Rena Vivian Smith was a Duluthian with an incredible singing talent. She sang regularly while attending school in Duluth, and after high school traveled to Europe where she
studied voice and began singing professionally. While in Italy she auditioned for opera composer Giacomo Puccini and he hired her to sing in the American premiere of Madam Butterfly.
Rena Smith was born in Oklahoma Territory around 1880. At that time, the Oklahoma Territory was controlled by five Native American tribes, but during the 1880s “boomers” were forcing the opening of the region to white settlement. Smith later said she spoke the Choctaw language fluently.
Smith and her mother Elizabeth apparently moved to Duluth around 1896, after Henry B. Smith, the father, had died. Elizabeth was a sister of John Sutphin. Born in New Jersey, Sutphin came to Duluth around 1868 and founded a meat-packing plant. He became the mayor of the village of Duluth in 1886 and then mayor of the city of Duluth in 1887, when Duluth regained its city charter. He remained in the job until 1890. In the 1900 U.S. Census, Elizabeth is listed as the widow of Henry B. Smith. It’s presumed that he died before they moved to Duluth, and that his death may have been the reason for his wife and daughter to move in temporarily with the Stuphins.
Rena’s first newspaper mention as a local performer was in 1898, when she sang on the occasion of the commencement exercise for the eighth-grade class from Duluth schools. It was held in Duluth Central High School, where the students involved would be attending that fall as the class of 1902. She was part of a skit on Cuba in which she sang a
song asking for help for Cuba from Columbia. At about the same time, she became the regular soloist with the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where her family were members.
Rena Smith began at Duluth Central High School in the fall of 1898. Coincidentally, there had been another Rena Smith at Central who played piano and performed in musical programs. She had graduated in 1896. In 1900, that Rena married Harry Burnham and eventually moved to New York. Rena was a fairly popular name for girls in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, and it shows up often in census records.
In the next few years, Rena Smith, the future opera singer, performed in programs at Central and continued to be active in the community musical scene. For just a few examples, on June 30, 1899, she sang the role of Queen Titania in an operetta called Mystic Midgets. On April 1, 1900, she was soloist in the Armory concert of Gustave Flaaten’s Orchestra. Flaaten was a local music teacher and performer. On January 14, 1901, she performed a solo at the Matinee Musicale program in Duluth.
In March of 1902, Smith was one of the organizers of an anti-cigarette campaign at Central High School. She was in charge of getting pledges from the female students to encourage non-smoking among the male students.
Back to the music. On April 15, 1901, she performed in the comic opera The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein by Jacques Offenbach at the Lyceum Theater as a fund raiser for the St. James Orphanage. Smith sang the role of Wanda, a peasant girl. She sang another major opera role on April 23, 1903, as Michaela in a local production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Lyceum. Duluth newspapers deemed the performance a “great success,” and the April 24, 1903, Duluth Evening Herald made special mention of Smith’s singing:
“Miss Rena Smith, as Michaela, was a charming village maiden, and her singing was very brilliant. Her singing of the beautiful soprano solo of the third act won her the ovation of the evening, a double encore falling to her.”
Smith graduated from Duluth Central High School in June of 1902. She remained in Duluth for a year, performing and studying voice. In late September of 1903, Smith left Duluth to study voice in New York City. Before she left, her friends organized a testimonial concert in her honor at the Lyceum Theater on September 13. One performer was Rebecca Mackenzie, another Duluth singer who was studying in New York. Walter Jones and Ed Redway, two performers who were in town with the touring company of the comic opera The Sleepy King, both were complimentary of Smith’s talent. Jones is quoted in the Duluth News Tribune of September 14, 1903, as saying:
“There’s a glorious future ahead of that young woman if she will work. She has a fine voice, fresh and young and true; and a very attractive stage presence. She will have everything her own way—if she wills it so.”
Smith went to New York, but by January of 1904 she was in Paris, studying under the
famous baritone Victor Maurel. In his time, Maurel was considered one of the great baritones in the world. By 1904 he had partly retired from singing and had begun a career of teaching. The January 17, 1904, Duluth Evening Herald said he called Smith “the only American girl arriving in Paris during his time that could with only one year’s careful study make her debut in French grand opera.” In addition to voice lessons, she was studying French and Italian language. The Duluth paper concluded: “In the not very distant future another of Duluth’s fair daughters will remind the world that Duluth is on the map.”
In May of 1905, Maurel felt Smith was ready for her operatic debut. That spring he had been performing in Covent Gardens in London, and he took her with him so they could continue the lessons in his spare time. By May she had learned a number of opera parts, including that of Mimi in La Boheme, and, speaking of Maurel’s influence on her, she told the May 21, 1905 Duluth News Tribune:
“He has done much for me in a year. He told me when I came to him what I have been told often that my voice was good and strong but lacked character and color. That he has given me, and made my voice rounder and more agreeable; and, I think, or at least hope, given it character.”
Early in 1906, Smith and her mother Elizabeth, who had been with her in Paris, traveled to Italy, where she was to improve her Italian language skills. While she was in Milan, it is said that opera composer Giacomo Puccini heard her sing and wanted to audition her for a part in the American production of his opera Madam Butterfly, which was to premiere in the U.S. that October. Puccini arranged for a full production of the opera to be performed in Milan’s famous opera house La Scala, with Smith in the title role. The audience consisted only of Puccini and his publisher and friend Tito Ricordi. Puccini so liked her performance that he chose Smith to be one of the six sopranos to sing the lead role of Cho Cho San, or Butterfly, in America.
Smith, who had now taken the stage name Rena Vivienne, arrived in New York a few weeks later and began rehearsals in the production under the direction of Ricordi and manager Henry W. Savage.
Madam Butterfly, to be sung in English, premiered in Washington, DC, in the Columbia Theater, on October 15, 1906. In that first performance, Vivienne sang the role of Kate Pinkerton, an American. In the second performance the next night, Vivienne sang the role of Madam Butterfly. A review in the Washington Herald the next day said:
“Miss Vivienne has an attractive personality, and imparted to the role of Madam Butterfly a special charm. Her voice is clear and fresh, and met with ease all the demands on it. . .Miss Vivienne speedily captured the warm regard of her audience by her graceful and spirited interpretation of her role and was enthusiastically applauded after all the notable scenes.”
The Savage production of Madam Butterfly would be performed in Baltimore, Boston, and New York that fall. At New York’s Garden Theater, the opera, which was held over until December 22, 1906, set records for consecutive performances of an opera in the United States.
After New York, Madam Butterfly continued its tour, visiting Cincinnati, Cleveland, St.
Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee. The opera would be performed at Duluth’s Lyceum Theater on February 8 and 9, 1907, with matinee and evening performances on Saturday, February 9. Unfortunately, Vivienne caught a cold in Chicago and it turned into bronchitis. She would be unable to perform in Duluth, which was disappointing to many local friends. Later in the month she had recovered and rejoined the Savage company in Winnipeg, where “she would sing on February 19.
After touring with Madam Butterfly on the West Coast, Vivienne and her mother returned to Duluth for a visit in June of 1907. A reception for the soprano was held on Saturday, June 22, at the Commercial Club. Many of her old friends and classmates got a chance to greet her. The highlight of the visit was Vivienne’s solo concert at the Lyceum Theater on June 24. The concert had been sold out for weeks and the crowd filled the theater. Duluth News Tribune writer Mary McFadden said in her review the next day:
“Her program was difficult enough to demonstrate that she has become adequately familiar with technique. It was varied enough to show her vocal versatility. It was dramatic enough to offer her a chance to give expression to sympathy and intelligence and temperament. It had scope enough to show off her range to excellent advantage.”
McFadden concludes that, “the talented singer has much to be glad over in the spontaneous encouragement of the folks at home.”
Before leaving Duluth, Vivienne performed with the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Sunday, August 4. Then she and her mother sailed from Duluth on August 16 on the passenger ship Tionesta. They would head to the East Coast where Vivienne would begin rehearsals for a second American tour of Madam Butterfly.
After the Madam Butterfly tour ended, Vivienne and her mother took a trip to Europe,
visiting Naples, Venice, Verona, Rome, Florence, and Milan, and then went to Berlin where she would study German opera for two years. She returned to the United States in March of 1910. She sang a few concerts in New York City and in May agreed to a several week engagement in Boston. She and her mother returned to Duluth in early June and she sang a concert at the Lyceum on June 8. They returned to New York via the Great Lakes in late August, and Vivienne was then hired to sing in a touring company of the light opera The Chocolate Soldier, by Oscar Straus. That show finally made it to Duluth in 1912, opening on September 23 at the Lyceum. Vivienne had the lead role of Nadina Popoff. The audience insisted she sing many encores, and the local paper said because of that the show didn’t end until 11:25 p.m.
Vivienne sang on the West Coast for the next few years, mostly in what was called at the time “burlesque.” In the early years of the 20th Century, that meant an exaggerated comedy or variety show. She next returned to Duluth in a burlesque show called The Charming Widows. She was billed as “Duluth’s famous prima donna.”
It’s unclear why Vivienne stopped singing grand opera. But in 1925 she was living in New York City and performing the Minsky Brothers’ National Winter Garden on East Houston Street, which was considered an unsavory club and one where burlesque included strip tease acts.
In the 1930 census, Vivienne and her mother, who was 80 years old, were living in an apartment on West 108th Street in New York City. Vivienne was working as a sales clerk in a music store. In the 1940 census, she’s listed as a lodger living on West 116th Street in New York City, and her occupation is cosmetics saleslady.
Rena Vivienne died in New York City on June 8, 1948. Her age was listed as 67. Her Variety obituary states: “She is reputed to have gained attention for performances in ‘Madam Butterfly,’ ’Chocolate Soldier,’ and other productions.”