Originally posted June 29, 2019
Have a seat, Marie-Thérèse, and thank you for agreeing to this interview. I know you have a busy schedule, and I am humbled that you have taken the time to talk.
For the rest of you joining us, I am talking today to Marie-Thérèse Vernhes, a famous opera singer from early 20th century France. There is a new book out now about her life called Overture (L’Alouette trilogy Book 1).
Can you tell us a little bit about your author and why she chose to write your story?
Thank you for inviting me today, Stephanie. I do indeed have a busy schedule, and in fact, you have just caught me in time before I sail for New York, where I have singing engagements, but I’m always happy to take a little time to relax beforehand.
My author, Vanessa, and I have several things in common. We both love music, and Mozart in particular. Her favourite opera is Don Giovanni, which is also mine. She sings, too, but is modest about that, and says she is a choral singer and not a soloist. We are both very attached to Southwest France. I was brought up there, of course, and Vanessa was born in England, but she moved to France in 1997. I know she is very keen on history and the history of this area of France. Sometimes I have to work hard to bring her back to my story and stop her pursuing the research! I’m told authors are often like that.
I started life in a short story, which is set rather later than Overture. Vanessa decided to trace my story almost from the beginning. She was also thrilled to discover a real-life opera singer, Emma Calvé, who was also born in Aveyron, as I was, and became one of the stars of our era. She was born in 1858, and I was born in 1884. Emma became my idol, and I longed to be as successful as her. There are certain parallels between our experiences, but her pièce de résistance was Carmen and mine are Mozart’s operas, so, fortunately, we have never been in competition!
The young Marie-Thérèse has been described as clever and studious, yet your parents were farmers with little education of their own. Your father, in particular, held little value in education. Where do you think these qualities came from in your own life since it wasn’t modeled in your parents’ lives?
You have to understand that I was born in a very traditional rural community. Parents needed their children to work on the land and keep the farm going, so there were few opportunities to extend one’s education beyond the Certificat d’Etudes at age 12-13. That was considered to be sufficient instruction. And don’t forget, both of my parents were born before the educational reforms of the 1870s. I was an only child, and my parents needed me to work with them. They couldn’t see an alternative.
Both of my parents were intelligent but never had the chance to step outside the milieu into which they were born. My Aunt Berthe, my mother’s sister, who plays an important role in my life, was a clever woman. She started a restaurant in Paris with her husband, Henri, but she was the driving force behind it. She kept the books and had the ideas for expanding the business. Sometimes she was a little too keen on the sous, as we say in France, but she was ambitious and successful.
I always loved learning, assisted by the fact that I had a wonderful teacher, Mademoiselle Raynal, who was inspirational. She saw pupils’ potential and fought hard for them to fulfill it. All this stood me in good stead when I began my music studies and in my later career.
Once you moved to Paris, your passion seemed to fuel your determination to see your dreams become a reality. Can you speak a little bit about how passion can help provide direction in one’s life?
I believe that if you really want to achieve something, you can, but ambition also needs a little help from luck. Before we moved to Paris, everything seemed to be against becoming a singer. Once we got there, of course, I had to work hard in Aunt Berthe’s restaurant. But I began to see that there were, perhaps, ways in which I could achieve my dreams and that I was in the right place to do it. Had we stayed in Aveyron, I would probably never have got anywhere.
I was a rather shy and reserved child – in fact, I still feel sick before I go on stage! But I am resilient, which has helped me to weather the setbacks. Even so, there were many occasions when I felt like giving up. But help came from someone who believed in me and with whom I developed a lifelong bond.
How do you think your humble origins helped you find such success in your later life?
I must smile at your question because I don’t think my origins helped at all! Fortunately, in the musical and artistic worlds, people are more egalitarian, and talent counts for more than background. In the wider, social world, I have always felt an outsider and acutely conscious of being a farmer’s daughter. Of course, I have developed a veneer of sophistication that overlays my natural reserve, but the fear of being unmasked is always there. When I was on tour in Vienna, I was invited to tea by a very grand society lady and was anxious not to reveal my origins. I didn’t feel very proud of that, but I couldn’t help it.
Tell us a little bit about Aveyron and something unique about its culture which readers need to understand.
Villefranche-de-Rouergue in Aveyron
Aveyron is one of the most rural parts of France. Where I was brought up, the countryside is rolling and green, except in high summer, when everything bakes. It can be very cold in the winter, with snow, but I understand from my author that the climate seems to have changed since my childhood. I love Aveyron and bought a house there so that I could relax between singing engagements and run a singing academy in the summer.
Paris seems like another country and few Aveyronnais visit the capital during their lives. Having said that, the farming is poor, and some people have chosen to seek their fortune in Paris. They often open restaurants there, which they combine, odd though it seems, with a coal supply business. The Parisians call them Bougnats, which is derived from a dialect word. My Aunt Berthe and Uncle Henri were among them. Henri actually worked as a bank clerk, but, as I mentioned above, Berthe was the ambitious one and made him leave Aveyron. He always hankered after it, though. We all do. We miss the fêtes, with their traditional music and dances, and the robust food!
Do you think there was any research for this book that surprised your author?
I get quite impatient with Vanessa sometimes for neglecting me in favour of her research. I’ve already mentioned that she was thrilled to discover Emma Calvé. But she did find out about aspects of Paris that made her sit up. One of these was the problem caused by horses before the automobile began to take over. Of course, horse-drawn traffic is the main way of getting about in the Paris I know. Crossing the road can be a hazardous experience. Worse than that is the layer of horse manure that has to be removed every morning by thousands of workers. I’m rather glad that hemlines are rising! The smell can be atrocious, especially in the summer. This probably bothers me less than some people, since I was brought up in the countryside. The odour is particularly concentrated in Paris, though. How things seem to have changed in the space of a century!
Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Intermezzo, without giving away any spoilers? Do you have an idea about when it will be released?
Vanessa will be cross with me if I tell you too much. In fact, we often have tussles about something or other. However, I can tell you that Intermezzo takes place during the First World War. At the time, of course, we thought the war would be over by Christmas 1914. It was quite a shock when it broke out, although there had been rumblings for years. During the book, I discover New York for the first time and meet another person who will play a significant role in my life. Aveyron appears again as a setting, too. I can feel Vanessa bristling beside me, so I had better not say any more. I am hoping the book will be published early in 2020 but this depends on how disciplined she is about the research! And now, I’m sorry, I shall have to leave you, or I will miss the boat train. I have enjoyed our chat, Stephanie.
Thank you so much, Marie-Thérèse, for taking time to speak with me before you journey to New York City. And of course, I hope your concert goes well. You won’t have heard of him of course, but I’m a big fan of the late opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, particularly his portrayal of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème. I could listen to that man sing his arias all day! So I appreciate the work you do.
Safe travels, and my best wishes on your upcoming performances.
About Vanessa Couchman
Vanessa moved to southern France in 1997 and hasn’t looked back. Being a “history nut”, she’s in totally the right place. The beguiling Mediterranean island of Corsica also provides great inspiration, and she visits whenever she can.
Two of her three novels, THE HOUSE AT ZARONZA and THE CORSICAN WIDOW, are set on Corsica; the third, OVERTURE, is set in Southwest France and Paris, as is AUGUSTINE, a novella prequel.
Vanessa’s short stories have been placed in writing competitions and published in anthologies. The stories in FRENCH COLLECTION: TWELVE SHORT STORIES are inspired by and set in France.
When she’s not writing, Vanessa is reading, singing, walking, or enjoying France’s famed cuisine and wine. She writes a popular blog about French life, Life on La Lune.
Vanessa loves to hear from readers and always replies. Find her on http://vanessacouchmanwriter.com