29 November 2005

Lys Symonette

At her desk, photographed by David Farneth

Lys Symonette died Thanksgiving weekend, 2005, a few weeks before her ninety-first birthday. She could pass for a much younger woman, and her colleagues at the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music were universally astonished to learn her real age, a few years earlier. Lys had concealed not only the year but the day of her birth, and she tried to forget both, as she tried to forget most of her life’s harder knocks. She had to be sweet-talked into celebrating her tenth decade: she didn’t like to be the center of anybody’s attention.

She was small, shy, soft-spoken. Yet her passions were outsized, fierce and unwavering. One thinks immediately of her late husband, a distinguished Heldenbariton, and of their son, a gifted conductor: no one ever had a more ardent champion than Randy and Victor found in Lys. Yet the longest lasting of her passions was that for the music of Kurt Weill.

She was a girl in Germany when Die Dreigroschenoper opened. Like Weill, Lys was a respectable member of the secular, Jewish bourgeoisie, and no banner-wielding Bolshevik. Yet Weill’s score fired her imagination, and she thrilled to his assault on German conventions and on music itself. Was Weill giving voice to feelings that Lys had already, or was he putting ideas in her head? It’s impossible for me to say: those ideas were deeply embedded in her character by the time I knew her. But her last act before fleeing the country, in 1936, was to play Dreigroschenoper records, already banned by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” from the balcony of her hotel room. (It was a defiant farewell to her homeland, but it was also a damned fool stunt that could have gotten her arrested. I like to picture her that way.)

Nine years later, in 1945, she was Weill’s musical assistant on Broadway; she would continue to work in that capacity for the rest of his too-short life. At the time of her death, her devotion hadn’t faltered. She worked to bring Weill’s Broadway works to Germany, through ingenious translations and ceaseless proselytizing. Perhaps most significantly, she urged the composer’s widow, Lotte Lenya, to hand over an armload of unpublished songs to Teresa Stratas. It was Lys who delivered the music to Teresa’s apartment, with the result that nowadays The Unknown Kurt Weill is so firmly ensconced in recital repertory, you can’t leave home without hearing “Youkali.”

Lys advised Lenya in musical matters large and small, played piano for her performances, and helped her to organize and maintain her archives and business deals; after Lenya’s death, Lys joined Kim Kowalke to translate and edit the Weill–Lenya correspondence, winning rave reviews and several awards. She was vice-president and musical executive of the Weill Foundation for a quarter century, and she was still showing up for work the week she died.

Through the auspices of the Foundation and of the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (her alma mater), she coached innumerable singers and conductors on the necessary pliancy and bite of Weillian style. Not everybody listened to her, she acknowledged, and at concerts it sometimes was difficult to restrain her when the conductor started “hacking” (as in Fleischhacker, or butcher). When it was a singer who went astray, Lys would turn to stone, staring straight ahead and saying nothing until she was well clear of the auditorium. Yet when singers, such as Joyce Castle, did follow her advice, the most Lys would permit herself was to say, “She’s smart.”

Though she might find fault in a phrase or a gesture, and criticize it tartly, she never lost confidence in the artistic excellence of those she cared about. Among the many were Stratas, Castle, Astrid Varnay, Maurice Abravanel, Harold Prince, Julius Rudel, Burgess Meredith, Weill and Lenya themselves, and this writer. You cannot imagine what it meant to be numbered among this august company, to be embraced in her admiration, and I daresay I’m not alone in feeling frankly terrified of the future without her.

For if a few (okay, one) of us were not the greatest talents of our time, she never mentioned it. She held indefatigably the highest hopes for each of us, no matter how long the wait between our triumphs. Because we were human, it was reasonable to expect that we might make mistakes or encounter obstacles, but ultimately we would prevail: after all, that’s what Lys had done.

Merely one example: after graduating from the Curtis Institute, she and a classmate, Alberta Masiello (later a Metropolitan Opera mainstay), found themselves not only jobless but German and Italian in the gung-ho throes of World War II. So they refashioned themselves as The Mexican Sisters, and, replete with big skirts and big earrings, they played Gershwin duets in nightclubs cross-country. Though the club in Galveston was built at the end of a shaky pier, the “Sisters” played straight through a hurricane, rather than forfeit their fee.

Yes, Lys may have looked cuddly, but she was tough. Intelligence and independence combined to make her the most stubborn person I ever knew. Just when you thought she might back down, she was gearing up for another round. And while she adored and admired Kim, David, Carolyn, Elmar, Mario, Joanna, and the rest of our colleagues at the Foundation, she didn’t necessarily agree with us.

I was fresh out of college when I came to work at the Foundation, and Lenya had been dead two years. Lys was almost seventy when we met. Almost a decade later, she calculated that we could now begin to address each other informally, as “du” instead of “Sie,” but only after we’d shared a glass of wine — and it had to be white wine, and German, in a specific sort of glass. Otherwise, the deal was off.

She never let my lack of musical ability prevent her from mentoring me. She was eager to share her staggering knowledge of German opera — all of it. She couldn’t help but revere Wagner and Strauss, but she also taught me how to listen to Berg. Tirelessly, she foisted on me the works of German comic writers, such as Kästner, Kraus, Grabbe, and the inevitable Brecht, but her broadest smiles were reserved for two of Weill’s American collaborators, Ogden Nash and Ira Gershwin.

Thanks to Lys, I have an almost firsthand knowledge of shows and artists I’d otherwise have missed. Though she might forget where she left her glasses, Lys could recall every detail of performances by Gertrude Lawrence or Jarmila Novotná, Karl Valentin or Karl Böhm, Richard Tauber or Ezio Pinza, and she’d mimic them all (usually in the same voice). She told stories about Lenya so vividly that I feel as if I knew her, and Lenya still appears in my dreams sometimes, bossing me around.

At one point, Lys decided that I needed to know The Firebrand of Florence, which was the first show on which she worked with Weill and Lenya, and the one in which she met her husband. (Randy played the Hangman.) Until recently, there was no recording of the score, so Lys devoted a precious Saturday afternoon to singing and playing every damned note for me on the Foundation’s piano, and she described set changes and costumes, too. If I’d asked, she’d probably have recreated the original choreography.

In the Foundation archive, we pride ourselves on preserving everything — every available scrap of the past. But we didn’t save that performance, and somehow the scraps we do have of Lys will never seem sufficient. She can’t be replaced.

This portrait appeared, in edited form, on the music website Andante.com, and excerpts were published in The Kurt Weill Newsletter.