In Episode 183, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the haunted Nordica Auditorium on the campus of the University of Maine, Farmington. Lillian Nordica was an opera singer from Farmington who rose to international fame in the 1880s. Unlucky at love, but adored by millions, she’s considered the first American Diva. They say her ghost can still be heard warming up in the auditorium named after her.
SEE MORE: Nordica Homestead Museum in Farmington, Maine
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RAY: Ahhh the theater. This auditorium at the University of Maine, Farmington, isn’t the biggest theater space I’ve seen, but I can imagine it would be an intimate place for a few hundred people to see a performance.
JEFF: This big room within Merrill Hall, has a raised stage, there’s a grand piano on it right now. It seats 400. There are some brass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Nothing too flashy, but appropriate for the space. And there are big windows on the walls to allow in plenty of natural light.
RAY: Yup, a great performance space for a University like this one.
WOMAN SINGING: (Warm-up scales.)
JEFF: Huh… I thought we were alone in here. Someone must be practicing nearby?
RAY: Oh man, there’s no one there!
JEFF: Hmmm maybe we just had an encounter with Lillian Nordica… the ghost of Nordica Hall.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 183 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Farmington, Maine, is the next stop on our quest to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We love that this is more than just a weekly podcast, more than a show on Amazon Prime that you can watch right now, it’s a community of people sharing great history and legends. Did you know many of our story leads come from you legendary listeners? Just like this one. Thanks to Melanie Coombs for alerting us to this ghostly tale from Maine.
JEFF: Before we search for the ghost of Lillian Nordica, I think it’s only fitting that we pause for a quick tea break and take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
RAY: Being in a haunted building always has me a little unnerved, so today I’m sipping some Walk in Balance Tea by Nuwati Herbals. It’s got green tea leaf, cloves, rose hips, peppermint leaf, chamomile flower, ginger root, and fennel seed, just to name a few of the natural ingredients meant to ease your tension and settle your stomach.
JEFF: Tonight when I get home, I’m going to use a little Nuwati Herbals Dream Catcher balm on my temples and neck before I go to bed. The lavender flowers and lavender essential oils are perfect for letting go of the stress, and drifting off to sleep. The folks at Nuwati Herbals have so many products that have become part of my family’s daily life. We appreciate it, and hope you folks will support the people who are supporting us.
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JEFF: Ray, you just heard that woman singing here in Nordica Hall at the University of Maine, Farmington, right?
RAY: I did.
JEFF: And there’s no one here right now but us.
RAY: That’s true!
JEFF: So maybe we just had a run-in with the ghost?
RAY: You mentioned Lillian Nordica before.
RAY: And this room we’re standing in is called Nordica Hall at the University of Maine.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: Named after Lillian, I assume?
JEFF: Indeed it is. She’s a legend around these parts. She’s been called the first American Diva. To figure out why she’s a legend, and why she may be haunting this fine theater, let’s head back to 1868 and set this up.
RAY: It’s October of 1868, and we’re standing outside a Cape-style house here in Farmington, Maine, in the foothills of the western part of the state. This is the home of the Norton family. Edwin and Amanda Norton are parents to four daughters. The youngest is Lillie.
JEFF: The Nortons are farmers. But farming life is hard here in this climate. One escape for the family is music. One of the older Norton girls, Wilhelmina, studies voice at the New England Conservatory of Music. When Willie practices her singing at home, nine-year-old Lillie does her best to imitate her older sister. It’s a simple childhood, but not one without tragedy.
RAY: For the Nortons, and really the entire town of Farmington, tragedy hits hard on October 3rd when a massive flood washes parts of the town down the Sandy River. Though the Norton’s home isn’t affected, the heavy rains still take a toll. Willie gets ill with typhoid… and soon dies.
JEFF: Still, Lillie never stopped signing, and pretty soon it’s clear to her parents that this girl’s got talent. So at age 14, Lillie is enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music where she goes on to impress everyone who hears her voice.
LILLIAN: (PRACTICING SCALES)
JEFF: When Lillie graduates in 1875, she’s immediately hired to tour Europe by a well-known band leader named Patrick Gilmore. So Lillie and her mother, Amanda, pack their bags, and head out across the ocean.
RAY: For 18-year-old Lilly, this is a whirlwind adventure. Coming from a small town in Maine, she never dreamed she’d be earning accolades in front of audiences throughout Europe. She’s performing in London, in Paris, and in Milan. The audience LOVES her.
JEFF: Even the critics love her! The reviews are glowing. Even in Russia.
RAY: Once in Paris, Lillie leaves the tour to study French opera and acting. She’s got big dreams, and doors are opening for the young talent. Next, Lillie and her mom head over to Italy.
JEFF: Once in Milan, Italy, Lillie becomes the student of an Italian voice teacher. It’s this teacher who decides to translate Lillie’s name.
RAY: What do you mean translate her name?
JEFF: So Lillian Norton basically means “Lilly of the North.”
JEFF: In Italian, it’s Giglio Nordica.
RAY: Ahhhh I was wondering where Nordica came from.
JEFF: Lillian liked the sound of Nordica, but preferred her given first name, and so it’s in Milan that the stage name Lillian Nordica is born. Lillian has fans. And admirers, including Frederick Gower, her second cousin from back home in Maine. Pretty soon, Frederick and Lillian are married in Paris. The only problem is Frederick isn’t comfortable with his wife performing in public. He even goes so far as to burn her music and destroy some of her famous gowns.
RAY: Ahhh the jealous husband. But really, Frederick?! You knew this is who she was when you married her!
JEFF: One day Frederick decides to make a solo balloon flight across the English Channel… and he’s never heard from again. Some think he may have committed suicide because he was wracking up debt, and because Lillian wasn’t too fond of him anymore. No matter the reason, he’s gone. And now Lillian returns to the United States for another tour.
RAY: Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Boston… they all love her voice. But then in 1889, her opera career explodes when Richard Wagner’s (Vah-gner) widow, Cosmina, goes searching for a singer for the role of Elsa in a production in her late-husband’s opera house. Cosmina believes Lillian Nordica is perfect for the role. Critics are skeptical. I mean, how can this American girl from Maine master a role in German? But once the curtains open, the doubters are instantly silenced.
Jeff: In 1896, Lillian marries a baritone singer named Zoltan Dome in Chicago. He’s handsome, bold, but also full of himself. She divorces him in 1903 after he burns through a bunch of her money and repeatedly cheats on her.
RAY: In the early 1900s, Nordica is performing all over the United States and Europe. She sings ballads, arias, and other songs. People are coming as much to see her fancy Parisian gowns and jewelry as they are coming to hear her voice. The newspapers all refer to her as the Prima Donna, Lillian Nordica. All the while, her fame continues to grow to legendary status. She’s even a model for the Coca-Cola Company with her portrait on trays, ads, calendars, and placemats.
JEFF: It’s 1907 when Lillian lands her third husband, a wealthy financier named George Washington Young. With a rich wife, Young is free to wheel and deal in more risky business ventures. If they didn’t work out, he used her money to get out of it. So yeah, this marriage doesn’t last long either. The girl is unlucky at love.
RAY: Okay, now it’s August 17th, 1911, and Lillian Nordica is back home in Farmington, Maine. It’s her first visit home in 29 years! She’s getting ready to perform in Merrill Hall on the Campus of the University of Maine. And the college is thrilled, of course, because they’ve named this auditorium after her.
LILLIAN: (PERFORMANCE WARM UP)
RAY: Everyone in town is here. It’s exciting! She’s the biggest celebrity to ever come out of Farmington, and now she’s about to go on stage.
[ROAR OF APPLAUSE]
RAY: And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Lillian Nordica died from pneumonia May 10, 1914 in Batavia. She was only 56 years old. Though the papers called her a Prima Donna, today we would call her a diva. We should point out the term “Prima Donna” was no insult. In fact, many consider her to be the First American Diva with the fancy clothes, jewelry, and fame. And not only was Lillian a celebrity, she used her fame and influence to support causes she believed in. For example, when she found out male singers were paid more than her, she got involved with the women’s suffrage movement. When she heard the snowy egret bird was endangered, she refused to wear their feathers any longer. And pretty quickly those feathers went out of fashion.
JEFF: So in every way, Lillian Nordica a big-time celebrity. And today, here in the auditorium named after her, they claim her spirit still haunts the place.
WOMAN SINGING: (WARM UP SCALES)
JEFF: Did you hear that?
RAY: I did! It sounds like the same ghostly voice we heard earlier.
JEFF: Let’s go check over here.
RAY: Okay, there’s NO ONE here!
[PIANO NOTES IN THE DISTANCE]
RAY: Okay, wait a minute… the auditorium was empty a second ago. Who’s in there now?
JEFF: No one! No one is in here. And this is exactly what people have been reporting for years. Hearing the disembodied voice of a woman warming up, or just singing alone to herself, and hearing the notes of a piano even when the room is empty.
RAY: And people believe this is the doing of the ghost of Lillian Nordica?!
JEFF: That’s what they say.
RAY: She performed here ONE time in 1911 and is going to haunt this place for all eternity?
JEFF: To be fair, no one claims her ghost is here all the time.
RAY: You’d think her childhood home, which is now the Lillian Nordica Museum, would be a more likely place for her ghost.
JEFF: You’d think, but Lillian was so transient. Always on tour, always moving. Maybe the stage is where she felt the most alive. And this stage; this room is named after her. Two of her portraits hang on the walls. There’s a connection here. Unlike say, Carnegie Hall, where Nordica was NOT the biggest name to ever grace the stage, here in Nordica Hall, she’ll always be a star no matter how much time has passed.
RAY: Maybe it comes down to the nature of ghosts. Maybe every time some hopeful student from small-town Maine gets up on this stage, they think about the namesake, and summon her spirit from the past for just a little extra inspiration.
JEFF: Ahhh yes, the muse, a ghost, maybe it’s they’re not so different. You know who inspires us each and every week? Our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month these legendary people get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to experience. If you want to help us continue to grow this community, head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: Please be sure to like, share, and review our podcast. Tell a friend or two about our show. Call or text our legend line anytime at 617-444-9683, and join our Super Secret Facebook group! It’s a growing community of people sharing weird tales from New England.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Rebcecca O’Sullivan, a New York City actress and voice teacher for lending her voice to this week’s episode. I went to high school with her! How cool is that? And do you know who else I went to high school with?
JEFF: John Judd – the guy who does our theme music.
RAY: Nice! Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.