Bertha May Crawford. An enthusiastic press christened her ‘the Canadian Nightingale’ when the 29-year-old soprano appeared on the opera stage in Petrograd, Russia in 1915. It was a sobriquet she carried with her for 20 years singing through war and revolution in Russia and political and economic turmoil in newly independent Poland. But how did a woman born in small town Ontario, come to make her career on the great opera stages of Eastern Europe? And why did she return to Canada in the middle of the Great Depression, with little money and an uncertain future? How did the ebullient young Canadian who twice sang her way to the Pacific coast and back before the First World War, become so quickly forgotten after her early death in Toronto in 1937? Every life holds a story.
The full biography of Bertha May Crawford (1886-1937) will be completed in 2016. Through rigorous research, online and in libraries and archives in Canada, the USA, the UK, Poland and Russia, the lost career of this remarkable Canadian musician has been reconstructed and a complex tale revealed.
Bertha’s story begins at a time when the top opera sopranos were the best paid – and most beloved – entertainers in the world. A young women with talent could dream that she might grab the opportunity of the opera stage and wring out of it fame, riches and independence. As she launches a singing career that will reach across two continents, Bertha believes that success in European opera can translate into lasting fame in Canada.
But the fates collude against Bertha, for she is buffeted by the shifting and indiscriminate tides that spared few Europeans of her time. Even as she finds success on the stages of Eastern Europe, she is repeatedly set back by the political and economic turmoil that sets Europe alight during the First World War and then rips apart the Russian Empire.
When she returns for a tour of Canada after ten years in Europe, she briefly gets the rapturous welcome that the Prima Donna dream has promised, but there are no opportunities to sing opera in Canada. Bertha may be a household name on the Polish stage and radio, but what does that really mean in her home country?