Ruby Helder, the "girl tenor", had one of the most unusual operatic careers ever. She has long been considered a mystery
singer, and even when the Pearl CD of her voice came out in 1993 (where, by the way, many recordings are running too fast and appear
thus painfully distorted), much of her life still remained a puzzle. Now, thanks to the
internet, it's easy to solve this puzzle.
She was born Emma Jane Holden in Bristol on March 3rd, 1890 (and not, as had been assumed
for a long time, in 1896). Her extraordinarily unusual low voice quickly got her out of the humble circumstances of her childhood, and
she eventually became a pupil of the greatest British singer of the time, Sir Charles Santley. Hers was actually a tenor voice, and a
low one to boot (she transposed several tenor arias down, such as the ones from Martha and Bohemian girl below, and she even made a
record of Santley's cheval de bataille, Avant de quitter from Faust, in original key). Santley
testified "in my opinion, she has no rivals among the artists of the day", and also Enrico Caruso was so impressed with her voice that
he urged the Metropolitan Opera to engage her for tenor parts in 1915. The Met management, though, refused; the petite "girl tenor"
was, her successful concerts notwithstanding, by no means undisputed, and the Gramophone magazine in a 1925 issue bluntly refused to
review her records because she had "a freak voice", as the reviewer put it. She never seems to have made it on the opera stage, but
her mixed concerts of operatic and light music earned her considerable international success, above all in the UK and the US, but even
in Russia. One long and important US tour was with John Philip Sousa and his band.
Her early disappearance from the concert stages used to be considered a mystery; the simple reason is that in 1920, she married
Chesley Bonestell, a highly successful and important book illustrator and painter (he was the most important exponent of "space
painting", uncannily realistic paintings of other planets, long before space travel had been possible). Bonestell was wealthy, they
travelled widely, and she performed only sporadically, her success having diminished anyway over the years; obviously, this strange
voice didn't last very long. By the time the Bonestells settled in Berkeley in 1927, she spent most of her time throwing huge parties
– and drowning in alcohol, which eventually led to her untimely death in a hotel in Hollywood on November 21st, 1938.
In RA format
In RA format
"Helder" is in the eyes of the be-holder
I wish to thank Anton Bieber for the Elijah, Come into the garden, Maud and My dreams recordings and relative label scans.