The Arrival of Patti: An Opera Singer in Mexico City during the 1890 Influenza EpidemicE. Thomas Ewing and Sydney Murphy
In early January 1890, Mexico City awaited two anticipated events: the spread of a global influenza epidemic and a series of performances by opera singer Adelina Patti. The so-called “Russian influenza” began spreading from the Russian capital of St. Petersburg in early December 1889, reached the United States within a few weeks, and was anticipated in Mexico at the start of the new year. Patti, perhaps the most famous opera singer in the world, was scheduled to begin a series of performances in Mexico in the second week of January 1890. The convergence of these two events, as documented in newspapers published in Mexico City, illustrates how historical examples of infectious disease outbreaks anticipated our recent experience in the early stages of Covid-19. The near-simultaneous arrival of both Patti and the flu were so intertwined that the flu was facetiously referred to as the “arrival of Patti [la llegada de la Patti]” and comparisons between the two became an increasingly common recurrence in the press.
Similar to a modern-day meme, these comparisons combined speculative predictions, exaggerated fears, and dark humor. In Mexico City in early 1890, as around the world in the spring of 2020, memes became a way to manage fears about an impending disease outbreak while also expressing public attitudes at a time of uncertainty about the future. From the earliest days of the global outbreak in early 2020, memes circulated that shaped the understanding of the virus, of public health measures such as masking and social distancing, and of the implications for society. Using images of celebrities in recognizable settings, clips from films or television shows, or repurposed song lyrics or opening lines of classic novels, people co-opted familiar references to make sense of an unfamiliar, and increasingly escalating and frightening, public health emergency. As the number of cases and deaths accumulated, both in 1890 and 2020, these efforts to find humor amidst despair became darker and even desperate.
Patti’s Performances in Mexico
Adelina Patti was born in Spain in 1843, after which her family moved to New York City, where she first began performing as a child. She made her operatic debut at the New York Academy of Music at age sixteen and London’s Covent Garden at age eighteen. Patti was one of the world’s most popular singers for several decades, with solo performances and operatic performances in the major halls of Europe and the United States. Patti’s performance schedule first intersected with the influenza epidemic in Chicago, when a New Year’s Eve concert was abruptly modified due to the illness of numerous performers. With four performers unable to go on stage, the managers pleaded with Patti (who had performed the previous night, and remained in good health) to substitute at the last minute. A front page story in the Chicago Tribune reported that while Patti was willing to sing, she would require a payment of $4,000, considerably more than her usual rate. A backup singer named Emma Albani was willing to sing for less money, and the sold-out audience enjoyed a modified performance. A report about this episode, with the full dialogue between the manager and the singer, appeared in numerous American papers, with headlines calling attention to Patti’s remarkable demand for a single performance: “Two Thousand Per Warble. Patti Refuses to Sing Two Songs for Less Than $4,000” in the St Paul Daily Globe, “A High Priced Song Bird” in the Alexandria Gazette, and “Patti Wanted $4,000, But Didn’t Get It, and Served Her Right” in the Hartford Courant. On January 4, Patti sang a final scheduled concert in Chicago, and then the Grand Italian Opera Company boarded a train for their tour of Mexico.
As the date of Patti’s arrival in Mexico neared, rumors started to circulate: some innocuous, such as outrage over her dyed hair, yet others more defamatory. El Progreso reported that during a visit to the United States six years prior, Patti had remarked to a highly-respected Mexican lady (hinted as being the wife of President Díaz) that she would never visit Mexico as it was a “country of savages [país de salvajes]”. Some papers deliberately fanned outrage over Patti’s alleged insult to their First Lady and country, while others,recognizing it as fabricated, denounced the printing of such “slanderous sort [especie calumniosa]”, as El Monitor Republicano termed it. The ordeal ended with the editor of El Progreso taken to prison and forced to write a letter of retraction.
By early January 1890, Mexican newspapers were abuzz with talk of both Patti and the flu. The long-awaited influenza had gained such publicity that it was referred to in some papers as the “catarro de moda [fashionable catarrh].” Newspapers tended to downplay the threat of the disease, making fun of those who were fearful of it, treating it as a passing fad no different from the latest style of dress, and mocking its “popularity” among the upper class who were incorrectly believed to be the flu’s primary victims. It is perhaps due to these sentiments that the name of Adelina Patti became associated with the disease. Not only was she the epitome of “upper class,” but the viral excitement over her visit seemed to emerge and spread in parallel with the epidemic outbreak.
Besides her metaphorical connections to the disease, there were also (unfounded) rumors that Patti or other members of her opera company might have caught the flu in the United States and would import it to Mexico. More locally, newspapers reported anxiety over the potential of canceled performances or that the “hálito y emanaciones [breath and emanations]” of infected singers might pose a danger to the audience and their families. An article in El Correo Español expressed concern that audience members might acquire the disease from their fellow theatergoers. Despite this warning, there were no widespread closings of theaters for public health reasons. When theaters did close or adjust performances, it was usually due to an anticipated lack of patrons or, as in the example cited above, illness among performers.
After Patti’s departure, the flu raged in Mexico City for several more weeks, with death rates remaining above average through the middle of February 1890. Early reports joked about the disease and made light of the epidemic, but by the time it was over, newspapers reported that the magnitude of mortality was so high that there were shortages of coffins and an overwhelming sense of sadness among the survivors.
Patti returns to the US and Europe
During a series of concerts in California in early February, Patti described “pleasant memories” of her “gratifying” welcome in Mexico. Although some members of her group fell ill, Patti recalled, “she herself stood the extremes of climate well and never disappointed” the Mexican audiences. According to a lengthy interview published in the Examiner, Patti reacted strongly, and mockingly, to rumors that she had caught “the grippe”: “‘Ah! don’t breathe even the name!’ she cried in mock terror. ‘I live in awful fear of it. The very thought makes me shudder!’”
On May 14, 1890, Patti returned to the English stage for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Prior to the concert, the manager announced to the large crowd that Patti was not well and needed to adjust her performance due to a “severe cold” she had caught on her way back from the Americas. Whether or not her illness was in fact the flu can only be left to speculation. Patti sang three solos but did not respond to repeated calls for the expected encores. The London Evening Standard called the crowd’s “obstinate and most unjustified attempt” to prompt further performances as “both ill-mannered and unkind,” because Patti was obviously in “a state of physical suffering.”
Patti continued to perform in the decades that followed, although her performances became more limited as she aged. Patti died on September 27, 1919, at age 77, in her palatial estate in Wales. An obituary in the Chicago Tribune echoed the images from the disrupted concert three decades earlier: “World Loses Its Songbird, Adelina Patti.”
The meaning of this episode from early 1890 acquires a new resonance given our collective experience during the Covid-19 pandemic. During the early weeks of the 1890 epidemic, Mexican newspapers did not see the disease as a public health danger, as suggested by the mocking term, “catarro Nicolini,” or Nicolini catarrh, referring to the last name of Patti’s second husband. As we observed in 2020 and beyond, efforts to respond with humor to a pandemic become increasingly difficult as the number of victims increased. Yet the importance of recognizing the humanity of patients, as displayed by Dr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Mexican doctor determined to treat Covid-19 patients in Reynosa with humor and positivity, testifies to the urgent need to understand how populations respond to the threat of epidemic and infectious diseases.
- Chicago Tribune January 1, 1890, p. 1 ↑
- Hartford Courant, January 2, 1890, p. 1. ↑
- San Francisco Examiner, February 9, 1890, p. 16 ↑
- San Francisco Examiner, February 12 , 1890, p. 3 ↑
- London Evening Standard, May 15, 1890, p. 2 ↑
- Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1919, p. 11 ↑
Featured image caption: Adelina Patti as photographed by Hermann Klee. (Courtesy Theatermuseum Wien)