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If most young American singers of the late 19th century were lured to the glittering world of opera by the promise of fame, riches, and social betterment, the same material goals hardly drove Sibyl Sanderson. Born into wealth and privilege in Sacramento, California, Sibyl and her three younger sisters could have chosen any kind of life they wished. Their father, Silas Woodruff Sanderson, was one of California's most prominent citizens, serving as state legislator, justice of the California supreme court, and chief counsel of the Central and Southern Pacific railroads.
Sibyl's vocal promise was noted early, and her mother took her to Paris as a fifteen-year-old in 1881 to study music and languages. She returned to San Francisco two years later, but in 1886 she was back at the Paris Conservatoire, taking voice lessons from Giovanni Sbriglia and later with Mathilde Marchesi. Blanche Marchesi had happy memories of Sibyl. "She was a kind-hearted, most beautiful and distinguished girl," Blanche recalled, "without an atom of pride or jealousya rara avis in her way. Her voice had not a mellow, but a brilliant quality, and she could reach easily the G or A-flat in Alt without any special effort, these notes being even especially strong, not like the usual tiny little miserable squeaks." It was exactly the sort of brilliant, high-placed voice that Marchesi loved to work on, although as matters turned out Sibyl never quite lived up to expectations.
An even greater influence soon entered Sibyl's life: the composer Jules Massenet. During the summer of 1887 the composer was invited by a rich American family to attend an elegant salon expressly organized to show off Sibyl's vocal charms. Massenet went reluctantly, but he perked up after catching sight of the young soprano, who approached him humbly and said, "Dear Master, I have been asked to come to this friendly house this evening to have the honor of seeing you and to let you hear my voice. I am the daughter of a supreme court judge in America and I have lost my father. He left my mother, my sisters, and me a fortune, but I want to go on the stage. If they blame me for it, after I have succeeded I shall reply that success excuses everything."
Massenet immediately sat down at the piano to accompany her himself, and when Sibyl launched into the Queen of the Night's stratospheric second aria from Die Zauberfl÷te, the composer was dumbfounded. "What a fascinating voice!" he later wrote in his memoirs. "It ranged from low G to the upper Gthree octavesin full strength and pianissimo. I was astounded, stupefied, subjugated!" Sibyl may indeed have been genuinely impressive, young as she was and singing in a small room, but one suspects that the composer was responding to more than a pretty voice. The next morning Massenet excitedly told his publisher, Georges Hartmann, about his new discovery, who he felt would be the ideal choice to create the heroine of his new opera, Esclarmonde, planned as the major musical event at the upcoming Universal Exhibition in May 1889. Meanwhile, a stage debut was arranged for Sanderson, who made her bow at The Hague in January 1888 as Manon, singing under the name Ada Palmer. She was not exactly a sensation, but Massenet pronounced her performance as "ideal"by now his interest in the singer definitely seemed more than merely professional.
That summer Sanderson holidayed in Switzerland with her mother, and the composer joined them at the Grand Hotel de Vevey, pointedly leaving Mme. Massenet and their daughter at home. For five weeks the composer and his muse worked on the score of Esclarmonde together, Sibyl wondering if she could possibly sing a role that was becoming more and more elaborate as Massenet became more and more infatuated. Only the presence of Mrs. Sanderson, suffering from an eye infection, seems to have prevented him from taking the ultimate step. Comments scribbled on his manuscripts reveal Massenet's troubled state of mind during these touchy days: "A painful evening last night...Sad end to the S evening...Sleepless night, a sad future..." When the opera was finished at last, Massenet insisted that Sanderson add her own signature on the last page of the manuscriptthe opera was hers, he felt, as much as his, and the first audiences seemed to agree. When the soprano made her entrance in the prologue and unveiled her face, "there was," according to the soprano Mary Garden, "a gasp of adoration from one end of the house to the other." If nothing else, Sanderson's Esclarmonde became one of the season's most admired physical objects, second only to the Eiffel Tower, the 1889 Exhibition's other major attraction. All Paris, in fact, was talking about the diva's cadenzas and high Gthe "sol d'Eiffel," as her fans dubbed it.
Sanderson's career was spectacularly launched, but her beauty and private life apparently interested European society more than her voice. In Brussels it was said that a young Belgian prince committed suicide for love of her, and later in St. Petersburg she was wooed by Crown Prince Nicholas, who attended all her performances and showered her with jewels. Massenet's next opera for his protégée, Le Mage (1891), was a dismal failure, and Saint-Saens's PhrynÚ (1893) generated only a succes de scandale with its famous disrobing scene, but something more interesting was on the horizon: Massenet's seductive Egyptian courtesan, Tha´s, which Sanderson created in 1894. Once again all Paris went wild when, at one point during the first performance, Tha´s's dress became unhooked, presumably by accident. The audience was stunned and delighted "to see Mademoiselle Seinderson naked to the waist," as the critic Willy reported, making a wicked pun on the soprano's name (sein is French for "breast").
By now America was wondering why this operatic Galatea had never sung on home ground, so in 1895 the impresario Maurice Grau took the hint and brought her to the Metropolitan to sing Manon. New York was unimpressed. In the Tribune Henry Krehbiel wrote, "Of Miss Sanderson's performance it is possible to speak with kindly recognition, if not with enthusiasm. Her voice is not one of the kind to be associated with serious opera. It is pure and true in intonation...but it is lacking in volume and in penetrative quality. It is pleasant in timbre and fairly equable throughout its natural register when not forced, but it becomes attenuate as it goes up and its high tones are mere trickles of sound. It is afflicted, moreover, with an almost distressing unsteadiness and is deficient in warmth." So much for the opinions of Marchesi, Massenet, and the haute monde of Paris.
Sanderson had not quite reached thirty, but her best days were already behind her and tragedy lay ahead. In 1897 she married Antonio Terry, a millionaire from Cuba, but whatever happiness that relationship might have brought her was short-lived. The soprano suffered a paralytic stroke, her newborn daughter survived only a few months, and Terry's own death soon followedall during the unhappy years of 1898-99. Sanderson recovered sufficiently to pick up the threads of her career, which took her to Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg, and Moscoweven back to the Met in 1901, although New Yorkers found her voice to be smaller and her acting colder than ever. When she was unable to finish a performance in Memphis, her western tour was cut short and she returned to Paris. Now desperate and ill, Sanderson wrote Massenet. Would the Ma¯tre please come to hear her sing and bring with him the conductor Edouard Colonne. If her voice still pleased them, perhaps a return engagement at one of the prestigious Concerts Colonne could be arranged. It was a pathetic reunion, as Blanche Marchesi recounts, and it hardly speaks well for Massenet's notoriously weak-willed character:
Massenet was breathing heavily when the door opened and the once beautiful Sibyl came in. She was still beautiful, but there was something unspeakably sad about her, and when she stretched out both her hands to Massenet and said: "Ma¯tre, sauvez-moi de moi-même, rendez-moi à l'art et à la vie," ("Master, save me from myself, bring me back to art and life,") his eyes closed, and he turned white, biting his lips, unable to utter a single word. "Come let us sing," exclaimed Colonne, cutting short the painful scene, and in saying so he opened the piano, striking some chords from Manon, thinking that she would feel more at home in her favorite part than in anything else. Oh, but it was not so. She could not remember a single note; not a word would come back to her memory. Some passages of agility still came out brilliantly, like sudden flashes peering through dark clouds, and she would throw them into the air to show these men that the voice was still there, but of Manon there was no more trace in her memory. When Massenet realized it, he remained motionless, leaning against the piano, the tears flowing over his cheeks. Seeing this, she was suddenly taken by an hysterical fit, and began to laugh at the top of her voice:
"Et voilà l'histoire de Manon Lescaut!" ("And that is the story of Manon Lescaut!") she screamedthe very words with which the opera ends.
After this she began to cry desperately. Massenet, seized with terror, took his hat, shouting, "Partons, Colonne, partons, je deviens fou," ("Let's leave, Colonne, let's leave, I am going mad,") took him by the arm, and they fled from her who had once been the ideal Manon.
Even at this time of crisis and unhappiness, a second marriage was imminentto Count Paul Tolstoy, a cousin of the Russian novelistbut in April 1903 Sanderson came down with a grippe that developed into pneumonia. Mary Garden visited her friend shortly before her death and was horrified at the sight of a woman whose beauty once had all Paris agape. The poor woman had baskets over her because she couldn't stand a sheet touching her body, which was all swollen and discolored. In the corner sat a man with a cigar. "Don't you think you should smoke somewhere else?" Garden politely suggested, but Sanderson motioned her friend to her side. "No, Mary," she whispered, "let him smoke; he's my fiancé."
Sanderson died two days later. Garden was summoned, but refused to view the corpse"I'm glad," reported Sanderson's maid, "because she's frightening to look at." Badly shaken, Garden attended the funeral and afterward wrote, "I thought I never would get out of the church for pain and sorrow. I could feel something tearing and tearing within me...After Sibyl was cremated, they put her ashes in a box, and they put the box into the wall of the Paris crematory. Then they gave her a number, and there we leave my beautiful friend in her thirty-seventh year."