Willa Cather’s Inspiration for The Song of the Lark, Olive Fremstad

song of the lark by willa cather

The Song of the Lark is a 1915 novel by Willa Cather, telling the story of Thea Kronborg and her desire to be a world-class singer. Born into the family of a Swedish Methodist minister in a Colorado village, she has a voice, an ambition, and a native sense of the true and fine — qualities all in contrast with the cheapness and tawdriness she perceives around her.

From her girlhood, when her ambition takes hold, to her triumph as a prima donna at thirty, Thea’s whole life is focused around her supreme desire for artistic perfection. Willa Cather had already outlined this novel, having had an interest in opera.

Fortuitously, she crossed paths with the real-life opera singer Olive Fremstad during this time, which helped her make Thea Kronborg an even more vivid character. The following excerpt is from Willa: The Life of Willa Cather by Phyllis C. Robinson, © 1983:


Discovering Olive Fremstad

Sometime during the winter of 1913 a new enthusiasm entered Willa’s life. She had been assigned an article for McClure’s [magazine] on three American opera singers, Louise Homer, Geraldine Farrar, and Olive Fremstad.

She enjoyed the interviews with Homer and Farrar but it was Fremstad who excited her imagination. To find a new kind of human creature, to get inside a new skin was like discovering a new country, only even more exhilarating.

Fremstad’s colleagues may have found the singer overbearing and difficult to get along with —she was famous for insisting on being paid in cash before each performance at the Metropolitan — but Willa declined to be put off by Fremstad’s temperament.

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Olive Fremstad

Olive Fremstad (1871 – 1951)
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What she discerned in the dramatic soprano from Minnesota who had been born in Stockholm were the very qualities she had first seen in the fearless women she admired on the Divide.

To Willa, Fremstad was like those pioneers, suspicious, defiant, far-seeing. Her physical presence alone might have been intimidating. Unpolished and untamed, she had a way of sweeping things before her, of dismissing people and objects that bored her.

The fierce concentration when she was working took all the energy she possessed and she had no interest in anything but music except when she was at her home in Maine. Then she cooked and gardened and chopped wood like the farm woman Willa always said she was.

Willa already had the outline of her next book in mind when she and Fremstad met. She had long planned to write about an opera singer and now she studied Fremstad, trying to discover what it was that transformed the stolid Swede into an artist.

In her personal life Fremstad was intelligent but unimaginative … and yet she was a woman of supreme musical gifts, a brilliant Kundry, a magnificent Isolde, and an unforgettable Elizabeth. Willa and Edith Lewis went to the Metropolitan opera again and again to hear her sing.

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Willa Cather books

Willa Cather books on Bookshop.org*
Willa Cather page on Amazon*
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A surprising performance

One performance in particular made a lasting impression on Willa. It was the day on which she went to interview Fremstad for the first time. Appearing at the appointment at four-thirty, she found the singer arriving late from a motor trip. Fremstad was exhausted, barely able to speak above a whisper, and so pale and wan she looked like an old woman.

Feeling sorry for the poor soul, Willa suggested it might be better to postpone the interview. Fremstad did not argue and Willa left the apartment, in time to join Edith and Isabelle McClung, who was visiting, at the opera for a performance of Tales of Hoffman.

Before the second act began the manager came out with the announcement that the soprano had been taken ill but that Mme. Olive Fremstad had consented to sing in her place. Edith Lewis described the experience:

“The curtain went up — and there, before our astonished eyes, was Fremstad — whom Willa had left only an hour before — now a vision of dazzling youth and beauty. She sang that night in a voice so opulent, so effortless, that it seemed as if she were dreaming the music, not singing it. ‘But it’s impossible,’ Willa Cather kept saying. ‘It’s impossible.’”

Another time Willa saw Fremstad just after a performance as she was getting into her car. Willa was about to greet her but something stopped her and she merely bowed to Fremstad’s secretary.

The singer’s eyes were empty glass, said Willa; she had simply spent her charge. Her personality renewed itself each night upon the stage, but the experience was draining, and when the curtain fell she could not sustain the illusion that she had created.

Willa was to use that strange duality of the creative artist which she observed in Fremstad in the heroine of The Song of the Lark, Thea Kronborg. (— Phyllis C. Robinson)

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Olive Fremstad as Carmen

Olive Fremstad as Carmen
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