From the Library Archives: Emma Nevada

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By Flora Elizabeth Reynolds, Librarian

Bad Ems, North Germany
July 21, 1885

My dear Mrs. Mills:

I’m sure you think me a very naughty girl for so long neglecting you, but indeed my life has been such a change of scene since I left you that there has been very little time left me for anything but dressmakers and business letters.

Our trip over the ocean was the same dreadful monotonous journey that it always is I sick all the way – not being able to put on a dress until the last day. Papa was greatly benefited by the trip and at present has very little sign of paralysis. After spending a day in London we went directly to the country home of Dr. Palmer in Acton, about 20 miles from London. And it was there, dear Mrs. Mills, that Dr. Palmer asked for my hand and was accepted by my dear good father. How can I find words to tell you how happy am, not only that I am engaged to the best man in all the world but I am to be married to him on October the first on Thursday morning at eleven o’clock in Paris. How I do wish you all could be there. We had at first arranged to have the wedding in June (next) in San Francisco but then we thought it was all nonsense being separated when we might just as well be enjoying life together, for indeed we are very happy and I feel quite sure God always intended us for each other.

Paris is in a state of great excitement over this approaching marriage. You know the Parisians rather claim me as their child-and of course everything I do interests them immensely. I am to have four bridesmaids, all American girls, four ushers and Salvini as Raymond’s best man. I enclose a piece of my wedding dress. There will be a grand high mass, full choir, and band of music with celebrated vocalists, a wedding breakfast and reception in the afternoon. We spend our honeymoon in Fontainbleau near Paris and sail for America on the 17th of October on the steamship “Servia.” The dressmakers, linenmakers, shoemakers, and all sorts of makers are hard at work on my trousseau and concert dresses. I am engaged by C. A. Chizzola (no more Mapleson for me) for a five months’ concert tour all over America to commence the 2d of November. I preferred concert this season as there are so many places in America that cannot afford an opera and I am an American girl and don’t see why the small cities should be slighted when one song might gladden the hearts of thousands. We expect to be in San Francisco about the middle of January and will visit all the largest cities in California and Nevada.

I am to have an entire car to myself – drawing room, bedroom, bathroom, cook, kitchen, bathroom, etc., etc., – so that I need not go to hotels if I don’t wish – thus avoiding sore throats. I am the only female artist – there being a splendid tenor-baritone, violinist-pianist, and flutist. Don’t you think that will be very nice?

Papa has gone to Aix-les-Bains with Dr. Palmer for the summer – to take the baths for his rheumatism.

The doctors ordered me here for my throat and general health so that I am separated for four weeks from my dear papa and fiance – and although Dr. Palmer’s sister is with me l am very lonely, for it is the first time in six years that I have been separated more than twelve hours from my papa.

Now l have told you all the news – How very sad poor Ola’s death.

You may send all letters to the American Exchange, no. 35 Boulevard des Capuccines, Paris. Give my love to all my dear school friends. Papa and Dr. Palmer join me in sending love to you, dear Mrs. Mills.

Hoping that you are well and taking a good rest during the summer months, I am as always your loving child and ever grateful pupil,

Emma Nevada

When the English impresario, James Mapleson, brought his opera company to San Francisco late in March 1885, his star, the great Adelina Patti, was eclipsed by the second soprano, a California-born coloratura called Emma Nevada, who sang the leads in La Sonnambula, Lucia, and Mirelle to packed and cheering houses. Her suite at the old Palace Hotel was thronged with admirers; yet she found time to cross the Bay to lunch at Mills and sing for the students. She told them she owed all but her musical education to Mrs. Mills.

Emma had first come to Mills as the fourteen-year-old daughter of the recently widowed Dr. William Wallace Wixom of Austin, Nevada. Born in the mining camp of Alpha, near Nevada City, she was already accustomed to singing for audiences. After graduating in 1876, she returned for special study and in the spring joined a European travel-study group organized by Adrian Ebell, a young Yale graduate who died before the ship reached Hamburg, leaving the party almost penniless. With the help of a friend, Emma went to Vienna, where she studied for three and a half years with the famous Mathilde Marchesi.

Taking the name of Nevada in the hope of doing honor both to the state and to the city in California, Emma made her debut in La Sonnambula in Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on May 17, 1880. For several years she appeared in various Italian opera houses and in the Opera Comique in Paris. When she returned to England in 1884 to sing the “Rose of Sharon,” an oratorio written specially for her, she met Raymond Palmer. Although he belonged to a medical family long established in Staffordshire, he closed his practice within a month to tour America as physician, secretary, and companion to the young singer and her ailing father.

The wedding was a brilliant event, preceded by a public showing of the bride’s trousseau at the Hotel Athénée. The bridal party went first to the British Embassy and the American Legation for civil cere­monies, then to the Church of the English Passionists, where Emma, a Catholic convert, had taken her first communion a year and a half earlier. The church glowed with scarlet and gold hangings and the air was fragrant with the scent of flowers. One hundred gilt chairs in the front were occupied by guests of honor, among them Ambroise Thomas, Jules Barbier, and Leon Delibes. Farther back sat most of the members of the American colony.

The four bridesmaids, dressed in white with tulle skirts and veils, approached the chancel and stepped aside to let the bride enter. Not really pretty, but with a fresh, mobile face, blue eyes, and brown hair, she came on the arm of her father, her whole demeanor expressing quiet, confident happiness. On her head was a wreath of fresh orange blossoms, from which a veil fell the length of the train of her gown of white, uncut velvet. It, too, was edged with fresh orange blossoms. As the ceremony proceeded she appeared moved, but completely unselfconscious and charming.

A wedding breakfast was served in the newly decorated dining room of the Hotel Athénée to seventy guests. Before they were seated at the large, horseshoe table, there was a grand opening and reading of felicitations telegraphed from all over Europe, and as best man, Tommaso Salvini, the great tragedian, slipped a handsome diamond bracelet over the bride’s wrist. Hidden from many guests by a six-foot high wedding cake imported from London, she had a silver bell which she pressed whenever she wanted to call attention to a particularly eloquent speech or toast. Often she darted from her seat to kiss the speaker on the cheek or forehead and present him with a sugar flower.

Afterward guests viewed the trousseau or attended a champagne reception with buffet from four to six p.m. The bride and groom left for St. Germain, and within a few days sailed for New York and the winter concert season. The following year, their only child, Mignon, was born in Paris.

Although Emma sang extensively at La Scala, Covent Garden, the Royal Opera of Madrid, and other great European houses, she returned to America only three more times, to appear with the Hinrichs Opera Company in Philadelphia in the season of 1895-96 and to make long concert tours to the west in 1900 and 1902. At least once, her daughter, Mignon, stayed for several days with Mrs. Mills. Mignon, too, became a noted opera singer. Trained entirely by her mother, she sang often in Lisbon, Milan, London, Paris, and other European cities. And like her mother, she ended her career as a teacher of singing. Emma died in June 1940, four years after Dr. Palmer; Mignon died in May 1971.