News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 12, 2013

Historical Perspective: Wabash Valley is home to prominent comedy opera stars

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Comic opera, a genre consisting of light hearted musicals, was introduced in Europe during the 17th century.

In the 19th century, several female vocalists from the Wabash Valley, earned national celebrity by using that art form to excel.

The first three women to come to mind are Helen Bertram, Laura Moore and Alice Oates. All made names for themselves in New York and throughout the nation.

Raised in Paris, Ill., Bertram had a long career. The daughter of William N. and Carrie (Burr) Burt, Helen was born Lula May Burt in Tuscola, Ill., in 1869.

Her father, the son of a Methodist minister, was a jack of all trades. He owned and operated a general store, a hardware store, a buggy factory, an insurance business and a grain business before being elected the police magistrate of Paris.

When Lola May was a teen, the Burts relocated to Indianapolis and sent their daughter to a boarding school, where she learned to speak fluent German. She had a pleasant voice and, as a youth, sang at concerts. However, her father, who also possessed a fine voice, concluded that his daughter should become a pianist.

When she turned 18, Lula May enrolled at the Cincinnati College of Music to study under Miss Cecilia Gaul.

One morning Lula May approached Teckla Vigne, singing mistress at the college, and asked if she would test her voice. Mme. Vigne consented and asked a professor to assist her. At the conclusion of audition, Mme. Vigne exclaimed, “My dear, there’s a fortune in that voice!” The professor added his congratulatory remarks.

It took several weeks before Lula May has sufficient fortitude to tell he father that she had switched her concentration from piano to voice. When Mr. Burt heard her sing, he was extremely pleased and promptly made arrangements for his daughter to take voice lessons from Professor Alexander Ernestinoff, conductor of the Lyra Society.

Lula May made her stage debut in 1887 for the Lyra Society as Yum-Yum in “Mikado.” She was such a hit that she was asked to play the title role in the opera “Ermine” three months later. Before making her New York debut at Madison Square Garden in “Pinafore,” Lula May decided to adopt Helen Bertram as her stage name.

Bertram’s stint with “Pinafore” was short-lived. As fate should have it, she met Signor Tomasi, a musical conductor she had known in Cincinnati, on a stroll along Fifth Avenue. Tomasi, who became her first husband, introduced Helen to John Wetherell, whose wife owned the Emma Abbott Comic Opera Co. Helen was hired for $50 a week.

After Bertram spent the summer of 1888 working with legendary opera house manager Charles.D. Hess in Milwaukee, Heinrich Conried created the role of Prince Julius in “The King’s Fool” for her and she was engaged for two years on the west coast. With Conried’s approval, she worked nine weeks with the McCaull Opera Co.

In 1890, Helen gave birth to a daughter, Rosina. During Bertram’s long career, which lasted until 1940, she worked for opera and comic opera companies on both sides of the Atlantic, legitimate theater, vaudeville and motion pictures. She also organized and conducted the Artist’s Course at the Grand Opera House in Terre Haute during 1908.

Her biggest hits in the early 20th century were the musical hits, “The Prince of Pilsen” and “The Gingerbread Man.”

Helen’s personal life frequently made the news. She had two divorces, a gambling addiction and was an occasional defendant in civil litigation. Yet her career thrived.

Born near Nashville, Tenn., in 1846, Alice Merritt Oates was educated at a Catholic school in Nazareth, Ky. before matriculating to the academy at St. Mary-of-the-Woods. While residing in Vigo County, she taught music.

In 1865, Alice married actor James A. Oates. Recognizing her promise as a singer, he arranged for her to study voice in Louisville and New York. She made her professional debut at Theater Comique in Cincinnati in 1868. During the ensuing year she toured Western cities as the lead singer in a troupe headed by Charles D. Hess.

In 1869, Alice founded her own theater company, performing both opera and comic opera. She grieved for a year after her husband’s death on July 14, 1871, and concentrated thereafter only on comic opera. She appeared before standing-room-only crowds at the Terre Haute Opera House in April and May 1874, January 1876 and Feb. 23, 1881.

Like Bertram, Oates earned notoriety in her private life. She wed two more times and another actor died from the effects of alcohol when his love for Alice was unrequited.

Her popularity lasted until she was stricken by illness in St. Paul, Minn., during April 1886. She died at age 40 in Philadelphia on Jan. 10, 1887.

The daughter of the first superintendent of Terre Haute public schools, Laura Moore was a comic opera prima donna for more than a decade. She was born in Terre Haute to James H. and Saphronia (Webster) Moore on Jan. 6, 1859.

Her father died unexpectedly at Camp Bridgeport, Ala., on Aug. 7, 1864, during the Civil War.

Laura excelled as a vocalist. Evaluated in France in 1881, she was identified as a soprano capable of covering three octaves and reaching notes higher than her peers. In 1884, she enrolled at Le Conservatoire de Paris, the most prestigious arts academy in Europe. During the 1884-85 academic year she won top prize in the vocal competition.

Despite her immense talent, Moore was told she was too short for mainstream opera. She was featured soloist at the Metropolitan Opera Co. from Nov. 2, 1886, to Jan. 13, 1887, supported by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. She also played the title role in the comic opera, “Galatea,” in New York and Boston.

After performing in France for several months Laura returned to New York to be the prima donna for the McCaull Opera Co. as Fiametta in “Boccaccio,” which opened Sept. 3, 1888. On Feb. 2, 2008, this column elaborated about Moore’s experiences.

Laura followed McCaull’s “Boccaccio” with a long stint as prima donna for Francis Wilson. She remained active on the New York stage until the turn of the century and performed in the Midwest for several more years.