Born as Laura May Burt in Tuscola, Illinois, Helen Bertram trained as a soprano at the Cincinnati College of Music. She began her stage career at age twenty with the Emma Abbot Opera Company in autumn 1889 singing standard late-19th century roles: "Martha," "The Bohemian Girl," Adeline in "Norma," and "Mignon." The next season, she played with the Heinrich Conrad Opera Company, creating the travesty role of The Prince in "The King's Fool." Her transition to comic opera became complete in the 1891 season, when she signed on as a lead in the McCaull Opera Company, singing with Mathilde Cottrelly and DeWolf Hopper, performing Stella in "Clover."
Bertram was a business woman above all other things, never allowing her attachment to a company to prevent changing allegiance if another producer was willing to pay more. So she shifted back to standard opera roles and Gilbert & Sullivan with the Duff Company, served a stint with the "Little Christopher" Company at the Garden Theater, until she signed on with Bostonians in the landmark production of Reginald DeKoven's musical, "Robin Hood." She spent a season in London before re-signing with the Bostonians for the 1900-1901 seasons.
Her personal life was fraught with complications, divorce for her own adultery, being poisoned by a rival in 1891, gambling losses, obsessive grief after the death of another husband (she carried his ashes on her person for two years), appearances in court for unpaid debts. Yet her art and stage professional kept her career alive. She appeared in two musical hits of the first decade of the 20th century, "The Prince of Pilsen" and "The Gingerbread Man." From 1908 into the 1930s she periodically announced her retirement from the stage. A love of money, however kept her returning to vaudeville or to concert tours with provincial orchestras in the 1910s and '20s. David S. Shields/ALS