Photo courtesy of the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association

In the course of a lifetime in the Arts, Johann Berthelsen became acquainted with many extraordinary individuals. In this regular feature, we will introduce a number of them to you.

When Johann Berthelsen was a student at the Chicago Musical College, Willie Ziegfeld, the school’s president, would occasionally ask him to deliver a note to a visiting dignitary or VIP. Frequently, at the bottom, he would put the notation, “When you have finished reading this, please ask the young man who brought it to sing for you.” On one occasion, the recipient was the famed Polish coloratura soprano, Marcella Sembrich (1858-1935). Upon hearing Johann sing, she predicted a brilliant career in opera.

Born into a musical family in Austrian Galicia, she initially studied piano and violin.

It was only after she entered the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 17 that her exceptional singing voice was discovered. In 1876, she traveled to Milan to continue studying with several of Italy’s best-known voice coaches.

Marcella Sembrich

On June 3, 1877, at the age of 19, she made her operatic debut in Athens as Elvira in Belini’s I Puritani. In her first season, she added four more coloratura roles, Dinorah, Robert le Diable, La Sonnambula, and the exceptionally challenging Lucia di Lammermoor. A little more than a year later, her success at the Dresden Royal Opera House brought increasing fame.

In 1880, Sembrich made her debut to rave reviews at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. During her time in England, she greatly enlarged her repertoire to include the Mozart canon and several lighter roles including Lady Harriet in Martha.

On October 24, 1883, three days after the inaugural performance, she sang Lucia at the new Metropolitan Opera House in New York and eventually premiered many of the roles still in the repertoire today. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan’s first season was a financial disaster, due in part to the extravagant spending habits of its director, Henry Abbey. As a result, the company opted for less expensive productions from the German repertoire for more than a decade.

In 1898, Madam Sembrich returned to the Met, which remained her artistic home for 11 seasons. After she retired in 1909, she continued to give recitals until 1917. Following her retirement, she taught voice and her pupils included some of the best-known singers of her time. That lineage continues into the present day, as her pupils retired and taught young inspiring singers.

As one of the brightest stars of what has come to be known as the “Golden Age” of opera, Sembrich held her own beside such noted performers as Caruso, Melba, Calve, Lehmann, the deRezke brothers, and others. Although gifted with remarkable talent, undoubtedly her early instrumental training helped mold the solid musicianship which served as the foundation of her style and enabled her to enjoy a long career in which the voice remained intact. Though not great in number, the recordings which she made starting in 1903 illustrated her range, power and vocal agility. To retain such capabilities through a performing life that extended more than 40 years requires more than raw talent. Madam Sembrich’s discipline, dedication and artistic sensibility reflect a musical work ethic that sustained her through a lifetime.
Metropolitan Opera House, courtesy of the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association

Throughout her life, it was her custom to spend summers in the Alps. When World War I made travel impossible, she discovered the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, spending time at Lake Placid and later building a home on Lake George. Her former teaching studio and retreat is today the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association, an organization dedicated to fostering appreciation for classical music, opera and the arts, while providing educational and performance opportunities to young musicians. The Association also preserves a large collection of memorabilia associated with Madam Sembrich.

The paths of Johann Berthelsen and Marcella Sembrich were to cross again. The early 1930s was undoubtedly the low point of Johann’s life. As a result of the Depression, he had lost his voice students. With a wife and three children, he was attempting to transition to painting as a means of support but, given the national economic situation and his lack of a reputation, sales were extremely slow.

Courtesy of the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association Marcella Sembrich

How she became aware of his situation remains unknown. But, to Johann’s great relief, Madam Sembrich commissioned a series of 12 paintings, two of which were highly personal to her: her church in Poland, and the Metropolitan Opera House. A lifetime amateur painter, she also presented Johann with a number of brushes and palette knives that she had used, saying, “You’ll make much better use of them than I will.”

Even now, her two favorite Berthelsen paintings continue to decorate the Sembrich Memorial Association, silently testifying to the generosity of spirit that characterized a great artist and a truly exceptional human being.

For more information on the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association,
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