REVIEW by Willard Manus

THE EXTRAORDINARY OPERATIC ADVENTURES OF BLANCHE ARRAL, the autobiography of famed singer Blanche Arral (1864-1945), has one of the finest opening paragraphs in recent memory: "Many bread crumbs have I seen in my day, but if there is one particular crumb I remember more than any other it is surely the one I saw in Rasputin's beard. I have in my time received innumerable roses from friends known and unknown, but the rose I remember most is the one that Mata Hari wore in her hair when she danced on the eve of her flight from Java. I have seen many a luxuriant wig, but the wig I call to mind is one of the hundred Isabella II of Spain wore in her banishment in Paris. I have weathered many a storm, but none like the hurricane in Hanoi when an ominous lake blew into my salon--many a calm too, but none quite so calm as the mud flat in the middle of the Yangtze River."

The youngest of 17 children, Arral was born in Belgium and fell in love with music from a young age, making her debut at 10 when she sang "The Lost Kiss" from Mignon before Liege's Choral Society to stunning effect. Despite this success--and later studies at the Brussels Conservatory--her old-fashioned, upper-crust father forbade her to go on the stage, whereupon Arral rushed to the bathroom and swallowed half a bottle of iodine in an attempt to kill herself. Thus was born a diva.

The 5-foot-high Arral went on to live a singular life which at times reads like fiction: success on five continents, making friends with such celebrities as Jack London, Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Houdini and Victor Hugo, marrying a Russian nobleman only to see him murdered shortly after, an act which caused her to flee Europe for Costa Rica and then New Orleans and New York. When it was safe, she returned to Brussels, only to agree to form her own opera company in Egypt. A trip to French Indochina (for the International Exposition of 1903) followed, where she lost nearly everything she owned in the above-mentioned hurricane. Her trail led next to Australia and San Francisco, where she gave a memorable concert despite having been severely burned in a fire just a few weeks earlier.

Arral's life contained even more surprises, which included recording for Thomas Edison, starting an imported-tea business, and living in New Jersey married to a schoolteacher 15 years her junior! What a life and what a book. (Amadeus Press).