Ellen Beach Yaw
Ellen Beach Yaw (September 14, 1869 – September 9, 1947) was an American coloratura soprano, best known for her concert singing career. She had an extraordinary vocal range and could produce unusually high notes. Known as "Lark Ellen" or "The California Nightingale," she was reportedly the only known soprano of her era who could sing and sustain the D above high D. She was also able to trill in major thirds or fifths (trills usually involve rapidly alternating notes over an interval of a minor or major second).
Early life and career
Yaw was born in the small town of Boston, near Buffalo, New York (not Boston, Massachusetts, as is often stated), the daughter of Ambrose Yaw, who manufactured cow and sheep bells. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was very young, but her father died when she was a small child, and the family was very poor.
Yaw began singing and composing songs as a child. She studied singing in America, first with her mother; then with Mrs. Torpadie, the wife of tenor Theodore Bjorksten; and then with Ernesto delle Salle. Yaw sang in concerts, beginning as a child in the 1880s, to make money to pay for singing lessons. Tours of the southern United States, California, England, Switzerland, and Germany followed, and on her return to America she gave a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1896. Yaw raised enough money through these concerts to study in Paris with Mathilde Marchesi and later coached with Alberto Randegger. She also sang several opera roles in the late 1890s, including Ophelia in Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet in Nice in 1897.
The Rose of Persia
In 1898 and 1899, Yaw was singing in private concerts in London, and at one of these, at the home of Mrs. Fanny Ronalds, she so impressed Sir Arthur Sullivan that he prevailed upon the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company to cast her as the Sultana Zubedyah in his comic opera The Rose of Persia, which opened on November 29, 1899 at the Savoy Theatre in London. Sullivan went so far as to write a special high cadenza for her song "'Neath My Lattice," a cadenza that only she could sing. Yaw's first two nights were shaky, though the reviews were mixed, and both the music director, Francois Cellier, and Mrs. Carte advocated for her replacement. Sullivan at first agreed, writing in his diary on 2 December, "I told [Cellier] I was afraid [that Yaw] would not improve, that she hadn’t got it in her.... I don’t quite see what it’s all about — Miss Yaw is not keeping people out of the theatre as Cellier and the Cartes imply."
By December 10, however, he wrote in his diary that Yaw was "improving rapidly" and "sang the song really superbly: brilliant. So I wrote again to Mrs. Carte saying that I thought if we let Miss Yaw go it would be another mistake." It was too late, however, and the next day Yaw stopped at Sullivan's flat to tell him that she had been dismissed summarily by Mrs. Carte (ostensibly on account of illness). She was replaced by Isabel Jay.
Opera and concerts
Yaw made some grand opera appearances thereafter in Monte Carlo, including as Ophelia in Thomas' Hamlet in 1902 (her favorite role); Rome, where she sang the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor in 1905 (under the name of Elena Elvanna at the Quirinal Theatre - she was the first American singer to make a successful operatic debut in Rome); Naples; Catalonia; and Milan. Yaw sang Gilda in Rigoletto in London in 1905 and gave a single performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at New York's Metropolitan Opera on March 21, 1908 (after which she was described by the Met's manager as "the world’s greatest coloratura soprano). She sang a total of about 18 operatic roles. However, she mostly devoted herself to the concert hall, where she had a long and successful career, singing for many of the crowned heads of Europe and for U.S. President William McKinley. In 1904, the Los Angeles Daily Times wrote, "Miss Yaw's voice is high soprano of crystalline lightness and purity and of a range so extreme in altitude that... it was the wonder of the European continent."
Yaw was much in demand as a recording artist, and her first records were made in May 1899. She made many recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. In order to display her voice to its best effect, she wrote several songs of her own with titles such as "The Skylark," "The Cuckoo," and "The Firefly." News dispatches from Paris in 1902 reported that the Shah of Persia had engaged Yaw to sing her repertoire into his phonograph. A few of her recordings are still available. Some of her rare KeenoPhone and unpublished Edison and Victor recordings are preserved on a recording that is narrated by her pupil, the tenor Antonio Altamirano. Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, recorded her voice for mechanical experiments on a visit to his Orange, New Jersey laboratories. She sang various songs throughout her range into several machines. Afterwards, Edison said of her voice, "I can see no defects of any kind in this voice. Sweet on lower notes, and mellow. Best high tones yet for the disc machine."
Yaw resided in Covina, California, for the last thirty years of her life. She taught singing, gave concerts (continuing her tours in Europe until World War I and throughout North America until about 1931), and devoted herself to charitable pursuits – often her concerts were in aid of these charities. According to her student, Antonio Altimirano, she sang the witch in a production of Hansel and Gretel in later years. She established the "Lark Ellen League" to give concerts in hospitals, homes, and jails; and the "Lark Ellen School for Boys" (she did this early in her career, in the 1890s), later taken over by the Lions Club. Yaw is memorialized in Covina by Lark Ellen Elementary School and Lark Ellen Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares connecting Covina to neighboring West Covina.
She reportedly wrote her memoirs, The Song of the Lark, which Mr. Altimirano reported were finished in 1983, but they were never published. Altimirano died in 1986, and the memoirs have not been found.
Yaw died in Covina, just shy of her 78th birthday.
- The American Opera Singer (Ed. Peter G. Davis) 1999 Random House, p. 194. ISBN 978-0-385-42174-4
- Description from The Boston Historical Society website
- Strand Magazine interview with Yaw, June 1899, quoted in Walters
- Walters reproduces a large number of these reviews, which range from amazed admiration to disdain, but most mention that the audience was thrilled by Yaw's high notes. Her acting was generally described as amateurish but graceful and charming.
- Cannon, John. "The Suppressed Saga of Two Savoy Sultanas", The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, 15 July 2007, accessed 11 July 2013
- "Our Songbird Is Coming Home", Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1904, accessed 11 July 2013
- Recordings available online
- The recording was available from Merritt Sound Recording, 223 Grimsby Road, Buffalo, N.Y. 14223. It is not known whether it is still available.
- Walters, Michael. "Madame Ellen Beach Yaw" in Daly's Issue 1, Gaiety Publications (2002), Ed. Roderick Murray, pp. 29–38.
- Ellen Beach Yaw at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte
- Profile of Yaw