The lady tenor – Ruby Helder

Terry Hallett
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Ruby Helder went from humble beginnings in Bristol to worldwide fame thanks to a powerful tenor voice that wowed opera audiences, writes Terry Hallet

Bristol is shortlisted for the 2008 European Capital of Culture title but it is unlikely the name of Ruby Helder will be highlighted as part of that city’s cultural heritage, even though she achieved worldwide fame in the early part of the last century due to her unique singing voice.

She was born as Emma Jane Holder on March 3, 1890 at 7 Brooklyn Terrace in the Easton district of Bristol. Her father, Thomas, a dairyman at the time, later became landlord of the nearby Glasshouse pub, where little Emma would sing to entertain the regulars. From these humble beginnings an outstanding operatic career was launched.

Encouraged to take formal singing and piano lessons, the young Emma Holder became Ruby Helder on finding out someone else in her class had the same surname. This tiny child’s deep and powerful singing voice astonished everyone who heard her perform. Her aunt, housekeeper to the great Scottish music hall star Harry Lauder, made arrangements for Helder to train at the Guildhall School of Music under Charles Tinney, before she received tuition from one of the outstanding figures in British music, Charles Santley.

He later wrote: “Miss Ruby Helder possesses a natural, pure tenor voice of great beauty and power. She also possesses what few can boast, a thoroughly artistic temperament. In my opinion, she has no rivals among the artists of the day.”

Helder began recording for Pathe as early as 1908 and in July 1909 made her first public appearance on the operatic stage at the Queen’s Hall, London. After making further records for Edison Bell Velvet Face, in 1911 Ruby signed a recording contract with HMV. By this time, her remarkable voice was known worldwide and invitations to sing poured in from many countries, including Russia. An American millionaire is said to have persuaded Ruby to cross the Atlantic in 1913, for the sole purpose of singing at his private party.

The United States witnessed some of Helder’s greatest concert triumphs, especially in Philadelphia and Chicago, and in 1915 the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso took an interest in her career. On hearing her voice, he was so amazed by its two octave range – from C to high C, only three notes short of his own – he approached the management of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and suggested they offer Helder tenor roles.

They declined, fearful of engaging someone who might be regarded as a freak. Undeterred, she continued performing and recording a mixture of operatic pieces and light, sentimental music of the time, while pursuing further music studies at the Grinnell College Faculty between 1916 and 1917.

While rehearsing at New York’s Hippodrome Theatre, the petite 5ft 3ins tall Helder, sporting a bob hairstyle long before it became fashionable, attracted the attention of the legendary John Philip Sousa. Impressed by her voice, he invited her to join his band and she enjoyed a lengthy tour of the United States and Canada with them.

In 1920, Helder returned to England with the eminent American architect and artist Chesley Bonestell and they were married at St Marylebone Register Office on July 12. In 1925, to further both their careers, they undertook an extensive tour of Italy, living in Florence for most of the time. But her popularity had started to diminish, with her last recording having been made in 1921, and most catalogues no longer listed her work.

A Gramophone magazine review reflected the opinion of Helder’s abilities by certain critics. “Miss Helder, if she will forgive me saying so, has a fresh voice, a tenor, yet not a tenor… it is quite lacking in the characteristic power and expression of the tenor’s top register.”

She and Bonestell returned to England before moving back to the United States in 1927, where they set up home in Berkeley. Helder made a number of radio broadcasts from New York in the late twenties, prior to announcing her retirement from singing in 1935. During this period she threw many lavish parties, which were attended by her musician friends from the operatic world. Jam sessions took place with Ruby adding her unusual voice. It was said that at any one party up to one hundred people would pass through the house.

But there was a price to pay for this high living and on November 21, 1938 she died, aged just 48 years, at the Highland Hotel, Hollywood, after a long battle with alcoholism.

Britain’s world famous lady tenor has not been completely forgotten in her birth city of Bristol. In June 2001 a plaque was unveiled at her birthplace by the city’s Lord Mayor. Also, a few years ago, a CD containing some of her best recordings, including Come into the Garden Maude, Songs of Araby, Good Night Beloved and My Dreams was issued by Pearl Records.

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