Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Diva For Esperanto

La Esperanta kantistino
The first question raised is “just what is an electrical congress?” Why would a woman be singing at an “electrical congress”? Think Consumer Electronics Show, turn-of-the-century style. In 1908, municipal and household electricity were new and there were demonstrations of the wonderful, modern things you could do with electricity. But if you’re going to do an exhibition, you might want some entertainment as well.

The reports on the 1908 Electrical Congress in New York City make it clear that the local Esperantists saw this as an opportunity for promotion, and they were behind Mme. Rhodes singing at the Congress. There isn’t a lot of information about the oddly-named Sedohr Rhodes, but there is something. She had her moment as a diva, though it does seem that by the time she sang at the Electrical Congress, her career was over.

This is what the New York Evening World reported on October 1, 1908.
Mme. Sedohr Will Apply Language to Song at Electric Congress.
At the opening Electrical Congress[1] to be held in the court room of Madison Square Garden[2] a musical novelty will be given next Saturday when Mme. Sedohr Rhodes will sing in Esperanto. A number of prominent Esperantists will be present, as this is the first application of the language to song in a public concert.

Mme. Rhodes is a well-known soprano who has appeared in public in repertoires comprising English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.

She is quite a linguist, and took up the Esperanto experiment on the suggestion of some of the leaders of the movement.

Her voice is recognized by professional judges as fully competent to give the new language a fair trial as a vehicle of song.
It should be no surprise that the Amerika Esperantisto also wrote up the event, as the World noted that “a number of prominent Esperantists will be present.” Here’s what they wrote (in English):
During the recent Electrical Show at New York City, Mr. H. D. King, councilor for that Division, arranged a number of propaganda meetings which were held in the Concert Hall at Madison Square Garden. Mr. Baker was present and talked to a number of large audiences about Esperanto. A thousand copies of Amerika Esperantisto were distributed, several hundred “Elements” given away, and quite a number of books sold.

On the first night, after the official opening of the Electrical Show by special phonograph records, one of which was in Esperanto, Madame Sedohr Rhodes, a well-known opera singer of Hammerstein’s corps and the possessor of a voice which has won for her the title “Tetrazinni[3] of Venice,” sang in Esperanto. According to the program she was to have sung the “Mad Song” from Lucia, which had been beautifully translated for the occasion by James McKirdy of Pittsburgh, but being unable to memorize the text, she sang an Esperanto version of “The Two Marionettes.”[4]

The printed program of the Electrical Show referred to Esperanto as “the language which will be universal at the hundredth anniversary of the laying of the Atlantic Cable, in 1858.”[5] The Show was commemorative of the fiftieth anniversary of that event.
Sedohr Rhodes? Her name is a palindrome; is that really credible? Who would really name their daughter with the inverted spelling of her family name? That would be Travis and Lida (or Alida) Rhodes, whose daughter was born in 1868. One newspaper account states that Mr. Rhodes was determined that his firstborn—boy or girl—be named Sedohr, even though Sedohr was their second child. Her older sister got a more conventional name, Estella, and their much younger brother got his father’s name.[6] At the time of her performance, Ms. Rhodes was the wife of a New Rochelle dentist. The younger Travis Rhodes went on to name his daughter after her aunt (either that or a very elderly former singer remarried at 70 and bore a child at 75).

Ms. Rhodes was about forty when she sang at the Electrical Congress. Newspaper reports sketch out a history of her career. She had started as a promising young singer in the Midwest, and then went on to the New York concert stage. From there, it was opera studies in Paris, and a debut in Florence in 1892. Her debut on the London stage was not well received and that seems to have been end of her musical career, since there is a sixteen-year gap in newspaper reports between her London debut, at which met by (according to the Los Angeles Herald)
the polite Englishmen in the gallery hissing and booing vigorously after her first act
and her appearance at the Electrical Congress. (The New York Times noted the booing from the gallery in 1892, but note that she “was the recipient of an ovation from the occupants of the stalls,” so we can conclude that audience reception was mixed.) She married two years after her London debut, which looks very much like the end of her career.

She might have had some brief renaissance as a professional singer, since in 1910, she is widowed but lists her profession as “singer” in the “vocal” industry.[7] By 1920, she is living with Emily Grant von Tetzel, a writer about the stage and music (her son seems to have moved out), and teaching singing in New Rochelle. Her niece, the younger Sedohr Rhodes, seems to have been doing the same thing in the midwest, as she is noted as teaching music in Wilmar, Minnesota.

One last sordid little story: In 1925, Rhodes was styling herself “Countess Argilagos” (her late husband was a dentist who had emigrated from Cuba, and so probably not titled nobility), and a friend (her boarder), the Baroness Von Tetzel (of Milwaukee) drank herself to death in Rhodes’s home. It is not clear if Emily Grant von Tetzel was a baroness, nor if her mother actually was a countess.

The trail grows cold after that. No word on what happened to the countess after the death of her friend. But for a brief moment she was Esperanto’s own diva (even if she didn’t sing opera that day).

  1. It really does say “At the opening Electrical Congress,” though I think it’s an editing error for “At the opening of the Electrical Congress.” Anyone who writes can sympathize.  ↩
  2. This would be the one with the statue of Diana that so discomfited Mrs. Martin.  ↩
  3. Luisa Tetrazzini, Italian coloratura soprano. Tetrazzini would be the “Tetrazzini of Florence.” Amerika Esperantisto misspells her name.  ↩
  4. “Two Marionettes,” 1901 popular song, music by Edith Cooke, lyrics by Arthur Law. The New York Public Library has a digital copy of the sheet music available. I think it entirely possible that “unable to memorize the text” means “couldn’t hit those notes, so chose something simpler instead.”  ↩
  5. Just in case you think you missed something, this did not come to pass by 1958.  ↩
  6. According to the records, Estella would die fairly young, as in 1900 Alida Rhodes is widowed, with two surviving children out of three; the census accounts for both Sedohr and Travis.  ↩
  7. Her husband, Alfred Argilagos, died in 1909, at the age of 41.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...