by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted several times on this blog, Lynden E. Behymer was a critical figure in the development of the performing arts in early 20th century Los Angeles, especially in the world of “serious,” that is, classical, music. Tonight’s post featured a pair of artifacts connected to him as the manager of the Auditorium, otherwise the “Temple Auditorium” or Temple Baptist Church Auditorium, a major venue for the performing arts from the first part of the century through the mid-1960s (it was razed in the 1980s and the Park Fifth residential building is there now.)
The programs are for the week of 7 November 1910 (the day before, as the case with this year, election day) and the second week of opera performances by The Bevani Grand Opera Company, whose principal, Alexander Bevani, a native of England whose surname was Bevan and who remained in Los Angeles as an opera promoter and actor in 1925’s classic Lon Chaney film, The Phantom of the Opera.
This post will focus on the opening performance of the week, Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, the “Love Tales of Hoffman,” which premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1881, four months after the composer’s death—the manuscript for the incomplete work was in his hand when the body was discovered and friends finished it. The libretto, based on three stories by writer E.T.A. Hoffman, is set in Germany and Italy early in the 19th century and concerns a story told by Hoffman, after, at a Nuremburg tavern, a Muse insists he decide between her and an opera singer named Stella of his three main love interests: Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia. All three, however, are really aspects of Stella, who, though, chooses a councilor instead of Hoffman, who passes out drunk leaving him to the Muse.
Henry Christeen Warnack of the Los Angeles Times extensively wrote about the Bevani troupe, prefacing this with an interesting observation that “they have learned that the successful person in any line has time for play, and that if life is ever to be enjoyed, its enjoyment must be found in every blessed day.” He asserted that there was a secret of tone in that “if a man breathes character, his tone will be pure and strong” and that, through this component of vocalization, “an audience often finds a vivid picture of the singer’s life.” Consequently,
If the art of some of the Bevani company approaches greatness, it is because their art is the spontaneous expression of qualities that are wholesome and glad.
Regina Vicarino, a soprano who played the three loves in the Hoffman opera, had a voice that, to Warnack, was akin to “the soul of the first frost crying to the stars” and whose pieces “became the silver of moonbeams made into sound. The singer was quoted as saying she knew only three things: sewing, singing and swimming, though the alliteration may have been more than coincidence. it was noted that she was from an American mother and a Swiss father, both a few generations removed from origins in Italy.
The performer was open about her art, observing “when I go upon the stage to sing, I forget about myself; I do not even think about the character I represent; I simply give myself up to the spirit of the part and to that spirit of music which is expressed in all parts.” She went on to add that “I try to let the universal soul and mind of music express itself through whatever I am.” After noting that she made her own costumes, Vicarino told the critic, “I do not think that any real artist is satisfied, or can ever be satisfied, because art, like life, is forever becoming. It has no absolute attainment.”
Achille Alberti, who also played a trio of characters in the opera, was a baritone with fourteen years experience singing in the United States and was something of a father figure for his colleagues. Warnack thought that the singer’s voice was such that it had “a certain rich overtone which seems to float about his notes as though it were apart from his voice.” Moreover, “it is the mellowness of a profound sympathy for mankind,” likely developed from a life in which Alberti was an orphaned street urchin.
Warnack described how Alberti prepared dinner for the family of Mr. and Mrs. Z.H. Jarman who resided a short distance from the Auditorium, south of where the Central Library and California Club are situated now, and told of how “to be received in honor and affection in a home like this is worth all the hardships of childhood and all the labor of the after years.” After the singer expressed his joy in being appreciated by audiences as well as having students to which he could pass on his knowledge of music, the critic noted that Alberti rented apartments so that he could cook for his fellow cast members.
Another Hoffman performer was Joseph Florian, who came from a musical family headed by Russian Poles, sang bass and was a saddle salesman in Boston who sang in a church choir while studying music at night by candle light. He was also said to have been a professional swimmer and semi-pro baseball player and the six-footer “is a success because he has talent and has worked as hard when things went wrong as when things went right.”
Tenor Umberto Sacchetti, who portrayed the titular character, began his career in Bologna and was described by Warnack as being, like Alberti, “a brother of all the world,” and, characteristically, the critic was somewhat obtuse in declaring, “he is willing to drink water if it is made into good coffee, but he will take no chances by swimming in it.” This seemed to be an explanation of the singer’s personality, also described as being “a heavier than air machine,” though he was also accounted “the ideal Bohemian in its sense of good fellowship” who preferred eating in Italian restaurants rather than cooking. What this had to do with his singing, however, was left totally unexplained!
This presentation of the “Love Tales of Hoffman” was said to be the first in the Angel City by an opera company and Florence Bosard Lawrence of the Los Angeles Herald reviewed the performance in the paper’s edition of 8 November and noted that, while the work had been offered by stock musical companies, “no such adequate cast” was found as that of the Bevani company. Vicarino was stated to have “met the varied demands of the leading soprano role with magnificent success, both vocally and dramatically,” though still young (she was 25) so that “she misses some of the seductive possibilities of which the opera offers so many.”
As for Alberti, Lawrence felt “he continued to grow in favor with his audience until his success bids fair to outshine all others of his company.” Sacchetti “gave the many beautiful solos” along with duets with Vicarino, and he had the “dramatic effect that was convincing.” With respect to scenery, some improvements could have been made with lighting, while the chorus was considered “picturesque” and the costuming was praised. There was one scene in the second act which lacked the necessary “languor and passion” by the orchestra, soloists and chorus, but director Roberto Francini was given credit for his work.
An unnamed reviewer for the Los Angeles Record, also of the 8th, noted that “only those who have seen some of the attempts at staging this opera that have been made here, could comprehend the perfection of the presentation.” Sacchetti was deemed to be splendid as “his acting and vocal work in this piece are almost above criticism,” while Vicarino’s excellent work was most manifest in the last two acts (Lawrence though she was better in the second and fourth).
Alberti’s roles of “heavies” and his masterful work was well appreciated by the audience, while Florian was praised for keeping his composure when he lost his wig and the crowd howled. In all, “every part in the production was well sung and the work of the chorus was up to the high mark set during the first week.” In fact, the response to the Bevani troupe was such that Behymer committed to another week of performances.
Also unattributed was the review in the Times of the same day, which began with the statement that “the sweet syrup of Offenbach’s music was poured over a large audience” and that the composer’s work “is sentimental enough and not too pathetic to successfully seduce the American opera-goer.” Not as dramatic as the work of Donizetti, Rossini or Verdi, Offenbach’s last work was said to “have become more popular in America than any” of the composer’s many other operas.
While it was averred that previous productions of the Hoffman tales were sometimes quite good, “the Bevani troupe is far away the best for the money seen here;” in fact, Behymer was credited with bringing the organization out and presenting their work at “popular prices” of a dollar or less per ticket. Vicarino’s singing was such that her “clear and mellow coloratura soprano” had “flute-like qualities,” though she lacked “liquidity” while her acting included “some clever and dramatic work.”
Alberti may have had some vocal shortcomings, but “his knowledge of stagecraft and his ability to get his part over the foot-lights” and his ability to avoid over or under acting made up for whatever problems he had with his singing. The “youthfulness and vivacity” of the chorus, noted in the first week, was even more impressive in this first performance of the second and “their costuming was also tasteful.” There were some criticisms of some of the scenery, even with the low admission price, and “the defiantly green settee and the weird portraits” definitely did not go over well!
A couple of days prior to the opening of the second week, the Times‘ Julian Johnson gave plenty of kudos to the company leader, called “Bee,” for at last being able, with Behymer’s partnership, to make “popular opera” a success in Los Angeles. The company’s work was such that it came “with an explosive bang which will echo to the ears of even the uttermost of those who pronounced this city a musical dead issue.”
The long-suffering Behymer, known as “Bee,” the article continued, “has worked so faithfully and oft-times self-sacrificingly in the interests of art” for some fifteen years and, strangely, expressed by the unnamed writer, “has stood for good music in Los Angeles with the zealotry of an abolitionist opposing slavery, a [William] Penn fighting for religious freedom—or an insurgent for the destruction of the Republican party.” It was added that he had a hard time convincing theater operators Sam and Lee Shubert of the famed New York family to give the Bevani organization a try.
As for the Bevani company, it was “giving the best operatic productions of the sort ever seen here” and checking off all the boxes with “a pretty chorus which can sing, a good orchestra, acceptable scenery and costumes, and an intelligent and resourceful list of even-balanced principals.” With Behymer’s indispensable assistance, the success of the run was such that “it means that Los Angeles will again go on the map as an operatic town” and that “the great operatic companies will have confidence in us when they send their glittering galaxies West some of these days.”
While they didn’t perform in the Offenbach work, it is worth noting that two Los Angeles members of the company, who were enumerated together in Cincinnati in the 1910 census appeared in other performances during the week, including “La Traviata,” “Faust” by Charles Gounod, and Verdi’s “Aida.” Helen Newcomb (1886-1975) was born in Derby, Vermont, but her father brought the family to Los Angeles where he ran a corset shop for quite a few years. Newcomb continued as an opera performer until her marriage to a wealthy Michigan attorney, John T. McCurdy. After he died within several years, she married prominent Baptist minister, W.W. Bustard, who had a pastorate in Oakland for a number of years, with Helen prominent featured in singing, including on radio broadcasts for church services.
Better known locally was Mary Gladys Richey (1890-1959), whose stepfather was Zadok H. Jarman, mentioned, with the singer’s mother Delphine Carpenter, as the host of Alberti in the aforementioned article. Having lived in Boyle Heights for much of her youth, she was known professionally as Margaret Jarman when she began making waves in Los Angeles musical circles by 1909, it was noted that she had already studied in Boston and Milan before coming home and was just 20 when she was featured with the Bevani company.
Jarman continued performing professionally through the teens and spent part of the First World War performing for members of the American Expeditionary Force’s “doughboys” in France. There, she met Second Lieutenant Henry W. Cheeseman and, after the two married in September 1919, they went to Cuba where he took a short-lived job with the United Fruit Company in those “banana republic” days.
The couple resided in Sausalito for a period and then returned to Los Angeles and lived in the Angel City during much of the Roaring Twenties with Margaret frequently performing in public as well as teaching music. The Cheesemans moved to the Bay Area by 1930 and, known as Jerry Jarmain, Margaret had a well-known career on the radio, though not in a religious sense as was the case with Newcomb, who was nearby at the time. After some years in Fremont, near San Jose, the couple retired to Palm Desert in the mid-1950s with Henry dying within a couple of years and then Margaret was killed in a traffic accident in which she hit a commercial truck.
It appears that the appearance of the Bevani Grand Opera Company at the Auditorium with Behymer’s critical role was a watershed mark for the acceptable of opera in Los Angeles and these programs are notable documents of that important point of Angel City musical history.