis Given Greatest Welcome State Ever Knew.” It is again time to celebrate her homecoming. Michael B. Dougan is a professor of history at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

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