Catherine Hayes (1818-1861): The Hibernian Prima Donna, by Basil Walsh

hayes Catherine Hayes (1818-1861): The Hibernian Prima Donna,by Basil Walsh. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000. xviii + 372 pp. ISBN 0-7165-2662-X.

The shadows cast by the giant figures of history often obscure the lives of equally interesting figures. Thus the near-mythic presence of Jenny Lind has overwhelmed a host of potentially fascinating nineteenth-century singers. A telling counterpoint to Lind's career is that of the Irish-born soprano Catherine Hayes, and Basil Walsh is her champion.

Walsh has uncovered virtually every scrap of information and bit of color pertaining to the life of Catherine Hayes. Born in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818, Hayes's mother was a domestic servant; her father, a bandmaster for the local militia, deserted the family early on. Her only surviving sibling was a sister, and the three women traveled together throughout Catherine's career.

After initial studies in Dublin—thanks to the support of the Bishop of Limerick—Hayes went to Paris to work with Manuel Garcia, the celebrated vocal coach who had just helped Jenny Lind through a vocal crisis. Further study in Milan led to Hayes's operatic debuts at the premiere houses in Europe, including La Scala, La Fenice, Kärntnerthortheater, and Covent Garden. She specialized in bel canto operas such as La Sonnambula, Linda di Chamounix, and Lucia di Lammermoor, and often shared the stage with some of the best known (and best remembered) singers of the day: Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Henriette Sontag, Giulia Grisi, and Sims Reeves.

In 1851, Hayes signed a contract for an America tour. Lind's famous association with P.T. Barnum lasted from 1850 to 1851 and took her no further west than St. Louis. Hayes continued on to gold-rush San Francisco and from there to South America and Australia, with performances also in Calcutta, Singapore, and Java. Hayes returned to England in 1856 and continued to concertize until her death in 1861.

Catherine Hayes is a difficult subject for a biography. Although there is plenty of material documenting her career, little if anything exists to illuminate her inner life. But Walsh has clearly done his homework, and he has something to say about the background of every secondary character in Hayes's life. The result, however, is a narrative that often bumps along through seeming digressions. Similarly, Walsh's attempts to create a context for Hayes's life and achievement read more like collections of intriguing but irrelevant bits of trivia. For example, Walsh devotes an entire chapter to Hayes's studies with Manuel Garcia, even though very little is actually known about them. The chapter begins: "When Catherine and her mother arrived in Paris in October 1842, they proceeded to the Osborne's apartment on the Rue St. Georges in the 9th District, where many artists, writers and musicians lived." (p. 32) Eight paragraphs follow listing some of these people, where they lived and when, and describing in commonplace sentences the Paris of the day. When Hayes is next mentioned, we read:

It would be October 1845 before [Verdi's] first great Italian success Nabucco was performed in Paris. By then Catherine had finished her training in Paris with Garcia and was studying in Milan.

When the 24-year-old Catherine Hayes took up residence in Paris, her surroundings must have caused her great excitement. The city's population was five times larger than Dublin, enormous when compared to her home town of Limerick. The language and culture were also very different. However, the Osbornes welcomed Catherine and her mother with open arms. Catherine didn't know it then, but this meeting with George Osborne would blossom into a life long friendship. He would participate in some of her most joyful and saddest moments. (p. 34)

Walsh's strictly chronological approach results in many awkward foreshadowings of this kind; his writing style is clear but pedestrian. This chapter also typifies the book's single greatest strength and weakness. Walsh clearly commands the details of Hayes's career, but no vital picture emerges from their presentation. Just what was Garcia's pedagogical approach to the voice? How and what did he teach Hayes? Had Walsh asked more imaginative questions, the paucity of personal material would seem less a liability.

Catherine Hayes: The Hibernian Prima Donna contains black-and-white illustrations of both personal and professional documents such as her entry in the baptismal registry of St. Mary's, Limerick; concert programs and playbills, marriage and death certificates. There is even a photo of a mid-nineteenth-century bronze sculpture by Pierre Lenordez of the racehorse named Catherine Hayes who won the "Oaks" Derby at Epsom Downs. Walsh's attention to detail makes the lapses all the more noticeable. He devotes a scant two pages to the year Hayes spent touring South America. His comprehensive appendix, "Chronology of Performances/Travels" only lists two of the eight concerts Hayes gave in Calcutta. The author also includes a recent photo of Hayes's gravesite with its illegible inscription, neglecting to indicate that it reads "I know that my Redeemer liveth."

An attentive copy editor would have been an enormous asset to this book. Inconsistencies of style and punctuation are rampant and every page is littered with typos and inconsistent spellings. For example, of the eight times that Der Freischütz appears in print, seven are missing the umlaut. More troubling, however, are lapses of citation. Commonplaces are duly footnoted, but information seemingly gleaned from unique primary sources is cited incompletely or not at all.

Catherine Hayes was only 43 years old when she died. She had sung on five continents, appearing both in opera and concert. Not only did she share the stage with the most renowned singers of the day, she worked with luminaries such as Louis Antoine Jullien, Ole Bull, and Charles Hallé, and performed for heads of state such as Queen Victoria, President Millard Fillmore, and King Kamehameha II. Thanks to Basil Walsh, her achievements can now take their place alongside her more famous colleague.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 22/10/2013

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