Florence Easton (25 October 1882 – 13 August 1955) was a popular English dramatic soprano in the early 20th century. She was one of the most versatile singers of all time. She sang more than 100 parts, covering a wide range of styles and periods, from Mozart, Meyerbeer, Gounod, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Strauss, Schreker and Krenek. In Wagner she sang virtually every soprano part, large and small from Senta onwards, including the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde.
She described herself as "lyric dramatic soprano", which seems barely adequate in relation to the range of types of role in which she excelled. Her high international reputation, founded mainly in Germany and North America, was almost unique for a British singer of her time. She could move easily through all stages from the light coloratura to the Hochdramatische, from girlish romanticism to powerful Wagnerian and Straussian drama. The voice could be light and airy, gently melancholic or intensely passionate. The involvement in the character of the role was total. John Steane has suggested that "This great strength of hers was also, in a strange way, a source of weakness. She sang so many roles very well that she never quite became identified with any of these". Despite her often suspect Italian diction she was chosen by Puccini to create Lauretta in his 1917 opera Giianni Schicchi.
Florence Easton was the elder daughter of John Thomas Easton and Isabella Yarrow, and niece of Fletcher Easton. Known professionally as 'the nightingale of South Bank', she was born on 25 October 1882 at 52 Napier Street, South Bank, Middlesbrough (many biographies show her birthdate incorrectly as 1884). Her parents left England when she was 5 years old and settled with Florence (then known as Flossie) and her younger brother in Toronto, Canada. Flossie sang in the choir of Parkdale Methodist Church, where her father was choirmaster and her mother was organist. Her musical talent became evident in early childhood and she had piano, organ and singing lessons with JDA Tripp and Mr Harrison. She appeared publicly as a pianist when she was 8 years old.
She said "I began as a pianist, and had no thought of singing, let alone the opera, when I began the study of music". Florence was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music on 25 March 1909.
When her mother died in 1899, Florence returned with her father to Middlesbrough, where he joined a partnership in a wholesale fruit merchants business with William Henry Easton, his father and Fletcher Easton, his brother. A collection in Middlesbrough raised enough money for her to study for a year at the Royal Academy of Music in London—she lost the money on her first day in the capital, and her father had to find replacement funds. She started in May 1900 and studied singing for a year. The 1901 Census shows her as an 18-year-old student at the Royal Academy of Music, living at Hendon, Middlesex.
In 1901 she went to Paris to study singing with Elliott Haslam, a friend of her father's. "But not long after this my father died, and my grandparents (who had good old-fashioned ideas that a woman's place to sing was in the home) discouraged my efforts. They even carried paternalism far enough to select a husband for me. When this point had been reached, I quietly disappeared, and once more went back to my vocal work".
Florence was determined, and her debut operatic appearance was as the Shepherd boy in Tannhäuser at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1903 with the touring Moody-Manners Opera Company. On the first evening of the company's season at Covent Garden she sang Stephano in Roméo et Juliette. Her first leading role at the Covent Garden Opera House was Arline in The Bohemian Girl, and she was a success there in 1903, as the lead in Madama Butterfly.
Florence married twice; in May 1904 she married Francis Maclennan (born 1873, died 1935), an American tenor with the Moody-Manners Opera Company. She made her American debut as Gilda in Rigoletto in Baltimore with Henry W. Savage's English Grand Opera Company in November 1905, and she sang a number of roles with this company in the US and Canada over the next 2 years. In 1905 Maclennan had the title role in Henry W. Savage's Parsifal tour of America, and Florence gave up her singing career to set up home in America. They had a son in 1906 and a daughter (Wilhelmina) in 1912; they divorced in 1928. Wilhelmina died in the flu epidemic of 1919.
Her first notable success in America came in Henry Savage's 1906/7 season as Cio-Cio-San in the premiere of Madama Butterfly (in English). Her performance on 27 October 1906 was the second ever in the USA, following that of Elsa Szamosy by only twelve days. Florence held a world record of more than three hundred appearances in Madame Butterfly, her favourite role.
From 1907 to 1913 she and her husband Francis Maclennan were members of the Berlin Royal Opera, singing many roles of great variety. She had to learn the role of Marguerite in German within 10 days, and followed up by learning and performing the part of Aida within 48 hours without rehearsal. She was immediately given a five-year contract. They became firm friends of Kaiser Wilhelm. Florence was coached by Richard Strauss for the title role in the English version of his Elektra at the London premiere at Covent Garden in 1910. After the 1912/13 season the Maclennans joined the Hamburg Opera Stadtische Opera, and she sang with Enrico Caruso in 1913.
In 1915/16 the couple toured America where Florence appeared in a single performance as Brünnhilde in Siegfried, achieving a great popular and critical success. Because of the war it was too risky to return to Germany, so they stayed in the United States, becoming members of the Chicago Opera Association where her debut was in Siegfried. She remained with the Chicago Opera for two seasons, becoming one of the best-known Wagnerian sopranos in the USA. She sang with the Society of American Singers, New York in 1916. In 1917 she joined The Metropolitan Opera in New York, her debut on 7 December 1917 being the role of Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. She remained at the Met for 12 seasons, singing 41 parts and about 295 performances.
It was her performance as the Saint Elisabeth in the staged version of Liszt's Die Legende von der heiligen Elisabeth in 1918 which set her into the first rank of Metropolitan Opera stars.
Giacomo Puccini wrote a trio of operas named Il trittico comprising Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Florence created the role of Lauretta at the world premiere of Puccini¹s Gianni Schicchi on 14 December 1918 at the Metropolitan Opera, New York; she was the first to sing the famous aria "O mio babbino caro" ("O My Beloved Papa"). Puccini could not get to New York for the premiere, so the Met's general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza sent a telegram to Puccini after the performance of the Trittico:
"Most happy to announce the complete authentic success of the Trittico. At the end of each opera long very sincere demonstrations more than forty warm curtain calls altogether. In spite of public notice forbidding encores by insistence Lauretta's aria was repeated. Principal strength Moranzoni magnificent. Farrar, Muzio, Easton, De Luca, Montesanto, Didur incomparable singers and actors. Daily press confirms success expressing itself very favourably on worth of the operas enthusiastically for Schicchi".
She sang many other premiere roles including Aelfrida in Deems Taylor's The King's Henchman on 17 February 1927 and Mother Tyl in Wolff's L'oiseau bleu. She was also featured in many American premieres including La cena delle beffe, Così fan tutte and Der Rosenkavalier. Her repertoire included more than 100 roles in 4 languages. She appeared with Chaliapin, a bass singer of great renown, and also with the famous Enrico Caruso at his last performance, on Christmas Eve 1920, when she was Rachel to his Eleazar in Halevy's La Juive. By 1926 she was earning $800 for each performance of Turandot. In 1929 she sang her last premiere for the Metropolitan, Otto Kahn's staging of the jazz opera Jonny spielt auf. In May 1929 she went to Europe for several months enjoying herself on the proceeds from years of singing with only a few short breaks. However, she lost a fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
In the fortnight between 3 and 17 November 1927 she sang Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, La Gioconda, Rachel in La Juive, Madama Butterfly and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier; it was surprising that she could manage them all and in such a relatively short space of time, it was astonishing that the critical response to nearly every one was laudatory. Though unlike her in so many ways, Easton had this much in common with Lilli Lehmann. By dint of application, intelligence, musical facility and sheer hard work, she was able to transform a lightweight lyric soprano into a dramatic instrument capable not merely of scaling the Wagnerian heights but with the stamina to stay up there season in and season out.
Florence Easton was famous for her ability to take an unknown part at 8 in the morning and perform it flawlessly in public 12 hours later. Frequently she was called upon at the last moment to substitute for some leading soprano momentarily indisposed. She sang her first Isolde without a single rehearsal, called to do so at the zero hour. In the middle of the 1929 season however, her memory suddenly failed her, and she asked to be released from her contract. She announced she would sing in opera no more, and retired to a house in Hampstead, London. She married Stanley Roberts, a New York banker and executive of the Celanese Corporation of America and baritone singer, in 1931.
The following year she reappeared and recorded the Siegfried "Brünnhilde" with Lauritz Melchior at Covent Garden. Between 1932 and 1935 she lived in England, singing at Covent Garden, Sadler's Wells and at the Promenade Concerts under Sir Henry Wood, with the London Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham and with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the first worldwide hook-up broadcast. Her regular accompanist was Harold Craxton. At Covent Garden in 1932 she was Isolde in Siegfried opposite Lauritz Melchior, the only time they appeared together. She was Tosca, an unlikely Carmen, sang in Mendelssohn's Elijah and gave Lieder and song recitals. Leaving England finally in 1935, she found that she had lost the tour to the new sensation, Kirsten Flagstad (but she remained an unstinting admirer of the great Norwegian). Easton's last appearance on the operatic stage was as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in New York on 28 February 1936.
In an interview in New York in 1935 she suggested the reason for her absence from the Metropolitan Opera: "It was an accident during a performance of Carmen in England a year ago which incapacitated me for a number of months last year. Reeling in Carmen's death-throes, I happened to catch my heel in the skirt of my dress and fell, twisting my spine, directly in the path of the curtain. The audience hadn't the remotest idea that the apparently lifeless Carmen who lay there was almost lifeless – and indeed, I actually would have been two minutes later if I had not retained sufficient consciousness to edge out of the path of the descending curtain on its way to deposit about a ton of iron weighting on my head. However, all these things must be taken in one's stride".
On one occasion Florence Easton was engaged to sing the title role in Madama Butterfly in Washington, D.C., a place celebrated for the strictest child labour laws of any city in the country. The child 'Trouble' (Butterfly's son who appears only in the last act), is always recruited locally, and a resourceful stage manager from somewhere produced a midget. Nobody told Mme. Easton, lest she be a bit squeamish. It is customary for the child playing Trouble to be introduced to the soprano at the first intermission to get him (more often her) accustomed to the Japanese costume and makeup. Mme. Easton asked the traditional three questions:
"Would you like to go to the bathroom?" – "No".
"Would you like some chocolate?" – "No".
"How old are you?" – "Forty two" the little fellow piped up.
But this was nothing to Easton¹s confusion in the last act. When she pressed him to her ample bosom he didn¹t want to let go.
Retirement and final years
Florence retired from public performance in 1939; her last appearance with orchestra was in a 1942 broadcast where she sang excerpts from Tristan und Isolde using her own English translations. She then taught privately and at the Juilliard School of Music, and still gave occasional recitals in New York. Her final appearance was made at New York Town Hall, in a song recital in 1943. At the end of World War II she moved with her husband to Montreal, Canada and they returned to New York in 1950. She was suffering from heart trouble and she died on 13 August 1955, in Montreal, aged 72.
Florence Easton made more than 100 records in the 1920s and 1930s. She recorded for Odeon, Aeolian-Vocalion and for Brunswick, initially recording acoustically, but electrically from 1926. She embraced opera, operetta, sacred songs and popular ballads. She recorded six operatic items for Edison (1927). One of her most important Wagnerian records was made for HMV in 1932: the superb Siegfried "Brünnhilde" opposite Lauritz Melchior (Covent Garden, 1932) "Heil dir Sonne! Heil dir Licht!" (the best recording in her own estimation). In 1933, HMV recorded six sides of Lieder and songs for RCA Victor, accompanied by Gerald Moore.
- Recital 1921–1942 (Arias and songs by Wagner, Verdi, Bizet, Gounod, Rimsky-Korsakov, Puccini, Haydn, Wolf, Dvořák, Brahms, R. Strauss, Schumann. Popular American and German songs)
- Claremont – Florence Easton; Absolute Soprano (Recordings 1918-1933/1939/1940)
- Brunswick (original company, re-issued widely for example Marston & Symposum: Gianni Schicchi (Puccini) O mio babbino caro (Creator recording which though beautifully sung exhibits one of the worst Italian accents of any major singer on record).
- Marston – Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The "Potted Ring") Pearl – Lauritz Melchior Edition Vol. 5
- Off-air recordings include two Götterdämmerung extracts from a Lewisohn Stadium concert and 14 items (mainly Lieder) from a recital at the Juilliard School of Music (13 July 1939) – International Record Collectors Club.
- Three Tristan excerpts (two with Arthur Carron plus the Liebestod) followed from the Celanese Hour broadcast (1942).
There are two less well-known recordings, made by Brunswick in the 1920s when she was in her absolute prime:
- Laisse-moi... O nuit d’amour! with Mario Chamlee (Marguerite in Gounod's Faust Brunswick 1927)
- Parigi o cara with Mario Chamlee (Violetta in Verdi's La traviata Brunswick 1927)
- A compilation 2-CD set was released in 1997 by Claremont in South Africa (GSE 78-50-72/73) from original shellac discs.
- Cantabile-Subito: Easton, Florence – Great Singers of the Past. Biographical notes (extract from the booklet of Claremont Records).
- Florence Easton, Soprano (1882–1955) – The Virtual Gramophone, Library and Archives Canada.
- Francis Robinson, Booklet accompanying the LP of 19 January 1946 broadcast of Madama Butterfly from the Met.