Life at Madame Calvé’s Castle

Emma Calvé

A young Emma Calvé, legendary French opera singer and Ursula’s teacher

When we left off, Ursula was about to set sail for France to study with the famous operatic soprano Madame Emma Calvé. In her 1922 memoir My Life, published just two years before Ursula’s arrival, Mme. Calvé described the summers she spent teaching young women at her castle, “Château Cabrières,” in Cévennes, a mountainous region in the South of France.

Mme. Calvé aimed to help the young ladies, who hailed from around the world, acquire “a knowledge of the difficult arts of singing and of living.” Their days were filled with song, discourse, drawing, literature, poetry, swimming, hiking, “motoring” trips in the surrounding countryside, and excursions to art galleries and museums in nearby towns, and sometimes even to Italy.

Mme. Calvé paints a vivid picture of day-to-day life for the women at her château in a chapter called “A Nest of Young Song Birds,” an excerpt of which appears below. It gives us a good idea of what Ursula’s time there would have been like. What an exciting and lovely way for Ursula to have spent her summer—that heady time between graduating from college and starting life in the “real” world.

Excerpt from My Life, by Emma Calvé:
“…Every summer during recent years I have filled my castle on the hill top with different groups of young girls who have come to study with me. It is a joy to me to have these young people about, to hear their fresh voices, to try to help them a little in acquiring a knowledge of the difficult arts of singing and of living.

Chateau Cabrieres

Château Cabrières, opera star Emma Calvé’s French castle, where Ursula studied after graduating from U.C. Berkeley

“Both at Cabrières and in Paris, where I teach during part of the year, I have had pupils from every quarter of the globe: Russians…Italians…English…French…; and, of course, my dear Americans, with their cordial, spontaneous friendliness, their splendid physical equipment, beautiful voices and simple, unsophisticated outlook…

The parlor at Château Cabrières

The parlor at Château Cabrières

“Whenever it is possible, I take these young girls into my own home at Cabrières. What happy, busy summers we pass among my beautiful mountains, in the high solitude of my well-beloved country!…

“My young girls benefit greatly by their summer in the country—a real cure d’air for those who come from cities or from damp, low regions. I can take care of a number of pupils in my little castle, and they share with me the comfortable, wholesome country life that I love so much.

view from Château Cabrières

The view from Château Cabrières in southern France

“Our daily routine is simplicity itself. We rise early and dispatch our small domestic duties, for here at Cabrières we live upon a democratic plane. Rich or poor, luxuriously nurtured or hard working—all are alike under this roof. At ten o’clock we assemble for lessons and work hard until lunch time. In the afternoon we take our pleasure. Some go swimming in the river nearby; others take long walks among the hills. On fête days, or when the spirit of adventure seizes us, we go off for long excursions into the surrounding countryside in the automobile. Motoring is a delight in this part of the world, for the roads are so built that one can reach a fairly great altitude without strain. In the evening, we have our books, letters to write, long talks by the fireside, an impromptu lesson or two. Indeed, the whole day is full of movement and song, for I and my little troupe are happy at Cabrières, and we sing as easily as we walk or talk!…

Emma Calvé

Emma Calvé closer to the age she would have been when teaching Ursula and the other young women at her country home in France

“When we are finally tired of singing and talking, we have lessons in “deportment” and stage bearing. We make experiments in the gentle art of walking across a stage…

“Singing, study, exercise, fill the days at Cabrières. Nor do we neglect the sister arts. The eye must be trained as well as the ear. A sensitiveness to line and colour should be cultivated as well as an appreciation of literature and poetry. I never fail to take my pupils on one or two excursions to such neighbouring towns and cities as can boast art galleries or museums. We go to Montpellier, to Arles, sometimes as far as Italy, whose rich heritage of art is a never-ending source of pleasure and stimulation. It is a keen delight to me to share the fresh enthusiasm of these young girls, to see again through their eyes the marvels of painting and of sculpture, the wonders and delights of the Italian Renaissance.”

European Adventure, First Stop: France

In addition to many photographs, the surprise discovery of a second Cheshire photo album yielded a gem of information in the form of a news clipping pasted onto the book’s suede interior back cover. The newsprint is a little worse for wear, but clearly legible, and features a photo of a beautiful and elegant Ursula.

Newspaper article on Ursula going to France in 1924

An article published in an April 1924 issue of the “San Francisco Chronicle” reports on exciting news for Ursula

“U.C. Girl to Visit With Mme. Calve; Invitation to Spend Summer With Singer Accepted,” announced the headline, revealing a major reason Ursula decided to travel to Europe two weeks after graduating from UC Berkeley in 1924. Noting that Ursula would set sail for France on May 31 with her mother, the article tells us:

A poster for Massenet's comic opera "Sapho," featuring French singer Emma Calve, Ursula's teacher

A poster for Massenet’s comic opera “Sapho,” featuring French singer Emma Calve, Ursula’s teacher

“So impressed was Madame Emma Calve, famous singer, with the voice of Miss Ursula Cheshire, University of California senior, when she heard her sing three years ago, that yesterday she sent the girl an invitation to come to her chateau in Southern France and study voice culture there during the summer.”

According to the article, in addition to “voice culture,” Ursula’s studies in France would include dramatics and dancing.

Naturally, I was curious to find out more about Mme. Calvé. Described by Wikipedia as “probably the most famous French female opera singer of the Belle Époque,” Emma Calvé (né Rosa Emma Calvet, b. 1858-d. 1942) was an operatic soprano who enjoyed international acclaim, particularly for her performances in the title role of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, her interpretation of Carmen was noted for its dramatic realism and was long considered the model. She sang regularly at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera and London’s Royal Opera House. Her friend Swami Vivekananda wrote of her, “The rare combination of beauty, youth, talents, and ‘divine’ voice has assigned Calvé the highest place among the singers of the West.”

Emma Calve in ad for Victor

Operatic star Emma Calve in an advertisement for the Victor phonograph and records

To be invited to study with the eminent opera singer was high praise, indeed, for Miss Ursula Cheshire. At the time, Calvé would have been 65 years old, just three years older than when she made this recording (music starts at 15 seconds in), and one year before she retired from the stage to focus solely on teaching.

In my research, I discovered that Calve penned an autobiography in 1922. In the book, titled My Life, she wrote about the summers during which she “filled my castle on the hilltop with different groups of young girls who have come to study with me.” It offers a rare glimpse of what Ursula’s time there would have been like, about which I will share in the next Mystery Dancer post. Until then, adieu!