Ursula’s Excellent Adventure (Part 2)

Ursula Cheshire at Chateau Cabrieres

Ursula on the Grand Front Terrace at Château Cabrières, France (Photo published in “Themis” of Zeta Tau Alpha)

Last week, I posted part one of Ursula’s European adventure—written by Ursula, herself! Here’s part two, a richly detailed account of studying and living at famous opera singer Emma Calvé’s castle in southern France. Ursula’s travelogue was originally published in her sorority’s quarterly journal, Themis of Zeta Tau Alpha, in March 1925.

[Part two]
Studying and Traveling Abroad
By Ursula Claire Cheshire

“Château de Cabrières, the home of Mme. Calvé, is in the southern part of France, on one of the highest peaks of the Cevene mountains, miles away from any real city. The castle is old Roman style with large round towers, and dates back to the year 1050 A.D. Huge iron gates are at the entrance of the grounds, which are surrounded by thick stone walls, while at the entrance of the château there are two ancient iron bolted doors, one leading into an open court and the other into the hallway.

Château Cabrières

Château Cabrières

The rooms of the château are all exquisitely furnished with things from all parts of the globe. Three rooms appealed to me particularly. First the ancient guard room (now used for the dining room) with its original stone floor, ceiling and fireplace; next the salon with its large carved furniture, and then the Louis XIV bedroom with its heavily handcarved Louis XIV bed.

The castle was an ideal place to study. There was nothing near to bother us. There was nothing near to hear us. We could sing to the many mountain peaks on all sides, with only the sheep on the hillside, or the oxen in the valley, to hear the echoes of our voices.

Jean Henri Fabre

French naturalist Jean Henri Fabre

Yet sometimes this tranquility was broken, for we had guests from near and far—musicians, artists and even reporters. When from our heights we would see an auto turn off the main highway below and start to climb the mountain road, that was our signal to prepare for company. Also at different times we would give concerts in the near-by towns, which necessitated short trips, and again our studies would be put aside for a while. One very interesting program was given at Rodez, the capitol of the department of Aveyron, to raise funds for a monument to the great French naturalist, Henri Fabre.

bon_bonsI will never forget my first soirée at the château. Guests came from all around to give us a fête, bringing with them pastries, bonbons, wine and champagne, and a grand feast was spread. The evening was spent in dancing and singing and I had a rather interesting time trying to converse with our guests with my then small French vocabulary.”

To be continued…


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!