Gamelan music is produced by up to seventy-five instruments playing two different tuning systems, one expressing either the drama of sadness or happiness while the other, in the words of musicologist Jennifer Lindsey, portrays something more “majestic ... noble and calm.” This music, unusual to Gauthier’s Western ears, provided her with a unique oeuvre and her audience with a frisson of erotic exoticism, because of its foreignness and the all-but-diaphanous costumes Gauthier wore while performing
The outbreak of the First World War put an end to Gauthier’s plans to tour Europe and redirected her to New York, where she gave her first recital in December 1914 at the home of Frank Damrosch, the Metropolitan Opera’s chorus master.
Exactly where in the American musical firmament Gauthier’s performances fit was and remains problematic. Neither the public nor the critics quite knew — or, indeed, know now — what to do with someone who sang opera, Javanese folk music, and avant-garde jazz. To confuse things even more, Gauthier’s shows soon included suggestive dances by a performer named Nila Devi (Sanskrit for “Blue Goddess,” but actually an American exotic dancer named Regina Llewellyn Jones). The show, which Gauthier called Songmotion, was largely consigned to vaudeville, where sexuality could be displayed with a knowing wink.
Reaction varied widely and was not always positive. A full decade after the raw sexuality on display in the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris in 1913, Variety commented sniffily on Gauthier’s singing “in a foreign tongue” and Devi’s “snake like movements.” In response to “The Adoration of the Elephant,” the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times harrumphed, “if you are wise you will applaud and look learned.” He may not have liked the performance, but his response suggested that he recognized that Gauthier was presenting something new and challenging, perhaps even something important. A Winnipeg writer gave Gauthier a backhanded compliment by praising her for playing down the exotic and singing from The Barber of Seville.
Devi’s replacement, an English dancer who went by the name of Roshanara, introduced Gauthier to New York’s avant-garde music scene. By late 1917 Gauthier was performing works by Ravel, Stravinsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov at New York’s Aeolian Hall, which was second in prestige only to Carnegie Hall. Her sister Juliette had turned to the anthropological work of saving French-Canadian folk songs. Likely influenced by Juliette’s efforts, Gauthier included several of these pieces alongside the newer works and the Javanese songs in her concerts.
Immortalized by, among others, Ernest Hemingway and Canadian writers like Morley Callaghan and John Glasgow, the Paris that Gauthier returned to in 1920 bore little relation to the one the French-Canadian ingenue had experienced earlier. She was no longer the provincial girl who on her first sojourn to Paris had looked forward to packages of maple taffy and reading Ladies’ Home Journal, and who found the Moulin Rouge, in her words, “very odd.” Now, instead of chaste trips to the Louvre and the theatre, Gauthier became part of the group around composers Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel, the latter best known for the sensuous Boléro.
Her personal life reflected her convention-flouting professional activities. Not only was Gauthier married and divorced but she had also secretly borne a child out of wedlock at around this time. The boy was sent to the United States to live, although it’s not clear with whom. After Gauthier died, an American court recognized him as her heir.
Gauthier’s closeness to Laurier and, later, to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King — who fustily refused both Eva’s and Juliette’s entreaties for financial aid, claiming it would be improper for a bachelor to write either of them a cheque — indicates the family’s Liberal loyalties. So, too, does the way her “her father always recognized and respected his daughter’s commitment to her career” and, despite the family’s Catholicism, accepted Gauthier’s divorce, notes Quebec musicologist Nadia Turbide, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the singer.
Of course, one limit was not tested; Gauthier’s family did not know of her son being secretly raised in Chicago. Had the Lord Chamberlain in London been aware of the boy’s existence, it is all but certain that Gauthier would never have received the large, heavy gilt-engraved card summoning “Eva Gauthier to Court at Buckingham Palace on Tuesday the 12th of June, 1928 at 9:30 o’clock p.m.”
The singer held another secret behind her French-Canadian Roman Catholic identity, one she hinted at in a 1923 concert. She included the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, the words and music of which were sacred to the Jewish part of her family on her father’s side.
Gauthier was also comfortable challenging prevailing social and political opinion. In the middle of America’s first “red scare” in 1923, she sang the “Hymn of Free Russia,” the national anthem of Soviet Russia, in public. In 1925, a year when seventeen African-American men were lynched, Gauthier wrote a letter to the New York Times praising the African-American Fisk Jubilee Singers for the “perfection of their rendition of songs with the art of true music as well as their spontaneity that gives life to any art.”
Thirteen years later, with her career in decline and war clouds again gathering over Europe, Gauthier used a radio address to criticize the Daughters of the American Revolution service organization for preventing the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson from singing in Washington’s Constitution Hall. In a letter to the organization she underscored the contributions of “great Negro artists.” Gauthier’s opinion was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt, at whose urging her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowed Anderson to sing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
During the Second World War, Gauthier continued to sing and loaned her talents to war bond drives in both Canada and the United States. After the war, her performing career over, Gauthier taught master classes in New York. Despite her glittering career, she had never been wealthy, and now her finances were stretched. In those pre-Canada Council days, there was little government support available. Gauthier failed to secure a grant from the Canadian government or from several American foundations; a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in early 1958 allowed her to pay five hundred dollars to two writers working on her memoirs, which were never finished.
Still, though living in the same sort of genteel poverty she had experienced as a student in Paris, and all but forgotten by the general public, Gauthier retained a commanding presence. One devoted New York concertgoer recalled that it was “a well-known fact that many concerts are incomplete until she arrives with her distinctive dress and queenly demeanour.”
Eva Gauthier died on Boxing Day in 1958 in New York. Though remembered by the New York Times, she was forgotten across Canada and even in her home city. There was no obituary in the Ottawa newspapers for the woman who, two generations earlier, was called “The High Priestess of Modern Song.”