Had it not been for a trip to Chicago in 1895 while she was in college, novelist Willa Cather might never have written "The Song of the Lark," her third novel, 18 years later. Cather, who was a Southerner by accident of birth and a Virginian by the grace of God, was a senior at the University of Nebraska that year. In Chicago, she saw the Metropolitan Opera on tour and was besotted by the performance.
Enter Olive Fremstad, a Swedish soprano and quite the diva of her day with monumental talent and equally monumental eccentricities. (Before playing a scene as Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist, Fremstad once visited a morgue to see how a severed head should be handled.)
In 1913, just as the plot for "The Song of the Lark" was beginning to form in her mind, Cather now living in New York interviewed Fremstad, whom she had often seen on the stage, for a magazine article. Fremstad was late for the interview, looked old beyond her 42 years and could not speak above a whisper. Cather arranged to come another time.
Later that day, Cather was at the Metropolitan Opera when the manager came out on stage and announced that the scheduled soprano had taken ill and that Fremstad would sing the part. Cather, remembering how Fremstad had looked earlier, was surprised. But when the curtain rose, there was Fremstad appearing to be a vision of youth, and singing angelically.
Cather used that experience in "Lark." The heroine of the book, a singer, gets her big break when she is asked to take over at intermission for another singer.
In addition to Cather's newfound friendship with Fremstad, "Lark" was heavily influenced by several other key experiences in Cather's life: her upbringing in Nebraska and her love for the American Southwest. In "Lark," the singer-to-be is Thea Kronborg, a young girl from Moonstone, Colo. Through various serendipitous experiences and through hard work, she rises to be one of the most famous opera singers in the world. In many ways, Thea's rise parallels Cather's.
But and you knew there'd be one, didn't you? the PBS broadcast of "The Song of the Lark" under the American Collection banner of the Masterpiece Theatre series is perhaps the most boring two hours of television I've seen since Nickelodeon's "My Mother the Car" marathon.
It must have taken a prodigious amount of work by writer Joseph Maurer to take Cather's compelling prose and turn it into viscous yet stultifyingly inane dialogue. Not one member of the cast, with the possible exception of Maximillian Schell ("Judgment at Nuremberg") as Thea's first piano teacher, manages to turn in a performance that rises above deadly mediocrity. Alison Elliott ("The Buccaneers"), who stars as Thea, might just as well have telephoned her lines, since she makes no effort at all to act. The rest of the cast seems to be as bored as the audience will be.
And just to flog the opera metaphor a bit, "The Song of the Lark" is to Cather's book as the sound of a yowling cat in heat is to "La BohŠme." It's just embarrassingly awful.
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