History is so grand in the opera world, that it was a particular pleasure to discover something small and intimate – but with a big backstory – on the shores of Lake George in New York State during a Sunday drive last weekend.
I ran across the Marcella Sembrich Opera Museum, a modest but captivating shrine to one of the first great international opera stars of modern times.
In Bolton Landing, among the few remaining grand houses from the time when New York society families went north for the summer, the fading motels and inns of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and the latest crop of modern condos is a cool, sweet-smelling grove of white pines. Deep within, perched on the Lake George shoreline, is a pink stucco boathouse that Sembrich converted into her summertime teaching studio.
Since her death in 1935, this idyllic little park and building have contained just enough of her personal memorabilia, music and art to provide a nice taste of a prima donna’s life a century ago.
The coloratura soprano still holds the title of singer with most roles performed with the most repetition at the Metropolitan Opera. She was on stage as Lucia, her most noted role, at the original Met opera house on its second night in October, 1883.
The dozens and dozens of notes, postcards, souvenirs, ribbons, trophies, cups and silver wreaths of laurel and oak leaves that festoon the studio speak of a woman adored in New York and Europe.
What might make the Sembrich museum even more attractive this summer is a concert series involving a variety of artists, from the young ensemble of Saratoga Opera to pianist Thomas Pandolfi to a song night featuring Stephanie Blythe, carefully assembled by longtime Sembrich artistic director, composer Richard Wargo.
Wargo was busily writing press releases at the desk in the small foyer when I wandered in on Sunday afternoon. By coincidence, it happened to be the museum’s first day of the season (it is a summer place only).
Wargo has planned this year’s concerts around the summer of 1914, the start of World War I, the reason why Polish-born Sembrich and her teacher-manager-husband ended up in the United States in the first place.
The artistic director told how Sembrich was at a big party at Ignaz Paderewski’s home in Switzerland the night war was declared. Because she travelled on a German passport, she found herself unwelcome just about everywhere in Europe, and couldn’t get home.
So, like so many Europeans during the World Wars, she escaped to America. Once she retired from the Met in 1909, she concentrated on giving recitals to raise money for Poland, and taught at Curtis in Philadelphia and in New York at what would become the Juilliard School.
In the summers, she taught in the country, first in Lake Placid and, later, in Bolton Landing. She lived in a grand Victorian pile across Route 9, which long ago made way for a motel, which is now about to make way for vacation condos.
According to Wargo, the studio seats 60, which would make it an extraordinary place to experience someone like Blythe in full flight.
The artistic director says about 1,500 people visit the museum each year.
The diva’s papers are at Lincoln Center, and her scores are at Juilliard. But there is enough to see in the studio to make, as the Michelin guidebooks used to say, the Stembrich museum worth a detour off Interstate 87.
You can find out more about the museum and its concert schedule at: http://www.thesembrich.org
(All Photos: John Terauds, 2014, Marcella Sembrich Opera Museum, Bolton Landing, NY)