There’s a world-famous opera diva buried in south Minneapolis.
Sibyl Sanderson’s remains lie in a family plot on the southeastern edge of Lakewood Cemetery, with a view of Bde Maka Ska (formerly Lake Calhoun) amid the mismatched chessboard of granite and marble gravestones.
But Sanderson wasn’t born in Minnesota. She never even lived here. Her brief, fantastical life carried her from her home state of California across the ocean to Paris, where the naturally gifted soprano became one of the world’s first transatlantic American opera stars. Along the way she broke the heart of a young William Randolph Hearst, practically invented the wardrobe malfunction and not only inspired some classics of the opera repertoire but significantly contributed to their creation.
Now, more than 100 years after Sanderson’s death, Minnesota Opera will stage its first production of “Thaïs,” an 1894 work written specifically for her by her frequent collaborator, French composer Jules Massenet. It’s a demanding role, one that Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson says cannot be performed without a modern-day diva who has just the right voice and “extraordinary charisma.”
Sanderson was born in 1865 in Sacramento to state Supreme Court Justice Silas Sanderson and avowed francophile Margaret Beatty Sanderson. It was Margaret who insisted that audacious, outgoing Sibyl and her younger sisters Marion and Edith speak only French around the dinner table.
Margaret also pressed Sibyl to study singing in Paris, even though it meant breaking off her engagement to the budding media mogul Hearst.
Sanderson arrived in Paris in 1887. The 22-year-old singer was quickly discovered by Massenet, who helped refine her natural talent.
“What a fascinating voice!” he wrote in his memoirs. “It ranged from low G to the counter G — three octaves. … I was astounded, stupefied, subjugated!”
Massenet constructed his next opera, “Esclarmonde” (which premiered in 1888), around Sanderson’s rare gift. She contributed so much to the work that Massenet instructed her to sign the final page of the opera’s manuscript. But the title character incorporated more than Sanderson’s otherworldly voice. She helped Massenet craft a role that required the same beguiling force of personality that made her an icon.
The same is true with “Thaïs,” with Sanderson originating the role of a courtesan living under Roman rule in ancient Egypt. Piety and passion clash when a monk is charged with converting Thaïs to Christianity, only to find himself equally challenged — and increasingly obsessed — by her.
“The role of Thaïs has always been taken by quote unquote divas,” Johnson said. “Everybody wants to be around her; everybody wants to be her. So finding that character presents a challenge, because you want somebody who has extraordinary charisma, can walk onstage and carry the drama effortlessly.”
Johnson considered just one person for Minnesota Opera’s new production: Kelly Kaduce, a native of Winnebago, Minn.
“Kelly is one of those people who walks onstage and you immediately love her,” he said.
Scandal and tragedy
“Thaïs” is certainly not Massenet’s most famous opera (that honor goes to 1884’s “Manon” or 1892’s “Werther”), but it still has a significant legacy.
In “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’ classic fictionalization of Hearst’s life, wealthy newspaperman Charles Foster Kane has a longtime paramour based on Hearst’s real-life girlfriend, actress Marion Davies. But the film’s script slyly mashes up characteristics of Davies and Sanderson in the famous scene where Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress, struggles to hit a note in a lavish Egyptian-set opera.
Film composer Bernard Herrmann created a foreboding, almost Wagnerian opening score, tinged with the exoticized Orientalism popular in late 19th-century Paris. At a 1973 lecture, Herrmann explained that he couldn’t use the actual opening of “Thaïs” because the “lovely little strings” failed to overpower the singer. He wrote the piece in a very high register, he said, “so that a girl with a modest voice would be completely hopeless in it.”
Poor Susan (played by Dorothy Comingore) struggles in vain to hit that famous high-G note. Sanderson, of course, never missed it.
“Thaïs” is also remembered for its 1894 premiere, where the perfectly timed failure of Sanderson’s dress left her finishing a seductive song topless. Like America’s own modern encounter with Janet Jackson’s breast at the 2004 Super Bowl, the incident sparked arguments about whether it was intentional.
“Kind of on purpose, I think. Maybe on purpose?” Johnson speculated with a chuckle. “Who knows?”
Although she never found great success in America, Sanderson was adored in Paris, where her impressive résumé included a definitive interpretation of “Manon” and yet another character written especially for her: the title role in “Phryné” by Camille Saint-Saëns (1893).
Sanderson retired from opera in 1897 after marrying Cuban sugar baron Antonio Terry, but tragedy was to mark her life ever after. She suffered several bouts of ill health before, in brief succession, losing a young daughter and then Terry, as well.
She returned to the stage in 1901 to mixed success before eventually succumbing, at age 38, to what her May 17, 1903, New York Times obituary described as “the effects of an acute attack of the grip.” Her persistent ill health was attributed to the physical toll of her free-spirited lifestyle and intense performing schedule.
Her cremains were interred in Paris following a crowded memorial service at the Church of St. Honore d’Eylau.
According to biographer Jack Winsor Hansen, author of “The Sibyl Sanderson Story: Requiem for a Diva,” Sanderson’s sister Marion claimed that Hearst stole away on his honeymoon with chorus girl Millicent Willson to lay a wreath of flowers on Sanderson’s grave days after the funeral.
Marion eventually married Dr. Edwin Nall and settled in Minnesota. In 1920, Sibyl Sanderson’s remains were relocated to the Sanderson plot at Lakewood Cemetery. She remains there, reunited with her mother and sisters, who had lived together in Europe for years. True to mother Margaret’s love of France, the gravestones for her, Sibyl and Edith each note that they died in Paris.
But before Margaret died, she was visited by an aging Massenet. In his memoirs, he recalls with a pang of nostalgia visiting her Parisian home only to find the late Sibyl’s piano preserved as she left it.
Sitting open on the piano: the original score to “Thaïs.”
Bryan Miller is a stand-up comedian, freelance writer and opera fanboy living in Minneapolis.
What: French composer Jules Massenet’s 1894 opera for American soprano Sibyl Sanderson.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sat. Ends May 20.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 5th and Washington Sts., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$200; 612-333-6669, mnopera.org.