January 21, 2020 — In 1923, Canadian opera singer Eva Gauthier made history when she included six jazz pieces in a concert of classical music at New York’s Aeolian Hall. The audience was stunned to have modern composers like George Gershwin listed on the same bill as Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel. The mezzo-soprano’s accompanist was George Gershwin, and she’s largely given credit for launching his career that night.
One month after that historic concert, Miss Gauthier brought her controversial repertoire to Fargo. The following day, the headline read, “Eva Gauthier’s Program Sets Whole Town Buzzing: Many People Are of Two Minds Regarding Jazz Numbers – Some Reluctantly Admit That They Like Them – Others Keep Silent or Condemn Them.”
Eva Gauthier was one of the most prominent singers of the first half of the 20th century, and that New York concert set the music world on its ear. Her rebelliousness became set in 1910, when she was abruptly replaced in a London opera for having a voice too powerful. She was only 4 foot 10, but she was a dynamo of outspoken flamboyance, satin hats and yipping Pekingese dogs. Upon losing that role, she promptly gave up opera in favor of concerts and solo recitals.
The Fargo Forum review of her concert read:
Not in all our experience in the theater and concert hall have we heard so much comment and argument as followed the (Gauthier) recital at the State the other night. Miss Gauthier appears to have done something to this old town of ours. It has been ticking furiously since Wednesday night, and all because she came our way and sang a group of American jazz songs.
Most of the people apparently are of two minds regarding the singer’s work. Many of them reluctantly admit that they enjoyed the ragtime and the jazz, but cannot understand why they did. They believe they have sinned and should be punished. The sinning was too sweet, too joyous, and they are positive that something will be done about it. Some judgment is going to fall upon them, and they await it in fear and trembling, oblivious of the fact that they had a great time the while Miss Gauthier sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Carolina in the Morning” and “Do it Again.”
There are those, too, who secretly enjoyed the jazz but will not admit it. They are afraid of the cognoscenti, the intelligentsia – the dilettante. They were afraid to applaud, lest someone would see them.
There are those who resented the jazz songs, who thought them an insult to them, a reflection upon their artistic temperament and knowledge and equipment. They had no intention of applauding, and did not.
And, then, there are those of us who enjoyed the songs immensely, who applauded wildly and long, and who want to hear them again in concert. We sinned openly and gloriously, and today are lost souls. But we’ll go into the darkness and the slough of despond with a laugh and a song upon our lips, and the song will be “Do it Again.”
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.