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By the way ...




Musicians in general have a reputation for being eccentric, but singers seem even more prone to behavioural quirks than instrumentalists. Madame Theresa Titiens or Tietjens (1831-1877) is a case in point. She was among the most widely-acclaimed sopranos of her time, one of her claims to fame being that she gave the first performance in Britain of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria. Unfortunately she died before recording was invented so we cannot judge what her voice was like, but her eccentricity is well documented. For a start, she surely chalks up extra points in the Weirdo League Table by being uncertain how to spell her name. But there were other peculiarities as well. For one thing, despite her great reputation as a star of grand opera, she does not seem to have been any great shakes as an actress. Her contemporary (and perhaps rival) soprano Emily Soldene sneers somewhat cattily

  that alike in the agonies of Donna Anna, in the grandeur of 'Fidelio', in the dungeon of Marguerite...or frantically entreating her lover in the 'Huguenots', she carried her costly mouchoir, and her coiffure under any stress or emotion or danger was always perfect, not a hair disturbed.  

Nor was that all. Soldene has more intimate revelations to disclose. In her racy My Theatrical and Musical Recollections (Downey & Co, London 1897) she confesses

  I could not help seeing, and hating myself for doing so, that Mme. Tietjens's corsets were dreadfully stiff, laced dreadfully tight, and audibly creaked.  

Tietjens was one of the great early Carmens - though it can't have been easy to sustain such a role under seemingly painful body restrictions. One wonders if the orchestra's percussion department felt like yielding to the corset's competition and in desperation laying down their castanets.

Though apparently so unruffled on stage, Tietjens was far from it in real life. She had, it turns out, a peculiarly violent temper, which caused her to go berserk and smash anything that came to hand. This all got so bad that her long-suffering sister cunningly indulged in a bit of loss-limitation by removing everything valuable from sight. Indeed, she used to trot off to the shops and buy 1s 6d worth of cheap china which was placed on the mantle-piece to be available in case of tantrums. After a while, Mme. Tietjens managed to cure herself of these violent paddies - by throwing a soda-water bottle at a luckless theatre manager. Fortunately for him, it missed its target but smashed through a window and nearly killed a passer-by. The shock of what she had done seems to have had a therapeutic effect on the turbulent lady.

Curbing and controlling a violent temper is never an easy thing to do, but in the case of Mme. Tietjens I can't help thinking that an early visit to her corsetière might have helped a lot.

Copyright © Richard Graves, September 30th 1999


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