Bill Caldwell: Pauline Donnan lived to sing | Local News
Joplin had a number of Aboriginal sons and daughters who went on to become celebrities. Usually we think of movie stars. However, even grand opera was not beyond the reach of such a talented person as Pauline Donnan, a daughter of Joplin who fulfilled her desire to become an opera singer.
Pauline Keller Donnan was born in September 1885 in Joplin to Andrew and Pauline Donnan. Andrew Donnan was active in the local city administration as a city councilor and civil engineer for the city in 1900. He was president of the Beckey Sharp Mining Co., which operated a property just north of the city.
Pauline graduated from Joplin High School and attended Lindenwood College in St. Louis. She attended Wilson College, a private college for women in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. While studying at Wilson, she studied singing by German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink. Her teacher encouraged her to study in Europe.
Study in Europe
At 22, she took advice and moved to Paris in 1907, where she took lessons with two famous opera singers. Polish tenor Jean de Reszke was famous for his dashing demeanor and strong voice. Reszke regularly sang for the Paris Opera, Covent Garden in London, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1890s.
Donnan’s second teacher was the famous Belgian coloratura soprano Alice Verlet. She made her debut in 1893 at the Opéra-Comique in front of Belgian royalty. She focused on French opera venues, although she sang for the American Ambassador to Belgium, which led to an invitation to sing in the United States in 1896.
A few years later, Donnan made recordings for Edison’s Victor Talking Machine Co. Her recordings were Thomas Edison’s favorites because she had a largely free style of what Edison called “tremelo”, which he hated. For Edison’s business meetings, she sang a duet with her recordings, alternating with the recording through song.
She studied for three years in Paris, Brussels and London. She could sing in French, German and Italian without an accent. In 1910, her repertoire included Lakmé, Juliette in “Romeo and Juliet”, Marguerite in “Faust”, Philine in “Mignon”, the Queen in “Les Huguenots” and the Queen of the night in “The Magic Flute” by Mozart.
In 1910, she made her debut performing in a solo recital hosted by the United States’ Ambassador to Belgium, Charles Page Bryan. He had invited members of the Belgian royal house as well as diplomats from the Brussels diplomatic corps. His singing was a great success. One reviewer commented: “She has a big hit ahead of her, and as she has, in addition to her beautiful voice, a very charming presence, she should make her mark on the opera stage.” A French reviewer noted: “His reminders were all sung in English, although his French, German and Italian diction was as good as his English.”
She returned to the United States to visit her family in 1910. In Joplin, she was very well received. City Council recognized her return, while the Commercial Club encouraged its members to attend the recital she was giving at the Club Theater. It was the social event of the week, according to the Globe. After the concert, she appeared for a short recital for the Scottish Rite’s Autumn Summons at the Connor Hotel. During the following month, she sang for churches and fraternal orders. She was the star of the worldly pages of The Globe and The News Herald.
In January 1911, she left Joplin for Pennsylvania before returning to Brussels. She sang solo with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and then in concert at the Philadelphia Academy of Music with the Philadelphia Operatic Society. She saw her future in music.
Carl Rosa Opera Company
When Donnan returned to Europe over the next two years, her associations acquired from her early days led to performances at a number of receptions given by the nobility in Belgium, Germany and other European countries. She still didn’t know if she should get into concert work or opera. His mother was his constant companion during these years.
In England, a popular musical institution was the Carl Rosa Opera Company, founded in 1873. From 1869 to 1872, Carl Rosa and his wife Parepa toured the United States giving opera performances in English. It was such a success that when he founded his company in 1873 he kept the premise that his operas would be performed in English with discounted tickets “for the masses”. Rosa’s company performed many of the early English versions of popular operas such as “The Flying Dutchman”, “Carmen” and “Aida”.
By the turn of the century, the company had become a household name. The company having been incorporated in 1887, it survived Rosa’s death in 1889. One of her successors, Walter van Noorden, gave it new life. It was under his direction that in 1912 Donnan was hired for soprano roles.
She toured with the company for the next four or five years. She has played roles in “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”, “Faust”, “Bohemian Girl”, “The Magic Flute” and “Carmen”, among others. Critics praised the strength of his voice. Her acting talent as an Olympia doll automaton in “The Tales of Hoffmann” was touted, as was the character of Marguerite in “Faust” who sang “The Jewel Song”.
As World War I continued in 1917, she left opera and accepted a volunteer position at St. Dunstan School in London, where she taught vocal music to veterans with musical ability. Her mother had told friends that she and her daughter had worked with the Red Cross, doing important work for the Allies in London.
Her work was reported in the Courrier Musical in October 1918. Her years of vocal training made her an excellent vocal teacher. His meticulous work has enabled several students to sign professional three-year contracts as singing teachers. She has also taught and conducted performances of several operettas, emphasizing both song and comedy. She has been described as “a tireless worker for the cause … rejoicing that she may be the means to help these blind but musically gifted men of St. Dunstan become self-reliant after the war”.
At the end of 1917, his mother left Britain for health reasons. During his absence, Donnan’s mental health deteriorated. What led to its decline was unknown. Her mother returned to London in 1920 to find her in very poor condition. They returned to the United States with Donnan unable to even sign his passport application.
She lived with her sister for a time, then was transferred to the Missouri State Hospital in Fulton, where she lived until her death in 1934 at the age of 49. The tragic turning point in her story reflected the tragic operas she had spent years performing on stage. .